(October 15, 1836 – March 29, 1910) was a Confederate general during the American Civil War, and later an officer in the Spanish American War and railroad construction engineer. A favorite of J.E.B. Stuart, he was noted for his daring cavalry raids, efficiency in handling combat troops, and tactical brilliance.
Early life and career
Rosser was born on a farm called “Catalpa Hill”, in Campbell County, Virginia, the son of John and Martha Melvina (Johnson) Rosser. In 1849, the family relocated to a 640-acre (2.6 km2) farm in Panola County, Texas, some forty miles west of Shreveport, Louisiana. The 13-year-old Tom Rosser led the wagon train bearing his mother and younger siblings westward, as business considerations compelled his father to remain in Virginia for a short time. Texas Congressman Lemuel D. Evans appointed Rosser to the United States Military Academy in 1856. However, Rosser did not complete the required five-year course of study, as Rosser, a supporter of Texas secession, resigned when Texas left the Union on April 22, 1861 two weeks before the scheduled graduation. Rosser traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to enlist in the Confederate States Army. Thomas Rosser’s roommate at the academy, George Armstrong Custer was a close friend and despite being on opposing sides this friendship continued both during and after the Civil War ended. He was known for his “hit and run” raids.
Rosser was commissioned a first lieutenant and became an instructor to the famed “Washington Artillery” of New Orleans. He commanded its Second Company at the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861. He was noted for shooting down one of George B. McClellan’s observation balloons, a feat that won him a promotion to captain. He commanded his battery during the Seven Days Battles of the Peninsula Campaign and was severely wounded at Mechanicsville. Rosser was promoted to lieutenant colonel of artillery, and a few days later to colonel of the 5th Virginia Cavalry.
He commanded the advance of J.E.B. Stuart’s expedition to Catlett’s Station and was notable in the Second Battle of Bull Run, where captured Union commander John Pope’s orderly and horses. During the fighting at Crampton’s Gap at the Battle of South Mountain, his cavalry delayed the advance of William B. Franklin’s VI Corps with help from John Pelham’s artillery. At Antietam, his men screened Robert E. Lee’s left flank. He temporarily assumed command of Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade during the subsequent fighting against Alfred Pleasonton.
He was again badly wounded at the Battle of Kelly’s Ford, where “the gallant” Pelham was killed. Rosser was disabled until the Gettysburg Campaign, where he commanded his regiment in the fighting at Hanover and the East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg. He was promoted to brigadier general of the “Laurel Brigade,” which had gained fame under Turner Ashby. During one of his October – November West Virginia raids near Chancellorsville, Virginia, in November, Rosser seized a Federal wagon train containing much of the ammunition reserve of the I Corps and V Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
He was distinguished again in the 1864 Overland Campaign, driving back a large force of Union cavalry and artillery at the Battle of the Wilderness. He was yet again wounded at Trevilian Station, where his brigade captured a number of prisoners from former West Point classmate and close personal friend George Armstrong Custer. His brigade gallantly fought against Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, and he efficiently commanded Fitzhugh Lee’s division at Cedar Creek. He became known in the Southern press as the “Saviour of the Valley,” although a rare defeat at the Battle of Tom’s Brook became known as the “Woodstock Races” in Union accounts. Rosser was promoted to major general in November 1864. He conducted a successful raid on New Creek, West Virginia, taking hundreds of prisoners and seizing much need quantities of supplies. In January 1865, he took 300 men, crossed the mountains in deep snow and bitter cold, and surprised and captured two infantry regiments in their works at Beverly, West Virginia, taking 580 prisoners.
Rosser commanded a cavalry division during the Siege of Petersburg in the spring, fighting near Five Forks. It was here that Rosser hosted the “infamous” shad bake 2 miles (3.2 km) north of the battle lines preceding and during the primary Federal assault. Guests at this small affair included George Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee. Shelby Foote states that “Pickett only made it back to his division after over half his troops had been shot or captured..”. It is said that Lee never forgave Pickett for his absence from his post when the Federals broke the Confederate lines and carried the day at Five Forks.
Rosser was conspicuous during the Appomattox Campaign, capturing a Union general and rescuing a wagon train near Farmville. He led a daring early morning charge at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, and escaped with his command as Lee surrendered the bulk of the Army of Northern Virginia. Under orders from the secretary of war, he began reorganizing the scattered remnants of Lee’s army in a vain attempt to join Joseph E. Johnston’s army in North Carolina. However, he surrendered at Staunton, Virginia, on May 4 and was paroled shortly afterward.
Rosser was superintendent of the National Express Company, working for fellow ex-Confederate General Joe Johnston. He resigned to become an assistant engineer during the construction of the Pittsburgh & Connellsville Railroad. He became chief engineer of the eastern division of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Later he was chief engineer of the Canadian Pacific. In 1886, he bought a plantation near Charlottesville, Virginia, and became a gentleman farmer. On June 10, 1898, President William McKinley appointed Rosser a brigadier general of United States volunteers during the Spanish-American War. His first task was training young cavalry recruits in a camp near the old Civil War battlefield of Chickamauga in northern Georgia. He was honorably discharged on October 31, 1898, and returned home. He died at Charlottesville and is buried at Riverview Cemetery.
Rosser Avenue in Brandon, Manitoba is named in his honor.
There is also a Rosser Avenue in Bismarck, North Dakota. This was platted before Custer’s arrival in the area, and so likely is related to Rosser’s time with the railroad (Northern Pacific) rather than his friendship with Custer, or his military career.
The town of Rosser, Manitoba is named after him.