Rosecrans Remains Unsung Strategic `Genius'

Article excerpt

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of one of the most undeservedly neglected figures in the Civil War - Maj. Gen. William Starke Rosecrans.

Beloved by his troops, respected by his foes, considered the greatest strategist of the war, Rosecrans fought in four theaters of the war and was successful in all. Yet each time, he was removed, and the ultimate acclaim went to another general.

Rosecrans was born on Sept. 6, 1819, in Delaware County, Ohio. He graduated fifth in the West Point Class of 1842. He served at various posts during the next 12 years, including the Washington Navy Yard. However, feeling that he could not support his family on his military salary, Rosecrans resigned his commission in 1854.

After the firing on Fort Sumter, Rosecrans became an aide to Gen. George B. McClellan and eventually a brigadier general in the regular army. He first saw action at Rich Mountain in western (now West) Virginia under McClellan. On July 11, 1861, he led a brigade up the mountain, where he dislodged a Confederate force under Col. John Pegram. It was because of this victory that McClellan was called to Washington to head the Army of the Potomac even though he had not physically been involved in the battle. Rosecrans then assumed command in western Virginia.

Gen. Robert E. Lee, taking command of Confederate forces in western Virginia, arrived at Sewell Mountain with plans for driving Rosecrans from the Kanawha Valley. However, he was unable to lure the outnumbered Rosecrans into battle and withdrew from western Virginia. In the words of the Southern historian E.A. Pollard, Lee had been "outwitted, outmaneuvered and outgeneraled." The area was forever lost to the Confederacy and was admitted to the Union as the state of West Virginia in 1863.


Rosecrans was replaced in March 1862 by Radical Republican favorite Gen. John Fremont, who later would fail against Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. In May, Rosecrans was assigned to the Army of the Mississippi, where eventually he would fight under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. On Sept. 19, 1862, the battle of Iuka, Miss., was fought. The plan called for a pincers movement, with Rosecrans attacking from the south and Grant, after hearing that Rosecrans had commenced fighting, from the west. Confederate Gen. Sterling Price would be squeezed and destroyed.

Rosecrans did attack from the south, but Grant never moved. In fact, there was no word from Grant, the commanding general, for more than 30 hours. Grant later claimed that a wind inversion had prevented him from hearing the battle. Rumors held that Grant was incapacitated by drunkenness. Price's army was able to escape.

After Iuka, Price joined forces with Gen. Earl Van Dorn and prepared to attack the Union army at Corinth, Miss., an important railroad junction that had been the objective of the battle of Shiloh in April 1862. After Shiloh, the Union occupied Corinth; Van Dorn and Price intended to retake it.

On Oct. 3 and 4, the Confederates attacked and drove the Union army into the inner defenses of Corinth. But "Old Rosey" was ready: As the Rebels surged into the center of Corinth, the Northerners opened fire. Rosecrans himself was at the front. Said one Confederate, "Our lines melted under their fire like snow in thaw."

The Southerners were compelled to retreat. Grant was never on the field, yet in his memoirs, he accused Rosecrans of failing to pursue Van Dorn aggressively.

What happened in the next two days is among the most important but least known aspects of the Civil War. On Oct. 5, Rosecrans began his pursuit in earnest. Reinforcements arrived from other parts of Grant's army. By Oct. 6, the Confederates were in flight, and Rosecrans believed that with more forces he could take the vital city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River.

But Grant ordered Rosecrans to halt the pursuit. …