4th U.S. Cavalry, cavalry, chickamauga, Civil War, Fort Halleck, Fort Laramie, John Thompson, Virginia Military Institute
This one has been a LONG time coming.
John A. Thompson was born in Belmont County, Ohio in 1832. The family’s holdings were just across the Ohio River from Moundsville, Virginia. He was the son of Colonel John Thompson, of Belmont County, Ohio, and his wife, Sara Ann Walker, both born in Pennsylvania, and whose paternal parents came from County Armagh, Ireland.
John attended Virginia Military Institute in the graduating class of 1850-51. During his senior year, he and several other classmates had an issue with the Second Cadet-Captain. According to one history of the Institute, “Thompson was a great favorite, and the Second Captain was very unpopular – both in his Class and the Corps at large. The issue was joined by Thompson denouncing in unmeasured terms his commanding officer. A court-martial resulted; but his classmates (all but two or three) stood by him, and they were threatened with dismissal for “forming a combination,” in contravention of the Regulations of the Institute. There was great excitement in the Corps which met and adopted resolutions upholding both Thompson and his Class, and condemning the Second Captain. The verdict of the court-martial was generally thought to have been unjust. Thompson left the Institute, but carried with him unmistakable proof of the confidence and admiration of his classmates (except one or two) and of the whole Corps.”
Three years later, June 25, 1855, he received a commission from civil life as second lieutenant in the First United States Dragoons. He reported to Brevet Colonel Charles A. May for instruction at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri on July 7th, but was transferred to the newly formed 1st U.S. Cavalry Regiment a few weeks later on August 29th. He reported to Colonel Edwin V. Sumner at Fort Leavenworth in time to join the regiment on the Sioux expedition that fall. He was assigned to Captain William D. De Saussure’s company.
In 1857, he was part of the escort of Lieutenant Colonel Joseph E. Johnston’s expedition to survey the southern boundary of the Kansas territory. The expedition consisted of four companies of the 1st Cavalry and two companies of infantry. Lieutenant Thompson led the pioneer party and preliminary survey line for the expedition.
The following year, Thompson’s company served as part of the advance guard on the march from Fort Bridger to Salt Lake in March 1858. The young lieutenant also served as acting quartermaster and commissary officer for the command. He was relieved on August 6, 1858 and ordered back to Fort Leavenworth, where he arrived in October. He was granted a four month leave of absence later that month after settling his quartermaster accounts. He rejoined his company at Fort Riley, where it had moved during his leave.
Lieutenant Thompson spent the summer of 1859 as part of an expedition along the Arkansas River. The four companies of the 1st Cavalry spent the summer protecting Santa Fe mail trains before returning to Fort Riley in the fall. During that winter he served as the post adjutant of Fort Riley for Major John Sedgwick.
The next spring he accompanied Major Sedgwick on an expedition against the Kiowa and Comanche. That summer he assisted the command in the construction of Fort Wise, Colorado Territory (later renamed Fort Lyon). One of the second lieutenants in the command was James E.B. Stuart. Thompson departed on another four month leave of absence at the end of September. During his leave he married Mary J. Wilson, of St. Louis, Missouri.
Lieutenant Thompson’s return from his leave did not go as planned. He was diverted on his return trip in St Louis to go to Jefferson Barracks and drill infantry recruits. Shortly after organizing a company of 80 men, Thompson was ordered to secure the St Louis Arsenal. He was relieved in early April and ordered to rejoin his company at Fort Wise. He immediately set out for his unit, escorting paymaster Major Brice from Fort Riley to the post.
He arrived to some welcome news. He had been promoted to first lieutenant in Company F, 1st U.S. Cavalry in January. He immediately renewed his oath of allegiance with Lieutenant Colonel Sedgwick and in the absence of the assigned captain assumed command of the company. Although appointed from the state of Virginia, he apparently never considered resigning his commission to fight for the Confederacy.
After a week or so he and his company were ordered to Fort Larned, Kansas, where he assumed command of the post. Captain Tyler of the 2nd U.S. Dragoons had spiked the guns and deserted the post as he departed to join the Confederacy. On May 23rd he received notification of his promotion to captain and command of Company K, 1st U.S. Cavalry, but was not yet relieved and remained at Fort Larned.
