In a previous post, I addressed the question of whether Rosser’s abilities as a cavalry commander extended beyond the realm of elementary tactics. I noted that we have some evidence–including Tom’s Brook–that suggests Rosser’s capabilities did not even go so far as a mastery of elementary tactics. I implied that judgment and discretion were not prominent among Rosser’s gifts and that the historical record suggests that spirit, instinct, physical courage and stamina defined his style of aggressive leadership. I then called attention to Rosser’s 1868 letter to George Taylor Denison, III, and in this second part of the two-part post will offer some background to the letter with comments.
The story behind the letter, like many good stories of the Civil War period, involves Jubal Early. The cranky Early fled into self-exile in 1865 rather than live in the same country with the victorious Yankees. From Canada, he looked across the Niagara River into New York and felt only loathing at sight of the stars and stripes flying over Fort Niagara and its Federal garrison. The flag Early had once served as a young officer in the U. S. Army now only reminded him of “a barber pole.” In Canada, Early met George Denison, a former militia officer and a budding historian. Denison’s passion for military history, and especially for the cavalry, led him to research and publish two still-respected books, Modern Cavalry (1868) and History of Cavalry (1877). At Early’s urging, Denison solicited opinions from former Confederate cavalrymen, including Fitzhugh Lee, S. D. Lee, and Rosser. Rosser’s response survives as an appendix in Modern Cavalry, where Jubal Early found it after he and Rosser became bitter enemies in the 1880s. In the letter, Rosser referred to “my noble friend General Early,” but he later proved to be anything but a friend, and Early cited the letter as evidence in branding Rosser a hypocrite.
As with all writers of public prose, Rosser often composed through a persona, sometimes two. There is the man of sincerely held beliefs and there is also the manipulative schemer with an ulterior motive. It is difficult to determine how much of Rosser’s letter to Denison is sincere and how much is intended to inflate Rosser’s reputation as a military man. Rosser drops four names that suggest he knew some history and theory of the use of cavalry in combat. The two most recognizable names are of Napoleon’s famed cavalry commanders Michel Ney and Joachim Murat (aka “First Horseman of Europe”). Less famous, outside of military circles, was the name Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Seydlitz, commander of Frederick the Great’s Prussian cavalry in the Seven Years’ War. Rosser’s reference to Lewis Edward Nolan, a British cavalry officer, suggests familiarity with Nolan’s important text Cavalry: Its History and Tactics, published in Europe before the American Civil War and reprinted in South Carolina in 1864. Much of what Rosser shares with Denison are lessons born of practical experience, but these lessons do not seem to extend beyond the knowledge of an experienced regimental or even company officer. Rosser’s recommendations about the most suitable weapons for cavalry, for example, are so obvious that hardly anyone could disagree. Rosser also makes a distinction between cavalry and mounted infantry. He argues that neither side in the Civil War used cavalry per se but only mounted infantry. This, too, is a valid idea, but, like the recommendations of weapons, it is a point so commonly made at the time that in making it Rosser is again only stating the obvious. Rosser’s letter offers no theoretical insights into the use of cavalry that he could not have gleaned either from casual conversations with other cavalry officers or from Nolan’s book.
Perhaps Rosser’s most interesting point is his assertion that cavalry’s only true and correct role is to attack. The assertion is interesting not because of what it might reveal about Rosser’s attributes as a theorist but of Rosser’s shortcomings as a combat commander.
Rosser’s statement that the strength of true cavalry rests only in its ability to deliver a severe shock to the enemy comes as no surprise because a craving for aggressive action dominated Rosser himself. The argument that cavalry, to be most effective, had to use the speed of the horse and the power of the charge absolutely reflected Rosser’s personal predispositions. He charged first and stopped to think about it only later. This idea of the proper use of cavalry also happened to concur with the theories of Nolan, von Seydlitz, Ney, Murat and, eventually, Denison himself, so Rosser was firmly among the proponents of cavalry theory at the time. The key point, though, is that none of that mattered.
Cavalry was evolving, and the era of pure cavalry, as known by von Seydlitz, Murat, Ney and even Nolan, had passed. Technology had changed everything, as it always does, and Colts and Spencers and Henrys and Winchesters meant that every well-equipped cavalryman from 1863 onward would be a hybrid soldier and more mounted infantryman than chasseur.
So, while Rosser’s views regarding cavalry and the employment of it therefore agreed with the best authorities of his time, those views were based on facts so obvious and apparent to every observer that they seem hardly worth making. More interesting is the question of how the evolution of cavalry in the 1860s affected Rosser’s career. Given Rosser’s gifts for command and his inherent preference of vigorous and immediate mounted charges, might he have been a great cavalry commander born too late? If he had been able to command “pure” cavalry as it had been used a generation or two earlier rather than the hybrid troopers of the 1860s that masqueraded as cavalry but were in truth mounted infantrymen, perhaps Rosser would have excelled as a cavalry general. Instead fate assigned to Rosser the more complex task of handling mounted infantry in combat, which called for a flexibility and subtlety that Rosser did not possess. . .at least not at Tom’s Brook.
Postscript: In his Cavalry from Hoof to Track (2007), historian Roman Johann Jarymowycz includes two vibrant quotes that enliven Seydlitz and suggest that he and Rosser were kindred spirits as cavalrymen. Jarymowycz writes: “Von Seydlitz was the complete cavalry commander; he excelled at all military virtues and petty vices. He embraced base temptations as recklessly as he faced danger. The outspoken, heavy drinking officer was a rogue’s rogue as well as a cavalier’s cavalier.” The Prussian also trained his cavalrymen under war-like conditions, exercising them at full gallop over rough terrain. Predictably, such demanding training produced many injuries and even deaths, for which the king reproached Van Seydlitz. The general replied, “If you make such fuss about a few broken necks, your Majesty will never have the bold horsemen you require for the field.” pp. 70-71.