Alexander Ramsey Thompson Jr. was born around 1793 in New York City to Alexander Thompson and Amelia Thompson née De Hart.1 His father Alexander Sr. served as Captain of Artillery during the American Revolutionary War and continued to work at the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, New York until his death in 1809.2 Thompson Jr. had one brother, William, and three sisters, Margaret, Catherine, and Amelia.3 In 1810, one year after his father’s death, Thompson entered West Point as a cadet.
West Point had been founded by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802 as the first engineering school in the new nation; most of its classes covered science, math, and engineering principles.4 Some of the USMA’s most prominent graduates served as Army engineers including Robert E. Lee and George B. McClellan⎯both Civil War generals. While Lt. Col. Thompson spent some time training to be an officer, the West Point engineering curriculum did not prepare him to fight Seminole warriors in Florida.5
The outbreak of the War of 1812 interrupted Thompson’s training. He graduated early from West Point and received a lieutenant’s commission in the 6th Regiment of Infantry. His regiment traveled north into northern New York and in 1813 participated in the Campaign of the Lake Champlain, where Thompson distinguished himself during the Siege of Plattsburgh and earned the rank of Captain. When the War of 1812 ended in 1815, Thompson became 1st Captain of Light Infantry in the 2nd Regiment, where he served for several years as a tactical instructor.6 During this period, he married Mary Nexsen in 1816.7
In 1824, Thompson earned the title of Brevet Major and traveled along the northern, western and southern frontiers of the US, where his men repaired or established new forts. He participated in the Black Hawk War in 1832, after which became a Major in the 6th Infantry. As a Major, Thompson continued to serve at frontier posts until 1837, when he earned the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and immediately received orders to lead his 6th Infantry to Florida to participate in the Second Seminole War, under the command of Col. Zachary Taylor.8
Fought between 1835 and 1842, the Second Seminole War was part of a larger conflict between Native Americans in Florida and the United States military that lasted from 1816 to 1858. In alignment with the goals of the Indian Removal Act (1830), the United States government sought to move all of the Florida Native Americans, collectively—though inaccurately—referred to as Seminoles, from the peninsula to the Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma). Fighting in a harsh environment, against a mobile foe using guerrilla tactics, and without clear frontlines, the army struggled to defeat their outnumbered enemy. While estimates vary, approximately 10,000 soldiers and as many as 30,000 militia fought against fewer than 2,000 Seminole warriors. Eventually, after seven years, the death of 1,400-1,500 regular US Army soldiers, and the expenditure of $30,000,000-$40,000,000, the United States declared victory even while some Seminoles remained in Florida. Given these hardships, the Second Seminole War is generally considered “the longest and most costly of the Indian conflicts.”9
Surpassed only by Dade’s Battle in terms of casualties, the Battle of Okeechobee occurred on December 25, 1837, two years after the war began. On Christmas Day, commanding officer Col. Zachary Taylor led approximately 800 infantry regiment troops into battle against 380-480 Seminoles who were camped on the shore of Lake Okeechobee. Though Taylor claimed this battle as a great victory, the Seminoles – who had positioned themselves in a densely wooded area with a half mile of swamp in front of them – inflicted more extensive damage to the US troops than they themselves received. After three hours of battle, the Seminoles retreated in canoes across the lake, having lost less than seven percent of their men while Col. Taylor lost over seventeen percent of his forces. Further, the Seminoles successfully slowed Taylor’s march down the Kissimmee River long enough to evacuate their women and children farther into the Everglades. Public opinion regarding the battle’s outcome was initially mixed, but the nation eventually accepted Taylor’s claim of victory, propelling him into the national spotlight and initiating his road to the presidency.10
It was during the Battle of Okeechobee that Thompson lost his life. The 6th Infantry was on the front lines of the attack and they received the brunt of the Seminoles’ fire. Thompson, leading his regiment, was shot three times before he collapsed, at which point he reportedly called out: “Keep steady, men; charge the hammock – remember the regiment to which you belong.”11
Lt. Col. Thompson left behind a wife, a widowed mother, and three unmarried sisters. He had, in his own words, created “a little fund, that, in the case of my death, my wife, my widowed mother, and three sisters, might have some dependence to live on.”12 In early 1837, however, the US experienced a severe financial depression and many people lost their savings, including Thompson. He earlier had requested a brief leave of absence to return to New York, as he put it, “to preserve nearly all the property I possess in the world,” but his superiors denied this request. A few months after his death, the government authorized his widow Mary to receive a small five-year military pension. In poor financial circumstances due to the Panic of 1837, Mary spent the next twenty years petitioning Congress to increase and prolong her pension payments. After facing numerous rejections, in 1852 the Senate finally passed a bill guaranteeing Mrs. Thompson a pension for life.13
Lt. Col. Thompson is buried at the US Military Academy Post Cemetery at West Point, NY in Section A, Site 44.14 He is also memorialized at the Saint Augustine National Cemetery in Florida, as seen here.15 In his official report of the battle, Col. Taylor wrote that “there are few, if any other than his bereaved wife, mother, and sisters, who more deeply and sincerely lament his loss, or who will longer cherish his memory, than myself.”16 His obituary in the Christian Intelligencer described Thompson as “an intelligent, estimable, and patriotic citizen, and a gallant and accomplished officer.”17
1 Sources on birth date vary from 1792 and 1794. See George Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., from its Establishment in 1802 to 1890, Vol. 1 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1891), 103; “The Late Col. Thompson, U.S.A.,” Army and Navy Chronicle 6-7 (1838): 69-70; “Appletons’ Cyclopedia of American Biography, 1600-1889,” database, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com/: accessed January 13, 2020) entry for Alexander R. Thompson.
