By CURT ERIKSMOEN
Two college roommates and “good friends” at West Point later became adversaries during the Civil War when they led cavalry units against each other on the battlefield.
In 1873, they were reunited as friends in northwestern Dakota Territory. After Lt. Col. George Custer’s defeat and death at Little Big Horn in 1876, his friend and former rival, Thomas Rosser, was one of Custer’s staunchest defenders in letters he wrote to a number of newspapers.
Thomas Lafayette Rosser was born on October 15, 1836, at Catalpa Hill Plantation, near Appomattox, Virginia, to John and Martha Melvina (Johnson) Rosser.
In 1849, John Rosser purchased a portion of Texas land near the Louisiana border, but as he had business to attend to in Virginia, he commissioned young Tom Rosser, the eldest boy, to drive the wagon containing his mother, siblings and property. to their new home.
As he neared graduation, his congressman, Lemuel Evans, recommended him for a position at the military academy in West Point, New York. Rosser was accepted.
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When Rosser arrived at West Point in June 1856, he was informed that he would be sharing a room with a brash young cadet from Ohio who was two months his junior – George Armstrong Custer.
Although Rosser is more discreet than the young northerner, the two get along very well. In private, they referred to each other by nicknames: Rosser was “Tex” and Custer was “Fanny.”
On April 22, 1861, Texas seceded from the Union, and Rosser left West Point despite being two weeks away from graduating. He traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, where he enlisted in the Confederate States Army and was commissioned as a first lieutenant of artillery.
Rosser was appointed Washington’s artillery instructor from New Orleans. At the First Battle of Manassas on July 21, Rosser shot down an observation balloon and was promoted to captain.
On June 26, 1862, Rosser was “seriously wounded” at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek near Mechanicsville, Virginia. Once recovered, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and transferred to the cavalry. Shortly after, he was promoted to colonel and placed under the command of General JEB Stuart.
On March 17, 1863, Rosser was again “seriously wounded” at the Battle of Kelly’s Ford in Virginia. He was unable to continue with his regiment until June, when the Confederate Army was ready to launch its campaign from Gettysburg. After Gettysburg, Rosser was promoted to brigadier general of the famed “Laurel Brigade.”
On June 12, 1864, opposing forces led by Rosser and Custer were heavily involved in the Battle of Trevilian Station in Virginia. Despite Rosser being wounded again, Custer was forced to retreat and his unit suffered heavy casualties.
With a number of victories in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley during the summer and fall of 1864, Rosser became known as the “Savior of the Valley”. During the Battle of Tom’s Brook on October 9, Rosser learned that his old friend Custer was about to join the fray. He shouted, “That’s General Custer, the Yanks are so proud, and I intend to give him the best whipping today he’s ever had.”
Instead, it was Custer who prevailed. The Union lost nine men, while Rosser’s forces suffered 130 casualties and another 180 soldiers were captured. What Custer was happiest about was that his men were able to secure Rosser’s wardrobe, including his underwear.
In November, Rosser was promoted to major general. After a number of victories in the Shenandoah Valley, Rosser and two Confederate generals, George Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee, were caught fighting near Five Forks during the Siege of Petersburg. At the time of the battle, Rosser was holding a fish bake two miles north of the battle site. By the time they arrived, half of Pickett’s soldiers had been shot down or captured.
In the spring of 1865, Rosser led his forces in an attempt to relieve General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Lee was surrounded and out of supplies. On April 9, Rosser led an early morning charge on the courthouse where Lee was being held prisoner. Rosser was pushed back and Lee ended up signing the surrender agreement. Rosser then attempted to reorganize the Army of Virginia, but was captured and forced to surrender in early May.
After the war, Rosser attended law school in Lexington, Virginia. Rosser decided to try using his engineering education at West Point and took a job as a civil engineer with the Pittsburgh and Connellsville Railroad in 1868.
In 1869 Rosser had a wife, Elizabeth “Betty” Winston, and three young children. With a growing family to support, Rosser was desperate for success and needed work again.
He applied for a job at the Northern Pacific Railroad. They didn’t need another engineer, but they were looking for lumberjacks. It was not the position Rosser had hoped for, but with no other option he humbly accepted.
Curt Eriksmoen conducted historical research on North Dakota for 40 years and wrote the newspaper column “Did You Know…?” since 2003. Contact Eriksmoen at [email protected]