Book Review: “Decision at Tom’s Brook: George Custer, Thomas Rosser and the Joy of the Fight”


Decision at Tom's BrookIn the autumn of 1864, Maj. Gen. Phillip Sheridan and Lt. Gen. Jubal Early engaged one another in an effort to control Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. A Union defeat might well have offset gains made by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman out West and impact the Presidential election in November. Sheridan, however, prevailed. In a little over a month, he defeated Early in four separate engagements and destroyed the logistical value of the region for the Confederates. Author William J. Miller has added to the literature of the campaign by writing a narrative of its only all-cavalry battle at Tom’s Brook.

Often included with overarching studies of the campaign, Miller gives the battle its own treatment through an examination of George Armstrong Custer and Thomas Lafayette Rosser. Classmates at West Point prior to the war, the two played a major role in the overall outcome of the engagement. Miller chronicles the ascendance of both men and points out the difference in their military personalities. Custer had the “common touch”, an ability to break through the barriers between the officer and enlisted men and connect with them on a personal level. This technique inspired the troopers and contributed to much of Custer’s Civil War success. On the other hand, Rosser was motivated by a very strong, deep and personal sense of honor which often resulted in conflicts with his fellow officers and superiors.

Miller details the days leading up to the battle as Sheridan’s army withdrew from the vicinity of Harrisonburg north toward Winchester in early October. The Union cavalry covered the rear of the infantry columns, burning and destroying anything of military value in their path. Early’s cavalry followed often skirmishing with their enemies along the Valley Turnpike and the Back Road. Of particular interest is an often overlooked skirmish along Mill Creek between Custer and Rosser that has been overshadowed by the larger battle that followed.

Fed up with the harassment of his horsemen, Sheridan ordered his cavalry commander, Maj. Gen. Alfred Torbert to turn and attack the Confederates. On the morning of October 9, Custer led his division south along the Back Road while Wesley Merritt’s division set out along the Valley Turnpike. Custer encountered Rosser on high ground above a stream known as Tom’s Brook. After an initial probing attack, Custer sent three regiments around Rosser’s left. Outflanked, the Confederate line gave way and the ensuing retreat turned into a rout. To the east, along the Turnpike, Merritt engaged and quickly overwhelmed the division of Lunsford Lomax. The battle of resulted in a victory for the Union cavalry.

As a student of cavalry operations in the Eastern Theater, I have been looking forward to this book’s release for a long time. Miller weaves together an easy to read and engaging narrative. His use of Thomas Rosser’s papers at the University of Virginia provides additional insight into one of the main figures of the story. Additionally, it allows the reader to follow Rosser through the post-war years. Miller chronicles Rosser’s fight for memory over Tom’s Brook with fellow Confederate officers, which will appeal to those with an interest in the Lost Cause. Also included is an order of battle along with appendices on strength and casualties and the topography, cartography and landmarks related to the battle. ┬áHal Jespersen’s excellent maps give a deeper understanding of the terrain and troop movements. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the mounted arm and for students of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864.




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