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Biography of William Rosecrans

Instructor: Matthew Hill
William S. Rosecrans was a Union general during the American Civil War. He had a long string of victories but lost his command following defeat in the Battle of Chickamauga.

Background as an Engineer

William S. Rosecrans was an engineer turned prominent Civil War general. Rosecrans was born in Kingston Township, Ohio in September 1819. His parents had limited means, and he received a limited education. However, he attended West Point in 1838 and graduated 5th in his class in 1842. His academic diligence paid off as he was assigned to the Corps of Engineers at Fort Monroe, Virginia. He eventually returned to West Point as an engineering instructor. When the Mexican-American War broke out, many of his former classmates left for the front-lines, but Rosecrans remained a teacher. Bored with this routine, he left the army in 1854 and sought work in the civilian sector. He did geological surveys for mining interests in Virginia, served as president of a navigation company, and as President of Preston Coal Oil Company in Ohio, and he created a number of inventions in his industry. One such experiment went wrong, and he was so badly burned that he was confined to bed rest for 18 months.

Williams S. Rosecrans
Photo of William S. Rosecrans

Rosecrans in the Civil War

Rosecrans bounced back and rejoined the army when the Civil War broke out. He was assigned to the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry and then promoted to Brigadier General. He fought under George B. McClellan in Virginia at Rich Mountain and Corrick's Ford in July 1861. He felt slighted, as he planned out the campaigns, but McClellan took the credit. When McClellan was reassigned, Rosecrans was made the commander in western Virginia. This command did not last long. In March 1862, Rosecrans was replaced by Charles C. Fremont and Rosecrans was sent west to assume a new command under John Pope's Army of the Mississippi. After participating in the Siege of Corinth in April-May 1862 under Henry Halleck, he assumed full command when Pope was reassigned. In terms of jurisdiction, he now fell under Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Tennessee.

Rosecrans and Grant Feud

In September 1862, Rosecrans successfully beat Sterling Price in the Battle of Iuka. He followed this up with a more lukewarm performance in the Battle of Second Corinth in October. Though he won the field, Grant ordered him to pursue Earl Van Dorn's fleeing army, but Rosecrans did not do so until the next morning and Van Dorn escaped. Grant was livid, and this created a long-term feud between the two men that continued into the post-war years. For his success though, Rosecrans was promoted to Major General and given command of the Army of the Cumberland.

Second Battle of Corinth
Second Battle of Corinth

Rosecrans at Stones River

Rosecrans worked over the next few months to equip his new army in Nashville. Meanwhile, Confederate General Braxton Bragg had just suffered defeat at the Battle of Perryville in Kentucky and shifted his forces south toward Tennessee. In response, Rosecrans intercepted him at Murfreesboro. The two armies clashed over three days and fought each other to a draw. However, when Rosecrans was reinforced with troops, Bragg decided to retreat. Known as the Battle of Stones River, it had the highest casualty rate of any Civil War battle based on the number of participants and percent of casualties.

Battle of Stones River
Print of Battle of Stones River

Rosecrans at Tullahoma

Rosecrans followed his victory with six months of inactivity. Frustrated by his lack of action, President Lincoln urged Rosecrans to re-engage, and Lincoln's Chief of Staff, Henry Halleck, threatened to fire him if he did not. In response, he launched the Tullahoma Campaign of June-July 1863 that drove Bragg clear out of central Tennessee. This campaign is considered a high point in Rosecrans' career. More a series of maneuvers than fighting, Rosecrans confused the Confederates with deception by scattering his forces in several directions. Incredibly, Rosecrans lost less than 600 men, and Bragg fell back to Chattanooga. His success made little waves though, as it overlapped with Grants victory at Vicksburg and George Meade's victory at Gettysburg. In September, he pushed Bragg out of Chattanooga.

Braxton Bragg
Photo of Braxton Bragg

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