Book Review: Custer’s Gray Rival

Biographies abound of the Confederacy’s more well-known cavalry officers, especially J. E. B. Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest. But similar works detailing the lives of the next tier of Confederate cavaliers are less easy to find. Sheridan R. Barringer’s Custer’s Gray Rival attempts to fit into that niche of Civil War historiography.

Barringer’s biography of Thomas Lafayette Rosser is only the second biography of this controversial Southern cavalryman in print (Millard Bushong’s Fightin’ Tom Rosser hit the shelves in 1983). Based on the author’s research and previous reading about Rosser’s life, he deemed another, more balanced biography to be needed.

From a young age, Thomas Rosser demonstrated the traits that heaped controversy on him throughout his life and after his death: impetuosity, impulsiveness, and combativeness. However, Rosser also clung to a strict code of honor that included loyalty, honor, and courage. Rosser’s traits and personality are threaded throughout Barringer’s treatment of the man and provide perspective to the Confederate general’s life.

Rosser’s personal characteristics created a man who was sure of himself and damned others who did not share a similar assessment of him. Throughout Rosser’s life, this led to considerable run-ins with his acquaintances, including, but not limited to, J. E. B. Stuart, Thomas Munford, Jubal Early, and Henry Clay Pate, all fellow Confederate officers and comrades. Rosser scapegoated Early for his infamous defeat at the Battle of Tom’s Brook on October 9, 1864, where Rosser’s friend and West Point classmate George Custer further diminished Confederate prospects in the Shenandoah Valley. Barringer, as he set out to do, examines each of these conflicts in detail, and follows them into the postwar years when necessary.

But Rosser’s combative flaws did not just lead to fights within the Confederate army. The general’s fiery personality spilled onto the battlefield, where time and again he proved himself a capable fighter (he often led from the front and suffered multiple wounds during the course of the war).

The majority of Barringer’s book (seven of ten chapters) covers Rosser’s Civil War service. Indeed, Rosser wrote extensively about this time of life in the postwar years, sources that Barringer readily uses. Fortunately for the reader, Barringer does not skimp on Rosser’s postwar years which included Rosser’s land speculation ventures, defense of his own reputation and that of fellow soldiers such as James Longstreet and George Custer, and his dabble into politics. Overall, Rosser’s postwar life proved to be a continuation of his desire in the Civil War to prove his manhood and live by his code of honor.

In this book’s attempts to fit Rosser into a larger narrative, it succeeds, though the timeline of Rosser’s life and that of the events around him are sometimes presented in a confusing manner. In one case, the author summarizes most of the Second Manassas Campaign before flipping the calendar back almost one month to bring Rosser into that operation.

Regardless, Barringer’s effort to tell a more balanced tale of an often imbalanced man is one that will satisfy individuals interested in Southern manhood, Confederate cavalry in the Eastern Theater, and the postwar South.

Sheridan R. Barringer, Custer’s Gray Rival: The Life of Confederate Major General Thomas Lafayette Rosser

Fox Run Publishing, 2019.

311 pages.

Footnotes, Bibliography, Index.

4 Responses to Book Review: Custer’s Gray Rival

  1. Poor Rosser, he gets a biography and his name is not even in the title. Instead his rival, Custer is the name in the title! And to add insult to injury, it is written by Sheridan no less! All kidding aside, I would like to read it.

  2. If my memory serves me correctly Rosser and Custer were much alike and buddies at West Point; and at the battle of Tom’s Brook Custers boss Sheridan told him to either whip Rosser or get a whipping himself. The two became close friends again after the Civil War! I plan to do research on both.

  3. You can obtain a new signed copy from me. See for details.

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