The Battle of Toms Brook

The Battle of Toms Brook
Toms Brook Troop Movements

The American Civil war was waged in large part in Virginia, with many engagements in the Shenandoah Valley. During the War, the Hottels and Kellers, their kin and neighbors paid a heavy price for their support of the southern cause as the war visited destruction to the Homestead property and the property of their neighbors.

The Hottel-Keller Homestead sits in the northern half of the main Shenandoah Valley near the hamlet of Mt. Olive. In late September and early October of 1864 the homestead property was directly in the line of the campaign of destruction undertaken by Union forces under the command of Major General Philip H. Sheridan. General George Armstrong Custer led the Third Cavalry Division, marching north on the Back Road, burning fields, barns and driving off livestock.

Both log-crib bank barns on the Hottel and Keller homestead properties were burnt by Union troops, probably early in October 1864, a few days before the Battle of Toms Brook. As the Union troops completed their destruction in the Valley, Confederate Cavalry engaged Union Cavalry along Toms Brook on October 9th. Approximately 200 acres of the homestead property was in the core of the battlefield.

The Keller home was owned at that time by Jacob W. Keller. He died on September 14, 1864 at the age of 39. His wife, the former Lydia Borden, was alone on the property. She was 35 years old, just widowed and with a young girl to help with the work. The Union troops arrived and set fire to the barn. Lydia, pregnant with W. J. Keller, Sr., along with the young girl, doused wind blown sparks with buckets of water and saved the Keller house. Jacob and Lydia had been married on December 30, 1858.

Background to the Battle of Toms Brook

The following is a discussion of the events of September and October of 1864 leading to the Battle of Toms Brook.

Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley was a key theater in the Civil War. As a natural geographic highway between North and South and as a richly productive agricultural region whose bounty fed the Confederate troops, the Valley was fiercely contested during the War, playing an integral role in almost every major campaign fought in Virginia. More than 325 armed conflicts took place here with Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 campaign being perhaps the most famous of these. The eight counties comprising the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District lay at the heart of the struggle, and, as the War dragged on, the area assumed increasing significance for the southern cause. Union forces responded by laying waste to this region, burning its fields and farms and towns in a devastating campaign of total warfare.

Executive Summary, Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District, Management Plan, and September 2000

In August 1864 Gen. U.S. Grant sent Gen. Philip Sheridan to the breadbasket of the Confederacy to clear it of Confederate belligerents. Sheridan recognized that neutralizing the bounty of the Valley was of utmost importance, and thus the abundance pouring forth from the Valley’s hills and bottomlands sealed its fate. For the southern cause to die, the Shenandoah Valley had to be ruined during one of its greatest harvest seasons.

For thirteen fiery days in September and October Sheridan’s soldiers burned barns, mills, factories, and standing crops; livestock were rounded up and driven away or were killed where they stood.

Surgeon Alexander Neil of the Twelfth West Virginia Infantry wrote to his parents of the action and its effect: “We are burning and destroying everything in this valley, such as wheat stacks, haystacks, barns, houses. Indeed, there will be nothing but heaps of ashes and ruins…”

Excerpted with permission of the author from The Burning: Sheridan’s Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley. John L. Heatwole, Rockbridge Publishing, 1998.

The deliberate, planned devastation of the Shenandoah Valley has deservedly ranked as one of the grimmest episodes of a sufficiently grim war. Unlike the haphazard destruction caused by Sherman’s bummers in Georgia, it was committed systematically, and by order.

Lee Kennett based Marching through Georgia on exhaustive research that made it clear the main targets of Sherman’s columns were the railroads, telegraph lines, cotton gins, and mills. Rarely mentioned is the destruction of barns or farm structures… James Bonner’s study of the often-told story of the burning of Milledgeville has found that the destruction of private dwellings was “rare indeed, either in the town or along the route of (Sherman’s) march.”

Sheridan burned a swath in the Valley that had no peer in any other area of civilian population during the war.

That the Valley supported the southern cause is a case for some curiosity. The Valley was certainly not part of the plantation society east of the mountains. Very few counties south of Clark, Jefferson and Frederick relied to any extent on slave labor. The big plantation crops, cotton and tobacco, were not cultivated in the Valley. Major parts of the population, the Anabaptist (The Mennonites) and the German Baptist Brethren, (the Dunkards) were strongly opposed to slavery and were pacifists.

