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William S. Rosecrans
About North Georgia

Born: September_6, 1819, Kingston, Ohio,
Died: March_11, 1898, Redondo Junction, California,

The eccentric William S(tarke) Rosecrans served as commander of the Army of the Mississippi and the Army of the Cumberland, but his reluctance to commit men to battle would repeatedly aggravate his Commanders. Poor tactical judgment and his disgraceful exit from a battlefield pictured Rosecrans as the loser in the worst rout of the Union Army in any theater. For a brief time in 1863, prior to General Rosecrans failure to begin the Tullahoma Campaign and his defeat at Chickamauga, he was considered for commander of the Army of the Potomac and as vice-president of the United States in the 1864 Republican ticket under Lincoln.

Early Life

William S. Rosecrans
Born in rural central Ohio to the descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, William Rosecrans received little formal education. An avid reader he pursued an education at the United States Military Academy at West Point, one of the few non-agricultural career paths open to him. At West Point he roomed with and tutored James Longstreet, whom he considered a good friend (as did Ulysses S. Grant). After graduating 5th in a class of 56, "Old Rosy" went into the Engineer Corps, where it took him nine years to earn his First Lieutenant bars working on Fort Monroe and various wharves, harbors and coastal fortifications along the eastern seaboard. In November, 1853, Rosecrans became ill and retired from the military the following year. Between his resignation in 1854 and The Civil War Rosecrans he pursued a career as a civil engineer and geologist, becoming familiar with what is now the state of West Virginia, where he worked at a mining company. He was involved in other endeavors as well, but Ohio newspaperman Whitlaw Reid summed up this time by saying, "The next seven years were to Lieutenant Rosecrans of more varied than profitable activity"

The Civil War

Operations in Western Virginia

William Rosecrans earlier work in West Virginia aided his early success at driving the Rebels back from the mountainous area in the eastern part of the state to the Shenandoah Valley during the Operations in western Virginia and the Kanawha Campaign. George McClellan was Rosecrans' commander at this time and Rosecrans learned first-hand of the problems that would plague McClellan during his tenure as General-in-Chief, U. S. Army. At the Battle of Rich Mountain George McClellan refused to reinforce Rosecrans, although he could hear the fight being waged by General Rosecrans less than a mile away at the top of Rich Mountain.

In a message to McClellan instructing him to report to Washington D. C. following the disaster at Bull Run General-in-Chief Winfield Scott was decidedly non-committal towards a Rosecrans command: "Circumstances make your presence here necessary. Charge Rosecrans or some other general with your present department and come hither without delay." Over the next 10 months Rosecrans enjoyed limited military success in West Virginia in spite of a deeply divided Southern command structure. Against John Floyd and Henry Wise (former governors of Virginia) commanding a ragtag force of volunteers Rosecrans became one of the few Union commanders who was consistently defeating the Confederate, giving him a good deal of positive coverage in the Northern press.

Then John C. Fremont was given command of the Mountain Department, which included West Virginia, part of Kentucky and Eastern Tennessee. On March 29, 1862, Fremont relieved Rosecrans of his western Virginia command and relegated Old Rosy to a brigadier's role. Unhappy with "...playing second fiddle to a military misfit," Rosecrans returned to Washington to lobby for a new assignment.

Western Theater

Henry Halleck ordered Rosecrans west following the Union's near-disaster at the Battle of Shiloh and Halleck assigned him to John Pope, then in command of the Army of Mississippi. A friend from West Point days, Pope assigned Rosecrans two divisions and command of his right wing. When John Pope left to assume command of the Army of Virginia, Halleck chose Rosecrans to assume command of the Army of the Mississippi.

That July Halleck was chosen as General-in-Chief and Halleck placed the western Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant. Braxton Bragg, aware that Grant had already sent two divisions to Buell, wanted Confederate generals Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price to ensure that Grant could not further reinforce Buell during Bragg's Invasion of Kentucky.

Iuka, Mississippi had been garrisoned by the Army of the Mississippi, and when the commanding colonel found out Sterling Price was headed his way he withdrew to the west. Before leaving the colonel set fire to a stockpile of supplies at the depot, but Confederate cavalry arrived in time to douse the blaze. Grant ordered Rosecrans to send a brigade to find out the Rebels' strength. With Van Dorn a four-day march away, Grant sent Rosecrans forward "...in haste." Rosecrans wired Grant that he would be ready to attack Price from the south on the morning of September 19. Finally, at 4:30 pm Rosecrans hit the Confederate line, driving Price off in the Battle of Iuka. With bad news coming from Kentucky and Maryland, the northern press once again celebrated a Rosecrans victory.

