Civil War Generals: William Rosecrans
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Civil War Generals: William Rosecrans

Civil War

Civil War Generals: William Rosecrans

For Union General William Rosecrans, the pen indeed proved mightier than the sword. Find out why below.

For Union General William Rosecrans, the pen indeed proved mightier than the sword.

by Roy Morris

Even more than most people, Union general William Rosecrans was often his own worst enemy. Hot-tempered, emotional, and frequently given to speaking—or shouting—before he thought, the Ohio-born commander of the Army of the Cumberland made enemies easily, even if he usually forgot in an instant what had made him angry in the first place. His ill-considered tongue-lashing of Brig. Gen. Thomas Jefferson Wood in the heat of battle at Chickamauga had caused (some said inspired) that officer to move his regiment out of line at the worst possible moment, obeying a panicky order from Rosecrans that he knew to be wrong. Wood’s move led, in turn, to the sudden Confederate breakthrough that turned the tide of battle and started Rosecrans down a very slippery slope.

Ironically, it was not an enemy who put the final nail in Rosecrans’ professional coffin, but a friend—or at least someone he considered a friend. Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, a former New York City journalist, had joined Rosecrans immediately before Chickamauga, for the purpose, he said vaguely, “of conferring with you upon any subject which you may desire to have brought to the notice of the department.” Typically, Rosecrans greeted Dana with a blast of pent-up anger directed at the meddling bureaucrats in Washington, particularly Dana’s boss, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

The general quickly recovered from his initial outburst and welcomed Dana into his private circle, despite warnings from subordinates that Dana was “a loathsome pimp” sent to spy on Rosecrans for the War Department. Rosecrans airily discounted the notion, little suspecting the sandy-bearded bureaucrat was a far graver threat to his career than all the hard-eyed Confederates, then stirring like fire ants in the north Georgia woods.

Losing Lincoln’s Trust

After narrowly escaping with his own life at Chickamauga, Dana sent the first official telegram to Washington, reporting “Chickamauga is as fatal a name in our history as Bull Run.” In the days that followed, while Rosecrans and the rest of the army withdrew to Chattanooga, he continued a steady jeremiad of bad news, warning of “a very serious fermentation” in the army and claiming falsely the men in the ranks had lost all confidence in Rosecrans. “Under the present circumstances,” Dana informed President Abraham Lincoln, “I consider this army very unsafe in [Rosecrans’] hands.”

Dana was actively lobbying for a change of commanders, but the preoccupied general ignored well-intentioned warnings from his second-in-command, Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, that “traitors from Washington now in camp” intended his downfall. Meanwhile, Dana continued his private litany of abuse. “The practical incapacity in the general commanding is astonishing,” he grumbled to Lincoln, “and it often seems difficult to believe him of sound mind.” Dana concluded his warnings with a completely baseless allegation that Rosecrans was planning to abandon Chattanooga altogether. In truth, the general was working out the final details of a plan to open a new supply line into the city, but he never got the chance to follow through with it. In mid-October 1863, Rosecrans was relieved of command and replaced by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the very man Dana had recommended for the job.

A few days later, the guileless Rosecrans departed Chattanooga for good, his career in shambles, while Grant inherited his army and—more important—his plans for lifting the enemy siege. When those plans worked to perfection and the Union army opened the “Cracker Line” and then made its famous charge up Missionary Ridge, Grant took a giant step along the road of military immortality. Standing behind him on Orchard Knob that memorable day, unnoticed and unacknowledged, was Charles A. Dana, wearing as usual an inscrutable smile.

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