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the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2005

Like a Duck Hit on the Head

He was loved by his troops who called him Old Rosey. His subordinates were loyal, even if he did keep them up late at night discussing religion. He drove Lincoln, Halleck, and Stanton to distraction, because while he won battles, he took so long in doing it. He won at places like Iuka, Corinth, and Stones River. He out generaled Braxton Bragg all over the State of Tennessee and finally pushed him out of Chattanooga without firing a shot. But then, at a place called Chickamauga in northwest Georgia, September 1863, Old Rosey would suffer his first defeat; nearly losing his army, losing his command, and, some said, his self respect.

William Starke Rosecrans
William S. Rosecrans

William Starke Rosecrans was born in Kingston Ohio, 6 September 1819. He was fifth in a class of fifty six when he graduated from West Point in 1842. His roommate, James Longstreet, was fifty fourth. After a twelve year military career, he resigned his commission in 1854. Like it did so many others, the Civil War brought him back to active duty. But unlike others — Grant especially — he hadn't been a failure in civilian life, as he left a flourishing engineering career when he rejoined the military. Rosecrans began his second stint in the military as a colonel, and would serve under George McClellan during the successful fight for Western Virginia. When McClellan moved east to take command of the Army of the Potomac, Rosecrans was promoted to general.

One of Rosecrans' earliest triumphs of the war occurred at Cheat Mountain in August of 1861, when he routed the later to be legendary, Thomas Stonewall Jackson. By October 1862, Rosecrans was a major general and serving under the command of Ulysses S. Grant in the western theater. It was at Corinth Mississippi, when, while commanding an inferior force, he beat back a determined charge by Confederates under the command of Earl J. Van Doren, who was trying to retake the vital railway hub. Ironically, this was also the time Old Rosey got in Grant's doghouse, when he failed to pursue the defeated enemy as Grant thought he should. Grant never forgot and always doubted Rosecrans' fighting ability thereafter. In fact, it was said that only his transfer to Nashville on 30 October 1862, as commander of the newly created Army of the Cumberland, prevented Grant from relieving him of command.

But, undoubtedly, it's the Battle of Corinth that points out the difference between commanders like Grant and Rosecrans. William Rosecrans was described as a complex man, deeply religious yet very profane, with an almost uncontrollable temper. Yet, he cared deeply about his men, keeping them well fed and well supplied. Also, they could count on him to be visible during battle, usually where the fighting was heaviest. His soldiers knew he'd take them into combat only when they were well rested, and would not gamble with their lives. Conversely, Grant was an aggressive commander, who'd take heavy casualties if he felt the final outcome would be victory. For this reason Grant became the favorite in Washington, while Rosecrans was tolerated — as long as he won.

In Lincoln's defense, it's understandable that he would want the war over with as quickly as possible; and in the early years it was thought that one great battle at the right place would end the carnage. Rosecrans obviously saw things differently. He would fight when prospects for victory seemed right, but fighting a war took planning, and why waste lives if you could win victories by outmaneuvering the enemy? So, while Lincoln, Stanton, and Halleck chafed, Rosecrans planned, answering telegrams from Washington with snide remarks, while declaring that if they didn't like the job he was doing, he would gladly step aside. Of course, while his record was perfect, he knew the power in Washington would never take him up on his offer.

Some said Rosecrans fought battles the way he did because he was a nervous, highly excitable person, who had a fear of losing control of situations. You avoided loss of control by careful planning, thereby not having to make split decisions in the heat of battle. Make careful plans, fight on the ground of your choosing with well rested, well supplied men and victory would come. While he exasperated Washington, and sometimes the subordinates who loved him, no one could argue against his strategy — as long as he won.

Others denied that Rosecrans was the type of man to lose control. True, he was excitable, had a terrible temper, and too often denigrated subordinates he didn't favor, but he had the courage of a bulldog, and never lost his head in battle. He was not a rear echelon general but could always be found in the thick of things. Maybe he did take too long to get going, but once he was ready, he was a fighter!

