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Custer, friend fought on opposite sides of Civil War

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Lt. Col. George Custer

Lt. Col. George Custer

Two college roommates and “good friends” at West Point later became opponents in the Civil War when they led cavalry units against each other on the battlefield.

In 1873, they were reunited as friends in northwestern Dakota Territory. After Lt. Col. George Custer’s defeat and death at the Little Big Horn in 1876, his friend and former rival, Thomas Rosser, was one of Custer’s biggest defenders in letters he wrote to a number of newspapers. 

Thomas Lafayette Rosser was born Oct. 15, 1836, at the Catalpa Hill Plantation, near Appomattox, Virginia, to John and Martha Melvina (Johnson) Rosser.

In 1849, John Rosser purchased a section of Texas land near the Louisiana border, but since he had business to take care of in Virginia, he instructed young Tom Rosser, the oldest boy, to drive the wagon containing his mother, siblings, and possessions to their new home.

As he neared graduation, his congressman, Lemuel Evans, recommended him for an appointment at the military academy in West Point, New York. Rosser was accepted.

When Rosser arrived at West Point in June 1856, he was informed he would be sharing a room with a brash young cadet from Ohio who was two months his junior —George Armstrong Custer. 

Although Rosser was more subdued than the young northerner, the two got along very well.  In private, they referred to each other by nicknames: Rosser was “Tex” and Custer was “Fanny.”

On April 22, 1861, Texas seceded from the Union, and Rosser quit West Point despite the fact that he was two weeks away from graduating. He traveled to Montgomery, Ala., where he enlisted in the Confederate States Army and was commissioned as a first lieutenant of artillery.

Rosser was assigned as an instructor of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans. At the First Battle of Manassas on July 21, Rosser shot down an observation balloon and was promoted to captain.

On June 26, 1862, Rosser was “severely wounded” at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek near Mechanicsville, Virginia. When he recovered, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and transferred to the cavalry.  Soon after, he was promoted to colonel and placed under the command of Gen. J. E. B. Stuart.

On March 17, 1863, Rosser was again “badly wounded” at the Battle of Kelly’s Ford in Virginia. He was unable to continue with his regiment until June when the Confederate army was ready to launch its Gettysburg Campaign.  After Gettysburg, Rosser was promoted to brigadier general of the famed “Laurel Brigade.”

On June 12, 1864, opposing forces led by Rosser and Custer were heavily involved in the Battle of Trevilian Station in Virginia. Despite the fact that Rosser was again wounded, Custer was forced to retreat, and his unit suffered severe losses. 

With a number of victories in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley during the summer and fall of 1864, Rosser became known as the “Savior of the Valley.” At the Battle of Tom’s Brook on Oct. 9, Rosser learned that his old friend Custer was about to join the fray. He shouted, “That’s General Custer, the Yanks are so proud of, and I intend to give him the best whipping today that he ever got.”  

Instead, it was Custer who prevailed. The Union lost nine men, whereas Rosser’s forces suffered 130 casualties and another 180 soldiers were captured.  What Custer was most gleeful about was that his men were able to secure Rosser’s wardrobe, including his underwear. 

In November, Rosser was promoted to major general. After a number of victories in the Shenandoah Valley, Rosser, and two Confederate generals, George Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee, were surprised by fighting near Five Forks during the Siege of Petersburg. At the time of the battle, Rosser was hosting a fish bake two miles north of the battle site.  By the time they arrived, half of Pickett’s soldiers were shot or captured. 

In the spring of 1865, Rosser led his forces in an attempt to relieve Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Lee was surrounded and out of supplies. On April 9, Rosser led an early morning charge on the court house where Lee was being held prisoner. Rosser was repulsed, and Lee ended up signing the surrender agreement. Rosser then attempted to reorganize the Army of Virginia, but was captured and forced to surrender in early May.

After the war, Rosser attended law school in Lexington, Virginia. Rosser decided to try and utilize his engineering education at West Point and took a job as a civil engineer with the Pittsburgh and Connellsville Railroad in 1868. 

In 1869, Rosser had a wife, Elizabeth “Betty” Winston, and three young children.  With a growing family to support, Rosser was desperate for success and again needed work. 

He applied for a job with the Northern Pacific Railroad. They did not need another engineer but they were looking for axmen. This was not the position that Rosser hoped for, but with no other options, he humbly agreed.

Curt Eriksmoen has conducted historical research on North Dakota for 40 years and written the newspaper column “Did You Know That …?” since 2003. Reach Eriksmoen at cjeriksmoen@gmail.com.

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