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America's Civil War: George Custer and Stephen Ramseur

Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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The party was just the sort of thing that George 'Fanny Custer, who often pushed the limits, liked to instigate. Although drinking was forbidden for cadets at West Point, the impetuous Midwesterner was determined to give his graduating friends, especially Dod Ramseur, a proper send-off. Other second-year classmen helping to host the bash included burly Texan and fellow hell-raiser Tom Rosser and Alabamian John Pelham. Maine's Adelbert Ames and probably Henry Du Pont, scion of a Delaware fortune and Rosser's roommate, ably represented the North. In addition to Ramseur, a North Carolinian, the guests of honor included Yankees Wesley Merritt and Alexander Pennington. On the appointed night in the spring of 1860, the young men left dummies in their beds to conceal their absence and met at nearby Benny Havens' Tavern for a last carousal. Over mugs of flip (rum, sugar and eggs), they sang: In the army there's sobriety, promotion's very slow/ So we'll sing our reminiscences of Benny Havens, oh! Everyone there knew by now that war was coming, but that night had been set aside for comradeship.

Stephen Dodson Ramseur and George Armstrong Custer were just about as unlike as any two cadets who had ever attended the U.S. Military Academy. Custer, nicknamed Fanny by his fellow cadets, was tall, blond and voluble. A poor but popular student, he chafed at the restrictions and rules at West Point. Ramseur, on the other hand, was a small, darkly handsome young man whose natural reserve hid an underlying strength of purpose. While not an outstanding student, he applied himself well enough to finish in the top third of the class, and his leadership skills made him captain of cadets. Deeply religious, he was also a staunch Southerner who, since a Yankee had ruined his father in a business deal, had little use for anyone from the scheming, cold-hearted North. He politely defended states' rights and the institution of slavery, which he called the very foundation of our existence.

Yet the two cadets had become friends, for they did have more than a few things in common. Both were superb athletes, especially on horseback. And although Ramseur was very religious, he was not an insufferable Puritan like some of the New Englanders, and certainly was not too good to enjoy a joke, a drink or a twist of tobacco. In short, he was a boon companion and as such was willing to except Custer, Merritt and a few others from his general dislike of Northerners. Wes Merritt thought him one of the most universally beloved men in the class.

While Custer accumulated demerits and struggled to remain in the academy, Ramseur entered the service as an artillery lieutenant, served in Virginia and Washington City, then resigned in April 1861 when it became obvious that war was at hand. As a former Regular officer, he quickly secured a commission from his home state and command of a prestigious artillery battery manned by gentlemen privates. The young major soon made himself unpopular with his emphasis on strict discipline and unending drill, and to make matters worse the battery saw almost no action for a year. Then, to the relief of the artillerymen and the joy of their taskmaster, the 49th North Carolina elected young Dodson Ramseur as its colonel in April. The regiment missed most of the action in the Seven Days, but joined in the ill-considered Confederate assaults on Malvern Hill, where the newly minted Tar Heel colonel led his men into the very mouths of the Federal guns. A third of the regiment went down, including their commander, hit just above the elbow by a Mini bullet that paralyzed his right arm.

Ramseur's conspicuous gallantry and the smart appearance of his regiment marked him for promotion. His mentor and patron, Maj. Gen. Daniel Harvey Hill, helped him win a brigadier's wreath in his division. The brigade, consisting of the 2nd, 4th, 14th and 30th North Carolina regiments, was one of the army's best. Ramseur did not take command immediately — his arm remained in a sling, healed slowly and caused him a great deal of pain. But while it kept him out of action until after Fredericksburg, it did not prevent him from getting engaged to his cousin Ellen Richmond in January, just before he returned to the army. Upon arrival he quickly won the respect of the men and began to correct what he saw as slackness in the brigade.

Meanwhile, George Custer had managed to graduate from West Point in '61 — dead last in his class. Had there not been a war on he might not have graduated at all, but the army needed trained officers and overlooked his many shortcomings. After a brief stint commanding a Regular cavalry company, Lieutenant Custer served on the staffs of several generals, and reportedly captured a Confederate banner at Williamsburg in early May. Still, by the end of 1862 he was only an acting captain, and his frustration with staff assignments led him to campaign shamelessly for election to the command of a Michigan volunteer cavalry regiment. Rejected, he ended up in yet another staff assignment, this time with Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, soon to be the commander of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac. His refrain, I'll be a general before this is over, you'll see, sounded like so much empty bluster.

