EB Odds & Ends

A Newsletter of Eagles Byte Historic Research

August 1998 No. 32

Under Two Flags

Editor Stewart Sifakis, in the Who Was Who in the Civil War article on Thomas Rosser, describes Rosser as being "Active in farming and railroading after the war...".The statement's brevity is necessary in a work concerned primarily with the war, consequently the description is just a bit of an understatement. But those were just Rosser's secondary careers. His first was as eventful enough.

Thomas Lafayette Rosser was born in Campbell County, Virginia, on October 5, 1836. When he was 13, his family emigrated to the Sabine River (named Sabinas by the Spanish, for the juniper growing on its banks) and it was there, in the Louisiana-Texas border pine forests, that Rosser spent the next seven years, until gaining entrance to West Point. At that time the military academy provided a five-year course; Rosser and his fellow classmates, including George Armstrong Custer, were scheduled to graduate in early May of 1861. But history intervened and two weeks before graduation, shortly after the fall of Sumter, he left the Academy to enlist in the new Confederate Army. Appointed a first lieutenant in the regular army, he was assigned to the Artillery Battalion at Washington, Louisiana. He was soon stationed back in Virginia, where one of his early feats was to shoot down a reconnaissance balloon sent up by Union aeronaut Thaddeus S. C. Lowe to spy out southern troop movements, thus being one of the pioneers of anti-aircraft fire. He began rapidly working his way up through the ranks (this ability would be demonstrated again in later life), making captain by summer and colonel (switching over to the cavalry) in the following year.

In July of 1861 a superior, Colonel Richard H. Weightman wrote his impression of the young artillery officer. "At this exposed point I directed Lieutenant-Colonel Rosser to have the artillery unlimbered and to open fire upon the enemy, at the same time I directed the infantry on either wing of the brigade to pass through the timber, and engage the enemy at close quarters. All my orders were promptly obeyed amidst a storm of grape. The artillery steadily unlimbered, and opened a carefully-aimed fire upon the enemy. Lieutenant-Colonel Rosser in person, with the calmness of a professor of etymology examining a rare addition to his collection, aimed one of the guns, while the enemy's gun shots tore up the earth and disabled men and horses around him." Jeb Stuart was also taking notice of Rosser, and in September wrote, "Captain Rosser having no enemy left to contend with, at his own request was permitted to view the ground of the enemy's flight, and found the road plowed up by his solid shot and strewn with fragments of shells; 2 men left dead in the road, 1 mortally wounded, and 1 not hurt being taken prisoner. The prisoners said the havoc in their ranks was fearful, justifying what I saw myself of the confusion."

A picture begins to emerge of a young officer studiously, carefully learning his craft, experimenting with, and honing his use of, the tools of war. Historian Pierre Berton gives us a description of the man himself, , "a Virginia gentleman of the old school - tall, handsome, swarthy and popular...A West Point chum of General Custer."

The following Spring, during a skirmish on May 24th at Mechanicsville, during the Seven Days campaign, Rosser received a severe flesh wound in the arm which didn't prevent him from commanding his artillery throughout the engagement. A month and a day later he was promoted to colonel, transferred to the cavalry and given command of the 5th Virginia Cavalry. After taking part in the engagement at Malvern Hill, the young perfectionist noted, "In every instance where my men were thrown in contact with the enemy I could but observe the great want of proper discipline necessary to insure implicit confidence. They had not been drilled and the most of them had never been under fire before. I took several prisoners and collected many arms. I lost 4 men-2 sergeants, 1 corporal, and 1 private-by desertion." Rosser could not let such slackness continue; hard work soon paid off. Year's end found the Fifth Virginia Cavalry in action around Dumfires and Fairfax Station. From Jeb Stuart's report it is obvious that Rosser was as commendable a cavalry officer as we had been an artilleryman. "...leading across a narrow, rocky and very difficult ford, but in spite of the heavy volleys directed at our men, they pressed on, crossed the stream, suffered no loss, and captured or dispersed the whole party."

