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 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 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.
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.
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.