It was his reputation as a fighter that moved Lincoln to select Rosecrans as a replacement for Don Carlos Buell as commander of the Army of the Cumberland in October 1862. But if he thought he was getting the opposite of Buell, whom he considered too slow, he was in for a surprise.

What Lincoln wanted, was the Confederate Army, led by Braxton Bragg, out of Tennessee. He had selected Rosecrans to accomplish that mission, and was more than a little perturbed when Old Rosey didn't get on with it. To each telegram from Washington urging him forward, Rosecrans would respond that his Army would move when everything was in place. This would prevent having to "stop and tinker" along the way.

One valid reason that Rosecrans gave for such careful preparation was that he didn't have enough cavalry to guard his flanks, protect his supply lines, and be his eyes and ears. He needed to be careful so as not to have his Army strung out all over Tennessee, making it an easy target for Confederate cavalry commanders, such as Joe Wheeler, John Hunt Morgan, and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

It's certainly true that in 1862, the Federal army in the west had no cavalry outfits to compare with the aforementioned trio. This deficiency would be corrected eventually with the creation of what would come to be known as the Lightning Brigade. Nevertheless, by December of 1862, Old Rosey was ready to move; an action that would lead to a clash with Braxton Bragg and his army on New Year's Eve at a place called Stones River.

Around Christmas 1862, Rosecrans' scouts and spies told him that Forrest and Morgan were far away in west Tennessee. Now was the time to move. On 30 December, Rosecrans formed his line of battle along the south fork of the west bank of Stones River, two miles from the town of Murfreesboro, where the Confederates lay in wait. Rosecrans had 44,000 troops, Bragg 37,713, though many of his officers were nursing post-Christmas hangovers.

New Year's Eve 1862 was the day when William Starke Rosecrans would give lie to the rumor that he was too emotional to lead an army in the heat of battle. The early part of that day went against him, yet he parried each of Bragg's thrusts, and the end of the day found the Federals in control of the field. New Year's Day 1863, found Bragg afraid to assault Rosecrans' positions, and while another commander — Grant perhaps — might have seen this as a sign of his enemy's weakness and attacked a seemingly tired enemy, Rosecrans stayed in character; he fed and refitted his army and got ready for the morrow.

Come 2 January, the Battle of Stones River continued. Rosecrans, his uniform caked with mud and blood, could be seen everywhere, encouraging his troops. At times his lips could be seen to quiver, but he held on — "this battle must be won." By the next day, it had been; as Bragg, after losing a quarter of his force, pulled out of Murfreesboro. Old Rosey had lost nearly as much — twenty three percent of his army — including one man who was especially near and dear to his heart.

Julius P. Garesche
Julius P. Garesche

Colonel Julius P. Garesche, who was beloved by all, from private to general, was decapitated by a cannonball while riding alongside of Rosecrans. "Brave men die in battle" was the only comment Old Rosey made, but those who were there say Garesche's death was something he never recovered from. He was later seen to cut the buttons off his uniform and put them in an envelope labeled: buttons from the uniform I was wearing the day Garesche died.

Washington was effusive in its praise for the commander who had won such an important battle. Abraham Lincoln was especially grateful. "God bless you; I can never forget whilst I remember you gave us a hard earned victory, which if there had been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over." That sense of gratitude did not last long. In the months ahead, Washington would once again be asking: when are you going to move?

Chattanooga, eighty miles from Murfreesboro, was still the big prize, because it was the intersection of several of the South's most important rail lines. If Chattanooga and east Tennessee were in Federal hands, Abraham Lincoln believed the rebellion might die, and so he began applying pressure to Rosecrans. "I would not push you to any rashness, but I am very anxious that you do your utmost, short of rashness, to keep Bragg from getting off to help Johnston against Grant."

