Tom's Brook (Cavalry)
October 8-9, 1864
This was, in Sheridan's words, "a square cavalry fight." The opposing corps were as a whole about evenly matched in numbers, 5,000 against 5,000. The opposing divisions, however, were not equally matched, Custer's 2,500 sabres being opposed to Rosser's 3,000 or more, while Merritt's 2,500 confronted Lomax's 2,000. Each division on each side had a battery of six guns. In carrying out Sheridan's order Custer and Merritt moved back at daybreak, the former by the Back road and the latter by the valley pike, there two miles apart. About nine o'clock they met Rosser and Lomax on the south side of Tom's Brook. The ground was favorable for a cavalry fight, the rail fences having long ago vanished from that thoroughfare of armies, and the ground being for the most part smooth and open. The hostile lines deployed along opposing crests, in plain view of each other, in the bright sunlight; and a fresh breeze cleared the smoke quickly from skirmish line and battery front, and left all in clear view. Rosser's line was on the higher ground of the two. His guns were posted on the rounded crests, and his skirmish line, dismounted, was behind a line of stone fences, near the base of the ridge. Custer's two brigades were deployed, his first on the right and Wells's on the left o f the road. His guns were placed on separate knolls, and between them and not far behind his skirmish line fluttered Custer's headquarters flag. It is related that before he ordered the grand charge of his division, Custer rode out alone, in advance of his staff, and taking off his broad sombrero hat swept it to his knee in a knightly salute to his foe; and that Rosser from the crest beyond pointed him out to his staff, saying: "That's Custer; and I am going to give him the best whipping to-day that he ever got."*1* Instead Rosser got the worst whipping he ever had. As soon as his brigades were fairly in position Custer attacked in one sweeping charge. It was first a walk to the skirmish line, then a trot, then a gallop, then a wild rush of shouting troopers with waving sabres and frantic horses. The charge was so sudden and rapid that the enemy's fire of artillery and small arms took little effect, and before Rosser knew what had happened, his position was carried. His battery limbered up in haste and made for the rear. Its supports broke before they were fairly struck, and the entire force fell back half a mile to a belt of woods. Here Rosser re-formed his line and his battery opened and soon Custer's advance fell back before a counter-charge made by Rosser, which, however, was checked by Custer's artillery. Custer then re-formed his division; and in a second charge swept all before him, taking all of Rosser's guns, caissons, wagons and ambulances, and following him on the run, for twelve miles, to Columbia Furnace.*2*Notes:
Merritt meantime had made equally short work with Lomax, taking five of his six guns (the other having been crippled and sent back early in the battle) and chasing him through Woodstock to Mount Jackson. "The enemy," said Sheridan, "was defeated with the loss of all his artillery but one piece, and everything else which was carried on wheels."
In this memorable fight, the First Vermont cavalry had an active part. In the formation for the first charge the regiment was formed across the back road, along which it moved to the charge. At the summit of the hill beyond the brook, the portion of the enemy's line in front of the third (Grover's) battalion, stood its ground better than some other portions and the battalion became slightly broken. The first and second battalions, however, came quickly to the support of the third, and the enemy fell back. Lieut. Colonel Bennett had his horse shot under him here. The regiment then moved on to the front of the woods where Rosser was making his second stand, and a stubborn contest followed, in which Captain Frank Ray, commanding a squadron, fell mortally wounded.*3*
After half an hour's fighting the line of the enemy began to waver, when the regiment, commanded for the time being by Major Grover, charged. The opposing line broke and fled and the Vermonters captured two field pieces with their caissons and a number of prisoners. The regiment here became divided in the rush. Part, under Adjutant Gates, went on with other troops on the right and followed the enemy for ten miles, to Columbia Furnace. The rest of the regiment met a stronger resistance, and made slower progress, but drove a superior force for miles, made a number of captures, and followed the enemy until recalled by Colonel Wells. "The conduct of ht men," says Lieut. Colonel Bennett, "exceeded my most sanguine expectations, though upwards of 100 were recruits who had never drilled a day." He mentions Sergeants Haswell and Cook of company G, Frost of company A and Wright of company L, for conspicuous bravery. This battle demoralized Early's cavalry and contributed largely to the crowning victory of the campaign ten days later at Cedar Creek. The Union loss was small. The Vermont regiment lost one officer mortally wounded, two men killed, and several men wounded.*4*
On the 13th the enemy drove the pickets of the Second New York cavalry across Cedar Creek, behind which Sheridan's army now lay. Custer re-established the line, with some skirmishing which lasted till dark. The Vermont regiment moved out and stood in line with the division; but was not seriously engaged.
1. Whittaker's Life of Custer.
2. "Rosser's men had been doing brilliant service, and were so greatly elated by it that they had adopted a laurel leaf as a badge, and permitted themselves to be called the Laurel Brigade. They came to the discouraged soldiers on the Shenandoah, therefore, with much swagger, and promised to clear the valley of Yankees in no time; but in the very first engagement Sheridan drove back those boasters and chased them at full speed for twelve miles. Jubal Early's only comment on it, when he met the crest-fallen commander a day or two later, was to drawl out this remark: "I say, Rosser your brigade had better take the grape leaf for a badge; the laurel is not a running vine.'"-Editor's Drawer, Harper's Magazine, January, 1884.
3. Captain Ray died next morning. He was a Bennington man. He enlisted as a private in company G, and was promoted for bravery and efficiency through the intermediate grades to the command of the company. He was 25 years old at his death, had distinguished himself in a score of fights, and was regarded as one of the best officers in the line.
4. Killed-James Lowell, company I, and Carlos Hodgdon, company L.
Source George G. Benedict, "Vermont in the Civil War, 1861-5," (Free Press Association, Burlington, 1888), pp. 662-5.