Returning to Corinth William Rosecrans entrenched his army as General Braxton Bragg moved north from Chattanooga to central Kentucky. Van Dorn planned to concentrate his and Price's forces before the battle, then hit Rosecrans. Luckily for General Rosecrans, Grant realized Van Dorn's plan and the general commanding wired Rosecrans to withdraw his garrisons protecting positions in the vicinity of Corinth on October_1, 1862. For some reason Rosecrans failed to act on this order until October 2 and even then, Old Rosy did not realize that Corinth was Van Dorn's goal.

Van Dorn moved west north of the city of Corinth, turning to attack in the northwest corner. This extended his line of retreat, making him a easy target as he withdrew following the battle. Grant ordered Rosecrans to pursue Van Dorn aggressively, but after a brutal two-day battle (October 3-4, 1862), Rosecrans decided to wait until the following day. Grant prepared to relieve Rosecrans of duty for failure to obey an order as word came from Halleck that he wanted Rosecrans to replace Buell. Grant later wrote, "Two or three hours of pursuit on the day of the battle...would have been worth more than any pursuit commenced the next day."

Army of The Cumberland

Once again a hero in the Northern press for his victory at Corinth, Rosecrans traveled east to relieve Buell in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Old Rosy assumed command of the XIV Corps (the renamed Army of the Ohio) on October 30, 1862. Almost immediately his men, including his general staff and commanders, realized that Rosecrans was "eccentric." He tended to issue too many orders and was viewed as "impulsive" by Left Wing Commander Thomas Crittenden. Under pressure he would stutter to the point of being incomprehensible (many people). A colonel in the Chicago Board of Trade battery did not begin a recon mission near Nashville because he had not received the orders. In front of other officers and civilians Rosecrans berated the Colonel in the "most ungentlemanly, abusive and insulting language."

Stones River

While Rosecrans advanced from Bowling Green to Nashville Braxton Bragg and the Army of Tennessee advanced from Knoxville to Murfreesboro, Tennessee in late November. As early as November 18, 1862, Rosecrans was ordered to advance to engage Bragg ssouth of Nashville. Finally, on December 26, Rosecrans began his advance with George Thomas in command of Rosecrans center wing, and Thomas Crittenden and Alexander McCook in command of the left and right wings respectively.

Meeting the Army of Tennessee south of Murfreesboro on December 31, 1862, Rosecrans began issuing a barrage of orders when he found out McCook's Right Wing was collapsing under Bragg's heavy attack. Directing companies, not commanders, under a blizzard of paper, Rosecrans eventually ended up on the field of battle, rallying his men and probably saving the Right Wing of the Union Army from collapse. Rosecrans did not retreat to Nashville, as Bragg thought and on January 2, 1863 the battle resumed. Bragg ordered a charge against the Union line, which was easily turned back. Informed that Rosecrans was being reinforced, Bragg decided to withdrew southeast to the Duck River. Lincoln wired the commander, "God bless you and all with you."

Tullahoma Campaign

After renaming the XIV Corps to the Army of the Cumberland on January 7, 1863, William Rosecrans regrouped -- for almost 6 months. After the decision was made to replace Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac in February, 1863, Rosecrans name was repeatedly raised as a potential candidate for the command. It was felt that Rosecrans was a "western commander' and might not be widely accepted as the new commander of the eastern army, so the command went to Fighting Joe Hooker. When United States President Abraham Lincoln announced his choice, Cincinnati's Spirit of the Times wrote:
With Rosecrans in the West and Hooker in the East there is not treason enough in the North and rebellion enough in the South...to prevent the war for the Union from being brought to an early and satisfactory end.
Lincoln also considered Rosecrans as a potential replacement to Vice President Hannibal Hamlin. (see below)

Lincoln wanted a coordinated effort at the start of May, 1863. would hit the Rebels on the Eastern Front, Grant would strike the Confederate positions along the Mississippi and Rosecrans was to advance on Chattanooga. By the time Rosecrans started in late June Grant had the Confederate Army surrounded in Vicksburg and Hooker had lost at Chancellorsville and was moving to catch up to Robert E. Lee in Pennsylvania.

