Tag Archives: Thomas L. Rosser

“Jubal Early is Simply the Incarnation of Imbecility”

 

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Few figures of the Civil War era have been as celebrated and as reviled as General Jubal Anderson Early. Some loved him as a patriot and a hero. Others despised his egotism and grotesque personality. Unshakably loyal to his ideas and to his friends, Early earned the trust and support of Robert E. Lee. But as a confirmed bachelor of fixed habits, Early could be repulsive. His alcoholism and coarse language, his caustic “wit,” and his fondness for prostitutes repelled many peers and subordinates. His failure in the Shenandoah Valley in the final months of the war made him an easy scapegoat for Confederates looking for someone to blame, and his abrasive nature and unconventional personal habits gave his critics plenty of ammunition to use against him.

While even his enemies conceded Early’s intelligence and commitment to principle, his many faults made him so objectionable to those around him that many wrote vehement criticisms of his pride, vulgarity, intemperance and irascibility. In many ways he is even more controversial in the 21st century than he was among his contemporaries. While his gifts for sarcasm and mockery make him an icon among unapologetic, unrepentant curmudgeons, Early’s ardent, often vicious, post-war writings and speeches on behalf of Lee and the Confederacy make him a prime target for modern writers who approve of neither his views nor his methods.

Decision at Tom’s Brook discusses one of Early’s many post-war controversies. In 1884, General Thomas Rosser publicly blamed Early for the disastrous defeat at Tom’s Brook, and Early responded in the pages of a Richmond newspaper. Rosser, a controversialist throughout his life, made charges against Early without offering a shred of verifiable evidence. In the absence of proof, Rosser’s attacks seem an attempt to shift responsibility onto an unpopular man whose many enemies would welcome more mud to sling. Rosser did indeed find support and fellowship among some former Confederates who loathed Early. For pure vitriol, few haters of Early could match the articulate and venomous Alexander Hunter of Virginia.

hunter alexander croppedJust 18 when he enlisted in 1861, Hunter served as a Confederate infantryman early in the war and later in the 4th Virginia Cavalry. He was wounded twice, captured thrice and spent months in Federal prisons. He came to loathe Jubal Early with an uncommon vehemence. In mid-1884, two decades after the Valley Campaign, while Rosser and Early were publicly mauling each other in the press, Hunter stepped forward to back Rosser. Though a stranger to Rosser, Hunter sent the general a blistering rebuke of Early and reassured Rosser that he had the support of “every fair minded soldier in the old A.N.Va.” From his home in Washington, D.C. Hunter wrote his letter on the letterhead of the “Washington Aid Association for the Ex-Confederate Soldiers,” on which Hunter was listed as financial secretary. Misspellings, omissions and errors in syntax have been retained.

June 6, 1884

Gen Thos L. Rosser.

My Dear General,

Though personally unknown to you, yet being from the same state and belonging to the same army, I cannot resist the inclination to write to you, and to endorse every word of your communication to Jubal Early, who by the grace of the devil and the temporary aberration of Gen Lee was placed in command of the army in the valley.

The Richmond State of June 4 published your communication of May 30 – without comments – and I know it was endorsed by every fair minded soldier in the old A.N.Va.

I belonged to the Black Horse – 4th Va. Cav. Fitz Lees old Brigade–and being in the valley I know whereof I write; With a good leader, we could have taken Washington + Baltimore for never was there a more splendid set of troops than those given to Early in the Campaign of ‘64. But the rank and file soon lost confidence in him + after awhile this feeling changed into contempt + was then followed by a bitterness of hatred, and lothesome [sic] disgust for the man – that you officers high in rank could never understand. Indeed so bitter is it, that at the summer watering places when the (“) old hero surrounded by a set of self constituted admirers and in his glory (being about three quarters drunk – which is his normal condition) Yet not a single private in his command was ever known to go up to him and give him that affectionate greeting that the Rank + file to loved to [sic] honor their old commanders.