Captain Thompson was and assigned to survey the route between Fort Larned and Fort Kearny, N.T., and assigned to the latter post. He arrived on June 4th to learn he was one of three officers assigned to the fort. The senior officer, Captain Brockholst Livingston of the 2d Dragoons, was incapacitated. Captain E.W.B. Newby commanded the post, and Captain Thompson served as post adjutant, quartermaster and commissary in addition to commanding his company. After Captain Newby’s relief and arrest by Major General Hunter in November, Captain Thompson commanded the post as well.
In June 1862, Brigadier General James Craig ordered a swap, shifting Colonel E.B. Alexander to Fort Kearny and Captain Thompson with his squadron of Companies F and K, 1st Cavalry to Fort Laramie. Fort Laramie was otherwise garrisoned by volunteer units, and had the important responsibility of safeguarding the overland mail and telegraph lines. Captain Thompson managed the post well, writing afterwards “although it was a difficult matter at first to bring some of the volunteer companies to a proper understanding of discipline.”
In August 1862 the Overland Mail Company shifted its route south to the Bridger Pass road. Since securing the mail routes was one of Fort Laramie’s responsibilities, Captain Thompson was ordered by General Craig to find a location for a new fort on this southern route. He selected the site for what would become Fort Halleck, surveying it and planning the buildings. He then went east to the Cache la Poudre River to superintend hay contracts for cavalry which would garrison the new fort. He made the following observations in his report to General Craig:
“I have selected a beautiful piece of ground for the fort on the north side of the Medicine Bow Mountains. Three streams of clear mountain water run through it, either or all of which can be turned so as to water every part of the garrison without an hours work. There is plenty of the finest timber on the mountains within a mile of the place selected. The government will not be compelled to haul timber either for lumber or firewood more than two miles for many years, in fact the supply is almost inexhaustible. A fine quality of limestone can be found in the mountains half a mile distant, and hay can be had in abundance within twelve miles of the post. I submit for the approval of the Gen’l Comd’g the enclosed plan of buildings for the new post.”
Commended by Craig for his efforts, Captain Thompson was ordered to Washington to report on the state of affairs in the region. While he was away, a mutiny occurred due to maladministration of the post by his successor, Captain Herrington, and Thompson was ordered back to Fort Laramie. There had been a conflict between a lieutenant of the 6th Ohio and men of the 8th Kansas, and Herrington’s assistant adjutant general, Captain Eno, had been compelled to shoot one of the enlisted men.
Thompson was ordered to join his regiment in March 1863, but requested permission to delay the move. His wife had just given birth to their second child, John, and the doctor stated that she was unable to make the 800 mile trip by wagon for eight weeks. Requests to the War Department and Governor Pierpont of what would become West Virginia to delay the move were approved.
Captain Thompson and his squadron were delayed again during their march west. They stopped in St Louis for two weeks to update their arms, and again in Louisville to arm and equip a group of recruits. He joined the rest of the 4th U.S. Cavalry at McMinnville, Tennessee in August 1863, with both companies of his squadron fully equipped and in fine condition.
Thompson served with the regiment through a number of skirmishes in the vicinity of Chattanooga during the late summer and early fall of 1863. He commanded the regiment during the greater portion of the battle of Chickamauga, Captain McIntyre being too unwell to ride. He relinquished command to McIntyre the day before the regiment moved inside the lines at Chattanooga.
I found the following statement in an anonymous tribute written after his death, but could find no evidence to confirm or deny it: “He was present at the battle of Chickamauga, and it was his presence of mind, his personal bravery, and fortitude, and his disobedience of orders (or, rather, his substitution of his own military discretion), that saved the retreat of the Army and its almost total destruction.”
Thompson became very ill with dysentery and fever shortly thereafter, and was granted a 20 day leave of absence to join his family in St Louis and recover. On his arrival in St Louis, however, he was placed on temporary duty as an acting assistant commissary of musters. On November 6th he was ordered to permanently assume the position from Captain Cheek of the 13th U.S. Infantry.
Due to the fact that he had been absent from service with his regiment for such an extended period, Captain Thompson was ordered to appear before a retiring board in Washington, D.C. on April 14, 1864. After recounting his military career, he ended his statement to the retention board, “I am well and sound and know of no reason why I should be unfit for duty.” The board, including Major Generals Irwin McDowell and Erasmus Keyes, voted unanimously to retain him in service.