William Rosecrans decided he was ready to move in mid-June, 1863. With some 65,000 effectives in the Army of the Cumberland, well-fed and well-equipped, Rosecrans faced between 41,000 to 51,000 Confederates deployed to protect agricultural resources and supply lines as much as anticipated routes of advance. Bragg felt Rosecrans would move due south towards Alabama and was surprised when the Union forces struck Hoover and Liberty Gap in the Highland Rim of the Cumberland Plateau with his main concentration in Hoover Gap. Rosecrans wanted to move south, but his senior commanders made their case for the gaps in the Highland Rim.

On June 23, 1863, Rosecrans ordered a feint to Bragg's left by David Stanley and Gordon Grainger. John Wilder's mounted infantry took Hoover Gap and George Thomas, Alexander McCook and Thomas Crittenden moved through the pass as Wilder continued to northeast of Tullahoma. As Union forces streamed out of Hoover Gap on July 26, Bragg ordered Leonidas Polk to advance through Guy's Gap and strike the Union force in the morning. Polk never acted on the order and Polk and Hardee withdrew as ordered later in the day from the established Confederate line near the Highland Rim to Tullahoma and began to entrench. Bragg realized Tullahoma was not a good choice for his headquarters (his back was to the unpredictable Duck River and he was dependent upon a single line of supply). Bragg withdrew to Chattanooga, arriving on July 3, 1863 and Rosecrans swept into Stevenson and Bridgeport, Alabama, a good choice by Old Rosy. He seemed to be threatening Bragg's rear and his main line of supply, the Western and Atlantic Railroad.

After delaying another six weeks, Rosecrans decided to move through the gaps in Lookout Mountain. He sent John Wilder northeast of Chattanooga while Rosecrans began to move on August 29, forcing Bragg to withdraw to LaFayette, Georgia (Walker County) on September 7. It was Bragg's withdrawals from Tullahoma and Chattanooga with little loss of life on the Union side that has led some military historians to classify the Tullahoma Campaign and the start of the Chickamauga campaign as "brilliant" and paints Rosecrans as a military genius. In fact, Old Rosy's finest moment grew out Braxton Bragg's worst moments and the Confederate government's own policy of forwarding the agricultural output of the Southern States for the Army of North Virginia.


Rosecrans expected to find the Army of Tennessee in retreat as the Army of the Cumberland came out of the gaps in Lookout Mountain starting with Thomas on September 8 and followed by Crittenden on September 9. Lee and Gordon's Mill on the Chickamauga River was the focal point for Bragg's concentration, so when Rosecrans discovered a large force there on September 11, he realized that in fact Bragg was not in retreat and began movement towards the safety of Chattanooga.

Bragg had resolved, thanks to the arrival of James Longstreet's men, to fight Rosecrans at Chickamauga Creek in northwest Georgia. Rather than simply march north to Tennessee along the Lafayette-Chattanooga Road Rosecrans ordered a complex movement regiment by regiment. He also ordered the bridges over Chickamauga Creek destroyed. Unfortunately, by the time this happened (late of September 18, 1863) most of the Rebel army was across the river and moving towards the main body of the Union line.

On the second day of battle, Longstreet arrived and followed the sound of gunfire to the battle. He ordered John Bell Hood to attack the Federal forces in the vicinity of the Brotherton Cabin. Just as Bushrod Johnson struck the federal line at 11:00 pm General Thomas Wood was withdrawing under direct orders from Rosecrans to move north. Johnson punched a whole in the line and wheeled to the right, rolling up the Union line as he advanced. Rosecrans, in Widow Glenn's house just west of the Brotherton Cabin, tried to hurry Phil Sheridan into the gap, but Sheridan's men were more than a mile away. With the Rebels moving north, pushing the Army of the Cumberland in front of them, Rosecrans, McCook and Crittenden were cut off from the main body of their force. They chose to follow a farm road west of the fighting to make their way to Chattanooga while Generals George Thomas and Gordon Grainger held the Rebels off until nightfall.