U.S. Grant was getting ready to attack the vital port of Vicksburg. The twin prizes of that Mississippi city, four hundred miles to the west, and Chattanooga would certainly win the war in the western region of the South. But Lincoln need not worry about Old Rosey doing anything rash.

Rosecrans argued that his troops were tired and low on food. He also needed more troops, especially cavalry, before starting an offensive campaign. He then voiced what he described as a "military axiom": no nation should fight two decisive battles at once. Neither Lincoln nor Grant had ever heard of such an axiom, and Grant, who'd long since had his fill of Rosecrans, gave a totally exasperated response: "even if you win them?"

But Old Rosey would not move until he was ready. Finally, on 24 June 1863, he was — to the cheers of Washington and his own Army, who declared that they were "rusting away".

As usual, when Rosecrans moved, he moved quickly and efficiently. Even heavy rains, described as "not a Presbyterian rain but a genuine Baptist downpour", couldn't slow Old Rosey's Army once he decided to move. The result was victory at Tullahoma, and Bragg's retreat to Chattanooga. This time, the good feelings between Rosecrans and Washington lasted a mere three days. Old Rosey got particularly angry at Secretary of War Stanton, who wired on 7 July: "Lee beaten at Gettysburg, Grant victorious at Vicksburg. You and your noble army now have the chance to give the finishing blow to the rebellion; will you neglect the chance?" Old Rosey's reply was scathing and to the point. "You do not appear to observe the fact that this noble army has driven the rebels from middle Tennessee. I beg on behalf of this army that the War Department may not overlook so great an event because it is not written in letters of blood." Rosecrans' meaning was clear: victories are not necessarily determined by a high body count. And so the exchange of telegrams went on. Washington insisting that he attack Chattanooga immediately, and Rosecrans declaring he would move when he was ready. He no doubt felt the accomplishments of he and his army were under appreciated. Perhaps this played a part in the disaster that was to follow.

While history has never given William Starke Rosecrans the credit he deserves, even his severest detractors must admit he was masterly at planning battles. Chattanooga was no different. Old Rosey studied the topography around the city endlessly. He knew the easiest approach was not necessarily the best because it would also be the easiest to defend. He chose the route that would keep him close to his own supply lines and would bring him Bragg's lines of communication. If he could pull off this maneuver, he might force Bragg to evacuate Chattanooga in order to protect his lines of communication. Rosecrans started moving on 16 August 1863 and Bragg didn't even know he was coming. The plan worked perfectly. By 7 September, the Confederates had given up Chattanooga in order to protect lines of communication between that city and Atlanta. Rosecrans had made one of the most daring and successful maneuvers of the entire war, and he was ecstatic when he wired the news to Washington. "Chattanooga is ours without a struggle and east Tennessee is free!" He had reached the apex of his military career. Washington might grouse about his slowness, but they had to admit, when he moved, he was successful. But unknown to others and probably even Old Rosey himself, the strain of command was beginning to take its toll. The decision he made after taking Chattanooga bears this out. It was totally out of character.

George Henry Thomas
George H. Thomas

General George H. Thomas, a Virginian who had stayed with the Union, and Rosecrans complemented each other perfectly. Thomas always maintained a cool demeanor, whereas Old Rosey was excitable. But Thomas and he were alike in one key way: neither would go into battle until they were ready. It was a style that brought them close together, and caused U.S. Grant to have little use for either man. That's why Thomas was so surprised when, after taking Chattanooga, Rosecrans gave the order to immediately begin pursuing Bragg. Thomas was also surprised when Rosecrans brushed off his suggestion to consolidate their position before pursuing the Confederates. The city they'd captured could serve as a secure base for the offensive. Old Rosey went entirely against his nature in this too quick decision because he thought he'd be pursuing a demoralized and beaten army. But this time Bragg had outsmarted him. Perhaps if Rosecrans had known that his old roommate from West Point, James Longstreet, was coming from the east to join the fight, and that Bragg would now outnumber him, he would have reconsidered. But perhaps not. Men on the verge of a breakdown do not think reasonably.

