When Union soldiers captured the railroad center of Chattanooga on Sept. 9, 1863, Gen. William Starke Rosecrans stood at the pinnacle of military fame and success. In a campaign compared in the Northern press to those of Napoleon, he had dislodged Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, first from Tullahoma, then across the Cumberland Plateau, and as the corn ripened, out of Chattanooga itself.
Rosecrans had done so, not through a great battlefield victory and heavy casualties, but through marching, skillful maneuvering, artful strategy, and little loss of blood. Even a Confederate newspaper conceded he was "a wily strategist, a brave and prudent leader."
Many Northern observers placed him at "the head of the Northern strategists." Modern historians have declared his achievement "as brilliant as any in American military annals."
Born in Delaware County, Ohio, on Sept. 6, 1819, Rosecrans received little formal education. He was studiously inclined, read a great deal, and in spite of his self-education, received an appointment to West Point, where he finished fifth in the class of 1842. One of his roommates at West Point was James Longstreet.
Assigned to the Engineers, Rosecrans missed an active role in the Mexican War. His military career could be described as unexceptional. He resigned from the Army in 1854, returning to Ohio, where he had a moderately successful business career in Cincinnati, refining kerosene.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Rosecrans was first assigned as a staff colonel but was quickly appointed Brigadier General in the regular Union army. His early campaigns were in western Virginia, where he successfully opposed Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Rosecrans' victories resulted in the formation of the new state of West Virginia. In May of 1862, he commanded the left wing of the Union army advancing to capture Corinth, Miss., and in October led the same army as it successfully defended the rail junction in the battles of Iuka and Corinth.
He quickly succeeded to command of the Army of the Cumberland in Tennessee and in December led this army to victory over Bragg and the Army of Tennessee at the Battle of Stones River, near Murfreesboro.
He tended to blame officers and not enlisted men for any shortcomings, resulting in a deep bond between the men in the ranks and "Old Rosy," as they called him. In June 1863, the general began his strategic masterpiece, that resulted in the capture of Chattanooga in early September.
Convinced that Bragg's army was in headlong flight to Atlanta, Rosecrans began immediate pursuit unwisely splitting his army. Bragg turned on Rosecrans just south of Chattanooga, and, on Sept. 20 a charge led by his old West Point roommate, Confederate Gen. James Longstreet, pierced the center of Rosecrans' army.
The right wing of his Army of the Cumberland fled to Chattanooga in a rout. In a decision that undoubtedly helped end his career, Rosecrans chose to follow the broken portion of the army to Chattanooga to prepare a defense, sending his chief of staff, Gen. James Garfield, to Gen. George Thomas and the remnant of the Union army still struggling on the battlefield.
Rosecrans was relieved of command on Oct. 19, supplanted by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Rosecrans briefly commanded troops in Missouri in 1864, with his remaining army time spent on leave or awaiting orders until he resigned in March 1867.
President Andrew Johnson appointed him minister to Mexico in 1868, but when Grant rose to the presidency in 1869, he relieved Rosecrans of his duties once again.
He settled on a ranch near present-day Redondo Beach, Calif., and served a five-year stint in Congress and eight years as register of the Treasury. He participated actively in the reunions of the Society of The Army of the Cumberland.
Much beloved by the survivors of that Army, Rosecrans was a keynote speaker at the 1889 Blue-Gray Barbecue, which led to the formation of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
He died in 1898 and was first interred in Los Angeles. His body was moved in 1902 to Arlington National Cemetery.
Historians can only conjecture what heights William Rosecrans could have reached with success at Chickamauga. It is fact that Garfield and Grant, partially campaigning on their service at Chickamauga and Chattanooga, reached the White House.
The margin between victory and defeat, between hero and scapegoat, between immortality and obscurity, can be razor thin. For William Rosecrans that margin was eleven days in September 1863.
Dr. Anthony Hodges is a board member of the Tennessee Civil War Preservation Association. For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley 423-886-2090.