(I posted this on the last day of 2013. I adopt this as my pledge to all readers of The American Catholic during the coming year, which I suspect will be a tempestuous one.)
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-two 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.