His dispatches in early January of 1863 showed he felt his unit had now become a coherent, efficient fighting machine. "It gives me great pleasure to state that the conduct of my officers and men from beginning to end was most gallant, exemplary, prompt and faithful...". Severely wounded again at Kelly's Ford he, "remained in command at the head of his regiment's operations until the day was won, and night put an end to further operations." Throughout the turning-point year of 1863 Rosser's Fifth Virginia Cavalry fought in many of the major battles and operations, 2nd Bull Run, Mechanicsville, South Mountain, Antietam, and Chancellorsville. Temporarily placed under the command of Colonel Williams Carter Wickham, during the Gettysburg campaign, he found himself and his men near Aldie. "The enemy greatly outnumbering us, appeared in force everywhere, and it became apparent that victory was the only means of escape." A line worthy of Admiral Farragut (or John Wayne). As part of his command fought a holding action until overwhelmed and captured, its commander and the rest of the force fought their way out. Rosser regrouped and aided Wickham in capturing Aldie. Ending this dispatch of August 4th, he displayed the modesty becoming to a gentleman. "What occurred after this was under the immediate eye of the colonel commanding, and I deem it unnecessary to relate it." The rest of the month found him moving up and down the Virginia coast, moving prisoners and captured goods, from transports and gunboats, inland. In an action near Chancellorsville that November, Rosser attacked a wagon train on the flank of Meade's army, capturing ordnance stores of the First and Fifth Army Corps, destroying 35 to 40 wagons and retrieving eight, as well as 7 ambulances, 230 mules and horses, and 95 prisoners, before being driven off by a superior force of infantry. For this action he was praised by Wade Hampton, Jeb Stuart and Robert E. Lee. Ending 1863 under Stuart's command, Rosser was transferred the following year to the campaign between the Rapidan and the James, and then in the Fall to the Shenandoah Valley, where he would confer on his chief the sincerest form of flattery and give a former classmate a run for his money.

In May he fought at Spotsylvania and the battle of the Wilderness, In June he was wounded painfully while charging the enemy at the head of his brigade. This time the wound was serious enough to keep him off the field the rest of the day. But brigadier-general (since September, 1863) Rosser was not one to remain out of action for long. Like his chief he was partial to arriving fustest anywhere and he raided up and down the Valley, capturing large amounts of commissary, ordnance and quartermaster stores, blowing up caissons, destroying railroad machine shops and bridges, and spiking siege guns. He soon gained the nickname, used by South and North (the later with rueful sarcasm), as the "Saviour of the Valley".

Rosser continued his depredations, aiding McCausland in capturing the entire garrison at New Creek in August. That Fall General Phil Sheridan determined to do away with this redeeming raider and ordered Custer to finish off, or at least neutralize, his former classmate. Custer's first opportunity was at Woodstock and Tom's Brook in early October. Sheridan was moving through the Valley, following a scorched earth policy similar to that of Grant and Sherman, destroying barns, mills, and forage, driving the near-starving population northward, and scattering their livestock. Rosser and Lunsford Lomax attempted to turn the blue tide and were overwhelmed and forced to retreat, their men in a panic, down the Valley. The victorious northern troops would dub the retreat the Woodstock Races. One of those who escaped capture was Tom Rosser. He returned to face Custer three days before Christmas, in this last full year of the war. As Custer moved through Chester Gap, Rosser attacked, driving him back and capturing forty of his men. Custer was not among them. The two men would meet again years later, after the war, halfway across the continent.

As Spring came and the Federal forces began what might be called the Appomattox Races, Rosser captured the garrison at Beverly on January 11th, taking 580 prisoners, losing only a few men himself. But the north could afford losses; the South could not. On April 2nd Richmond was evacuated by Confederate forces and Federal troops captured Petersburg. The inevitable came, on April 9th, 1865. The struggle was over.

Not quite. Once again Rosser was not among the captured. He remained on the loose for almost a month, trying vainly to rekindle the flames. Then, on May 4th Rosser surrendered his command, at Staunton. On May 14th, Lieutenant-Colonel Franklin A. Stratton of the Eleventh Pennsylvania Cavalry interviewed his die-hard counterpart. "General Rosser stated, or rather admitted, that about nine pieces of artillery were concealed somewhere about Staunton and four pieces at Lexington...eight pieces of artillery...at Pittsylvania Court-House...considerable rebel property concealed about Charlottesville." Hearing of Rosser's surrender Grant recommended that the cavalry officer be tried, "for deserting his command after it had been surrendered." Grant apparently changed his mind. Rosser was paroled. His career was over.

