Study of the Civil War leads most seekers on a quest to visit hallowed ground where men killed each other in droves for more than four years in the 1860s. Not only were there great battles fought on more than 10,000 fields, there were quarrels that arose from the battles that are ever much as intriguing to study. Most of the time, the feuds erupted between officers and leaders fighting for the same cause, though given the heated acrimony, it was difficult to believe that the combatants were actually on the same team. One such quarrel that is worthy of study is the spat between Union Generals Hiram Ulysses Simpson Grant and William Starke Rosecrans – two top echelon generals who rose to command armies for President Lincoln.
Even seasoned students of the war view the Battle of Gettysburg as the turning point of the war. So much attention is given to this great battlefield that there is little oxygen left for many other important fights that occurred before and after the July 1863 battle. One battle that gets little attention and is dwarfed by Gettysburg is the Battle of Chickamauga – fought in the forested region in northern Georgia some 10 miles south of the vital railroad junction town of Chattanooga, Tenn., in September 1863.
Battles in the Western Theater of the war get much less ink than the clashes in the East because they were often fought far from the big cities of New York, Philadelphia and Richmond, where their myriad newspapers covered the war as front page material each and every day.
Lost in the mix were great battles like Shiloh, Stones River, Vicksburg and Chickamauga which, in relation to Gettysburg, had more percentage of casualties by far. Today, these peaceful and beautifully preserved national park battlefields in Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia combined have less than half the visitor tally that Gettysburg has annually, yet the story told at these sacred places is even more important than the shrine we revere so purposefully at Gettysburg.
The war truly was won in the west. Had not General U.S. Grant rallied on the second day of the Battle at Shiloh in southern Tennessee in the spring of 1862, it is very possible that his career would have been short lived. “We have had the Devil’s own day, haven’t we?” General William Tecumseh Sherman tells his friend Grant as they huddle in the dark and rain along the banks of the Tennessee River after their army is completely smashed by Confederate forces. “Yeah,” Grant said, chewing on a cigar. “Lick ’em tomorrow though.” Lick ’em they did, and with that victory his stock rose in the mind of Lincoln – the ever micromanaging president.
Grant was a West Point graduate who was in his late 30s when the war began in 1861. Grant loathed army life prior to the war. Bored and lonely away from his family, he took to the bottle to find solace. Grant could binge drink with the best lushes in the ranks, and he gained a bad reputation that dogged him throughout his military and civilian political career. If you wanted to pick a quarrel with Grant, make mention of his drinking and his ire would rise.
At the outbreak of the war, Grant was no longer in the army. The 1850s were a disaster for Grant professionally as he left the army and worked in his family’s tannery and dry goods business after trying a stint as a farmer. It is not a stretch to say that the war saved U.S. Grant from a life of perpetual mediocrity.
But Grant seized the day in the Civil War like no other general. Far different from other officers in the war, Grant was not cautious by nature. He took great risks, attacked when others hunkered down, and pursued the enemy with dogged relentlessness that caught even the best Confederate commanders by surprise numerous times. He was not one to calculate and fret – “just do it” would have been his motto.
So much so was Grant the tenacious fighter, that by war’s end, he would become general-in-chief of all northern armies that fought from Virginia to Arkansas. “I can’t spare this man,” President Lincoln said of him when rumors swirled that Grant was drinking after his pyrrhic victory at Shiloh. “He fights.”
It is not exaggeration to say that the North would never have won the war if it had not found “Sam” Grant. At every juncture of crisis for the Union war effort, it was Grant who turned the pivot point into opportunity. He was bold, fearless, and if somebody ever got in his way, he found a good reason to rid himself of the nuisance no matter how destructive the course.
There is a reason Grant rose to the top of command in the Civil War and then later became our 18th President. He was a master politician, able to thwart colleagues who had equal ambition, able to write battle reports that placed blame on somebody else’s shoulders, and there is adequate evidence that Grant was even prone to not being truthful if it meant settling a score. One of the best books ever written about the Civil War is the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant – written the last year of his life in 1885 – when he was dying from throat cancer at his mountain retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He finished the final draft just days before he died in July 1885, and the book was eventually published with the help of Mark Twain.