His whole record is blunder after blunder; and after he had utterly ruined the finest army that [illegible] along the Valley Turnpike, [sic] hated and despised by his troops—mocked at by his officers, and removed by his general officer, he sunk into retirement that in all good taste should have been as final as that of Pemberton, Lovell and Huger[1]; but when the war was over, this despicable old man came to the front and commenced to make war against his old foes and set himself up as the Exponent of the Lost Cause, God save the Mark.”[2] We all know that but for that man, we would have been a grand Empire to day. It is Jubal Early that undertakes to make history, to puff up that officer who scratches his back and vilify that officer that disagrees with him. He rushes into print upon every occasion possible, and makes himself the hero of the grand old Army of Northern Virginia. He strikes at Gordon that ideal soldier. He sneers at Mosby[3]. He fercily [sic] assails Longstreet + Mahone[4] and would uncork the vials of wrath upon Gen. R.E. Lee for removing him were he not afraid. And look at the soldiers he compliments. Billy Payne, a roystering fellow like Cassio, but no soldier[5]. Bev Robinson,[6] who can court a pretty girl, tell a good anecdote + always has a flask of whiskey in his haversack. Lomax[7], who – well nobody ever heard of Lomax doing anything good or bad, and a whole hosts of others who form a select coterie.

And to see this old reprobate as I have seen him, dressed in his gray semi uniform, maudlin drunk in the lobby of the Exchange Hotel in Richmond during the last Convention, publically before hundreds of people, embracing every negro chambermaid that passed through the hall, made his degradation complete. It only needs to be told that this grand old Hero has lived since the war by giving his name and fame, for a stated salary, to that swindling concern called the Louisiana Lottery, which annually robs thousands of credulous people of his own state out of their hard earned money.

You may think I write bitterly, and from a personal grievance, but it is not so, I never spoke to Early in my life, but I served under him, and have watched his course since the war, and like any *every Virginia soldier who was commanded by him, I look upon him as the greatest foe the South ever had, and the prayer has often escaped my lips during those dark days of ‘64 when we were racing up the turnpike, or skulking in the bushes, “Good Lord deliver us from our friends.”

Jubal Early is simply the incarnation of imbecility, conceit, envy, and brutal lusts, + so foul mouth and obscene that he resembles a satyr more than a man.

If he strikes with his malign envy at you, deal with him without gloves + every man who ever swung himself in saddle or loped in a dog trot with his musket on his shoulder, will endorse and applaud you.

As far as I am concerned you can use this letter as you wish. My name and standing in Virginia are sufficiently well known. What I write is strictly true, and like old Captain Cuttle[8] “what I says I stands to.”

Yours Very Truly

Alex Hunter

1224 New York Ave, Wash DC

P.S. For an estimate of what our own officers think of Early  I commend Col. R. L. Maury in Southern Historical Society Papers, p. 285, on Early at Williamsburg.: Longstreet in same Magazine, p. 258. Early at Gettysburg, Swinton Campaigns p. 527, Early’s failure to take Washington, all which shows what he really is – a military Charlatan.

Source: Alexander Hunter to Thomas L. Rosser, June 6, 1884, Papers of Thomas L. Rosser and the Rosser, Gordon and Winston Families, Acc. 1171-a, Box 1, Correspondence of Thomas Lafayette Rosser 1884-1904, Special Collections, University of Virginia.

[1] Former Confederate generals John C. Pemberton, Mansfield Lovell and Benjamin Huger

[2] “God save the mark” served as an expression of contempt or derision.

[3] Former Confederate colonel, John S. Mosby

[4] Former Confederate generals James Longstreet and William Mahone

[5] Former Confederate general William H. F. Payne. Cassio was is a character in Shakespeare’s “Tragedy of Othello.”

[6] Former Confederate general Beverly Robertson

[7] Former Confederate general Lunsford L. Lomax

[8] A character in the novel Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens.

For more of Hunter’s judgments on Early, see Alexander Hunter, Johnny Reb and Billy Yank. New York: The Neale Publishing Co, 1905, pp. 649-660.

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R.E. Lee Calls for Investigation into Tom’s Brook

By evening of October 9, 1864, Lt. Gen. Jubal Early knew for certain that his cavalry had been beaten badly that day. Early likely spoke personally with Gen. Lunsford Lomax, whose cavalry division had retreated to near Early’s headquarters at New Market. Even before hearing from his other cavalry commander, Gen. Thomas Rosser, Early dutifully reported the news to his superior, Gen. Robert E. Lee:

NEW MARKET, October 9, 1864.