Surrounded on three sides and blocked by terrain from reinforcing and resupplying Chattanooga, William Rosecrans slowly cut his men to half-rations. Twenty thousand men under Joe Hooker arrived at the Union stronghold in Stevenson, Alabama beginning on October 1. Hooker did not show much initiative in rescuing the Army of the Cumberland, slowly starving less than 50 miles away. Hooker did try to keep the supplies flowing, but Rebel sharpshooters were keeping the Union wagons off the direct road and forcing them to use a longer, more difficult route over Walden's Ridge. To regain use of the shorter route, Rosecrans approved a plan by Baldy Smith to cross the Tennessee River at Brown's Ferry and drive of the sharpshooters.

On October 19, Ulysses S. Grant arrived and relieved General William Rosecrans from duty, having served as commander of the Army of the Cumberland for less than a year.

1864 VP Candidacy

Lincoln decided in early 1863, probably at the suggestion of Horace Greeley, to seek a unity candidate for vice-president. Hannibal Hamlin, the current vice president, was closely associated with the abolitionist movement and Lincoln wanted a candidate who could help unite the country after the Civil War ended. Among the men considered for the job was William Rosecrans, a War Democrat. As early as March, 1863, Horace Greeley asked James R. Gilmore to visit Rosecrans in Murfreesboro to measure his fitness to replace Lincoln as President.

According to Gilmore, Rosecrans replied verbally to a question about his willingness to serve as vice-president for Abraham Lincoln:

I have not had the remotest suspicion that you were here for any such purpose. My place is here. The country gave me my education, and so it has a right to my military services: and it educated me for precisely this emergency. So this, and not the presidency, is my post of duty, and I cannot, without violating my conscience, leave it.

Gilmore then reported the general's feelings verbally to the President.


In 1864 William Starke Rosecrans accepted command of the Department of Missouri. Once again up against his old nemesis, Sterling Price, Rosecrans proposed a combined attack with Kansas commander Samuel Curtis against the raiders at Lexington. Although the attack never materialized, his cavalry under Alfred Pleasonton chased the Confederate General out of the department and into Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in October, 1864.

Over the next thirty years Rosecrans served in a number of public positions, most notably as representative from the state of California to the U.S. House. He declined to run for governor of California in 1867 and in Ohio in 1869.


Over the years General William Rosecrans has established a wide range of protagonists and antagonists. In general, his success in the Operations in Western Virginia made him popular in contemporary papers. Modern military experts downplay the importance of these operations for a number of reasons: the armies involved were small, the Rebels were often poorly supplied, the battles were fought with large numbers of newly recruited volunteers and Union forces normally outnumbered Confederate force by a wide margin.

His performance at Iuka and Corinth both seem questionable, especially since his commanding officer was preparing to remove him from command following his unwillingness to pursue his opponent after a victory. Stones River seems to be his one redeeming battle. The loss at Chickamauga remains one of the worst for the United States in any war.

Rosecrans proponents often point to his Tullahoma Campaign as "brilliant," but when compared to other campaigns (such as Grant's Vicksburg Campaign, Lee's Seven Days or Jackson's Shenandoah Valley Campaign) it falls woefully short in brilliance.

Other views

"Although he showed some strategic ability in his advance, Rosecrans proved a poor tactical leader in the field.

Ulysses S. Grant

General Rosecrans seems to be insensible to the impending danger and dawdles with trifles...

Charles Dana with the Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga, October, 1863

"...Rosecrans proved slow to move, reluctant to fight and ineffective in battle."

Peter Doyle, Matthew R. Bennett
Fields of Battle

Additional reading:

Chickamauga Campaign

Biographies of famous, not so famous and infamous people from the North Georgia area or who had an effect on North Georgia
The Civil War in Georgia
Beginning with the Great Locomotive Chase and the battle of Chickamauga, to the Atlanta Campaign and the March to the Sea

Article Links
Abraham Lincoln
Ambrose Burnside
Army of the Cumberland
Army of the Ohio
Army of the Potomac
Battle of Iuka
Battle of Rich Mountain
Battle of Shiloh
Braxton Bragg
Bull Run
Chickamauga Campaign
Earl Van Dorn
Fighting Joe Hooker
General-in-Chief, U. S. Army
George McClellan
George Thomas
Henry Halleck
Invasion of Kentucky
James Longstreet
January 2, 1863
John Bell Hood
John C. Fremont
John Floyd
Lookout Mountain
March 29, 1862
Operations in Western Virginia
Robert E. Lee
Sterling Price
The Civil War
Tullahoma Campaign
Ulysses S. Grant
Walker County
Washington D. C.
Winfield Scott

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