The Battle at Lacey Spring

George Armstrong Custer, and Thomas L. Rosser, Senior, had been roommates at West Point. Their close relationship, however, would be severed on April 22, 1861, when Rosser left West Point, two weeks prior to graduation, to join the Confederate Army. On opposite sides in the Civil War, Generals Custer and Rosser would cross paths numerous times, often fighting in the same battles, and frequently encountering each other face to face. 

A happenstance of this type had occurred at the Battle of Tom’s Brook (also known as Woodstock Races) in October 1864. In this instance Custer defeated his schoolmate, forcing him to retire quickly from the field. In the process he managed to capture Rosser’s wardrobe wagon. Rosser quickly responded to his defeat by sending Custer a note and a gift.

Dear Fanny. “You may have made me take a few steps back today, but I will get even with you tomorrow. Please accept my good wishes and this little gift – a pair of your draws captured at Trevillian Station.”    Tex.    (Note: The battle at Trevillian is also known as Custer’s First Last Stand.)                                                        

Custer later responded to this gesture by shipping a gold lace Confederate grey coat to Rosser’s wife.

Dear Friend, “Thanks for sending me up so many new things, but would you please direct your tailor to make the coat tails of your next uniform a trifle shorter.”   Best Regards G. A. C.

These two rivals were destined to confront each other once again in the winter of that same year. At 7 A.M. on the morning of December 19, 1864, Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer’s division had departed from Kernstown. With him were two brigades of cavalry. The 1st Brigade was commanded by Colonel Alexander Pennington. The second was led by Brigadier General George H. Chapman. The cavalrymen carried with them three days rations and one day’s forage for their horses. When these provisions ran out, they intended to live off the land. Their assignment was to sever the Virginia Central railroad lines at the south end of the Shenandoah Valley.

Meteorological conditions, though, were working against Custer and his men. Heavy rains and snow had turned the roads into a muddy soup. Winchester diarist Cornelian McDonald had reported as early as July 1863 that even the Valley Pike was “something to be avoided. It had originally been a beautiful macadam turnpike, but three years of heavy traffic of both armies had cut through the road metal until it was impassible. So the wagons, cannon, caissons, cavalry, and foot soldiers made roads on either side, and as soon as they got too bad, new ones were made.”

Upon arriving at Strasburg General Custer learned that a force of about fifty Confederate Cavalry, having ridden in from Front Royal, had passed through Strasburg and continued on up the valley. When they were within six miles of Woodstock two enemy scouts were detected ahead of their advance. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to affect their capture. Custer believed “they continued in sight of the column until the command had reached Woodstock, when, my impression is, they conveyed the intelligence of our approach to the force stationed near New Market, from which point the report was forwarded by telegraph to Staunton and Waynesborough.”

While in Woodstock Custer learned “there was no force of the enemy north of Staunton, except a picket force of three companies, which were posted so as to watch the three roads—pike, Middle and Back roads the right of the line resting near Edinburg, the left extending to Little North Mountain.” With so lean a force opposing him Custer believed the path to his objective was clear.

General George A. Custer

At daylight on the morning of the 20th Custer’s command continued its advance into Woodstock. “A small force of the enemy continued to annoy the advance, but without causing any damage to be inflicted.” From the information ascertained by his troopers, Custer believed the enemy had retired all his forces beyond Staunton. He believed if the enemy permitted his “command to reach Staunton without serious opposition, I could, with reasonable hope of success, continue my movement to Lynchburg, trusting to the supplies in the country beyond Staunton upon which to subsist my command.”

Somewhere near the town of Mt. Jackson General Custer halted his division, and drawing them up close to him, disclosed that “Maj Gen. George H. Thomas was thrashing the rebels in the West and Jefferson Davis had attempted suicide as a result of the dire straits facing the Confederacy.” His men erupted with “three cheers” and the advance was continued toward Harrisonburg.

General Custer’s command, after leaving Woodstock at daybreak, “moved without serious molestation to Lacey’s Springs, nine miles from Harrisonburg,” where they camped for the night. The encampment was at the junction of the roads leading to Keezletown in the east, and to Timberville in the west. It was a prudent choice for a bivouac, and one readily defended.

“Pennington’s brigade encamped in front, and on the left of the pike, one regiment, the Third New Jersey, was posted one mile and a half in advance on the pike to picket in the direction of Harrisonburg. Another regiment of the same brigade, the First Connecticut, was sent out on the road leading to the Keezletown road and picketed the country to the left of the pike. The First New Hampshire, of General Chapman’s brigade, was posted on the Timberville road to picket in the direction of the latter point. One battalion of the Fifteenth New York, about 200 strong, was ordered to its support. The Eighth New York picketed the country in front and between the Timberville road and the pike, while the two remaining battalions of the Fifteenth New York, numbering upward of 400 men, were posted on the pike about one mile and a half in rear of the camp of the division.” In his defense of what would happen at Lacey Springs Custer related: “It will thus be seen that of the nine regiments composing my command five were on picket.”

General Custer established his headquarters at the Lincoln Inn in the center of the small hamlet of Lacey Springs. The establishment, over the war years, had hosted several distinguished commanders, both North and South, including General Stonewall Jackson in April of 1862. The owners of the establishment shared a common ancestry with President Abraham Lincoln and were, by now, used to the intrusion of the war into their lives.

Mapmaker Jedediah Hotchkiss reported in his diary that the weather on the night of December 20, had taken a turn for the worst. The day “was quite chilly and before midnight a severe storm began of sleet, hail, and snow.” Five inches of snow covered the ground and more was still accumulating.

General Thomas L. Rosser

General Thomas Rosser, and the Laurel Brigade, had been camped at Timberville. On the morning of December 16, they had relocated to Swoope’s Depot which was seven miles west of Staunton. When word was received of Custer’s expedition General Rosser was ordered to move “to the front with all the cavalry he could collect.” Taking “what could be mounted of his own and Payne’s Brigade,” he pushed on to deflect the advance on the Virginia Central Railroad.

A large number of the men in Rosser’s Laurel Brigade were “either on furlough, on horse detail, or without leave.” Still, General Rosser drove on in the rain and mud toward Harrisonburg, arriving about 10 P.M. on the evening of the 20th. “Three hours later the bugle called the sleepy troopers to horse. Mounting their half-starved and jaded horses, the Laurel Brigade rode in search of the enemy.”

General Custer retired on the evening of the twentieth in an optimistic mood. He had sent a message to headquarters which Phil Sheridan had forwarded on to General Grant. In it he detailed that Custer “was in fine spirits, and says he will, he hopes, spend his Christmas in Lynchburg.” Christmas in any part of the upper Shenandoah Valley, however, would prove to be an optimistic goal for this or any other Union troop.

Hotchkiss reported on the morning of the battle “the weather to be a blinding storm, cold and biting, but most of the men in a good humor, though in no plight for a battle.” Still, General Rosser had his cavalrymen up and moving with just three hours rest. He had every intention of wreaking revenge upon Custer, in retaliation for his recent embarrassment at Tom’s Brook.

Rosser, ever anxious to do battle with Custer, felt there “was nothing to do but to have it out before morning.” The roads his men were traveling on, “muddy from recent rains, was rendered more so by additional showers; a cold wind blew and the rain froze as it fell. The hats and clothes of the troopers soon became stiff with ice; while the horses were enveloped in frosty garments; the small icicles hanging from their bodies rattled as they staggered along. The roads soon became icy smooth, and the horses not being rough shod, traveled with much difficulty.”

Custer had notified his brigade commanders, soon after reaching camp, that “reveille was ordered at 4 o’clock and the command was to move promptly at 6.30, Chapman’s brigade taking the advance. In conformity with these instructions, General Chapman called in his pickets at the proper time and the Eighth New York, the regiment farthest in advance in the direction of the Middle road, having formed in columns of squadrons and mounted, had begun to move off by fours.”

“Not fearing any enemy activity in such inclement weather,” Federal soldiers went about their morning assignments at a leisurely pace before daybreak on the twenty-first.  Some of the men saddled their horses while others prepared breakfasts over the campfires. Some even attempted to get a few extra minutes of sleep.

It was about 5:30 AM, just as Custer’s men were beginning to form up, when “the shots and whoops” of Rebel Cavalrymen “coming from the north side of the division” could be heard. Custer recalled: “A brigade of the enemy (Payne’s) which, under cover of the darkness and the withdrawal of our pickets, had advanced to within a very short distance of the regiment, charged in the direction of the camp-ground of the Second Brigade. The attack was heard by the entire command, and although Pennington’s brigade was the rear in the order of march, it was at once mounted and placed in position to receive the enemy.”

Rosser’s men, outnumbered five to one and shivering from the cold, came charging in upon the rear of Custer’s command with sabers swinging and the rebel yell upon the lips of every cavalryman. Their attack came in just as many of the Federal troopers were eating breakfast. They quickly overwhelmed the Federal picket which had been posted about three hundred yards from the Union camp. Chapman’s brigade was completely surprised, as Rosser pushed his attack south toward the remaining units.

One account indicates that “when the Rebel brigades struck the Second Brigade they encountered only one vedette some three hundred yards from the main body.” It is apparent Custer did not ensure his pickets were alert and ready while so deep inside enemy territory, even though he knew his advance had been detected. There are indications that pickets had been pulled in sometime after reveille at 4 A.M. and before they were scheduled to depart at 6:30. True or not, Custer’s official report would state that “many of his troopers were in the saddle at the time of the attack.”