The war's next summer began at Chancellorsville. There Brig. Gen. Robert Rodes, who now commanded Hill's division, spearheaded Lt. Gen. Thomas J. Stonewall Jackson's attack on the Union flank. In the late afternoon of May 2, 1863, Dodson Ramseur and his brigade advanced behind Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Colquitt's Georgians toward the positions of the Union XI Corps. The movement went badly, however, when Colquitt suddenly stopped to face nonexistent Federal cavalry, blocking Ramseur's advance. By the time the furious Tar Heel brigadier got his men past them, it was too late to do anything.

The next day, however, was altogether different. Although damaged by Jackson's attack, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker's Union army now hunkered down behind formidable barricades. The Federals beat back two Confederate assaults, leaving Rodes' men to carry the day. Although Ramseur and his men had to climb over other troops who refused to advance, they took the Federal position, rescuing some Alabamians who had been captured on a previous assault. Fighting off counterattacks with the help of the Stonewall Brigade, they held on until the Union position began to collapse. While it had been an exemplary performance, half the brigade lay dead or wounded on the field. A shell fragment lightly wounded Ramseur that evening, but did no lasting damage.

Once again Ramseur had delivered when it mattered most. Still, he felt disappointed about what he saw as a lack of recognition for himself and his brigade, and complained bitterly about it to his brother-in-law. Ramseur's next test came at Gettysburg, where he again performed brilliantly on July 1. When Rodes' attack at Oak Hill went awry, it was Ramseur and his men who picked up the remnants of the other brigades and carried the Yankee position in convincing style. The young brigadier, mounted on a fine gray mare, led his men up and over a stone wall sheltering the defenders. Although the horse perished there, Ramseur remained unhurt.

Major General Jubal Early's division then arrived on the field and slammed into the Union XI Corps, whereupon their retreat assumed the character of a rout. Although the Confederates pressed their retreating enemy through the town (and Ramseur lost another horse in the process), they failed to take Cemetery Hill, a decision that would cost them dearly. The action now shifted elsewhere, leaving Ramseur and his weary men spectators to the rest of the battle.

Custer too had been active. Although still nominally a staff officer, he had taken impromptu command of three leaderless regiments at Brandy Station in June and led them to cut their way out of trouble, and close to two weeks later at Aldie, on the way to Gettysburg, he again shone in a tangle with some of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry. With typical recklessness he led a charge into the gray ranks of his old friend Colonel Thomas Rosser's regiment, only to find himself cut off and virtually alone. He attributed his survival to his broad-brimmed straw hat, exactly like that worn by the rebels. His inadvertent disguise created enough uncertainty about his identity for him to escape.

General Pleasonton, seeking to put some fire into his oft-defeated cavalry, now promoted three promising young captains — George Custer, Wesley Merritt and Elon Farnsworth — directly to brigadier general. Acting captain Custer returned to his mess late one night to find a letter addressed to Brigadier General George A. Custer. At first he thought it a joke, but the letter was real. He had made it after all. The boy general — at 23 the youngest man ever to hold the rank — got a tough Michigan brigade in the bargain. He showed up in a garish outfit, consisting of velveteen trousers and a jacket dripping gold braid with a red sailor shirt underneath, a huge slouch hat topping his shoulder-length blonde curls, and a red silk scarf that trailed behind him when he rode. Although he reminded one of his men of a circus rider, they soon learned that there was steel underneath all that brass.

On July 2, three days after taking command, Custer met Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton's horsemen near Hunterstown, Pa. His recklessness again got him into trouble when he was unhorsed in an ill-advised charge and nearly captured. But his men fought off Hampton's counterattack, delaying Stuart's attempt to join Lee. The next day at Gettysburg, Stuart tried to push aside the Union cavalry and take the Federal army in the rear while Maj. Gen. George Pickett attacked the front. The Confederates drove back Brig. Gen. David Gregg's outnumbered 2nd Cavalry Division, but suddenly Custer appeared on their flank at the head of the 7th Michigan, yelling Come on, you Wolverines! Unfortunately the brash young general had failed to scout the path of his charge, and it ran up against a stone wall that stopped his riders cold. A Rebel counterattack drove them back, with the loss of a quarter of his command. Then, as Stuart prepared to mount his final grand assault of the day, Gregg launched a preemptive charge of his own, with Custer and his Wolverines in the forefront. The Southern attack collapsed, and Stuart's cavaliers barely avoided being driven from the field. I challenge the annals of warfare, boasted Custer, to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry.

After the Confederate retreat from Pennsylvania, military affairs settled down to wary maneuvers and occasional skirmishes that continued well into the winter. In late October, Dod Ramseur married Nellie Richmond and spent a blissful three months — a cozy, comfortable, spooney time, as he put it — in camp with her at his side. He treated his men considerably more harshly, however, and had some shot for desertion. Meanwhile George Custer went home, and in February 1864 married his true love, Elizabeth Libbie Bacon.

This pleasant interlude ended for both men when Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant crossed the Rapidan River in early May, precipitating the Battle of the Wilderness. While Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell's II Corps grappled with the Yankees on the Orange Turnpike, another separate battle developed with Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill's III Corps on the Orange Plank Road. The next day, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside began slowly pushing his IX Corps into the gap between them, threatening Ewell's flank. Ramseur was, once again, the sole Confederate reserve, and gamely advanced to meet Burnside's corps in the tangled thickets. The fight showed Dod Ramseur at his audacious best — backed by a couple of guns, he strung out his entire brigade into a skirmish line and attacked. With the woods hiding his true numbers, Ramseur's thin gray line overlapped that of his enemy and sent them tumbling back in confusion.

Ramseur's real moment of glory came several days later at Spotsylvania when a pre-dawn May 12 attack by Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's Union II Corps broke through Confederate positions at the Mule Shoe, threatening to split Lee's army in two. Ramseur's brigade left its position on the west side of the salient and was thrown into a counterattack in which the young brigadier — looking like an angel of war,as one soldier put it — led his men to retake the works and hold them for 20 hours of desperate fighting. There, Ramseur lost another horse and suffered a painful wound (again in the right arm) but stayed with his men at what would be forever known as the Bloody Angle. When they finally withdrew to a new line early the next morning, half his men were dead, wounded or captured. Ramseur and his brigade were the heroes of the day, and he received the personal thanks of General Robert E. Lee.

While the infantry tangled at Spotsylvania, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan and the Yankee cavalry trotted south to Richmond, hoping to pick a fight with Stuart. In the resulting battle at Yellow Tavern, Custer and his Wolverines once again distinguished themselves. Old Curly now showed he could temper his headlong aggressiveness with careful preparation. As the brigade moved forward at a trot, bands playing, he had dismounted details ready to dismantle the five fences in front of them. As they cleared the last one, the band switched to a familiar tune. At Yankee Doodle every man's hand went to his sabre, remembered a trooper. It was always the signal for a charge. With a yell the Wolverines went in, pushing back the Confederate line. Stuart's men held, barely, but a shot — probably from one of Custer's men — gave the Bold Cavalier his death wound. As the Federal pressure increased, the outnumbered Rebels withdrew in the twilight, leaving the field to Little Phil's bluecoats.

After the fighting sputtered out at Spotsylvania, Baldy Ewell led his corps around the Union flank, only to run into a superior Federal force at Harris' farm. Ramseur's brigade led the column in the initial attack, then resolutely held its ground when things went sour on the left end of the line. Thus, when Lee reorganized the II Corps in late May, he moved Ramseur up to command of Jubal Early's division, while Old Jube took over the corps. Ramseur wrote his wife that his promotion would leave him less exposed, and recounted his narrow escapes so far. I have had three horses shot from under me and disabled, one of these was struck three times. In addition to these, the pony was also slightly wounded in the leg but not disabled. My saddle was shot through the pommel. I got four holes through my overcoat besides the ball that passed through my arm. I tell you these things, my darling wife, in order that you may be still more grateful to our Heavenly Father for his most wonderful and merciful preservation of my life.

Ramseur's next battle, his first as division commander, went less well. He rashly pitched into the enemy at Bethesda Church without first making a thorough reconnaissance, only to see one of his brigades slaughtered when it ran up against an entrenched Federal position that he had failed to discover. It got him off to a bad start with his men, one of whom opined that he ought to be shot for the part he played in it. Nevertheless, he won his long-coveted promotion to major general four days later, a day after his 27th birthday.