However, all able-bodied men were carried on county muster rolls and served at the discretion of the governor. They were required to attend periodic meetings to drill and to be ready to serve at a moment’s notice in case of emergency. Non-attendance at the musters resulted in the levy of a small fine.

When Virginia joined the Confederacy, the militia units became the nucleus of the force that the Commonwealth contributed to the cause. The paying of muster fines was not acceptable during this time of first crisis. Thus, when called, the men of the Valley marched off to war with their militia units to serve with their friends, neighbors and kin.

Stephen Starr, in his three-volume study The Union Cavalry in the Civil War

Chronology of events leading to the Battle of Toms Brook

August 7: Sheridan arrives in Harper’s Ferry to assume command of the new Middle Military Division and Army of the Shenandoah.

August 16-17: Sheridan’s army skirmishes almost daily with (Lt. Gen. Jubal) Early’s forces. In reaction to guerrilla raids, Sheridan orders crops and forage burned in a portion of southern Frederick County.

September 16: Grant visits Sheridan’s headquarters at Charles Town, West Virginia; Sheridan assures Grant that he is about to bring Early to battle.

September 19: Sheridan defeats Early at the third battle of Winchester; Early withdraws to high ground above Strasburg.

September 23: A skirmish at Front Royal between troopers of Lowell’s Third Brigade and a contingent of Mosby’s partisan rangers results in the execution of six of the rangers. Sheridan relieves Gen. William Averell from command of the Second Cavalry Division and replaces him temporarily with Col. William Powell.

September 24: Confederate partisan leader George Stump is severely wounded in a fight near Forestville in Shenandoah County by troopers under Powell’s command.

September 25: Sheridan arrives in Harrisonburg, Rockingham County; Early has retreated to Brown’s Gap in southeastern Rockingham. Grant requests that Sheridan send either Gen. Alfred Torbert or Gen. James Wilson to Sherman’s Military Division of the Mississippi to act as chief of cavalry; Sheridan does not act immediately

September 26: Sheridan orders Torbert, in command of Wilson’s Third Division of Cavalry and Lowell’s Third Brigade of the First Cavalry Division, south to Staunton and Waynesboro.

September 27: Custer is temporarily assigned to command the Second Division in Colonel Powell’s place. Custer skirmishes with Wickham’s Confederate cavalry at Mount Meridian in Augusta County. Maj, Gen. Joseph Kershaw‘s Division reinforces Early in Brown’s Gap.

September 27-28: Custer burns crops, barns and mills across northeastern Augusta County. Torbert tears up Virginia Central Railroad between Staunton and Waynesboro and at the same time destroys Confederate government installations in both places. Merritt, with two brigades of his First Division watches Brown’s Gap for signs of movement by Early and begins to gather forage and livestock in east central Rockingham County

September 28: Early sends out a portion of his command to challenge Federals in Waynesboro and succeeds in saving a railroad bridge and the tunnel running through the Blue Ridge.

September 29: Tolbert withdraws across east central Augusta County, burning barns and mills. Custer burns along the Valley Pike in Augusta County from Mount Sidney back toward Mount Crawford in Rockingham. Sheridan sends Wilson to Sherman. Custer is given command of the Third Division of Cavalry; Powell regains command of the Second Division.

September 30: Merritt, with the First Division burns eastern Rockingham County between Harrisonburg and the South Fork of the Shenandoah River.

October 1: Powell and the Second Cavalry Division leave Port Republic and start north toward Luray in Page County, burning along the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains as they move. Early has moved over to the Valley Pike north of Mount Sidney. If he can find food and forage for his men and animals he plans to strike Sheridan at Harrisonburg on October 6.

October 2: Cavalry skirmish at Mount Crawford and Bridgewater. In the evening Colonel Powell arrives in Luray, which he is to occupy until the 7th. (Maj. Gen.) Thomas Rosser’s Confederate cavalry division arrives in the Valley.

October 3: Sheridan offers a wagon and a team to families wishing to leave the Upper Valley with his army. Confederate partisan chief John H. McNeill is mortally wounded just south of Mount Jackson. Meigs (a Sheridan favorite) is killed by Confederate scouts near Dayton. Sheridan believing that Meigs was killed by civilian bushwhackers, orders Dayton and every house within three miles burned. Lt. Col. Thomas Wildes asks Sheridan to reconsider the decision to burn Dayton.

