Charles H. Tompkins was born on September 12, 1830, at Fort Monroe, Virginia. He entered the United States Military Academy in July 1847, but resigned on June 23, 1849 for unknown reasons. He then pursued business interests for the next seven years.
He enlisted as a private in the First Dragoons on January 21, 1856, and was assigned to Company F. He was subsequently promoted to corporal and then sergeant within the same company, where he served until January 10, 1861 when his enlistment ended. He was recognized for his performance in a battle with hostile Indians near Pyramid Lake, Nevada on July 2, 1860.
Tompkins was appointed a second lieutenant in Company D, 2nd Cavalry from New York on March 23, 1861. He joined the regiment at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania on March 30th. He was transferred to Washington DC, where he served as an assistant instructor in a cavalry school for officers appointed directly from civil life until May 3rd. He was promoted to first lieutenant of Company B on April 30, 1861, vice the resigned 1stLt Walter Jenifer of Jenifer saddle fame.
On May 3, 1861, Tompkins crossed the Potomac with his company and established a cavalry camp at Ball’s Crossroads. On May 24th, he advanced up the Leesburg road towards the Loudoun and Hampshire Railroad, where his company captured a passenger train. No shots were fired, and the passengers were released later that afternoon.
The following week, he led his men on a scouting mission to Fairfax Court House that became the first skirmish of the war in northern Virginia. Tompkins led his company, numbering approximately 50 men, on a scouting mission on the night of May 30th to reconnoiter in the vicinity of Fairfax Court House. They departed their camp after 10pm, and approached the town approximately 3am. They were able to surprise and capture the Confederate pickets before entering the town.
Unbeknownst to Tompkins, Fairfax at the time was home to three companies of Confederate soldiers under the command of LtCol Richard S. Ewell (also late of the 1st Dragoons, but I’ve been unable to prove whether or not they knew of each other). A charge by Company B initially drove a company of mounted rifles from town, with the Union cavalrymen passing completely through the town before turning. The other two companies arrived as they passed back through the town, and a brief skirmish took place. Outnumbered, Tompkins made the decision to retreat, and was able to outrace his pursuit. Two horses were reportedly shot out from under Tompkins, and he injured his foot when the second one fell on him.
The raid created a good deal of fame for Tompkins, and he was later awarded the Medal of Honor on November 13, 1893. The citation read that he “twice charged through the enemy’s lines and, taking a carbine from an enlisted man, shot the enemy’s captain.” He was also presented the sword pictured below.
He fought with his company during the Manassas campaign, following which he was commended by his brigade commander for conspicuous gallantry. Following the battle, he served for a time as an acting assistant adjutant general for Brig Gen Stoneman and an inspector of cavalry before his appointment as the regimental quartermaster for the 2nd Cavalry on August 3, 1861.
He served with his regiment in the defenses of Washington until November 13, 1861, when he was appointed an assistant quartermaster, with the rank of Captain. He served as Colonel of the 1st Vermont Cavalry from April 24th to September 9, 1862 after their initial commander was killed in battle. He participated with his regiment in the battles and engagements of the Shenandoah Valley and Second Bull Run campaigns.
He vacated his regimental commission on July 17th, and resigned from volunteer service on September 9, 1862 following the Antietam campaign to return to staff duty, where he served throughout the remainder of the war.
Recognition came fast and furious for Tompkins toward the end of the war. He was recommended for appointment as a Brigadier General of Volunteers for conspicuous services at the battle of Cedar Creek. On March 13, 1865, he received brevets for major (for gallant conduct at Fairfax Court House), lieutenant colonel (for meritorious services in the campaigns of Banks and McDowell in 1862 and 1863), colonel (for meritorious services in the quartermaster’s department 1863-1865) and brigadier general (for faithful and meritorious services during the war of the rebellion). This was incidentally later known as a black day for career army officers, as the majority of the brevets for regular officers for wartime service all dated from this day.
Following President Lincoln’s assassination, he too was assigned to the military commission which tried the conspirators. He served as one of the nine officers assigned to the commission until they reached their verdict on June 29, 1865.
Tompkins served the remainder of his career in the quartermaster department. He was appointed lieutenant colonel and quartermaster of volunteers from July 1, 1865 to June 11, 1866 and colonel and quartermaster of volunteers from June 13, 1866 to January 1, 1867. He was appointed deputy quartermaster general, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, on July 29, 1866.
From 1866 to 1881, he served as a depot quartermaster in Washington DC, and chief quartermaster of the 5th Military District and the Departments of Alaska, Arizona, and Texas, the Division of the South, and the Department of Dakota. Tompkins apparently received this slew of different assignments, nearly all at hardship postings on the frontier, as a result of an altercation with General Grant over misappropriated government equipment. Tompkins survived the various postings in good order, however, and was promoted to Assistant Quartermaster-General, with the rank of Colonel, on January 24, 1881.
He served as the chief quartermaster of the Military District of the Missouri at Chicago, Illinois from February 1881 to May 1886. Tompkins then served as the chief quartermaster of the Division of the Atlantic, with headquarters on Governor’s Island, New York harbor, from 1886 to 1888.
Charles Tompkins married Augusta Root Hobbie on December 17, 1862 at St George’s Church in New York. They had seven children, four of whom reached maturity. The eldest, Selah Reeve Hobbie (“Tommy”) Tompkins, grew up to become Colonel of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. His second son, Frank, also served as a career army officer.
Tompkins retired at his own request on September 12, 1894. He fractured his left leg in Atlantic City, New Jersey on September 11, 1914. The wound didn’t heal properly, and he died on January 18, 1915 in Washington DC of a chronic septic infection. He is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington DC.
Sources for this biography include Across the Continent With the Fifth Cavalry by George Price, Colonel Tommy Tompkins by John M. Carroll, and A History of the United States Cavalry by Albert Brackett.
The author is indebted to Mr Frank Wagner, who contributed a wealth of information and the pictures included in this post from his private collection.
Chris Swift said:
This was a great post. I am wondering though why he would be considered a Volunteer Officer with the First Vermont when it was a federal unit. It was not raised by Vermont but by an order from the Federal Government, unlike state regiments where the order came from the Governor
Chris, I think the reason is because it wasn’t a “regular” unit. It was still a volunteer unit, it just wasn’t a state unit. The only additional regiments that were authorized regular officers were the ones authorized by Congress. The 1st Vermont, and others like it, were not permanent additions to the army, but units raised during the war for the duration. As with many things, it comes down to the money. If they’d (Congress) promoted all of these in the regular army, they would have had to keep paying them at those ranks after the war. This would have been expensive, as each of the cavalry regiments had several general officers of volunteers assigned by war’s end and few resigned. This was a problem throughout the war, as many, many volunteer cavalry regiments had regular officers or sergeants. All of these folks counted against the strength of their regiment even if they were leading a regiment, brigade or army (in George Thomas’ case) somewhere else. Your point might explain why the 1st Vermont had two regulars in a row for commanders, though. Their first was Jonas Holliday of the 2nd Dragoons, if memory serves correctly, who was killed during the Valley Campaign in 1862 (Strasburg, I’m pretty sure). Tompkins was second, and since this has come up I now want to look to see who was third…. Thanks for the comment, Chris. This comment actually inspired the next entry.
Jonas Holliday committed suicide. Tompkins served with the First Vermont Cavalry from late May 1862 to Sept 1862, when he requested to be transferred. He was replaced by Edward B. Sawyer, from within the FVC, and he by Addison W. Preston. The latter was highly regarded.