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William S. Rosecrans and the Union Victory: A Civil War Biography

David G. Moore, McFarland

Washington, D.C., has so many monuments honoring Union heroes: Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Sheridan,  Thomas—even George McClellan has  a statue. But for the man David G. Moore calls “the general who won the  Civil War,” there is none. Why is  Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans not  among the pantheon? Moore’s  thoroughly researched, decidedly  partisan biography of the general most readily associated with a facial blemish and a military blunder presents a persuasive alternative interpretation to the generally accepted historical record. In the process, Moore explores a darker,  more self-serving side of some of the North’s military and political leaders.

Remembered as a thin, awkward-looking boy, the native Ohioan  graduated West Point fifth in the Class of 1842. Highly intelligent and devoutly Catholic, Rosecrans  entered the Engineer Corps and married well, but built wharves and  barracks in Rhode Island during the Mexican War. While assigned to the  Washington Navy Yard, he superintended a Negro Sunday school. After resigning his commission in 1854, he  became a successful businessman,  obtaining several patents. An oil explosion during one experiment resulted in severe facial burns.

When war came, Rosecrans, like  many former Army officers, offered  his services to the Union. Commissioned a brigadier general in the U.S. Regulars, he joined Maj. Gen.  George B. McClellan, commander of  Ohio’s state forces, invading western Virginia. McClellan got credit  for early Union victories there, but  it was Rosecrans who devised and executed the winning strategy that defeated Robert E. Lee’s troops.  McClellan rode Rosecrans’ achievements to Washington and command of the Union’s forces. Rosecrans  subsequently peppered Secretary of War Edwin Stanton with suggestions and requests for reinforcements, and  Moore contends it was at this point  the general made the first of a series of powerful enemies.

Stanton sent Rosecrans west to join Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck,  who was about to move against Southerners entrenched in Corinth,  Miss. The Rebels retreated, Halleck and Brig. Gen. John Pope were ordered east, and Rosecrans became  commander of the Army of the Mississippi, now part of a combined  force commanded by Ulysses S. Grant. Though victorious at Iuka and Corinth, Rosecrans fell victim to  the rising aspirations and growing displeasure of Grant and Halleck. Moore supports his theory that  personal animosity and professional jealousy thwarted Rosecrans by analyzing reports, letters and memoirs.  Readers who buy into his theory will find a consistent pattern emerging.

Rosecrans led the Army of the Cumberland to victory at Stones River and through the Tullahoma Campaign. But at Chickamauga a disastrous interpretation of a Rosecrans order left a hole in the Union lines and resulted in much of the Union army retreating to Chattanooga. Telegrams from Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana to Washington describing the battle as another First Bull Run really cooked Old Rosy’s goose, and Stanton sent  Grant to relieve him. Moore quotes  historian Allan Nevins [related story,  P. 18], who noted: “[Rosecrans’]  removal…was long to be a theme of controversy. The…circumstances surrounding it have never clarified.”

Moore attempts to do just that,  continuing the narrative through Rosecrans’ service in Missouri, where  Halleck and Grant continued to criticize him. “As far back as July [1864],” Moore reveals, “Grant  complained that the most useful way to employ Rosecrans would be to station him at some convenient point on the northern frontier with the duty of detecting and exposing Rebel conspiracies in Canada.” On December 9, 1864, Rosecrans was relieved of  command, ending his Civil War career.  Moore also goes on to describe the war  of words that continued until Rosecrans’ demise in 1898. In death, he  remained admired and respected by the men who had fought with him,  misunderstood by most of his peers,  and all but forgotten by the citizens of the Union he had helped preserve.


Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.