2 “The Late Col. Thompson, U.S.A.,” Army and Navy, 69-70.
3 “New York, Wills and Probate Records, 1659-1999,” database, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com/: accessed January 13, 2020), entry for Alexander R. Thompson; “New York, Death Newspaper Abstracts, 1801-1890 (Barber Collection),” database, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com/: accessed January 13, 2020), entry for Alexander R. Thompson.
4 “A Brief History of West Point,” United States Military Academy, West Point, accessed January 10, 2020, https://www.westpoint.edu/about/history-of-west-point.
5 Ian C. Hope, A Scientific Way of War: Antebellum Military Science, West Point, and the Origins of American Military Thought (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).
6 “The Late Col. Thompson,” Army and Navy, 69; U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, “Memorial of Mary W. Thompson,” 26th Congress, 1st Session, Doc. No. 61, 1840; George Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers, 103.
7 Note: the marriage announcement lists the spouse as Maria W. Nexsen, while later documents refer to her as Mary W. Nevertheless, this obituary announcement indicates that her father, listed here as Elias Nexsen, attended Thompson’s funeral. “U.S., Newspaper Extractions from the Northeast, 1704-1930,” database, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com/: accessed January 13, 2020), entry for Alexander R. Thompson; “New York, Death Newspaper Abstracts,” Ancestry.com, Alexander R. Thompson.
8 “The Late Col. Thompson,” Army and Navy, 69-70; Cullum, Biographical Register, 103.
9 C.S. Monaco, The Second Seminole War and the Limits of American Aggression (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018); John and Mary Lou Missall, The Seminole Wars: America's Longest Indian Conflict (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2004); John K. Mahon, History of the Second Seminole War (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1967); Quote from Jane F. Lancaster, Removal Aftershock: The Seminoles' Struggles to Survive in the West, 1836–1866 (Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 1994), 18.
10 Mahon, History of the Second Seminole War, 219; “Colonel Z. Taylor’s Account of the Battle with the Seminole Indians near the Kissimmee River, in Florida, on December 25, 1837,” 25th Cong., 2nd Sess., 1838, S. Rep. 789, Hereafter referred to as Taylor’s Report; John and Mary Lou Missal, eds., This Miserable Pride of a Soldier (Tampa: University of Tampa Press, 2005), 129.
11 Hammock refers to the densely wooded area in which the Seminoles had positioned themselves. See “Ecosystems: Hardwood Hammock,” National Park Service, accessed January 15, 2020, https://www.nps.gov/ever/learn/nature/hardwoodhammock.htm; Cullum, Biographical Register, 103.
12 U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, “Memorial of Mary W. Thompson,” 26th Congress, 1st Session, Doc. No. 61, 1840.
13 U.S. Congress, Senate, “Report to Accompany Bill S. 125,” 32d Congress, 1st Session, Rep. Com. No. 34, 1852.
16 “Colonel Z. Taylor’s Account of the Battle with the Seminole Indians near the Kissimmee River, in Florida, on December 25, 1837,” 25th Cong., 2nd Sess., 1838, S. Rep. 789: 985-992.
17 “The Late Col. Thompson,” Army and Navy, 69.
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