Hotchkiss Map of the Battle of Lacey Springs

General Custer was himself just rising when the Confederates attacked. Luck was with him, though, as he narrowly escaped capture. Perhaps it was the darkness and poor visibility which contributed to his escape, or possibly it was just plain luck. “Only half dressed and riding a bandsman’s horse” Custer was able to join the struggle sporting only a pair of socks to protect his feet.

Gregory J. W. Urwin actually asserts that: “Custer made his escape from the inn by wearing a Confederate officer’s coat, captured from Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser at the earlier battle of Tom’s Brook.” He supposedly discarded the coat as soon as he was able to find a horse and rejoin his troopers. If this is true then it is proof that Custer was, as always, quick to think on his feet, demonstrating he “was always best in combat situations such as this.” His presence on the battlefield helped to rally the scattered troopers of his division, averting a Union disaster.

The Eighth New York, although somewhat astounded by this attack, behaved well under the circumstances and opened an effective fire upon the enemy. “At the same time an attack was made upon the First New Hampshire, which regiment was mounted and had a line of skirmishers in advance. The enemy did not attempt to engage either of the regiments with determination, but acted as if the intention was to surprise a sleeping camp. Charging past the Eighth New York and First New Hampshire, they moved at the top of their speed in the direction of the pike and to our rear.”

Custer reported that “the enemy, after his first attack upon the Eighth New York and First New Hampshire, was completely bewildered and acted as if his only object was to get safely away. He did not attempt to engage any of my troops, although by the cheering kept up by my command he could easily have determined their locality. One regiment, the Sixth Virginia Cavalry, charged Pennington’s brigade, but was met by one of his regiments which was already advancing and repulsed, with little or no fighting, in which Pennington suffered no loss, while the enemy suffered a loss of several in killed, wounded, and missing. Ten of the enemy were left dead on the ground. Chapman attacked the enemy wherever he could be found, and with one regiment, the First Vermont, drove him over a mile in the direction from which the attack had come.”

Jed Hotchkiss would re-count that the attack resulted in the capture of “35 prisoners and getting their wagons and ambulances, but they rallied on their third brigade and (Rosser) had to fall back, but at once retreated down the valley. Rosser did not get all his men up in time for the attack.” Federals were able recapture the wagon train, undoubtedly saving Custer from some future embarrassment with regard to his wardrobe.

General Custer would report his “loss in prisoners, although not officially reported to me yet, will not, I think, reach twenty. I have thirty-two of the enemy taken in the fight. My loss in wounded is twenty-two; most, if not all, are saber cuts, as the enemy had orders to charge with the saber. As my men used the carbine alone, and at short range, I am confident, from the number of dead left on the ground by the enemy, and from the verbal reports of brigade and regimental commanders, that the enemy’s loss in wounded was more than treble my own. I do not think that more than one or two of my command were killed.”

The bulk of this story is based on the official report submitted by General Custer. Word has it, though, that Custer’s reports were usually a little one sided, always showing his actions in a favorable light. James Harvey Kidd wrote after the war that: “No one could be more willing than myself to suspect that General Custer was the man to wittingly do an injustice to any command that served under him. Yet, there are in his official reports many inaccuracies, not to employ a stronger term.” Kid was a member of the 6th Michigan Wolverines and fought closely by Custer’s side throughout the war.

Rosser testified “the firing at the first camp roused the rest of Custer’s command and a sharp engagement followed. The Federals were forced back and Rosser pursued a short distance.” Though the battle was a Union victory, as they held the ground after the fight, strategically, the incident caused Custer to retire back down the valley.

General Custer was never able to celebrate Christmas, or any other holiday, at Lynchburg. The fighting here in the Valley was destined to go on until March 2, 1865, ending with the Battle of Waynesboro. This story, however, including Custer’s remarkable escape from capture, may go a long way in explaining his request of Rosser that the “coat tails of your next uniform” need be “a trifle shorter.” He was, after all, able to extricate himself from a tight situation on the “coat tails” of someone else.

Sign on Battlefield at Lacey Springs

Sources:

Armstrong, Richard. 7th Virginia Cavalry. H. E Howard, Inc. Lynchburg, Va. 1992.

Hotchkiss, Jedediah. Make Me a Map of the Valley. The Civil War Journal of Stonewall Jackson’s Topographer. Southern Methodist University Press. Dallas, Tx. 1973.

Landis, Steven E. Custer at Lacey Spring: Custer’s failure to consider Confederate intentions cost him victory at Lacey Spring. Columbiad: A Quarterly Review of the War Between the States. Winter 1999.

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. Series I – Volume XLIII Part 1. Pg 674 to 677 and pg. 588.

McDonald, William N. A History of the Laurel Brigade. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, Md. 2002.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_L._Rosser

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