GENERAL: Rosser, in command of his own brigade and the two brigades of Fitz Lee’s division, and Lomax, with two brigades of his own cavalry, were ordered to pursue the enemy, to harass him and ascertain his purposes, while I remained here, so as to be ready to move east of the Ridge if necessary, and I am sorry to inform you that the enemy, having concentrated his whole cavalry in his rear, attacked them and drove them back this morning from near Fisher’s Hill, capturing nine pieces of horse artillery and eight or ten wagons. Their loss in men is, I understand, slight. I have not heard definitely from Rosser, but he is, I understand, falling back in good order, having rallied his command, which is on what is called the Back road, which is west of the pike; but Lomax’s command, which was on the pike, came back to this place in confusion.

Rosser soon reported his defeat to Early via dispatch, but he did not elaborate on his losses or the events of the day. Early would have to wait until his commanders filed official reports before he could know the magnitude of the defeat.

Three days later, Lee replied to Early. As usual, Lee filled his letter with encouragement and practical suggestions. Lee addressed many problems, large and small, including the ineffectiveness of Early’s cavalry.

The last defeat of your cavalry (on the 9th) is much to be regretted. It may have proceeded from bad management, and I wish you to investigate it. I would not for the present send them too far from your main body, or allow them to hazard too much. Although the enemy’s cavalry may exceed ours in numbers, and I know it does in equipment, still we have always been able to cope with them to advantage, and can do so again by proper management. You have the greater proportion of the cavalry in Virginia and it must be made effective. The men are good and only require to be properly commanded. I wish you would bring every officer who misbehaves before a board of examiners, or a court-martial, as their cases require, and have their conduct investigated.

Early never found the time to fully investigate the defeat at Tom’s Brook. Events moved the armies swiftly onward to other crises, and just a week after Lee suggested an investigation Early’s entire army was badly beaten at the Battle of Cedar Creek. Because Rosser never filed a report, Early never learned the true extent of the losses at Tom’s Brook, and not until Decision at Tom’s Brook was published in 2016 was Lee’s request for an inquiry into possible “bad management” complied with. Rosser, the man responsible for the disaster, deflected responsibility onto subordinate officers, evaded censure, and instead was promoted to major general.

Sources: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Volume 43, pt. 1, p. 579 and Volume 43, pt. 2, p. 893

 

 

 

 

 

Rosser the Cavalry Theorist? (part 2)

 

Detaille_4th_French_hussar_at_Friedlandsmall
Eduard Detaille’s “Charge of the 4th Hussars at the Battle of Friedland (Vive L Empereur)” portrays the best use of cavalry as envisioned by theorists in the mid-19th century.

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.

TLRosserBandL75percentfeatured imageSo, 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.

 

louis-(ludwig)-braun-general-friedrich-wilhelm-von-seydlitz
Louis Braun’s watercolor captures the aggressive spirit of Von Seydlitz

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.

Rosser the Cavalry Theorist? (part 1)

One of my arguments in Decision at Tom’s Brook is that Rosser got in over his head at Tom’s Brook because he could not recognize options.  Though intelligent, Rosser was not a cerebral man. His mind did not dwell on subtleties. A friend, with her usual gift for the incisive analogy, likened Rosser to the man whose only tool is a hammer and who therefore tends see every problem as a nail. Throughout his life, Rosser’s default option was “attack.” His “Plan B” was “attack,” and his “when-all-else-has-failed” option was also “attack.” Bang. Bang. Bang.

