I am greatly indebted to Sherry Harris, a relative of Lewis Thompson, for adding a great deal of detail and both pictures to the story of this brave cavalryman.
Photo courtesy of Sherry Harris.
Lewis Tappen Thompson was born in Philadelphia on July 25, 1838. He was the eldest of five children who survived childhood. His father, also named Lewis, was a publisher and member of the Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. He was also part of the Underground Railroad before the Civil War.
Lewis was raised in Philadelphia, and educated for a business career. He was working as a cashier and bookkeeper for P. Waples and Co. of Philadelphia when the war broke out. Lewis and his brother James enlisted in Company A, 71st New York State Militia, a ninety day regiment, on April 21, 1861, and mustered out with the rest of the company on July 30th. He served primarily at the Washington Navy Yard, but also fought in the first battle of Bull Run.
When the regiment was mustered out, Thompson was appointed a lieutenant of volunteers and assigned as an aide on the staff of Brigadier General John C. Fremont. After Fremont was relieved of command, he worked briefly as an adjutant general for Lane’s brigade before being appointed a captain in the 3rd Kansas Cavalry. Singled out for bravery and leadership in a winter expedition into Missouri for forage, General Lane recommended him for an appointment in the regular army.
On February 19, 1862, Lewis Thompson was appointed a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and assigned to Company I. He wouldn’t see his new company for nearly a year. He remained at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for several more months working as a Mustering & Disbursing Officer. He was promoted to first lieutenant on October 28, 1862, but word of the promotion did not reach him or the regiment until the following spring.
Lieutenant Thompson joined the 2nd U.S. Cavalry at Fort Albany, Virginia in December 1862, where several recently recruited companies were en route to join the regiment. He commanded Company G during the march, then joined Company I upon arrival. He spent the winter on picket duty with his company, based from their winter quarters near Falmouth.
Lieutenant Thompson was active in the spring campaign, serving with his company under Lieutenant Thomas Dewees during Stoneman’s Raid and the battle of Brandy Station. He received a brevet promotion to captain for gallant and meritorious service two weeks later during the battle of Upperville on June 21, 1863.
Lieutenant Thompson was captured during the Gettysburg campaign on July 2, 1863 while “attempting to communicate with corps headquarters,” according to brigade commander Wesley Merritt’s report on the battle. He was held at Libby Prison in Richmond until June 1864, then he was transferred briefly to Macon, Georgia and then onward to Charleston, South Carolina.
Lewis became very sick with tuberculosis and bronchitis while in Charleston, and likely would have died there if not for some family intervention. His sister, Matilda, had married Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, a quartermaster officer. When the Union captured parts of South Carolina in 1864, Saxton was appointed military governor of the state. He established his offices in the same building as the erstwhile Confederate commander of the area, former member of the 2nd Dragoons William Hardee. Hardee had been Saxton’s commander at West Point before the war. Saxton heard of his brother in law’s illness, and by luck was holding one of Hardee’s staff officers of the same rank prisoner. After Saxton contacted Hardee, “he responded cordially, and the two officers were exchanged, and the life of one brave officer was saved.”
Thompson was exchanged at Charleston, SC on October 4, 1864, and sent to Camp Parole, near Annapolis, Maryland to recover in the military hospitals there. After recovering from his illness and his release from Camp Parole, Maryland, Captain Thompson was assigned to special duty on the staff of Governor Cummings in Golden City, Colorado. He served there from September 25, 1865 until September 1866, when he was ordered to join his company. In the interim, he had been promoted twice. He received a brevet promotion to major for meritorious service during the war on September 25, 1865. On July 28, 1866, he was promoted to captain and command of Company L, 2nd U.S. Cavalry.
Thompson continued to suffer the effects of his captivity for the remainder of his life. He took a sick leave of absence from August 16, 1868 to March 29, 1869. He rejoined his company at Fort Ellis, Montana in the summer of 1869. The photo below is from a group picture of regimental officers on a porch at the fort.
On February 26, 1869, the President directed that the brevet rank of Colonel be conferred upon Thompson. The reason was not stated. Other than the letter to Secretary of War Schofield directing the promotion on Executive Mansion stationery, there is no documentation of the promotion in his records.
Captain Thompson was sent to a retiring board in 1870, but the board recommended him for retention. He proved their judgment in the field, commanding his company during the Piegan expedition under Major E.M. Baker earlier that year. He also led his company in an engagement with Sioux at Prior’s Fork, Montana on August 14, 1872.
He returned home to Germantown, Pennsylvania on a sick leave of absence August 25, 1874 to September 12, 1875. He was suffering from chronic bronchitis and tuberculosis. One of the certificates of sickness states “the latter Cachenia having existed for the past six years, I reproduce the certificate given by Dr. Frantz, Surgeon, U.S.A. and continued in June 67 by Dr. Bailey, Surgeon, U.S.A.”
Despite his illnesses, he remained in touch with the regiment and its former officers. He even wrote a short chapter on the Piegan expedition of 1870 for Theophilus Rodenbough’s From Everglade to Canon with the Second United States Cavalry, published in 1875.
Captain Thompson commanded Company L in Major James Brisbin’s battalion of the 2nd Cavalry in Colonel John Gibbon’s column during the Little Big Horn campaign. He was so ill toward the end of the march that he was carried on a stretcher behind a mule with his company.
Lewis Thompson committed suicide in his bed near the headwaters of the Little Big Horn at 6 a.m. on July 19, 1876 “by shooting himself through the breast.” Assistant Surgeon H.O. Paulding’s letter stated, “Captain Thompson had been ailing with Neuralgia of the Stomach, together with excessive vomiting and diarrhea, for two days previously, and no doubt it was the intense suffering that produced the mental aberration which led to the fatal act.”
An article in the Freeman Journal noted, “He was a gentle, genial man, a true gentleman. He was buried at 6:30 pm. All the officers and men attended. General Gibbon made a few appropriate remarks. 1st LT. Edward McGuire read the service.”
In a letter to General Sherman upon learning of his death, Governor Potts of Montana wrote “He was a fine officer and an accomplished gentleman, & was very popular. He was a Philadelphian.”
Unfortunately, Thompson’s story didn’t end there. His brother in law, Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Saxton, requested to move his remains home from Montana to be buried with the rest of his family. His request was endorsed by Brigadier General John Pope, commander of the Department of the Missouri, and Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan, but denied by order of the Secretary of War.
A year later, Saxton and Lewis’ brother moved his remains to the family plot in Saulsbury Church Yard, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The cemetery is currently known as Thompson Memorial Cemetery.
Heitman, Francis B. Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1903. Page 640.
Henry, Guy V. Military Record of Civilian Appointments in the United States Army, Volume 2. New York: George W. Carleton, 1869. Page 345.
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. Returns from Regular Army Non-infantry Regiments, 1821-1916: 2nd U.S. Cavalry
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 27, Part 1, page 943.
Rodenbough, Theophilus. From Everglade to Canon with the Second United States Cavalry. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000. Pages 378-383 and 470.
Saxton, Rufus. “The Reminiscences of a Quartermaster in the Early Days of the Civil War,” Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Volume 6 (1921), pages 394-412.