The Confederate deserters stumbling into Yankee lines were babbling about the disorganized rout they left behind them. Ordinarily Rosecrans might have suspected they were loaded — not real deserters, but sent by Bragg to relay that message. But Old Rosey, so close to victory in the west — so near to proving detractors wrong about him — that he was in fact the right general at the right time — was ripe for believing a big lie. Besides, hadn't he always beaten Bragg? Probably for the first time ever, he gambled.

George Thomas was the first to find out that Bragg wasn't retreating in a disorganized panic, when he ran into stiff resistance at McLemore's Cove. But confusion among Bragg's subordinates saved Thomas, and before he and his Corps could be destroyed, the wily old Virginian withdrew to a place called Missionary Ridge. Indeed, if not for divisiveness in Bragg's army because of hatred for the acerbic commander, the disaster to follow might have occurred sooner. As it was, Chickamauga Creek, the bloodiest battle in all of the western theater, would begin on 18 September 1863, between a hated commander, who'd never won, and a much beloved commander, who'd never lost.

Chickamauga has been called a soldier's battle; meaning that because of the terrain — mountains, valleys, and heavily wooded areas — Yankees and Rebels fought wherever they happened to run into each other. It was difficult for commanders to keep track of what was happening — not a good thing for a micromanager like William Starke Rosecrans. No doubt this was the reason he began to unravel. To have complete control was what Old Rosey's personality dictated. At Chickamauga Creek, this was impossible.

He had telegraph contact with George Thomas, who kept asking for more troops, and Rosecrans obliged him as much as possible. But good information from other areas was poor, and as would happen, sometimes wrong.

By one o'clock on 19 September, Rosecrans was holding together reasonably well when he set up his headquarters in the house of Mrs. Eliza Glenn, widow of a Confederate soldier. But as the battle raged, his inability to grasp events became more pronounced. At one point, he could be seen consulting with Mrs Glenn about where the firing was coming from. His iron will began to crack even more when told by a Confederate soldier that Longstreet had joined the battle. He screamed at the youngster and called him a liar; but then as was his habit, he apologized. Things were about to get worse.

On 20 September at half past ten o'clock, one of Thomas' staff officers, while riding along the Federal line noticed what he thought was a gap in the line. He reported to Rosecrans, who knew this could spell disaster if noticed by the enemy. He ordered General Wood to pull his division out of line and move to the supposed gap. Wood, who was not one of his commander's favorite officers, was puzzled. He knew there was no gap, that the division holding that position was merely in a wooded area, and could not be seen at first glance. However, having just survived a dressing down by Old Rosey the previous day, he had no intention of questioning the order. He moved his position in the line.

The gap was quickly noticed by Old Pete Longstreet and the rout was on. Soon Rosecrans' headquarters was overrun. Two of his Corps commanders, Generals Crittenden and McCook, deserted their positions in the line and retreated to Chattanooga. This action would cause them to lose their commands. This left only George Thomas, and his gallant stand on that day would earn him the nickname: the Rock of Chickamauga. Thomas was famous for falling asleep during staff meetings, and when asked his opinion, he would immediately respond: "strengthen the left!" Strengthening the left saved Old Rosey's army that day, but could not bring victory.

In addition to Thomas' heroic stand, the incompetence of Braxton Bragg no doubt played a part in Rosecrans not losing his army. Most believed that Bragg kept his job because he was something of a pet of Jefferson Davis. The two went back to the Mexican War, and Davis seemingly never lost confidence in the man whom no one else had confidence in. When Longstreet rushed through the gap left open by Wood, he wanted to keep chasing Yankees to Chattanooga, but permission was denied by Bragg. The outspoken Nathan Bedford Forrest, also on the scene that day, protested so vigorously that his command was taken away from him. Forrest, always something of a freelancer, who essentially answered to no one, simply went out and recruited more men to ride with him.