I admit that looking at Rosser in this way is simplistic. I do not argue that he was a simple character and that I have him all figured out. Just the opposite. He was complicated, and I do not know or understand all the things that made him tick. One of the things I do not understand is the degree to which he understood his business as a commander of cavalry. Frank Myers of White’s Cavalry Battalion wrote that Rosser “was no general at all.” Rosser himself stated that his standing order called for his Laurel Brigade to charge the enemy on sight. Aggressiveness had to be an essential ingredient to success for any cavalry commander, but, as Jeb Stuart argued, it could not be the only ingredient. Raw, aggressiveness led to trouble. In Rosser’s recipe for victory and glory, it seems that unleavened aggressiveness sometimes counted for so much that all the other ingredients amounted to nothing more than a sprig of parsley garnish. In some ways, Rosser seems to have been a man with a hammer riding around Virginia looking for nails to hit.

Thomas L. RosserI do not suggest complete incompetence. I do, though, question the extent of Rosser’s abilities. In his writings after the war, Rosser assumed the role of a wise old head–a military sage competent to judge the performance of other commanders. He assumed a voice of authority when criticizing Robert E.  Lee, Jubal Early, Philip Sheridan, A.P. Hill and others. To some, Rosser’s judgments carried weight because he had been a major general in the Confederate army. The truth is that he had been but 28 years old when raised to major general in 1864–a time when significant qualifications for promotion included  a bit of experience and being above ground and breathing. Attrition among officers, on both sides but especially in the Confederate armies, meant that some men were promoted beyond their abilities not because they were the best choice but because they were the only choice. Rosser never commanded more than 2,000 troopers, which may bring into question his qualifications to criticize the performance of men who commanded armies. Rosser’s status as a minor major general of Confederate cavalry might not merit a thorough analysis of his tactical performance through the war, but in the absence of such a study we should view his assumed mantle of authority with skepticism.

I argue that Rosser possessed significant gifts as a commander, a point that seems to me beyond debate. But we have little evidence that those gifts extended beyond the realm of elementary tactics. In fact, 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. Most of Rosser’s gifts seem to have been spiritual, instinctual and physical rather than cerebral. He had the heart and the strength to excel as a cavalryman. Whether he had the mind and intellectual attainments necessary to succeed at high command is open to question.

Any discussion of Rosser’s abilities as a cavalry commander must include his letter to George Taylor Denison, III, in January 1868. I will end this post with this link to the letter, and in my next post will offer some background and commentary.

Two Tales from Pvt. Ball

 

Confederate cavalry Frank LesliePrivate William Ball was two weeks short of his 18th birthday when he fought in the 11th Virginia cavalry at Tom’s Brook. His post-war manuscript memoir resting in the Virginia Historical Society reveals a genial man who liked to tell an amusing anecdote. He relates two incidents that occurred after the flight from Coffman’s Hill–the first so odd as to be scarcely credible and the second perfectly believable

In the first story, Ball states he and a sidekick came upon a lone rider sitting in a field. Ball says he at first thought it was a Northerner, but he claims he soon learned the solitary horseman was a none other than Thomas Rosser. Ball supports the strange-but-interesting assertion with a few details intended to promote verisimilitude. “The general questioned us closely, but we could give him no information,” he admitted,  “so he ordered us to follow him and act as couriers until he found his lost sheep. We followed him at a respectful distance. After so long a time, we came in sight of a house, and he rode up and asked if he could get some buttermilk. While he was drinking, two buxom lassies came over to interview us, and one of the maidens asked, ‘Is that General Rosser?’ and upon being answered in the affirmative, she remarked, ‘He’s a mighty pretty man.’ And he surely was, not pretty, but very handsome in form and feature.” Ball did not fail to point out that he and his friend did not share any of the buttermilk.

The second tale rings absolutely true in suggesting that even after a whipping the troopers could find something to smile about. Ball explains that when he at last found his regiment that night, he and his comrades were too tired to exchange stories of the day. By the next night, he recalled “we had regained our cheerfulness, and swapped stories and jokes over our experiences on that fateful day.” In the timeless tradition of soldiers making superiors the butt of their jokes, Ball and his comrades laughed at the expense of the shoulder straps. One of Ball’s chums declared that in the retreat he thought he “was making the fastest time on record, but when that officer came by me, I thought my horse was tied to the fence.”

Source: William Selwyn Ball, Reminiscences, MSS5:1B2106:1, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia.