October 4: Sheridan rescinds the order to destroy Dayton, but the order to burn homes in the immediate area remains intact. Davy Getz is shot by Custer’s order at Dayton. (Davy Getz was a 39 year old, mentally retarded man with the mind of a child, found hunting squirrels with a gun near Woodstock. Presumed to be a bushwhacker, he was marched to Harrisonburg behind a wagon with a rope around his neck as an example by Custer. Townspeople from Woodstock followed behind the wagon pleading to Custer to spare his life. Realizing that their pleas were in vain, Custer was told: “You will have to sleep in a bloody grave for this.”) Powell has two bushwhackers executed at Luray; his troops continue burning in Page County.

October 4-5: The Fifth New York Cavalry is detailed to burn houses and barns within a three mile radius of Dayton.

October 5: Sheridan starts the refugee wagons down the Valley Pike from Harrisonburg.

October 6: General mission of destruction begins. Sheridan pulls out of Harrisonburg with the infantry and artillery and Kidd’s brigade of Michigan cavalry of the First Cavalry Division as a rear skirmish line. Col. Daniel Macauley’s infantry brigade is assigned to burn and round up livestock along the pike. The other two First Cavalry Division brigades under Colonels Lowell and Devin move down the Middle Road and the Broadway Road respectively. Custer’s Third Division moves down the Back Road; that evening it fends off attacks by Rosser’s division at Brock’s Gap.

October 7: Custer fans out to the east from the Back Road. His rear is attacked again, and he loses part of the cattle heard and some mobile forges.

October 8: Custer, Lowell, and Devin enter the pike near Edinburg and are reunited with the rest of the army. They continue burning, relieving Macauley’s infantrymen of that duty.

October 9: The burning ends. The Union cavalry defeats the Confederate cavalry under Rosser and Lunsford Lomax at the battle of Tom’s Brook in Shenandoah County. Jubal Early is still following the track of the Union forces down the pike.

October 19: Sheridan defeats Early at the battle of Cedar Creek. Early summoned the last of his strength and at dawn attacked Sheridan’s forces in their camps at Cedar Creek north of Strasburg. With the element of surprise on his side he experienced success early in the day, but the starving Confederates stopped to eat in the camps from which they has just driven the Union soldiers, and the momentum was lost. That pause to fill drawn and empty stomachs gave the Northerners time to get their wits about them and regroup. (One Confederate soldier reportedly said, “I ain’t eat in three day and neither has my horse.”) Even without that fatal respite, the Confederates would have had little chance for a permanent success. Early’s hungry and ill-supplied troops lacked staying power, and they were driven from the field later in the day. The Union victory largely ended Confederate resistance in the Shenandoah Valley.

November 8: Abraham Lincoln is reelected president of the United States.

excerpted with permission of the author from The Burning: Sheridan’s Devastation of the Shenandoah Valley. John L. Heatwole, Rockbridge Publishing, 1998.

Description of the Battle of Toms Brook

Principal Commanders: /c/ Maj. Gen. Thomas Rosser, Maj. Gen. Lunsford Lomax; /u/ Brig. Gen Alfred Torbert.

Forces engaged: /c/ Two cavalry divisions (Rosser and Lomax) about 3,500; /u/ Two cavalry divisions (Merritt and Custer) about 6,300. (Rosser and Custer had been roommates at West Point. The story is told that Rosser and Custer rode to the front of their respective lines on the Back Road before the battle and saluted each other.)

Phase One. Disposition of forces: On 8 October 1864, the Confederate Cavalry under overall command of Maj. Gen. Thomas Rosser harried the withdrawing U.S. cavalry on the Valley Pike and the Back Road. The SC Cavalry were enraged by the destruction of the Valley they had witnessed in the last week and were attempting to arrest further destruction. Rosser had been dispatched to the Valley from Petersburg to command the CS cavalry. At dark, Rosser halted his division of three brigades (about 2,500 men) on the Back Road in the vicinity of Spiker’s Hill and pushed skirmishers beyond Tom’s Brook to Mt. Olive. Maj. Gen. Lunsford Lomax’s Division of two brigades and a battery of horse artillery (about 1,000 men) bivouacked on both sides of the Valley Pike behind Jordon Run just south of the hamlet of Tom’s Brook.

Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt’s U.S. Cavalry division (about 3,500 men) under overall command of Brig. Gen. Alfred Torbert encamped at the base of Round Hill. Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s division of two brigades (about 2,500) bivouacked ” behind Tumbling Run” northeast of Mt. Olive on the Back Road. Upset by Rosser’s aggressive tactics of the previous days, army commander Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan ordered Torbert to move at daylight of 9 October and “whip the rebel cavalry or get whipped himself.”

Phase Two. U.S. Advance on Valley Pike: Torbert planned to bring an overwhelming force against Rosser’s division on the Back Road while holding Lomax’s division at bay with a reinforced brigade on the Valley Pike. Lomax’s main battle line was deployed behind Jordon Run on both sides of the Valley Pike, supported by six guns. His front line was dismounted, while he maintained a strong mounted reserve on the Pike.

At dawn, Lowell’s brigade (Merritt) advanced to Tom’s Brook on the Pike, deployed, and pushed forward “one-quarter of a mile” where it found Lomax’s main line, dismounted behind Jordon Run. The CS line was supported by six guns placed on either side of the Valley Pike and a strong mounted reserve. While Lowell was engaged, Kidd’s brigade rode north along Tom’s Brook to connect and cooperate with Custer. Devin’s brigade followed but veered off on the Harrisville Road (or overland) and advanced to the vicinity of St. Johns Church, maintaining a connection with the force on the Valley Pike and at the same time extending a skirmish line to connect with Kidd’s brigade on the right.

Phase Three. Custer’s Advance/Fighting on Back Road: Rosser dismounted most of his troopers behind Tom’s Brook at the base of Spiker’s Hill behind stone fences and rudimentary fieldworks (his brigades from left to right, Munford, Payne, and the Laurel brigade). Rosser’s six guns unlimbered along the crest of Spiker’s Hill slightly behind a second line of barricades. A mounted reserve was maintained on the ridge; the right was extended toward the Middle Road (no longer in existence) with mounted skirmishers.

Advancing beyond Mt. Olive, Custer pushed forward three regiments of dismounted skirmishers against the main CS position. Three other regiments and Wells’ brigade were kept mounted and maneuvered for position behind the skirmish line. A battery of artillery unlimbered on the hill in front of present-day St. Matthews (or Sand Ridge) Lutheran Church and engaged the Confederate artillery on Spiker’s Hill. When Kidd’s brigade made contact with Custer’s left, Custer extended his right flank along the shoulder of Little North Mountain, supporting the movement with a battery. Kidd deployed over the hill driving Rosser’s skirmishers before him, and unlimbered another battery to enfilade the CS position. The Confederate line was gradually forced back into a horseshoe around the front of Spiker’s Hill. A regiment of U.S. cavalry (probably of Devin’s brigade), moving on the Middle Road from Harrisville arrived on a hill overlooking Sand Ridge Road (the intersection of the Middle Road) and to the right and rear of Rosser’s Main force. Reacting to this threat, Rosser ordered a withdrawal. His men raced to mount their horses. At this point, Wells’ brigade attacked Spiker’s Hill up the Back Road, taking few casualties. At the crest, Wells encountered Munford’s brigade and a mounted melee ensued. Rosser’s force retreated, partly down Back Road to Pugh’s Run, partly on sand Ridge and Middle roads toward Woodstock. Custer and Kidd’s troopers pursued. General Sheridan is said to have watched the action from Round Hill, where there was a U.S. signal station during the battle.

Phase Four. Fighting on the Valley Pike: In the meantime, fighting continued along the Valley Pike. Lowell’s brigade drove CS pickets back to Jordon Run and deployed on both sides of the Pike. The 1st Michigan (Kidd’s brigade) supported Lowell’s right flank, while Devin’s brigade moved farther to the right along the Middle Road beyond St Johns Church. As Devin maneuvered, Lomax counterattacked down the Valley Pike, driving the Reserve brigade back to Tom’s Brook. Lowell, in turn, attacked until stopped by artillery. At Last, Devin reached a position from which to operate against the flanks of both Lomax and Rosser. He advanced the 9thNY and other elements against Lomax’s left and rear (probably down current rte. 657), making Lomax’s position untenable. The Confederates began to retreat up (down) the pike toward Woodstock.