Stories that Rosecrans himself deserted the field were untrue. He was doing his best to find Thomas, but because of the ferocity of the battle, could not get to him. He ordered his Chief of Staff, James A. Garfield — who later became the twentieth president of the United States — to go to Chattanooga to set up a line of defense, since the Confederates would undoubtedly be attacking. But here again was a cardinal sign that Old Rosey was losing it; Garfield reminded him that only the commander could make such plans.

At four o'clock on 20 September, William Starke Rosecrans arrived in Chattanooga. He was a beaten man. When Garfield found Thomas, he realized the disaster was not as great as originally assumed, but his pleas and suggestions fell on deaf ears. Old Rosey was no longer capable of making a firm decision. Later, Thomas too was forced to make a fighting retreat back to Chattanooga. In fact, the only decision he did make, the firing of McCook and Crittenden, was later reversed by a court of inquiry. To his credit, Rosecrans, in a later written report, took full responsibility for Chickamauga, and praised both McCook and Crittenden.

For a month, the besieged Yankee army and its stunned commander hung on in Chattanooga, while Lincoln was deciding what course to take with this General, who was acting "like a duck hit on the head". He decided to deal with this situation as he had with others — reorganization. The decision to fire or keep Rosecrans would be made, not by Abraham Lincoln, but by U.S. Grant.

Grant would now be commander of the newly created Division of the Mississippi, which included the Army of the Cumberland. Grant was given two sets of orders: one set would keep Rosecrans — the other would relieve Rosecrans, and name Thomas his successor. Grant chose the latter. Rosecrans had lost the confidence of his Army.

Old Rosey didn't have the heart to face his men — "I couldn't bear it." Instead, he issued a written communiqué stating that they would be in good hands with George Thomas. Then he began a trip to a desk job in Cincinnati. He had a meeting with Grant on the way, and presented his plans for the relief of Chattanooga. Grant declared that "his plans were brilliant — I only wondered why he hadn't carried them out." On that day it's doubtful if William Starke Rosecrans could have answered that question.

There can be no simple answer for what happened to Rosecrans at Chickamauga. Today, we might explain it as a simple case of burnout. Too many dead bodies of the common soldiers he loved, too many sleepless nights and hurried meals. Perhaps the headless corpse of his friend, Garesche, haunted his dreams. Or perhaps it was the ceaseless carping from Washington. He was bringing victories, and cheaply too! — much cheaper than Grant! But he knew too that one loss would give them the excuse to sack him. Old Rosey picked the biggest and bloodiest battle in the entire western theater to lose. Fate had not been kind.

On 28 January 1864, William Starke Rosecrans was given command of the Department of the Missouri, a force of 12,000 men, mostly state militia. It was quite a comedown from his former command. But he did his duty, and under his leadership the threat to Missouri was ended. Of course, with Old Rosey, there was no doubt some carping that he didn't do it soon enough.

William Rosecrans resigned his commission in 1867. He served for two years as Minister to Mexico, under the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant. Later he engaged in mining operations in Mexico and California, and was Register of the Treasury for California. He would serve in Congress from California from 1881 through 1885. One cannot help but wonder that if not for three bloody days in Georgia in 1863, he might have attained higher office.

It was during his tenure in Congress that someone from his Civil War days ran into him on a Washington street. "Even then", said the friend, "the shadow of Chickamauga hung over his face." William Starke Rosecrans died on 11 March 1898.

      Harpers Pictorial of the Civil War
      Civil War, Fredericksburg to Meredian by Foote
      Six Armies in Tennessee by Steven Woodworth
      The Fight for Chattanooga by Time-Life Books
      Battle Cry of Freedom by McPherson
      Encyclopedia Britannica
      American Heritage

by Don Haines
... who is a U.S. Army Cold War veteran, American Legion Post 191 chaplain, a retired Registered Nurse, and freelance writer; whose work has previously appeared in this magazine as well as in World War Two History, and many other publications.

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