Catholic Credentials: Devout Catholic Convert; always carried a Rosary into battle; enjoyed getting into long theological debates with his staff.
Nerd Credentials: Important and successful Union commander during the Civil War; successful inventor, engineer, politician, and businessman.
The story of Union General William S. Rosecrans is one of brilliant success followed by crushing failure. Having achieved some of the most dramatic and important Union victories during the war, Rosecrans also suffered one of the Union’s worst defeats, one that nearly destroyed the Army of the Cumberland and that certainly destroyed Rosecrans as a general.
William S. Rosecrans was born and raised a Methodist in Kingston Township, Ohio. He came from a military family, as his father, Crandall Rosecrans, was a veteran of the War of 1812, in which had been an adjutant to General William Henry Harrison (who later became President of the United States, in which capacity he had the longest inaugural address and shortest term in office, dying thirty-days after his inauguration). On his mother’s side, he was the great-grandson of Stephen Hopkins, governor of Rhode Island, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and co-author (with John Adams) of the Articles of Confederation.
Young William didn’t have much chance to go to school and had to largely educate himself by reading books. Since he was too poor to go to college, he decided to try for West Point. For this he needed to be appointed by the Congressman of his district, in this case Alexander Harper. Harper, coincidentally, had a son of his own whom he intended to appoint. Rosecrans, however, made his case with such determination that Harper changed his mind and appointed the young clerk instead of his own son.
At West Point, William excelled academically, graduating fifth in his class of fifty-six. While there, his roommate and one of his closest friends was a promising young Virginian named James Longstreet. Many years later, the two friends would face each other on the battlefield and it would be Longstreet who would destroy Rosecrans’s military career. Another close friend was William T. Sherman, who was a year ahead of him and whom Rosecrans later described as “always prepared for a lark of any kind.” And the year he graduated, while he was serving as officer of the day, Rosecrans met a naïve fellow Ohioan recruit named Ulysses S. Grant who, though Longstreet would be the one to defeat him, would prove to be Rosecrans greatest enemy.
Whereas most of his class soon left for the Mexican War, which would break out in 1846, Rosecrans instead was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers and spent the war teaching military engineering at West Point. But in between his graduation and the outbreak of war with Mexico, two very significant events happened in his life.
The first was when he met a Miss Anna Elizabeth Hegeman of New York, fell instantly in love, and married her on August 24th, 1843. The second was when he converted to Catholicism in 1845 during his teaching assignment at West Point. When he wrote home to inform his family of the latter, he was so enthusiastic that he inspired his brother, Sylvester, to covert as well. Sylvester later became a priest and the first Bishop of Columbus
With a growing family to support (he and his wife would eventually have eight children), Rosecrans applied for a professorship at the Virginia Military Institute, but was rejected in favor of another West Point graduate: Thomas Jackson, later nicknamed “Stonewall.” Following this disappointment, and plagued with a sudden bout of ill health, Rosecrans resigned the army in 1854 and turned his considerable energies and ingenuities into business. He took over a mining business in what is now West Virginia and built it up into a mighty operation, including installing the first lock and dam system in Virginia, patenting a number of his own inventions (including an odorless oil for lamps and a new, more efficient means for manufacturing soap), and building one of the first oil refineries west of the Alleghenies. It was while working at the latter that one of his inventions –a safety oil lamp, ironically enough – exploded. This left him crippled for a year and a half and scarred for the rest of his life with a perpetual smile. That’s right: the Union Army had their own version of the Joker.
Just as he was finishing his recovery, Confederate guns opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, sparking the American Civil War. Rosecrans was a passionate Union man, and within days he had left his businesses and offered his services to the governor of Ohio. He was assigned as an aid-de-camp to the infamous Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, who then had command of all the Ohio volunteers. Rosecrans was set to work building fortifications, drilling recruits, and briefly commanded the 23rd Ohio Infantry, which included a pair of soldiers named Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley.
