Chickamauga 150 Countdown: The Loser Part I

By Ron Fritze

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William S. Rosecrans (1819-1898) commanded the Union Army of the Cumberland at the battle of Chickamauga and made the fatal mistake of pulling a division out of his battle line. Confederate forces exploited that gap to inflict a stinging defeat on the Union forces. Needless to say, this situation resulted in Rosecrans being removed as commander of the Army of the Cumberland. He was never given command of a major army again.

Napoleon is credited with say that, “From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step.” In Rosecrans’ case, it was one poorly written order. But was he a bad general? Was he a worse general than Bragg? I would argue that the answer is No. Bragg had a fairly consistent record of mediocre command decisions and poor relations with his subordinates. Rosecrans prior to Chickamauga had been a fairly successful general. He was no Grant or Sherman or Sheridan but he was not bad and had some flashes of genius.
Rosecrans was from Ohio. Thanks to the generosity of Congressman Alexander Harper, he received an appointment to West Point. He excelled as a student, despite a previous lack of formal education, and graduated fifth in a class of fifty-six which included James Longstreet and Don Carlos Buell. He quickly secured an appointment to the faculty of West Point and missed fighting in the Mexican War. Leaving the army in 1854, he entered the oil and coal business, even patenting a kerosene lamp.
When the Civil War broke out, Rosecrans offered his services. During the summer and fall of 1861 he fought several battles in West Virginia that secured that territory for the Union cause. But his superior George McClellan grabbed credit for the success. Relations between McClellan and Rosecrans were strained by this action. But Rosecrans also soon after quarreled with the secretary of war Edwin Stanton over strategy and later he would have problems with Grant.
Transferred to the Western Theater of the war in May 1862, he served under Grant. He fought the battles of Iuka on 19 September 1862 and Corinth on 3-4 October 1862. In the battles, Rosecrans did well as a general but before and after the battles, he showed an inability to follow instructions and a reluctance to take the offensive against the enemy. On 24 October, he was sent to Kentucky to take command from Don Carlos Buell of the troops that would later become the Army of the Cumberland. He was well liked by his soldiers who nicknamed him “Old Rosy” which was an extension of his West Point nickname of “Rosy.” But after taking up position in Nashville, he was reluctant to move against Bragg. Finally ordered to move in no uncertain terms, Rosecrans moved the Army of the Cumberland to Murfreesboro where it was attacked by Bragg in the battle of Stones River, 31 December 1862 and 2 January 1863. In battle, once again Rosecrans acquitted himself well. Stones River was a Union victory that offset the terrible disaster that had occurred a few days earlier at Fredericksburg. So things were looking good for Rosecrans—but stay tuned for the next installment.