William Starke Rosecrans (September 6, 1819 - March 11, 1898)

Updated: February 11, 2015

William S. Rosecrans was a prominent Union general who, perhaps unfairly, is best remembered for his role during the Union defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga.

William Starke Rosecrans was born on September 6, 1819, at Little Taylor Run, Kingston Township, Delaware County, Ohio. He was the second of five sons of Crandell Rosecrans and Jemima Hopkins. His mother's lineage included Stephen Hopkins, who signed the Declaration of Independence. When Rosecrans was an infant, his family moved to nearby Homer, in Licking County, Ohio. There, Rosecrans received a rudimentary education but was still able to secure an appointment to the United States Military Academy in 1838. At West Point, Rosecrans was an exemplary student, graduating fifth in his class in 1842.

After graduating from West Point, Rosecrans entered the United States Army Corps of Engineers as a brevetted second lieutenant on July 1, 1842. He was assigned to Fort Monroe, Virginia, and on August 24, 1843, he married Anna Elizabeth Hegeman. That same year, Rosecrans returned to West Point, where he served as an assistant professor of engineering until 1847. During his assignment at the academy, Rosecrans made a religious conversion from Methodism to Roman Catholicism. From 1847 to 1853, Rosecrans served on various engineering assignments on the East Coast. With a growing family to support, Rosecrans resigned his military commission on April1, 1854, to pursue a civilian engineering career.

Rosecrans' career outside of the military was quite successful. He served as president of the Coal River Navigation Company in Kanawha County, Virginia. (now West Virginia) in 1856. In 1857, he and two partners organized the Preston Coal Oil Company and engaged in the manufacture of kerosene. During that period, Rosecrans also applied for patents for several inventions, including the first kerosene lamp to burn a round wick and a more effective method of manufacturing soap. In 1859, Rosecrans suffered severe burns in an industrial explosion that left his face scarred and forced a convalescence of eighteen months.

When the American Civil War began, Rosecrans first served as a drillmaster for the "Marion Rifles." Soon thereafter, he developed the engineering plans for Camp Dennison, near Cincinnati. On June 7, 1861, Rosecrans was commissioned as a colonel of the Twenty-third Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Serving under General George McClellan in western Virginia, Rosecrans was quickly promoted to brigadier general in the United States Army on May 16, 1861. Less than two months later, Rosecrans played a pivotal role in defeating Confederate forces at the Battle of Rich Mountain (July 11, 1861), one of the first Federal victories in the war. McClellan received the credit for securing western Virginia for the Union and was summoned to Washington to assume command of the Division of Potomac, leaving Rosecrans in charge in western Virginia. In March 1862, however, Rosecrans's department was converted to the Mountain Department led by John C. Frémont, leaving Rosecrans without a command. Rosecrans was transferred to Washington, DC, where his views clashed with those of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, fostering ill feelings that would haunt Rosecrans later in the war.

In May 1862, Rosecrans was placed in command of the right wing of the Army of the Mississippi, and on July 26, he was given command of the entire army, reporting to Major General Ulysses S. Grant. In short order, Grant began to question Rosecrans's leadership. On September 19, 1862, Rosecrans dislodged Confederate General Sterling Price's Army of the West from Iuka, Mississippi, but his tardiness delayed the battle. His failure to secure a nearby road also enabled Price's army to escape. A little more than two weeks later, Rosecrans reaped the praise of the northern press, along with the wrath of Grant for his performance at the Battle of Corinth (October 3-4, 1862). Although Rosecrans's army repulsed an assault by Confederate General Earl Van Dorn's Army of West Tennessee and won the battle, Grant criticized Rosecrans for his preparations and for failing to vigorously pursue Van Dorn's retreating army after the battle, as Grant had ordered him to do. For his part, Rosecrans criticized Grant for not sending reinforcements that Rosecrans had requested. As Grant pondered relieving Rosecrans of his command, Rosecrans gladly accepted an opportunity to escape the strained relationship that had developed between the two men.