His first career. As he cast about for a new profession, did he think with regret of all the destruction necessary during the war? Was he tired of tearing down; ready to start creating? Possibly. Whatever his reasons, he next turned, as Stewart Sifakis tells us, to the relatively young field of railroading. Did making a new beginning give him pause? Not really. He'd worked his was up through the ranks before; he could do it again. He grabbed an axe and set to work. Promotion followed. Rodman, scout, chief surveyor, and finally chief engineer of the Northern Pacific Railroad, where he gained a reputation, unsurprisingly, as "one of the most pushing men on the American continent." As he pushed the Northern Pacific westward, laying out a route along Montana's Yellowstone River, his workmen had been protected by the U. S. Army. Seeing that Rosser came to no harm was a yellow-haired cavalryman named George A. Custer. Not that Rosser needed much protection. Under attack by a Sioux sniper near Bismark, North Dakota, he bided his time, plugged his attacker between the eyes, threw the corpse onto a pony and galloped off as the rest of the native party looked on, probably with respect.

James J. Hill, St. Paul, Minnesota, businessman and president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, now a member of the Montreal Syndicate organized to build the new Canadian-Pacific Railway transplanted the former Army officer north of the border. His first challenge came almost immediately, and it wasn't from the terrain. Starting in Winnipeg the new railroad was to shoot off westward across the plains. Divisional points of the line were planned for every 125 to 150 miles, putting the first near the planned crossing of the Assiniboine River at Grand Valley, settled several years earlier by John and Douglas McVicar. According to one version, the McVicars, ill-advised by greedy local "wise guys" smelling a real estate killing, doubled the $25,000 selling price Rosser had offered. Reportedly Rosser, not best known for surrendering, had replied, "I'll be damned if a town of any kind is ever built here." Nor was it. Rosser moved his equipment several miles further west and built a new town he named Brandon, after the hills cradling it. The new settlement became a city overnight and continued growing. Two consecutive years of flooding wiped out Grand Valley and the McVicars ended up selling the town site for $1500. This incident validated Hill and Rosser's decision to build the towns they needed from now on, rather than utilizing existing settlements. Of course many of hose connected with the railroad, including Rosser and his boss, Alpheus B. Stickney were able to amass goodly sums by speculating in railroad lands. To the builder belong the spoils! Construction on the new railway began in early May of 1881, and his crew started laying track.

The speculations of Stickney, Rosser and many of the other railroad men did not go unnoticed in the often-hostile local press, those of Stickneyr being especially noted, and when Stickney laid less than 130 miles of track the first season, he was quickly replaced by Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad general manager William Cornelius Van Horne. Van Horne, cultivating an image as a tough, implacable foe of incompetence and dishonesty, next demanded Rosser's resignation. Rosser met with Van Horne to put his case before the general manager but Van Horne too was never inclined to surrender. Rosser submitted his resignation. Lawsuits and countersuits ensued. In the end Rosser was acquitted of any wrongdoing, mainly because the management of the railroad declined to appear against him. When Rosser and Van Horne encountered each other in a Winnipeg club soon afterwards, pistols were drawn by both men. Swift intervention by their friends prevented a tragedy. Rosser then sued the CPR for $100,000, winning an award of $2600 for malicious prosecution. Harry Armstong, one of Rosser's staff, all of whom had been fired along with their chief, maintained that Rosser had speculated with the permission of Stickney.

One part of Rosser remains north of the Canadian border today. He left his name on the main street of Brandon. Van Hore got a mountain range.

If living well is the best revenge, Thomas Lafayette Rosser had his. With the money acquired through his speculations, he returned to Virginia, settling near Charlottesburg into the life of a gentleman farmer. Many, if not most, fortunes of the day were made by far more corrupt business dealings than Rosser's, so few of his contemporaries were well-equipped to throw the first stone. Before his death at the age of 74 in 1910, he once more "re-upped" in the military. On June 10th of 1898, at the outbreak of hostilities against Spain, President William McKinley appointed the former cavalry officer a brigadier of U. S. volunteers. He finally wore the blue uniform he'd spurned in the Spring of 1862. He was assigned to the training of recruits. The location of his camp? The battlefield at Chickamauga. Somehow, unbelievably, he'd missed that one the first time around.


The full story of the CPR is told in the Berton book mentioned below. The ten years of pre construction exploring, maneuvering, conniving and theatrics are covered in Berton's The National Dream . Read Pierre Berton on the subject (or any other he covers); you'll be glad you did.

In searching the internet for material it is often necessary to be creative and cover all the bases. I found various material on Rosser under each of the following: Thomas Lafayette Rosser; Thomas L. Rosser; T. L. Rosser, Thomas Rosser and under his several ranks followed by his last name.



The next Odds & Ends will come out in October. With the lazy, hazy days of summer but a memory, it will contain the regular features such as specialized timelines and the Pearl of an URL.

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Thanks for your continued interest and Happy September ! !


Copyright 1998 David Minor / Eagles Byte