General William Starke Rosecrans (September 6, 1819-March 11, 1898) was the Union general who drove Confederate forces from Western Virginia in 1861. He was born near Kingston, Ohio. He graduated fifth in his class from West Point, 1842, and served until 1854 as a lieutenant of engineers. As a civilian he worked in 1855–57 in Kanawha County as superintendent of a cannel coal company and president of the Coal River Navigation Company.
When the Civil War erupted, Rosecrans joined Gen. George McClellan’s staff and was commissioned brigadier general, May 16, 1861. He commanded McClellan’s right wing at the Battle of Rich Mountain (July 11), conceiving and executing the maneuver which won. Succeeding McClellan as regional commander on July 23, he suppressed rampant marauding by authorizing each town or district to elect a five-man committee of public safety. Meanwhile, Gen. Robert E. Lee left Richmond to coordinate the movements of quarreling Confederate generals William Loring, Henry Wise, and John Floyd. Ensuing operations from August to mid-November were plagued on both sides by sickness, rain, muddy roads which stalled supplies, numerous incompetent officers, and what Rosecrans characterized as ‘‘monstrously green’’ troops.
Rosecrans marched south from Clarksburg in early September to reinforce Gen. Jacob Cox at Gauley Bridge. Rosecrans encountered Floyd at the Battle of Carnifex Ferry, on September 10. Floyd retreated, as did Lee, who was thwarted at Cheat Mountain on September 12. The Confederates regrouped and concentrated at Big Sewell Mountain, but Rosecrans wisely drew off. Lee, seeing no prospect of breaking the stalemate, departed in late October. In operations around Gauley Bridge from October 29 to November 14, Floyd attempted to strike Rosecrans, but was outmaneuvered and forced to retreat. With Floyd’s retreat to Peterstown, the Confederacy’s most significant effort to recover West Virginia collapsed.
On March 11, 1862, Gen. John Fremont relieved Rosecrans, who finished the war in the West. He later served as minister to Mexico (1868–69) and in Congress from California (1881–85). He died at Redondo Beach, California, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Written by David S. Newhall
American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Lamers, William M. The Edge of Glory: A Biography of General William S. Rosecrans. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961.
Thomas, Emory H. Robert E. Lee. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.