Pumpkins, Grapes and Laurels

Thomas Rosser took command of a brigade of cavalry in the autumn of 1863, and he used it to establish an admirable record in combat. Cavalry Chief J.E.B. Stuart praised the brigade and declared it continued to add new laurels to its record. Rosser seized on Stuart’s words and took the opportunity to build esprit de corps. He ordered that the brigade adopt the laurel as its name and symbol. The troopers adorned their uniforms and flags with laurel leaves, and if post-war writings are a true indication, they remained proud of their association with Rosser and the Laurel Brigade.

The disaster at Tom’s Brook, in which the Laurel Brigade joined in the precipitous flight from the battlefield, gave rise to a crude witticism suggesting the name “Laurel” was no longer appropriate and should be changed to that of a running plant like “Pumpkin” or “Gravevine.” Most of the jesters attributed the quip to the crusty General Jubal Early, but the gag was told and retold and adapted in so many forms that the truth of its origin may never be known. What is certain is that the proud men of the brigade resented being the butt of a cheap joke that misrepresented their otherwise fine record during the war. In 1889, almost a quarter of a century after the fight at Tom’s Brook, a veteran of the Laurel Brigade came forth to rebuke to the comedians who insisted on perpetuating the old slander.

Laurel GrapevineThe Staunton Spectator, a prominent newspaper in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, reprinted on January 30, 1889, an item alleged to be from Kentucky newspaper (left). The error-filled article prompted an immediate response, which the Spectator printed the following week (below). The author of the response  identifies himself only as “R,” but internal identifies him as Thomas D. Ranson, a veteran of the 12th Virginia Cavalry of the Laurel Brigade. Ranson had been taken prisoner at Tom’s Brook and later practiced law in Staunton. His letter to the editors mentions comrades in the 12th Virginia (Baylor and Timberlake) and two brothers, William and Edward McDonald, who wrote at length about their service in the Laurel Brigade. Ranson demolishes the “Good Story” on factual grounds, but his article is most striking for its tone of dignified restraint, which stands as the most effective rebuke to frivolous entertainers pursuing a laugh at the expense of good soldiers.

A Story Corrected.

Editors Spectator:

Gentlemen, —The “Good Story of General Early” you copy from Louisville Courier-Journal is a good deal of a story in the childish sense. I would not have supposed that a paper coming from the home of the McDonalds would have published such an affront to every survivor of Rosser’s Brigade, and such a slur or the memory of our gallant comrades dead and gone, without being brought to book, and I would not have expected you to reproduce it. The record of its killed and wounded is sufficient answer to the slander.

The writer having served through the war, two years in the infantry and two in the cavalry as private and as officer, and under both the general officers referred to in the “Episode,” may be supposed to know something of both. No one with such opportunities to observe them, under the severest test, could fail to recognize and admire the fighting qualities of both. Rosser’s dash and steady courage go without saying as far as your paper is read. It was illustrated on many a field, and I take it the scribbler for the Louisville paper knew as little of him and his Brigade as of the alleged “Episode.”

The “Laurel Brigade” was not in the Cedar Mountain fight, nor in existence at its date.— Reference was probably intended to the Tom’s Brook engagement of October, 1864, which occurred near Cedar Creek, also near Fisher’s Hill and not far from Winchester,—previous to the affair at Waynesboro, all historic names which ought to call up tender and pious memories in the breast of General Early, to soften satire and tone down criticism on his part.  The statement is very wide of the truth if applied to that,—the only engagement of consequence, to my recollection. In which the Brigade in question ever failed to drive the enemy or hold its ground.

On that occasion it met under most unfavorable circumstances, in straggling order, and with men and horses wearied out by the forced march from Petersburg, an overwhelming force of picked Federal cavalry—cavalry which we had educated in a pretty severe school for several years, and which had improved on our Instruction until in organization and discipline, as in equipment and all appointments it was well nigh perfect, led by its best commander and fully prepared for action. That Rosser’s little force on the back road failed to check the onward sweep of brigade after brigade of the fresh troops of Custer and of Torbert, massed and thrown against them and finally gave way in the disorder usually attending a thin battle line, closely driven back without support, was no nine day’s wonder.—And to pepper them with such newspaper squibs at this late day about it is worse than Custer’s turning Tuck Carter’s guns on us that 9th of October. It’s enough to make that little gamecock cry again.

