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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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 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
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
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
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