Battle of Stones River

Make the Sign of the Cross and Go In!

General William S. Rosecrans

My avatar when I blog and when I comment on blogs is Major General William Rosecrans.  As my personal motto for the coming year I will adopt one of his sayings:  Make the Sign of the Cross and Go In!

Outside of his family, General William S. Rosecrans had three great passions in his life:  His religion, Roman Catholicism, to which he had converted as a cadet at West Point, the Army and the Union.  In the Civil War all three passions coincided.  Rising to the rank of Major General and achieving command of the Army of the Cumberland, until he was removed in the aftermath of the Union defeat at Chickamauga, Rosecrans conducted himself in the field as if he were a Crusader knight of old.

Raised a Methodist, Rosecrans’ conversion was a life long turning point for him.  He wrote to his family with such zeal for his new-found faith that his brother Sylvester began to take instruction in the Faith.  Sylvester would convert, become a priest, and eventually be the first bishop of Columbus, Ohio.

His most precious possession was his Rosary and he said the Rosary at least once each day. In battle the Rosary would usually be in his hand as he gave commands.  He had a personal chaplain, Father Patrick Treacy, who said Mass for him each morning and would busy himself the rest of the day saying masses for the troops and helping with the wounded.  In battle he exposed himself to enemy fire ceaselessly as he rode behind the General.   Rosecrans, after military matters were taken care of, delighted in debating theology with his staff officers late into the evening.

As a general Rosecrans was in the forefront of Union commanders until his defeat at Chickamauga.  His removal from command following the battle was controversial at the time and has remained controversial, some historians seeing in it a continuation by Grant, who was placed in charge of Chattanooga following Chickamauga, of his long-standing feud with Rosecrans.  Certainly Rosecrans had already drafted the plan followed by Grant to reopen the lines of supply to the Union forces in Chickamauga.  Go here to read a spirited defense of General Rosecrans which appeared in issue 401 of The Catholic World in 1898.

Rosecrans resigned from the Army in 1867 and had a successful business career.  He served in Congress from 1881-1885.

He narrowly missed being the first Catholic president of the United States.  General James Garfield, an Ohio Republican Congressman and future president, who had served under him, telegraphed Rosecrans during the 1864 Republican Convention to see if the Democrat Rosecrans would serve as Veep on a Union ticket with Lincoln.  Rosecrans gave a cautiously positive reply but Garfield never received the telegram and the nomination went to Andrew Johnson.  Rosecrans suspected that the telegram had been intercepted by Rosecrans’ old nemesis, Secretary of War Stanton.

One hundred and fifty-one  years ago Rosecrans was fighting a huge battle at Stones River in Tennessee that would last from December 31, 1862-January 3, 1863.  He succeeded in defeating Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee and drove him from central Tennessee.  It was an important victory, a needed shot in the arm for the Union after the disaster of Fredericksburg.  Lincoln wrote to Rosecrans:

“You gave us a hard-earned victory, which had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over.”

During that battle he was a man on fire, constantly charging to points of danger, heedless of risks to himself, rallying his men, inspiring them and beating off Confederate charge after Confederate charge.  Rosecrans was in the maelstrom of particularly vicious fighting when his Chief of Staff,  Lieutenant Colonel Julius Garesche, a fellow Catholic who had been made a Knight of Saint Sylvester by Pope Pius IX,  warned him about risking himself to enemy fire.   “Never mind me, my boy, but make the sign of the cross and go in!” A moment later, a cannon shell careened into the general’s entourage, beheading Garesche and spraying his brains all over Rosecrans’ overcoat.  Rosecrans’ mourned his friend, as he mourned all his brave men who died in that fight, but that didn’t stop him an instant from leading his army to victory. Continue reading

December 31, 1862: Battle of Stones River Begins

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“Non nobis Domine! non nobis sed nomini tuo da gloriam.”

General William S. Rosecrans at the end of his report on the battle of Stones River, attributing the Union victory to God.

An unjustly obscure battle of the Civil War began 150 years ago today:  Stones River.  Based on the number of combatants involved, it was the bloodiest battle fought in an extremely bloody War.  The two armies involved, the Union Army of the Cumberland and the Confederate Army of Tennessee, were struggling for control of middle Tennessee.  If the Confederate Army of Tennessee could be chased out of middle Tennessee, then Union control of Nashville was secure, and it could be used as a springboard for the conquest of southeastern Tennessee and the eventual invasion of Georgia.  If the Union Army of the Cumberland could be defeated, then Nashville might fall, and the Confederate heartland be secured from invasion.  The stakes were high at Stones River.  A critical factor for the Union was that morale in the North was plummeting.  The Army of the Potomac had suffered a shattering defeat a few weeks before at Fredericksburg, and Grant and his Army of the Tennessee seemed to be stymied by the Confederate fortress city of Vicksburg.  The War for the Union seemed to be going no place at immense cost in blood and treasure.  If the Army of the Cumberland led by General Rosecrans was defeated, voices raised in the North to “let the erring sisters go” might swell into a chorus that would lead eventually to a negotiated peace, especially after election losses for the Republicans in the Congressional elections already demonstrated deep dissatisfaction in the North as to the progress of the War.

General Rosecrans led the Army of the Cumberland out of Nashville the day after Christmas and marched southeast 40 miles to challenge the Army of Tennessee at Murfreesboro.  The armies were comparable in size with the Army of the Cumberland having 41,000 men opposed to the 35,000 of the Army of the Tennessee.  Both Rosecrans and Bragg planned to attack the opposing army by attacking its right flank.  On December 31, Bragg struck first.

December 31, 1862 Stones River

Confederate General William J. Hardee led his corps in a slashing attack at 8:00 AM against General Alexander M. McCook’s corps, and by 10:00 AM had chased the Union troops back three miles before they rallied.  Rosecrans cancelled the attack against the Confederate right by General Thomas L. Crittenden’s corps, and rushed reinforcements to his embattled right.  Confederate General Leonidas Polk, an Episcopalian bishop in civilian life, launched simultaneous attacks against the left of McCook’s corp.  Here General Phil Sheridan’s division put up a stout resistance, but was eventually driven back.

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By late morning the Union army had its back to Stones River and its line perpendicular on its right to its original position.  Rosecrans, who seemed to be everywhere on the battlefield that day, succeeded in rallying his troops.  The left of the Union line held against repeated assaults, the fiercest fighting centering on a four-acre wooded tract, known until the battle as the Round Forest, held by Colonel William B. Hazen’s brigade.  The ferocity of the fighting can be judged by the fact that after the battle the tract of land would ever be known as Hell’s Half Acre.  The Union forces held and by 4:30 PM. winter darkness brought an end to that day’s fighting.

Rosecrans held a council of war that night to determine if the army should stand or retreat.  General George H. Thomas who had led his corps in the center with his customary skill and determination made the laconic comment that “There is no better place to die” and Rosecrans readily agreed.  The Army of the Cumberland would stand and fight. Continue reading

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