The writer was a prisoner at General Sheridan’s headquarters, near Middletown, for some days after that fight, and some of the cavalry regiments he saw in review there were big enough to have eaten Rosser’s Brigade on toast.

That brigade wore the laurel by no less a sanction than the order of General Stuart, the same brilliant commander who furloughed its leading squadron on the field at Jeffersonton, (Fauquier White Sulphur), for charging and capturing the burning bridge with its infantry supports–tenfold their number–under the eyes of General Lee and his advancing lines–George Baylor and poor Tin–par nobile fratrum–and “Old Seth Timberlake” in the front,—one of the many occasions when it won those laurels.

Such publications, Messrs. Editors, are ungraceful and uncalled for. We old Confeds, cavalry, infantry or artillery, may pass our good-humored jests, feeling a common pride in each other and our arms of service, while we recall much that was ridiculous—but don’t encourage every idle ink-slinger in holding up to public ridicule such a record as of right belongs to Rosser’s Brigade.

R.

Staunton Spectator, February 06, 1889, p. 3, col. 4

“A Peculiar Figure”

Turk on Rosser ObitDuring Thomas Rosser’s tumultuous post-war career as a businessman and aspiring politician, he exhibited the same impetutuous behavior that had made him a successful cavalry commander. The passionate physical vigor that had usually served him well on battlefields, however, translated into mere unrestrained recklessness in meeting rooms and led to failure in business and politics. Journalist Rudolph S. Turk wrote for Virginia newspapers for more than 20 years and offered astute commentary on public men and events. He published a handful of articles noting Rosser’s erratic conduct. Upon Rosser’s death in 1910, Turk offered the following insights into General Rosser’s career and character.

GEN. ROSSER.

The death of Gen. Thos. L. Rosser, which occurred last week, removed a peculiar figure from the scene of human action. As a cavalry officer in the Confederate army he achieved his first and most lasting renown. His Confederate uniform was his greatest asset, and it stayed with him till he himself cast it off. In Staunton at a meeting of Confederate veterans some years ago, and we believe the last he ever attended, he grew furious over some imaginary affront given him in the hall. He left it, and went to the front door, where with approbious epithets he denounced the assembly, tore off his badge and would have trampled it under foot but for an old Confederate soldier who stood by, who asked him to give it to him. This Gen. Rosser did. He left for home shortly afterward and had nothing more to do with that meeting.

But as to Gen. Rosser’s individual bravery there can be no doubt. That he was a typical and chivalrous cavalry officer there can be no doubt. He did many daring acts during the war and saved the day on several battlefields, and had he revered the cause as he could easily have done, his death would now be sincerely mourned by almost every man who wore the gray. But Gen. Rosser was impetuous. He allowed his temper to get the better of his judgment on many occasions, and nearly always to his detriment. In later years he was in need. He then eschewed nearly every former utterance, seemed to apologise for his conduct from 1861 to 186S, and like many other Southern men who have taken office under Republican administrations bowed the knee to that Baal.

Well do we remember him in the winter of 1864-5, when at the head of his command he started for Beverley now West Va. to capture a post there. He braved all the hardships before him, succeeded, and brought back many supplies and prisoners. He was the typical soldier. He rode as a commander, he faced danger as if he loved it, and our only regret is that he did not value his record as a Confederate soldier above all other records, for in that he shone as he shone nowhere else. It was the crowning jewel in his diadem. But he threw it before swine.

R. S. Turk, Editor and Proprietor, Staunton Spectator and Vindicator. (Staunton, Va.), April 8, 1910, p. 2, col 1

 

Flattery Gets Us Nowhere

Thomas L. Rosser
Click on the image to read the 1934 Cavalry Journal biography that helped shape early perceptions of T.L. Rosser and his role in the war.

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.

Read “Thomas Lafayette Rosser” by Joseph Mills Hanson, Cavalry Journal, March-April 1934.

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.

Read “Thomas Lafayette Rosser” by Joseph Mills Hanson, Cavalry Journal, March-April 1934.