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Civil War Trust

William S. Rosecrans USA

General
September 6, 1819 – March 11, 1898

William S. Rosecrans
William S. Rosecrans

Unlike Braxton Bragg, the general who opposed him at Stones River, William Rosecrans was raised in an environment that proved to be a nurturing source of strength in which he learned self confidence and developed a religious sense of right and wrong. His parents were positive influences in his life, and as a young officer Rosecrans would write of his father: "He has been active and enterprising. He has grown old, popular, and respected in the humble circle of his acquaintance. . ."

Rosecrans' mother gave him his sense of justice and obligation to speak the truth no matter what the cost. When he was five, William accidentally killed his neighbor's gander while trying to coax it out of his mother's garden. His mother found out and directed William to immediately carry the gander back to the neighbor's house and provide an apology and explanation. Although the neighbor proved forgiving and kind, Rosecrans would recall the terror of his confession well into old age. The lessons of respect and consideration for others sunk in. He would be remembered years later as a "thoughtful, kindhearted, sensitive" boy.

Whereas Braxton Bragg’s rise to power can be seen as an unlikely story of the underdog achieving success only to lose it, Rosecrans’ childhood and young adulthood inspired the high expectations of those around him. At West Point, where he graduated fifth in his class, he was remembered as being, "good at everything, his studies, his military duties, his deportment." The youthful Rosecrans might have seemed destined to achieve great things; such as commanding the Federal forces that achieved victory at Stones River without which, according to President Lincoln, "the nation could scarcely have lived over."

Rosecrans' religious sense of righteousness could sometimes turn into self-righteousness when it came to dealing with the internal squabbles and controversies of the military. Like Braxton Bragg, he would often speak his mind about superiors regardless of how politically risky it was, only to lament his unfair treatment afterwards as if his lack of good sense had nothing to do with his difficulties. On one occasion Rosecrans reported that his superior, General George B. McClellan, had failed to attack at an appropriate time during the Battle of Rich Mountain. Already rankled by whispers that the victory was due to Rosecrans and not himself, McClellan passed Rosecrans over when it came time to promote his officers.

Correspondent Whitewall Reid recalled Rosecrans’ attitude toward superior officers:

To those above him he was always punctilious, often testy, and at times deplorably indiscreet. . . This sturdy honesty, which led him to take upon himself the weightiest responsibilities, and incur the gravest displeasure rather than do that which in his conviction, would prove injurious to the Cause, was at once one of the most striking features of his character, and one of the most potent reasons for his constant embarrassments. -- From The Edge of Glory, by William M. Lamers, Published by Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

General Ulysses S. Grant's animosity towards "Old Rosy" was also well-known. After the Union’s success at Corinth, Mississippi in October, 1862, Grant related that:

General Rosecrans. . . failed to follow up the victory, although I had given him specific orders in advance of the battle for him to pursue the moment the enemy was repelled. He did not do so, and I repeated the order after the battle. In the first order he was notified that the force of 4,000 men which was going to his assistance would be in great peril if the enemy was not pursued. -- The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Vol. 1, published by The Library of America.

Rosecrans' problem was not that he couldn't develop effective battle plans. Rather, like Bragg, he had trouble implementing these plans once it was time to act. While traveling to Chattanooga, General Grant met with Rosecrans, who had been relieved of command as a result of the Union defeat at Chickamauga and subsequent entrapment at Chattanooga. Grant recalled:

He [Rosecrans] came into my car and we held a brief interview, in which he described very clearly the situation at Chattanooga, and made some excellent suggestions as to what should be done. My only wonder was that he had not carried them out. -- The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Vol. 2, published by The Library of America.

Another aspect of General Rosecrans' personality could be seen in his devoted efforts toward cultivating friendly press relations. Indeed, he even made his favorite correspondent, W.D. Bickham of the Cincinnati Commercial, a member of his staff at Stones River, thus assuring that friendly accounts got back to his home state of Ohio. Rosecrans reaped some rewards for his patronage of newspapermen. Murat Halstead, a correspondent with the Cincinnati Gazette, took Rosecrans' side against General Grant to the point of urging the former Governor of Ohio and Secretary of the United States Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, to lobby the President on Rosecrans’ behalf in April, 1863:

Grant will fail miserably, hopelessly, eternally. . . Grant is shamefully jealous of Rosecrans, just as such an imbecile would naturally be of his superior, and he and his staff would chuckle to see Rosecrans cut to pieces. Anybody would be an improvement on Grant. . . If nothing else can be done, now while the Cumberland River is up, send all Grant's army at once, except a division or two, to join Rosecrans and he can instantly penetrate to Georgia. . . Rosecrans is the man to strike the blow. For Christ's sake and the country's sake, put the weapon in his hands. -- Edge of Glory, by William M. Lamers, published by Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

Rosecrans' fatal flaw was in never being able to see his own responsibility for his troubles. He tended to have a simplistic view of the world in which he cast himself largely in the role of a martyr. At the end of the war, after having been removed from command of the Army of the Cumberland, Rosecrans wrote to his friend Congressman James A. Garfield:

I who began by drilling home guards of Cincinnati, teaching the first Ohio troops how to encamp at Dennison, who fought the first successful battle involving important results in the War; made the first successful campaign against Lee. . . who fought Stone's River; drove Bragg from Shelbyville, Tullahoma and Chattanooga. . . drove Price from Missouri; and did much to give that State. . . freedom; an officer of sobriety, morality, and industry, abstinence from all intrigues military and political, I find myself put into retirement and apparent disgrace. . . I want to tax your friendship, in which I confide, to find out and give me an explanation of how and why this is. . . You know I consider my present situation an outrage on justice having few parallels in this or any other War. But I am a firm believer in the final downfall of iniquity. -- Edge of Glory, by William M. Lamers, published by Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

To the end, Rosecrans never understood how to deal with those of superior rank. He had a childlike faith that justice would win out and he need only speak his mind; just as his mother had taught him years earlier in the sleepy hamlet of Homer, Ohio. Rosecrans' relationship with his own men was different. His removal was lamented in the song, "Give Us Back Our Old Commander":

Old Rosy is our man,
Old Rosy is our man.
He'll show his deeds where'er he leads.
Old Rosy is our man.

-- The Life of Billy Yank, by Bell Irvin Wiley, published by Louisiana University Press.

Rosecrans retired from the military in March 1867, after enduring more than two years without a command. In 1868 he was made minister to Mexico. Rosecrans was removed from this post the following year by his old nemesis and new president: Ulysses S. Grant. He served in the House of Representatives from 1880 until 1885 when he accepted an appointment as register of the treasury. He left the treasury in 1893, and died at his ranch in Redondo, California on March 11, 1898.

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