Grant held war grudges until the day he died, and we remember the war through Grant’s eyes more than we think. It is true that most Civil War books even today cite the memoirs as scripture when it comes to researching this fascinating war. There are, of course, two sides to every story and fight.
In two volumes – beautifully written with flowing prose – Grant takes on a number of fellow rivals that sparked his ire during the war. One of those officers with whom he takes the most umbrage is General William Starke Rosecrans.
Rosecrans was born in Ohio on September 6, 1819. He was one of five children born to Crandall and Jemima Rosecrans. Crandall had served in the War of 1812 and then subsequently ran a tavern and family farm. Young William was a voracious reader as he worked as a store clerk in his teenage years. Without the means to attend college, William sought an appointment to West Point through his U.S. congressman who had a son his age as well. So impressed was Congressman Harper of William’s intellect, Harper gave him the appointment over his own son.
At West Point at the same time as Grant, Rosecrans thrived especially so in mathematics, though he had no formal education as a youngster growing up in rural Ohio. He was affectionately dubbed “Old Rosy” by his classmates. But what might be the single event of his West Point experience was his conversion to Catholicism, which is remarkable given that West Point in the mid 19th Century was a strong bastion of Episcopalianism. And his family was staunchly Methodist, so much so that they were dismayed at his conversion. Rosecrans was no casual convert, as he dove into the faith with zest and zeal. Moreover, he eventually converted his younger brother Sylvester, who later went on to be ordained a priest and would become the first bishop of the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio.
Rosecrans, too, resigned from the army in the 1850s, as he had several bouts of sickness that he eventually recovered from, though he never regained rigorous health again. Rosecrans was a very successful businessman and inventor, especially in the fledging area of oil and gas. He invented the first kerosene lamp to burn on wick and he helped build an oil refinery in Cincinnati. He suffered a terrible accident when a lamp invention exploded in his face, leaving his face scarred for life and giving him the look of having a perpetual smirk.
Just like Grant, when war broke out, West Point officers were in high demand, so he offered his services to his native state, though he was still recovering from his burns.
General Rosecrans served in West Virginia during the war’s first year and was transferred out to the Western Theater just after the Battle of Shiloh. After the bloody Union victory, the Confederate armies retreated into northern Mississippi to protect the vital railroad junction towns of Corinth and Iuka. And it is there that the lifelong enmity between the two generals would begin.
The two were friends at West Point and were on great terms as the operations around northern Mississippi required both generals to work together. Grant was in overall command, but Rosecrans commanded two divisions in the Union Army of the Tennessee. Grant respected Rosecrans’ intellect.
“I cannot speak too highly of the energy and skill displayed by General Rosecrans in the attack [Iuka] and the endurance of the troops under him,” Grant wrote glowingly of Rosecrans in his first battle report. But weeks later, Grant would change his tune, and it seems that press reports were too laudatory of Rosecrans to Grant’s liking. To make matters worse, whether it was Rosecrans or one of his staff officers, it appears that somebody close to Rosecrans resented Grant and insinuated that perhaps Grant had been drunk, since roads were not covered to prevent the Confederate army from escaping, which it coyly did.
A miffed Grant changed his report a few weeks later and in his memoirs two decades later, he makes it clear that Rosecrans was not the general of highest caliber.
The pique that Rosecrans and Grant held simmered on as the two went their separate ways in late 1862 as Grant set his eye on Vicksburg and Rosecrans on eastern Tennessee.
At the Battle of Stones River, south of Nashville, Rosecrans was in the center of the vicious fighting when his Chief of Staff, Julius Garesche, admonished him for being so exposed to enemy fire. “Never mind me, my boy, but make the sign of the cross and go in.” The staff officer did, and a moment later, a cannon shell whizzed into the general’s party of officers, beheading Garesche and splattering his brains all over Rosecrans’ overcoat.
