Chickamauga 150 Countdown: The Loser Part II

By Ron Fritze


After the battle of Stones River, the Union high command again wanted Rosecrans to advance against Bragg but he demurred. Pressured to take the offensive, he finally began the Tullahoma campaign of 24 June to 3 July which used brilliant maneuvering to force Bragg out of Tennessee without any major fighting. By early September, he had forced Bragg to abandon the strategic city of Chattanooga and was closely pursuing him when it would have been an opportune time to consolidate his gains by halting in Chattanooga. Pushing ahead, he was initially surprised when Bragg turned to fight. The climax was the battle of Chickamauga on 19-20 September 1863.

Rosecrans made two fatal mistakes in the battle. First, he moved Wood’s division out of the line which created the gap that Longstreet’s attack exploited to route the ring wing of the Union army. Second, as his right and center troops collapsed and retreated to Chattanooga, he joined them in flight. If he had joined General George Thomas in his stand with the left wing of the Union army, he might have emerged as the “Rock of Chickamauga.” The defeat at Chickamauga shattered Rosecrans’ confidence. As Lincoln put it, Rosecrans was “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.” Grant replaced him as commander of the Army of the Cumberland with George Thomas.
Rosecrans never received another major command again. So he could never redeem himself. But he did not fade into obscurity either. He was seriously considered to be Lincoln’s vice presidential running mate in the 1864 election. Rosecrans was a Democrat who supported pursuing a victorious conclusion of the war. As such he would have provided a fine balance to the ticket. But the offer fell through and some people suspected that Edwin Stanton, the secretary of the war and one of Rosecrans’ foremost detractors, had spiked the idea.
After the war, Rosecrans went into business successfully although he did experience some reverses. He moved to California in 1869 and was elected to the US House of Representatives for the years 1881-1885. He died in 1898 at the age of 90.
William M. Lamers, the biographer of Rosecrans, titled his book “The Edge of Glory.” That is an accurate assessment of Rosecrans military career. In some very important ways, he was a good general. He was a hard fighter in battle and showed that he could adroitly maneuver his troops to the disadvantage of his opponent. On the other hand, he had liabilities. First, he tended to make enemies of his superior commanders and with some of his subordinates as well. Second, he tended to be overly cautious and lapse into inactivity much to the irritation and disgust of his superiors. This second trait contributed greatly to his poor relations with Edwin Stanton, the secretary of War, Henry Halleck, the Union command in chief, and Ulysses S. Grant.
The question to debate is: Who was the better general? Bragg or Rosecrans? I would pick Rosecrans? What do you think?