On October 24, 1862, General Henry Halleck named Rosecrans to replace Major General Don Carlos Buell as commander of what would become the Army of the Cumberland in central Tennessee. There, Rosecrans's star continued to rise when he repulsed a Confederate assault near Murfreesboro at the Battle of Stones River (December 31, 1862–January 2, 1863), forcing Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee to retreat to Shelbyville and Tullahoma, Tennessee. After the battle, Rosecrans's corps was re-designated as the Army of the Cumberland, and Rosecrans was content to settle in near Murfreesboro for the next six months instead of pursuing Bragg, despite numerous entreaties from Washington. Finally, after receiving an ultimatum from General-in Chief Henry Halleck on June 16, Rosecrans set off to engage Bragg. The ensuing Tullahoma Campaign (June 24 – July 3, 1863) succeeded in driving Bragg out of middle Tennessee with very little loss of blood. Rosecrans's victory was a significant gain for the Union, but it was overshadowed by the Federal victory at Gettysburg on the same day and Grant's capture of Vicksburg on the following day. Somewhat downplaying Rosecrans's achievement, Secretary of War Stanton urged Rosecrans to continue to press Bragg and "give the finishing blow to the rebellion."

When Bragg decided to abandon Chattanooga on September 9, and move his army into northern Georgia, Rosecrans occupied the city. He had achieved his goal of capturing Chattanooga and driving Bragg out of Tennessee, but rather than regrouping and securing the city as he had done at Murfreesboro, Rosecrans decided to pursue Bragg's army into Georgia with disastrous consequences. On September 18, the Confederates struck back at the Federals near Chickamauga Creek. The next day, Bragg ordered a major assault on the Union army. Despite repeated attacks from the Confederates, the Federals held their lines throughout the day. That night, they pulled back and constructed log breastworks along a new line. On September 20, Bragg renewed the attack. During the late morning, Rosecrans was mistakenly informed that the Rebels had created a gap on his left flank. He responded by sending reinforcements from his center, inadvertently creating a real gap there. Confederate General James Longstreet immediately exploited the new gap and drove one-third of the Union army, including Rosecrans, from the field. General George H. Thomas took command of the remaining army and withstood Rebel assaults until nightfall. He then retreated to the safety of the mountains. On September 21, the Army of the Cumberland withdrew to Chattanooga and Bragg countered by seizing the high ground overlooking Chattanooga (Lookout Mountain, Seminary Ridge and Raccoon Mountain), laying siege to the city. The Battle of Chickamauga was costly for both sides. The Union army suffered over 16,000 casualties (killed, wounded, and captured or missing). The Confederates suffered over 18,000 casualties. The combined losses were the highest total for any battle in the western theater of the American Civil War and second only to Gettysburg for the entire war. Personally, the defeat at Chickamauga marked the beginning of the end of Rosecrans' military career. When Halleck sent Grant from Vicksburg to Chattanooga to break Bragg's siege, one of the first actions Grant took was to relieve Rosecrans of his command.

Rosecrans was sent to Cincinnati, Ohio to await further orders and was subsequently stationed in Missouri, where he spent the remainder of the war in relative obscurity. On March 13, 1865, Rosecrans was awarded a brevet promotion to major general in the regular army in gratitude for his actions at Stones River. He was mustered out of the U.S. volunteer service on January 15, 1866, and he resigned from the regular army on March 28, 1867.

President Andrew Johnson appointed Rosecrans as a minister to Mexico in 1868. He served in that capacity until the following year, when his old nemesis, newly elected United States President Ulysses Grant removed him from office. Rosecrans then moved to California. Here, he became president of the Safety Powder Company, in Los Angeles, in 1875. In 1880, California voters elected Rosecrans to the United States House of Representatives, where he served from March 4, 1881, until March 3, 1885. Choosing not to seek re-election, Rosecrans served as register of the treasury from 1885 to 1893. By an act of Congress on February 27, 1889, he was reappointed brigadier general, on the retired list, and he retired again three days later with full military benefits. He lived the remainder of his life as a farmer on his ranch at Redondo Junction, California.

William Starke Rosecrans died at his ranch on March 11, 1898. He was originally buried in Rosedale Cemetery in California. On May 17, 1902, his remains were reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery.

 

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