Lee now sent Ramseur's corps into the Shenandoah Valley, where it provided relief for Lynchburg and marched north to raid to the very gates of Washington. On the way back, Ramseur endured his most humiliating reverse thus far near Winchester while trying to stop a Union force moving down from Harpers Ferry. Through a series of errors and another case of faulty reconnaissance, his division collapsed and fled after being hit on the flank by superior numbers of Federal cavalry near Stephenson's Depot, losing 267 men captured and four guns. Ramseur, weeping with frustration, could not stop the most perfect rout I ever saw. He blamed his men who, he complained, had behaved shamefully. Although Dodson Ramseur professed to care little for the opinions of newspaper editors and home croakers, he was privately mortified at the bad press about the Battle of Stephenson's Depot.

Custer had his trials as well. At Trevilian Station in June he had boldly taken Wade Hampton's Rebel cavalry in the rear, but once there had been jolted by an attack by Rosser (who had been promoted to brigadier general as well) and then surrounded when Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee suddenly appeared behind him. Thanks to a relieving attack by Wes Merritt, he managed to escape, but the Confederates kept his personal wagon and delighted in reading his spicy letters. In August, he too ended up in the Shenandoah Valley, when Grant dispatched Sheridan there with two cavalry divisions, placing Little Phil in command of all the Union forces in the valley. Sheridan moved cautiously at first, and the men called the next six weeks of indecisive marching and skirmishing the Mimic War.

On September 19, Sheridan's army crossed Opequon Creek and moved on Winchester. Early's army lay scattered, and only Ramseur's little division of 1,700 men stood in his way. Helped by a bungled Yankee deployment, the Tar Heel general skillfully withdrew to a defensive position outside the town and there, in one of the most tenacious defenses of the war, held off most of the Union VI Corps until the rest of Early's army returned. The Confederates held out until late afternoon, when Sheridan's cavalry, 10,000 strong, clattered up on their flank. Merritt led one of Little Phil's three cavalry divisions, with Custer as one of his brigade commanders.

Lining up five brigades abreast in the open ground west of the town, the Yankee cavalry launched a thunderous charge, shattering Early's flank and sending the Southerners whirling through Winchester. Custer and his Wolverines slashed through the Rebel infantry, capturing a number of flags. Ramseur's division, at the other end of the line, maintained its organization in the confusion and quit the battlefield last.

Stephenson's Depot was forgotten, and Ramseur was once again the man of the hour. As the army withdrew up the valley, Early moved him over to command the fallen Robert Rodes' division. Old Jube made a stand on the high ground at Fisher's Hill, but there, Ramseur had another one of his unaccountable lapses. Posted near the left end of the Confederate line, he failed to appreciate the significance of a Yankee column advancing on his flank, even though warned of it by one of his brigade commanders. Thus when Maj. Gen. George Crook's men scattered the Rebel cavalry and flanked his division, it came apart after a short fight. So did the rest of Early's line, leading to a complete stampede of his army. Although Ramseur somewhat atoned for his carelessness by organizing a rear guard, the damage was done. George Custer, marching around behind the Confederates in a fruitless attempt to cut off their retreat, missed the battle.

Sheridan chased Early up the valley but failed to catch him, then torched everything of value on his return back north. Along the way he placed George Custer in command of his 3rd Cavalry Division. Shortly afterward the Southern reaction to the Burning led to a major cavalry clash at Tom's Brook. Brigadier General Tom Rosser led the Confederate forces. Spying the blond locks of his former classmate across the lines, he boasted that he was about to give his old friend a whipping. See if I don't, he said. Custer, meanwhile, made one of those dramatic gestures that he so loved — after carefully deploying his division, he galloped out between the lines, doffed his hat and bowed to Rosser. That bit of theater was also highly practical — it gave him a last close look at the Southern position. It was Rosser who got badly whipped, losing his personal wagon and most of his guns in the humiliating Woodstock Races. Custer spent that evening clomping around camp in his opponent's oversize clothes.

Sheridan camped near Strasburg, confident that the Rebels had been disposed of. But Early advanced in mid-October to try again, and on the night of October 18 his outnumbered army began a daring march around the Federal flank. Three days before, Dodson Ramseur had learned that he was a father. As he talked with fellow commander Maj. Gen. John Gordon that night, he expressed hope that the outcome of the battle would allow him some time to visit his dear Nellie. Well general, he said as he went to rejoin his division, I shall get my furlough today.