William Rosecrans was fearless in battle, but he was prone to nervous and anxious moments that were on display to his troops. In addition, he actively expressed his Catholic faith to any and all who were in eye and earshot of him. In an army more than 90% Protestant, that difference did annoy more than a few. There’s not enough evidence to say that opinions of General Rosecrans suffered because of his devout faith, yet there is plenty of evidence that troops and staff officers paid close attention to their commanding general because he was outwardly Catholic. Rosecrans also had a hair trigger temper that when excited or under stress led many to come under his wrath.
It all came to pass at Chickamauga and Chattanooga in September 1863. Ironically, Rosecrans had met an Irish priest named Father Patrick Treacy, who had settled a parish in Huntsville, Ala., and ministered to wounded Confederates in the first year of the war. Though his ministry was appreciated, his Union sentiments were not, so he fled west and attached himself to Grant’s army, and that’s where Rosecrans and he struck a mutual friendship. According to the general’s staff, Rosecrans never wanted to be “separated from the sacraments,” so Father Treacy stayed with the fervent general in his camp. That did not sit well with his staff, including future U.S. President James Garfield, who backstabbed Rosecrans every chance he had.
On the battle’s second day at Chickamauga, Rosecrans made several fateful decisions that would doom his career. He first chastised General Thomas Wood for moving slowly into position. The humiliated Wood would exact revenge just hours later. Rosecrans, who received an erroneous report that there was a breach in his lines, ordered Wood to move quickly to fill it. Neither Rosecrans nor his staff ever checked the lines, and General Wood, knowing full well that his move would cause a breach, not repair one, moved to spite Rosecrans. “Gentleman, I hold the fatal order of the day,” General Wood brazenly bragged to his staff.
As fate would have it, when Wood left the line with several thousand men, fresh troops under Confederate General James Longstreet, who had embarked on a 48-hour train ride from Virginia to reinforce the Confederate army in Georgia, arrived just in time to attack the breach, sending Rosecrans’ army in complete rout back to Chattanooga some ten miles away. Though remnants of the Union Army held out long enough to save the army, the Battle of Chickamauga was a disaster for Rosecrans, who left his army under duress to go to Chattanooga while his men bravely fought until dark. Seldom in the war was defeat so complete.
Seen excitable and crossing himself in the panic retreat, General Rosecrans was made the villain of the Union disaster when that honor belonged to General Wood – who amazingly was the roommate of General Ulysses S. Grant at West Point many years back.
Weeks later, huddled and surrounded by Confederates in Chattanooga, Rosecrans was fired by Grant after Grant had ridden in the pouring rain for two weeks to get to Chattanooga to see how bad matters were. The Union Army was starving as the weather grew cold.
There had to be a scapegoat, and Rosecrans was it. After the war, Rosecrans returned to the private sector in the railroad business. He then served in the U.S. Congress, and while serving, he bitterly opposed a bill that was eventually passed that gave a generous pension to Grant before he died. In the debate, Rosecrans lamented about Grant’s writings, “Grant’s official statements were false, and which he knew to be false at the time he made them.”
General William Starke Rosecrans remains today the highest ranking Union general without an equestrian statue anywhere in the country that honors his brave and heroic service to his country that was so heatedly engaged in Civil War 150 years ago.
Reading U.S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs is a wonderful reading exercise, and this writer highly recommends diving in ever-mindful that memoirs are mostly opinion, not fact. Those who complain of others’ memoirs were usually those who did not write their own. The best book on the Battle of Shiloh may be Winston Groom’s, Shiloh 1862. There are several other good ones also. If you want a good bout with Chickamauga, This Terrible Sound by Peter Cozzens, written 20 years ago, works very well. Brand new on the shelves is General Grant and the Rewriting of History by Dr. Frank Varney. It’s an examination of how Rosecrans’ reputation was destroyed. While the author takes several leaps of faith to prove his point, he does show evidence that Grant had it in for Rosecrans. And he shows that some were not comfortable with his visible Catholicism. And finally, Civil War road trips to Shiloh, Chickamauga, Stones River, and Vicksburg are well worth the effort. It seems impossible to be disappointed at these wonderful places.
By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness