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.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
When Rosecrans was an infant, his family moved to nearby Homer, in Licking County, Ohio. There, Rosecrans received only a rudimentary education but still secured 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.
U.S. Army Officer
After graduating from West Point, Rosecrans entered the United States Army Corps of Engineers as a brevetted second lieutenant on July 1, 1842, assigned to Fort Monroe, Virginia.
Marriage and Return to West Point
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 April 1, 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 manufactured 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.
Union Army Officer in Western Virginia
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 received a commission as a colonel of the Twenty-third Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Serving under General George McClellan in western Virginia, the War Department quickly commissioned Rosecrans as brigadier general in the volunteer army 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 President Lincoln summoned him to Washington to command the Division of the Potomac, leaving Rosecrans in charge in western Virginia. In March 1862, the War Department transferred Rosecrans’ department to the Mountain Department led by John C. Frémont. The change left Rosecrans without a command. The army ordered Rosecrans to Washington, DC, where his views clashed with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, fostering ill feelings that would haunt Rosecrans later in the war.
Battle of Iuka
In May 1862, the War Department placed Rosecrans in command of the right-wing of the Army of the Mississippi. On July 26, he assumed command of the entire army, reporting to Major General Ulysses S. Grant. Shortly thereafter, Grant began to question Rosecrans’ 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.
Battle of Corinth and Clash with Ulysses S. Grant
A little over 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). Rosecrans’ army repulsed an assault by Confederate General Earl Van Dorn’s Army of West Tennessee and won the battle. Nonetheless, Grant criticized Rosecrans for his preparations and for failing to pursue Van Dorn’s retreating army vigorously after the battle, as Grant had ordered him to do. Rosecrans, in return, 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.
Army of the Cumberland Commander
On October 24, 1862, General-in-Chief Henry W. 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’ star continued to rise when he repulsed a Confederate assault near Murfreesboro at the Battle of Stones River (December 31, 1862–January 2, 1863). The victory forced Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee to retreat to Shelbyville and Tullahoma, Tennessee. After the battle, the War Department designated Rosecrans’ corps as the Army of the Cumberland. For the next six months, Rosecrans was content to settle in near Murfreesboro instead of pursuing Bragg, despite many complaints from Washington.
Finally, after receiving an ultimatum from Halleck on June 16, 1863, Rosecrans set off to engage Bragg. The ensuing Tullahoma Campaign (June 24–July 3, 1863) drove Bragg out of middle Tennessee with very little loss of blood. Rosecrans’ victory was a significant boost for the Union, but the Federal victory at Gettysburg on the same day, and Grant’s capture of Vicksburg on the following day, overshadowed it. Somewhat downplaying Rosecrans’ achievement, Secretary of War Stanton urged Rosecrans to continue to press Bragg and “give the finishing blow to the rebellion.”
Disaster at Chickamauga
When Bragg abandoned Chattanooga on September 9, 1863, and moved his army into northern Georgia. Rosecrans occupied the Chattanooga but rather than regrouping and securing the city as he had done at Murfreesboro, Rosecrans pursued 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 mistakenly believed 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.
Relieved of Command
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.
Departure from the Army
The army sent Rosecrans to Cincinnati, Ohio to await further orders and subsequently deployed him to Missouri, where he spent the rest of the war in relative obscurity. On March 13, 1865, Rosecrans received a brevet promotion to major general in the regular army in gratitude for his actions at Stones River.
After months of inactivity, Rosecrans mustered out of the U.S. volunteer service on January 15, 1866. Fourteen months later, 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. There, 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 the register of the California Treasury from 1885 to 1893.
An act of Congress on February 27, 1889, re-appointed Rosecrans as a brigadier general, on the retired list. Three days later, he retired again with full military benefits. He spent the rest of his life as a farmer on his ranch at Redondo Junction, California.
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 re-interred in Arlington National Cemetery.