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On the eve of the Civil War differing loyalties sent some West Pointers north, others south, but their academy friendship survived the conflict.
February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
In March, 1863, Rosser was wounded at Kelly’s Ford. In May of that year he married his young lady. It was a sad wedding. Pelham, who was to have been best man, had taken his death wound at Kelly’s Ford. In his place stood James Dearing, who would have graduated in 1862 had Virginia stayed in the Union. Before the war ended, Dearing too would be killed in a last futile battle just before Appomattox.
Rosser was one of the few who did not surrender with Lee. He was a major general of cavalry by this time. He had put in almost a year fighting Custer up and down the Shenandoah Valley. Now he tried breaking through to the last Confederate command in the Carolinas. He almost made it. The Yankees caught him near Lynchburg.
So the war was over. Most of his friends were dead, and Tom Rosser was a professional man barred from his profession—a major general with no job and a hungry family. He went to work with a pick and shovel for the Northern Pacific Railroad.
Soon they allowed he was an engineer and gave him the job of surveying the line’s route to the West Coast. Regular regiments were assigned to guard these operations from whatever Indians might not like the idea of a railroad so near home.
“Well, I have joined the engineers,” wrote Custer to his Elizabeth in 1873. “I was lying half asleep when I heard ‘Orderly, which is General Custer’s tent?’ I sprang up. ‘I know that voice, even if I haven’t heard it for years!’ It was my old friend General Rosser. Stretched on a buffalo robe, under a fly, in the moonlight, we listened to one another’s accounts of the battles in which we had been opposed. It seemed like the time when, as cadets, we lay, huddled under one blanket, indulging in dreams of the future.” In the weeks to come they refought the old battles and called up the young faces gone forever.
Three years later, when Custer’s command was cut off on the Little Big Horn, Rosser prepared to lead a volunteer force to the rescue. Before he could start, word came down the river that it was no use. But Rosser’s friendships did not end with life. To the end he defended Custer’s reputation.
The day came when Thomas Rosser even renewed his old friendship with the United States. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War he and two other former Confederate officers—Fitzhugh Lee, class of 1856, and Joseph Wheeler, class of 1851—thought it an excellent example of unity to lead their part of the country back into the blue fighting ranks. Rosser was 61 years old when he received the commission for which he had trained in his youth—brigadier general, United States Army.
“There were veterans down our way,” writes a native of Alabama, “who were considerably shaken by the event. I remember one old fellow saying, I'm a Confederate, and a Christian, and I always aimed to live right, so’s I’d go to Heaven. But if them newspapers ain’t lyin’, an’ this here is true, I ain’t so sure. Now I reckon I’d ruther go to Hell an’ see the Devil rip them blue coats off Tom Rosser and Fitz Lee!’”
It was a short war in ’98. General Rosser soon returned to his plantation near Charlottesville, Virginia. He became postmaster of the city. His acres were secured by the money he had earned in his bitter western days right after the old war. He died in 1910 an honored and respected man, his children and grandchildren about him, his country unified, happy, and at peace.
Fates more terrible awaited some. Perhaps there were boys in gray who died in Union prison camps in the very state where they had gone to school. It is hard to trace these young southerners. Once a man had resigned, the old records usually cut off his career with the bitter words, “Joined in the rebellion against the United States.” Occasionally, if he were killed while “in rebellion,” that grim fact is noted. So died at Gettysburg William Westwood McCreery, class of 1860, known to his fellow cadets as “Rip.” He died commanding the guns of a North Carolina battery on July 3.
The artillery seems to have been particularly unhealthy at Gettysburg. Lieutenant Malbone Watson of the 5th Regular Artillery, a member of the May class of 1861, took a bad wound in his right leg on Little Round Top on July 2. A few moments later his classmate Charles Edward Hazlett bent down to catch the final orders of Brigadier General Stephen Weed, who was dying beside Watson’s guns. As he bent over his commander, Hazlett took a bullet through the brain and fell dead on Weed’s body.
The June class of 1861 also had cause to remember that second day at Gettysburg. Patrick Henry O’Rorke had headed the class of which Custer ingloriously occupied the foot. At Gettysburg he led the 140th New York Infantry. On his way to the field he halted the regiment and addressed it briefly; he expected every man to do his duty, and if any man failed, the fileclosers would shoot him! In the famous struggle for Little Round Top—at just about the time Watson and Hazlett got hit—he led the 140th up that craggy little hill just in time to repulse a Confederate charge, got a bullet in the throat, and fell dead.