American Civil War: Major General William S. Rosecrans

Major General William S. Rosecrans. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

William Rosecrans - Early Life & Career:

William Starke Rosecrans was born at Little Taylor Run, OH on September 6, 1819. The son of Crandall Rosecrans and Jemima Hopkins, he received little formal education as a youngster and was forced to rely on what he could learn from books. Leaving home at age thirteen, he clerked at a store in Mansfield, OH before attempting to obtain an appointment to West Point from Representative Alexander Harper. Meeting with the congressman, his interview proved so impressive that he received the appointment that Harper had intended to give to his son. Entering West Point in 1838, Rosecrans proved a gifted student.

Dubbed "Old Rosy" by his classmates, he excelled in the classroom and graduated ranked 5th in a class of 56. For this academic achievement, Rosecrans was assigned to the Corps of Engineers as a brevet second lieutenant. Marrying Anna Hegeman on August 24, 1843, Rosecrans received a posting to Fort Monroe, VA. After a year there, he requested and was granted a transfer back to West Point to teach engineering. With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846, he was retained at the academy while his classmates went south to fight.

William Rosecrans - Leaving the Army:

While the fighting raged, Rosecrans continued teaching before moving to Rhode Island and Massachusetts on engineering assignments. Later ordered to the Washington Navy Yard, Rosecrans began seeking civilian jobs to aid in supporting his growing family. In 1851, he sought a teaching post at the Virginia Military Institute, but turned down when the school hired Thomas J. Jackson. In 1854, after suffering from declining health, Rosecrans left the US Army and took a position with a mining company in western Virginia. A skillful businessman, he prospered and later formed an oil refining company in Cincinnati, OH.

William Rosecrans - The Civil War Begins:

Badly burned during an accident in 1859, Rosecrans required eighteen months to recover. His return to health coincided with the start of the Civil War in 1861. Offering his services to Ohio Governor William Dennison, Rosecrans was initially made an aide-de-camp to Major General George B. McClellan before being promoted to colonel and given command of the 23rd Ohio Infantry. Promoted to brigadier general on May 16, he won victories at Rich Mountain and Corrick's Ford, though credit went to McClellan. When McClellan was ordered to Washington after the defeat at Bull Run, Rosecrans was given command in western Virginia.

Eager to take action, Rosecrans lobbied for a winter campaign against Winchester, VA but was blocked by McClellan who promptly transferred away most of his troops. In March 1862, Major General John C. Frémont replaced Rosecrans and he was ordered west to command two divisions in Major General John Pope's Army of the Mississippi. Taking part in Major General Henry Halleck's Siege of Corinth in April and May, Rosecrans received command of the Army of the Mississippi in June when Pope was ordered east. Subordinate to Major General Ulysses S. Grant, Rosecrans' argumentative personality clashed with his new commander.

William Rosecrans - The Army of the Cumberland:

On September 19, Rosecrans won the Battle of Iuka when he defeated Major General Stirling Price. The following month, he successfully defended Corinth though his men were hard-pressed for much of the battle. In the wake of the fighting, Rosecrans earned Grant's ire when he failed to quickly pursue the beaten enemy. Hailed in the northern press, Rosecrans' twin victories earned him command of XIV Corps which was soon renamed the Army of the Cumberland. Replacing Major General Don Carlos Buell who had recently checked the Confederates at Perryville, Rosecrans was promoted to major general.

Re-equipping the army at Nashville, TN through November, Rosecrans came under fire from Halleck, now general-in-chief, for his inaction. Finally moving out in December, marched to attack General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee near Murfreesboro, TN. Opening the Battle of Stones River on December 31, both commanders intended to attack the other's right flank. Moving first, Bragg's assault drove back Rosecrans' lines. Mounting a strong defense, the Union troops were able avert disaster. After both sides remained in place on January 1, 1863, Bragg again attacked the next day and sustained heavy losses.

Unable to defeat Rosecrans, Bragg withdrew to Tullahoma, TN. Remaining at Murfreesboro for the next six months to reinforce and refit, Rosecrans again drew criticism from Washington for his inaction. After Halleck threatened to send some his troops to aid in Grant's Siege of Vicksburg, the Army of the Cumberland finally moved out. Beginning on June 24, Rosecrans conducted the Tullahoma Campaign which saw him use a brilliant series of maneuvers to force Bragg out of central Tennessee in little more than a week while sustaining fewer than 600 casualties.

William Rosecrans - Disaster at Chickamauga:

Though a tremendous success, his accomplishment failed to garner major attention, much to his ire, due to the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Pausing to assess his options, Rosecrans pressed on in late August. As before, he out-maneuvered Bragg and forced the Confederate commander to abandon Chattanooga. Union troops took the city on September 9. Abandoning the cautiousness that had been part of his earlier operations, Rosecrans pushed into northwest Georgia with his corps widely spread apart.

When one was nearly beaten by Bragg at Davis's Cross Roads on September 11, Rosecrans ordered the army to concentrate near Chickamauga Creek. On September 19, Rosecrans met Bragg's army near the creek and opened the Battle of Chickamauga. Recently reinforced by Lieutenant General James Longstreet's corps from Virginia, Bragg began a series of attacks on the Union line. Holding through the day, Rosecrans' army was driven from the field the next day after a poorly-worded order from his headquarters inadvertently opened a large gap in the Union line through which the Confederates attacked. Retreating to Chattanooga, Rosecrans attempted to organize a defense while Major General George H. Thomas delayed the Confederates.

William Rosecrans - Removal from Command:

Though he established a strong position at Chattanooga, Rosecrans was shattered by the defeat and his army was soon besieged by Bragg. Lacking the initiative to break out, Rosecrans' position worsened. To remedy the situation, President Abraham Lincoln unified Union command in the West under Grant. Ordering reinforcements to Chattanooga, Grant arrived in the city and replaced Rosecrans with Thomas on October 19. Traveling north, Rosecrans received orders to command the Department of Missouri in January 1864. Overseeing operations, he defeated Price's Raid that fall. As a War Democrat, he was also briefly considered as a running mate for Lincoln in the 1864 election as the president was seeking a bi-partisan ticket.

William Rosecrans - Later Life:

Remaining in the US Army after the war, he resigned his commission on March 28, 1867. Briefly serving as US Ambassador to Mexico, he was quickly replaced with Grant became president. In the postwar years Rosecrans became involved in several railroad ventures and later was elected to Congress in 1881. Remaining in office until 1885, he continued to bicker with Grant over events during the war. Serving as Register of the Treasury (1885-1893) under President Grover Cleveland, Rosecrans died at his ranch in Redondo Beach, CA on March 11, 1898. In 1908, his remains were re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General William S. Rosecrans." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Civil War: Major General William S. Rosecrans. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General William S. Rosecrans." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).