His first battles, which were some of the very earliest Union victories in the war were as part of a campaign to prevent Confederate forces from occupying the pro-union counties in West Virginia. Rosecrans faced the Confederates at Rich Mountain and soundly defeated them, leaving half their number killed or captured. Though Rosecrans was the commander on the field and had devised and carried out the plan that led to victory, McClellan received all the credit for the battle (he wrote the report). This was followed by another battle at Corrick’s Ford, where again Rosecrans again met the Confederates (on a much larger scale) and defeated with “much maneuver but little fighting,” and again McClellan helped himself to the credit as Rosecrans’ superior. This was a major factor in McClellan being given command of the Army of the Potomac, which in turn was arguably a major factor in war lasting four years instead of one.
After McClellan assumed command following the disaster at Bull Run, Rosecrans took command of West Virginia. In the winter of 1861, Rosecrans drew up plans for a daring campaign to capture Winchester, but McClellan, typically, refused, claiming that if Rosecrans took 20,000 men into Virginia, the Confederates would move an equal number of troops against him. This is highly suspect assertion, but McClellan, apparently just to be safe, transferred 20,000 of Rosecrans men to his own command, leaving him with a grand total of 2000 men to defend West Virginia. It was the first of many times that Rosecrans would clash with his superiors.
With the dawning of 1862, Rosecrans’ army was placed under the command of John C. Fremont, and he himself was transferred to the Western Theater, but not before serving as a pathfinder for the disastrous campaign against Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley and clashing with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton over the campaign’s tactics. It was an argument that would turn out to have incalculable consequences for both the war and the nation.
In the west, Rosecrans was assigned to the command of Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, that same naïve student he had met at West Point so long ago. Under Grant’s direction, Rosecrans devised a plan to engage Confederate General Sterling Price at Iuka, Mississippi, which he accomplished brilliantly, inflicting over twice as many casualties on the Confederates as his own men took. Shortly thereafter, he repulsed a Confederate counterattack at Corinth. During the latter battle a rumor started that he had been slain, so he rode up and down the lines to show his men that he did indeed yet live. Pausing at one point in the battle, he dismounted and said to the soldiers “I stand in the presence of brave men, and I take my hat off to you!”
These two battles made Rosecrans a hero in the Northern press, but he had made a crucial mistake. The battle had raged for two days and the Union had again inflicted nearly twice as many casualties on the Confederates. But as the Confederates retreated, Grant gave Rosecrans explicit orders to pursue and destroy the Confederate Army. Rosecrans, however, delayed, pleading that his men needed rest and didn’t set out until the next day, far too late to do any good. The mangled, but still functional Confederate Army escaped to fight another day. Grant was furious, and Rosecrans, per usual, let it be known what he thought of Grant’s objections. The two men had been set at odds and they would never reconcile.
In the meantime, though, Rosecrans was promoted to lead the Army of the Cumberland against Confederate General Braxton Bragg. In this capacity, he was one of the most popular officers in the army, known affectionately by his West Point nickname, “Old Rosy.” He was famous for carrying a Rosary everywhere and praying it during battles. He also became known for keeping his officers up all hours discussing theology and, presumably, trying to convert them all.
Months after his appointment, a few days after Christmas, 1862, Rosecrans led the Army of the Cumberland out of Nashville to face General Bragg. The two armies met at Murfreesboro, where they engaged in one of the bloodiest battles of that extremely bloody war. By the end of the first day, the Union had been pushed back up against the Stones River. The fighting was so intense that the center of the battlefield was known forever more as “Hell’s Half-Acre.” At the end of the first day, Rosecrans called a council of war and asked his commanders whether they thought the battle should continue. General George H. Thomas answered “There is no better place to die.” Rosecrans agreed and they prepared for battle the next day.
Bragg, for his part, thought he had won. But when New Years Day, 1863, came and went with no Union retreat, he became impatient and ordered an attack. The attack was brutally repulsed, and the next day Rosecrans received badly needed supplies and reinforcements. Bragg, realizing that what he thought was a victory had turned into a hopeless defeat, had no choice but to flee. 12,000 men on each side lay dead, wounded, or captured.
The year 1862 had been a terrible year for the Union Army, and it had ended on a particularly grim note with the horrific and senseless battle of Fredericksburg. Had Rosecrans failed at Stones River, it is possible that the Western front could have collapsed and the war failed. Lincoln himself said that “the nation could scarcely have lived over” a defeat at Murfreesboro. Rosecrans, for his part, concluded his report of the battle by declaring “Non nobis Domine! non nobis sed nomini tuo da gloriam.” Not to us, Lord! Not to us, but to your name be the glory!”
It was the high point in his career; Rosecrans’ finest hour. After that, like a cresting wave, it was all downhill.
First there was Grant’s Vicksburg campaign. Rosecrans was ordered to attack the Confederates to draw off reinforcements that might have endangered Grant’s siege of Vicksburg. It took repeated orders to move, even from Lincoln himself, to finally coax the Army of the Cumberland out of Nashville and again moved against Bragg. His Tullahoma campaign, from June to July 1863, was another brilliant example of Rosecrans’ skill at maximizing his maneuvers while minimizing casualties. Bragg retreated back to Chattanooga. Unfortunately for Rosecrans, his victory was overshadowed by both Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg and Grant’s victory at Vicksburg occurring the day after the Tullahoma campaign ended.
Stanton, overjoyed by these developments, urged Rosecrans to pursue Bragg and “give the finishing blow to the rebellion.” Rosecrans, again, delayed while he tried to map out the best way to outmaneuver Bragg. When he finally moved, he pursued Bragg to the Chickamauga Creek.
On September 19th, 1863, the Battle of Chickamauga began. The first day saw Bragg break helplessly against the entrenched Union lines. The second day brought disaster.
Rosecrans, somehow, had gotten word that there was a gap in his lines and ordered Gen. Thomas J. Wood to fill it. Not only was there no gap for Woods to fill, but his movement opened up a real gap just as Rosecrans’ old friend Longstreet was launching a full scale assault on that very point. The Union lines broke like a dam as the Confederates poured in. That very well might have been the end of the Army of the Cumberland, and of the Union success in the west, if hadn’t been for General George H. Thomas who made a tenacious defense of his positions, earning him the nickname “the Rock of Chickamauga.” That night, the Army withdrew to its positions near Chattanooga.
It was the worst defeat the Union suffered in the west in the entire war, and it was entirely Rosecrans responsibility. He had lost over 16,000 men, had nearly destroyed his army, and his attempt to complete the Union conquest of Tennessee had failed. Had it been any other commander, it’s likely that he would have been able to recover his career. But Rosecrans had offended and infuriated both his commanding officer and the Secretary of War, meaning that both Grant and Stanton were eager to be rid of him. Grant met with Rosecrans outside of Chattanooga, received his plans for taking the city, and relieved him of his command. Rosecrans went to Cincinnati to await further orders. In January 1864, he was sent to Missouri, far from any fighting. His military career was over.
And yet, even now he came within a hair’s breadth of ascending to the highest possible office. During the election of 1864, Lincoln’s campaign was looking to replace the unpopular Vice President Hannibal Hamlin with someone who would bring votes from the Democratic Party. Rosecrans was a life long Democrat, and his former chief of staff, James Garfield, telegraphed him to ask if he could run as Lincoln’s new Vice President. Rosecrans gave a cautiously positive reply, but Garfield never received it. It’s speculated that Stanton, ever his enemy, intercepted and suppressed it. Had he not, and had the experienced, popular soldier Rosecrans assumed the Presidency instead of the hapless Andrew Johnson, then the history of the nation might have turned out very differently.
With the end of the war came the end of his military career. Rosecrans returned to business, trying his hand at railroads. He briefly served as Minister to Mexico, but the election of his old enemy Grant to the presidency ended his diplomatic career. Rosecrans tried to use his Mexican experience to build railroads down there, but the venture was failure. He eventually moved his family out to California, where his fortunes improved somewhat, though he was never as successful after the war as he had been before. Following a period where he was approached and declined numerous political posts (earning him a new nickname; the Great Decliner), he served as a Congressman from California from 1881 to 1885. At the same time, his old friend Garfield was elected President, partially by taking credit for some of Rosecrans’s wartime successes. This destroyed their friendship, and with Garfield’s assassination within months, they never reconciled. Rosecrans himself died a beleaguered, but hardly destitute man in 1898.
Rosecrans is a living example of the saying “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” He rose to almost the pinnacle of military success and arguably saved the Union cause by his heroic actions, only to nearly destroy it by one terrible mistake. Yet he never wavered in his faith, nor doubted that God was with him, even in his worst hours. He is a reminder to us all that great success can be followed by equally great failure, but God watches over us always.
Vive Christus Rex!