Historian J.M. Hanson did not serve history well with his early writings on Thomas L. Rosser.
For most of the more than 150 years since the end of the Civil War, Major General Thomas L. Rosser’s military reputation languished in obscurity. While many of his peers and even officers who were junior to him in rank, have gained measures of military fame, Rosser has remained enshrouded in a vague murkiness. Such a fate seems odd for a young man who rose faster, further and higher through the ranks than any other Confederate. During and after the war, Rosser pursued fame and power relentlessly, so his subsequent inconspicuousness was not of his own making. The first historian who devoted significant effort to relating details of Rosser’s career, Joseph Mills Hanson, began his work in the early 1930s, about 20 years after the general’s death. Unfortunately for those early efforts not only lacked professional rigor, but in doing so laid a foundation of uncritical praise and a tone of superficiality that has infected views of Rosser ever since.
Born in the summer of 1876 into the wild and dangerous Dakota Territory — about a month after the demise of George Custer and much of the 7th U.S. Cavalry gave evidence how wild and dangerous the frontier really was — Hanson was throughout his long life a farmer, a soldier, a poet, a writer and a government administrator. He wrote novels, ballads and history books, including history books for young readers. He loved history, especially Civil War history, and due, in part, to his decades of work on behalf of the preservation of history, he served as the first superintendent of Manassas National Battlefield Park. Hanson did not rise to lasting prominence as an historian, but his work remains interesting. In 1934, he published a long biographical sketch of Confederate general Thomas Lafayette Rosser in the March-April issue of Cavalry Journal, and while the article is not without virtues, it is noteworthy today many as an illustration of the difficulties and dangers faced by historians seeking to find the truth. Those who knew Rosser claimed he had a magnetic personality, and Hanson seems to verify that claim, for he clearly fell under Rosser’s spell.
The Civil War had ended 69 years earlier, and historiography of the war was transitioning from a period dominated by the last first-person accounts to a period in which secondary sources, especially biographies, would prevail. Virginia’s native son Douglas Southall Freeman would dominate this era with his best-selling studies of Robert E. Lee (R.E. Lee: A Biography, 1934-35) and of Lee’s army (Lee’s Lieutenants, 1942-44). Hanson’s article would mark the earliest attempt to bring General Rosser out of the shadows of history and give him a prominent place among Southern heroes.
While well-read students of the war will today recognize Rosser’s name, in the 1930s, he had drawn little or no interest from historians. Born in Virginia, raised in Texas and educated at West Point, Rosser had served only about 18 months, a bit over one-third of the war, as a general, so he did not stand in the first rank of Confederate commanders. Though Rosser had found success at brigade-level command, he never commanded more than a few thousand men and those were in the tattered remnants of the exhausted cavalry corps in Virginia in the war’s final months. After the war, he had earned some dubious repute as a controversialist, whose speeches and public statements marked him as a rabid, die-hard Confederate — except when he spoke to audiences north of the Mason-Dixon Line, where he preached friendship and reconciliation. Hanson believed he had found an interesting subject, and he set to work in dragging out the truth, as he saw it, about Gen. Rosser.
Like all trailblazers, Hanson had little to work with. He made good use of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, but what else had he to rely upon as raw data about Rosser and his career? Rosser had died in 1910, and those who had served with him had either followed to the great beyond or were rapidly losing their memories and perhaps their objectivity. Rosser was buried in Charlottesville, Virginia, which remained the base of the family. His letters, speeches and other papers would eventually be collected at the University of Virginia, but in the 1930s, when Hanson was working for the National Park Service in Virginia, the Rosser family controlled access to the general’s treasure trove of primary documents. Evidence within the article reveals that Hanson had access to Rosser’s papers and also to members of his family. Hanson exchanged letters with Thomas L. Rosser, Jr., the general’s son, and other members of the family, and the correspondence rests in the family papers at the university in Charlottesville. Hanson produced another article, “Thomas Lafayette Rosser, Four-square American,” for American Legion Monthly. Both of these articles can be considered as having had the family stamp of approval, and they both certainly cast Rosser in a very favorable light.
Hanson’s is not a “warts and all” portrait. His evaluation of Rosser’s personality is subjective rather than factual. For example, in recounting Rosser’s boast that he would give his friend George Custer a “whipping” at Tom’s Brook on October 9, 1864, Hanson remarks that such braggadocio seems out of character for Rosser, whom the author preferred to view as knightly gentleman of the Southern school — no doubt as Rosser’s family would have liked him to be remembered. In fact, substantial evidence reveals that Rosser was more contentious than courtly and documentation of his boastful manner, and the irritation it caused among those around him, is well ample. Rosser’s own writings reveal a man of overbearing and sometimes duplicitous personality. Hanson the historian failed in his obligation to delve deeply into his subject, and sacrificed too much objectivity in trying to please the Rosser family. His portrayal is too uncritical and too admiring to rise to a high level of scholarship.
In 1983 Millard and Dean Bushong’s Fightin’ Tom Rosser, C.S.A. picked up where Hanson had left off 50 years earlier. Rosser’s bravery and heroism, of which there is much on record and which remains worthy of admiration, stood at the center of the Bushongs’ portrait as it had in Hanson’s. Almost absent in either treatment of Rosser’s career is any kind of impartial perspective that would show Rosser as he appeared to those around him and place the man’s accomplishments in perspective. Recent research suggests that Rosser’s existence in a long, long dusk of obscurity is, perhaps, deserved. Though he showed great courage, enterprise and spirit as a Confederate cavalry commander, and though he was every bit the equal of Stonewall Jackson in demanding from his men almost superhuman feats of endurance, Rosser lacked many of the traits necessary to make a man a great commander.
Flawed as it is, Hanson’s article is not without value. Its publication in a professional journal introduced soldiers to a noteworthy American cavalryman who, from a professional standpoint, remains worthy of attention. The article performs the same service for modern readers unfamiliar with Rosser, and while subsequent research calls into question some of Hanson’s judgments, his presentation of facts serves as a functional outline of Rosser’s war-time service. Perhaps the article is most interesting as an example of early 20-century historiography. In the days before phone cameras, the internet, photocopiers and even interstate highways, historical research was an arduous endeavor in which researchers struggled with time and distance (and funds) to obtain access to libraries and books and manuscripts. The process required the historian to go to the materials whereas now, more and more, the process delivers materials to the historian. Those willing and able to go the distances and invest the hours were able to discover surviving fragments of the past and weave them into versions of the truth. These early renderings of history may, for many reasons, no longer be satisfactory, but upon such early drafts are built fuller, more developed and, it is to be hoped, more realistic representations of the past.