As Union cavalry carried out “The Burning” in early October 1864, Confederate cavalry followed close behind, ordered by Gen. Jubal A. Early “to pursue the enemy, to harass him, and to ascertain his purposes.”
Burning and Bitterness: “Finish this ‘Savior of the Valley”
Among the cavalry were reinforcements sent from Petersburg, the “Laurel Brigade” under Gen. Thomas Rosser, called by some the “Savior of the Valley.” Many members of his brigade were Valley natives, and the Federal destruction left them “blinded with rage at the sight of their ruined homes.” Eager for vengeance, they hammered relentlessly at the Federals on October 6-8, forcing them back “in one continuous running fight” – and, as one
southern officer remembered, “in many cases [taking] no prisoners.”
The Union commander, Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, was infuriated by the attacks. On the night of October 8, he summoned his cavalry commander, Gen. Alfred Torbert, and ordered him to “whip the rebel cavalry or get whipped” – and to “finish this ‘Savior of the Valley’.”
Meanwhile, the aggressiveness of the Confederate cavalry had left the rebel horsemen vulnerable. Not only were they heavily outnumbered, but they had advanced dangerously ahead of their infantry support, which was 20 miles south – almost a full day’s march away.
Battle of Tom’s Brook: “Like the action of a Knight in the Lists!”
The Federal attack at Tom’s Brook on October 9 took place on two main fronts. On the east, along the Valley Pike, Union Gen. Wesley Merritt advanced against Confederate Gen. Lunsford Lomax. Two miles to the west, along the Back Road, Rosser faced an old friend, Union Gen. George A. Custer. The two had been classmates at the U.S. Military Academy before the war.
As Custer advanced on the Back Road, Rosser dismounted most of his troopers behind Tom’s Brook, at the base of Spiker’s Hill, behind stone fences and makeshift fieldworks, with six guns on the crest of the hill behind him. Spotting Rosser, Custer rode out in front of the line, removed his hat, and bowed, a theatrical gesture that artist James Taylor said “was like the action of a Knight in the Lists!”
A more daunting site to the defenders was the number of Federal horsemen “covering the hill slopes and blocking the roads with apparently countless squadrons.” The Confederates held stubbornly for several hours against the initial attacks, but then Custer ordered a flanking maneuver that, combined with a renewed frontal assault, collapsed the outmanned rebel line. At the same time, a similar story played out along the Valley Pike, as Merritt’s forces flanked, overwhelmed, and drove back Lomax’s woefully outnumbered Confederates. The rout became total. (At one point, Lomax was captured by the Federals, but escaped after breaking away and joining in a Union charge on his own men.) The Federals pursued the Confederates southward for almost 20 miles to Mt. Jackson – the famed “Woodstock Races.”
The ease and completeness of the victory led many Federals to believe that Early’s forces were “permanently broken.” Just how wrong they were would become clear 10 days later at Cedar Creek.
After the War: “With the esteem of a brother.”
After the war, Custer went west to fight Indians and boredom, while Rosser became a civil engineer for the railroads. In 1873, when Rosser served as chief engineer for a surveying expedition along the Yellowstone River, Custer was assigned to protect the expedition, and the two spent evenings around the campfire reminiscing about past adventures. “Custer seems to regard his former antagonist with the esteem of a brother,” a member of the expedition wrote. The next year Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills that discovered gold, precipitating a chain of events that led to the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877 – including the Battle of the Little Bighorn (June 25, 1876), where Custer and 267 of his men were killed. In the contentious public debates about responsibility for “Custer’s Last Stand,” Rosser was an ardent defender of his late friend. Rosser returned to military service briefly in 1898 when President William McKinley (a fellow veteran of the 1864 Shenandoah Campaign), appointed him a Brigadier General of U.S. Volunteers to train recruits during the Spanish-American War. He died in 1910 at the age of 73.