In the foggy dawn, the Confederate attack took the Yankees completely by surprise, scattering one corps, defeating another and driving back a third. Cedar Creek was somewhat of a class reunion. In addition to Dod Ramseur and Tom Rosser, Wes Merritt and Fanny Custer were there, as was Colonel Alexander Pennington, now leading one of Custer's brigades, and Captain Henry Du Pont, who commanded the guns of the Army of West Virginia. By noon, through a combination of Union resistance and Confederate vacillation, the situation stabilized just north of Middletown. Sheridan had been absent, but he had ridden back from Winchester, reorganized his army and prepared for a counterattack. Even given his losses that morning, he still substantially outnumbered Early, many of whose troops were absent pillaging the rich Yankee camps. Worse, Old Jube's indecision had left his army out in open country, once again leaving a clear field of action for the dreaded Federal cavalry.

The Union counterattack began in mid-afternoon. The Confederate center, anchored by Ramseur's division, held firm. Then Early's left flank began to crumble, brigade by brigade. Tom Rosser, still skittish from his licking at Tom's Brook, was supposed to be keeping Custer occupied, but failed miserably to do so. As a result Fanny was able to bring his division around to the wavering Rebel left flank.

By late afternoon the Confederate line was near breaking. As more and more fugitives materialized from the left, they disordered the regiments of Maj. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw's and Ramseur's divisions, who yet held the Union VI Corps at bay. Even those stalwarts, however, began to leak rearward. The only thing holding the line together was Dod Ramseur's magnetic leadership. Utterly heedless of danger, he galloped from one threatened point to the other, encouraging his men, whacking laggards and holding the remaining troops together by the sheer force of his personality. If they could hold until dark on that short fall day, they might yet make an orderly retreat.

For a time it looked as though it might work. The wavering gray line retreated, stopped, then retreated again, steadily losing men but still retaining its cohesion. Ramseur, one of the few men on horseback, attracted a storm of bullets. One wounded him slightly in the arm while another took down his horse. He got another, which was killed almost immediately. As he remounted a third, a bullet tore through the side of his chest, penetrating both lungs. His aides bore him to an ambulance and tried to get him to the rear. With Ramseur gone and the Yankees pressing in on three sides, even the grizzled veterans of Stonewall Jackson's old II Corps began to lose heart. Still, a few, mostly Brig. Gen. Cullen A. Battle's Alabamians and Brig. Gen. Bryan Grimes' Tar Heels, aided by some of Kershaw's South Carolinians, hung tough.Custer's cavalry delivered the final blow just before dusk, slamming into the rapidly disintegrating Confederate left flank and scattering what remained of Kershaw's division, who in turn swept away the remnants of Ramseur's men in their frantic attempts to escape the horsemen in blue. The Rebel army now completely fell apart, each man quitting the field as best he could. Custer's and Merritt's cavalry divisions hammered the flanks, hacking at the fugitives. As Ramseur's ambulance jolted rearward in the fading light, two horsemen ordered it to halt.

The general ordered the ambulance to go on, shouted the driver.

What general? asked one of the men.

General Ramseur.

That is the very man I am looking for, said the rider. The two men, John Sweeney and Fred Lyon, were Yankees from the 1st Vermont Cavalry, and soon had Ramseur's ambulance headed toward Sheridan's headquarters at Belle Grove mansion.

That evening Custer and the others who'd raised a cup with him at Benny Havens' only four years before trooped in to pay their last respects to their dying friend. Even with the narcotic help of laudanum, the young Rebel general's pain was nearly unbearable. When Du Pont, whose room had been across from Ramseur's at the academy, sat on his bed, it sent a thrill of pain through the dying man. Du Pont, Ramseur rasped, you do not know how I suffer. That evening Dodson Ramseur made his final arrangements and spoke of his wife and child as he slipped in and out of consciousness. By mid-morning the next day he was gone. He told me to tell you, one of his staff officers wrote to Nellie, that he had a firm hope in Christ and trusted to meet you hereafter. He died as became a Confederate soldier and a firm believer.

George Custer went on to fame and glory, crushing what remained of Early's army at Waynesboro in March, playing a major role in the Appomattox campaign and receiving a promotion to major general on April 15. After the war he went West to fight Indians, and while in the Dakotas joined Tom Rosser for a hunting expedition. Custer's legendary luck ran out in June 1876, 12 years after Dodson Ramseur's death. Yellow Hair, as the Plains Indians knew him, met his end in similar circumstances — trying to rally his broken command at the Little Bighorn against overwhelming odds.



This article was written by Frederick L. Ray and originally appeared in the July 2003 issue of America's Civil War magazine.

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One Response to “America's Civil War: George Custer and Stephen Ramseur”


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