Captain Thompson remained a conscientious cavalryman despite serving far from the action. In July 1864 he wrote to the Army’s Adjutant General concerning the possibility of recruiting newly mustered out volunteers for regular cavalry service. He noted “all I would require is a good noncommissioned officer and one man to look after these men after they have been mustered out – to bring them in after they have spent their money.” Recruiting was authorized three days later.
Captain Thompson returned to duty in the field with his regiment before the war’s end. He commanded the regiment at the battle of Selma on Wilson’s Raid during the closing days of the war. He continued to command the regiment through June, as it moved to Macon, Georgia for occupation duty. When the regiment moved to Texas, he resumed command of his company and the post of Fort Mason, Texas.
On August 25, 1867, he was promoted major of the Seventh Cavalry, though it took time for the news to reach him. He was preparing to move to join his new regiment when he was murdered by desperadoes at Fort Mason, Texas on November 14th.
The San Antonio (Texas) Express, in its issue of November 18, 1867, published this account of the incident:
“An express from Fort Mason arrived in this City on Saturday morning bringing the intelligence of the brutal murder of Major John A. Thompson, Commander of the Post, on Thursday morning last. Major Thompson was out driving with his wife and two children, and, passing by a store about half a mile from the Post, saw a difficulty taking place between some citizens and soldiers. He stopped his ambulance and ordered a sergeant, who was present, to have the parties arrested, when the desperadoes turned upon the Major and his sergeant, shooting the major through the head, killing him instantly, while by his wife’s side, and mortally wounding the sergeant.
“The murderers, having their horses at hand, fled before any attempt for their arrest could be made. [Then followed the names of the gang.] Scouts have been sent in all directions to (if possible) catch the murderers. The officers of the regiment have offered one thousand dollars reward for their arrest, and delivery to the military authorities.”
Sergeant John McDougall of the 4th Cavalry died of his wounds at the fort later the same day.
Fort Mason Assistant Surgeon John A. Hulse, wrote the following account of his murder to his father:
“Fort Mason, Texas, November 14, 1867.
Colonel John Thompson, Moundsville, W. Va.
Dear Sir – It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death of your son, Major John A. Thompson, at this post, this morning, at the hands of desperadoes, while commanding the peace in an affray between them and a party of soldiers just arrived from Fort Chadbourne.
The ball struck the right cheek below the eye, cutting the internal carotid artery, and emerging below the left ear, with fatal hemorrhage in about twenty minutes. I was by his side in a few moments, but my best endeavors to preserve his valuable life were hopelessly futile.
He was universally esteemed here, his many noble qualities winning him a large circle of friends who, with his inconsolable family, and the Army which loses one of its most valuable officers, will ever deplore his irreparable loss.
Accept, dear sir, my most sincere sympathy, in this your sad bereavement.
Mrs. Thompson will leave for St. Louis as soon as proper escort can be secured to accompany her.
John A. Hulse, A.A. Surgeon, U.S.A.”
Major General Winfield Hancock, commanding the department, requested and received authority from the War Department to provide transportation and escort for the bereaved family.
There were several tributes written of him after his death, of which I have excerpted three:
“He was universally beloved by his fellow officers and the men under his command. He was very happy in his domestic relations, having one of the sweetest of women for a wife, and two beautiful children.”
“He was scholarly, soldierly, and gentlemanly, with the love of his men, the respect of his fellow officers, and the confidence of his superiors.”
“He devoted the best energies of a noble manhood to his country’s service, and closed an honorable career with that sublimest of offerings, a hero’s life.”
I give you Major John A. Thompson, a gallant cavalryman whose career was tragically cut short.
Heitman, Francis B. Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1903. Page 639.
National Archives, Record Group 94, Letters Received by the Office of the Adjutant General, 1861-1870.
National Archives, Record Group 94, Letters Received by the Commission Branch, 1863-1870.
National Archives, Record Group 94, U.S. Army Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914
National Archives, Record Group 94, U.S. Returns from Regular Army Non-infantry Regiments, 1821-1916: 4th U.S. Cavalry.
Wise, Jennings C. The Military History of the Virginia Military Institute from 1839 to 1865. Lynchburg: J.P. Bell Company, Inc., 1915. Pages 501-504.
http://www.legendsofamerica.com/wy-forts.html#Fort H.W. Halleck