Phase Five. Rear Guard Action at Pugh’s Run: Rosser retreated, losing at least two of his guns at Spiker’s Hill. Munford’s brigade attempted a stand behind Pugh’s Run on the Back Road, but this position was quickly breached. The CS cavalry continued to retreat to Columbia Furnace, losing the rest of its artillery and all of its wagons. Perhaps 150 CS prisoners were captured during this phase of the retreat.

Phase Six. Rear Guard Action at Woodstock: Lomax retreated up (down) the Valley Pike to Woodstock, where he was joined by a confused portion of Rosser’s command. The forces attempted to stand behind Pugh’s Run but were soon scattered. Union troopers pressed forward, driving the CS cavalry to Mt. Jackson. Lomax lost five pieces of artillery and his rolling stock during this rout – two pieces at Woodstock, two at Edinburgh, and the fifth beyond Stony Creek. The Union cavalry retired to the vicinity of Woodstock where it bivouacked for the night.

The flight of the CS Cavalry was referred to by Valley residents and victorious Union troopers as the “Woodstock Races.”

Casualties: /c/ 350 (20k/50w/280m&c); /u/ 57 (10k/47w).

Excerpted from a description of the Battle of Tom’s Brook from the 1992 National Parks Service’s study of the Shenandoah Valley Civil War sites:


With his arrival at Strasburg Sheridan considered the systematic destruction of the Valley to be concluded. Along the Valley Pike, Middle Road, and Broadway Road, Merritt’s regiments alone had destroyed 630 barns, 47 flouring mills, 4 sawmills, 1 woolen mill, 3,982 tons of hay, straw and fodder, more than 3,000 head of livestock, 560 barrels of flour, 2 tanneries, 1 railroad depot, 1 locomotive engine, and 3 box cars. (It is estimated that some 2,000 barns were destroyed.)

Rosser came under harsh criticism from Jubal Early, but he had done all that he was capable of during under the circumstances. His vastly outnumbered men and horses had been campaigning hard with little or no sustenance for three days, and their nerves were raw. Trooper Whittle had written in his diary on the evening of the 8th, ” I am fearfully hungry & no chance of anything. We have ridden very hard.”

Sheridan’s victory at Cedar Creek on the 19th was seen as a major turning point in the war in the government and military circles of the North. Early was no longer considered a threat, and the evidence of daily desertions by disheartened Confederates into Grant’s lines at Petersburg made it evident that Lee would never again be able to detach units to the Valley. Colonel Hayes of the Twenty-third Ohio Infantry wrote that there would be “no more supplies to rebels from this valley” and that “no more invasions in great force by this route will be possible.”

What Sheridan accomplished in the Shenandoah Valley did a great deal toward helping Lincoln win re-election in November. His opponent, former army commander George McClellan, appealed to the large portion of the populace that had grown weary of the gruesome casualty lists, which for so long seemed to have been generated without any gain to the union cause. Just before the election and following the victory at Cedar Creek, a Union cavalryman in Colonel Powell’s division at Front Royal observed in a letter home that the Confederates, at least, still hoped the Lincoln administration would be turned out and a negotiated peace would result.

The burning of the Valley, however, created conditions that could no longer support a mobile Confederate force in numbers that would be of more than a passing concern to the Union high command. Equally important, the flow of supplies to Lee’s army would necessarily reduced from a bountiful flood to a miserable trickle. And the Union troops in the field, exhilarated by their telling victories over the Confederates in the Valley, who were once perceived as invincible, could see the end of the war in sight. They would give Lincoln the votes he needed to enable him to bring the conflict to a successful conclusion.

Daniel Snyder of the Eleventh Virginia Cavalry wrote to his wife late in the fall:

“Oh I do trust you have been spared the destruction and desolation of home that many others have been called upon to experience above (south of) Strasburg (the entire width of this Valley from mountain to mountain) to 12 miles above Harrisonburg is complete destruction as far as the necessary supplies to subsist man or beast are concerned. You recollect the many fine barns, mills, etc. that met the eye on your way through it last winter. Nothing remains now but a pile of ashes and rubbish to mark the spot.”

From The Burning, Heatwole

“The present winter will stand out, in all coming time as one of the hardest, one of the severest ever known in this latitude. It commenced very early, and has continued, with but a few days of intermission until the present period, within a week of the first spring month – March.”

Rockingham Register and Advertiser of February 24, 1865