William S. Rosecrans and the Politics of Reconciliation

Congressman William S. Rosecrans (Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1898).

In the spring of 1865, as prospects for Union victory became brighter with each passing week, Major General William Starke Rosecrans found himself and his once promising military career in utter ruin. Despite winning a number of battles between the fall of 1861 and the summer of 1863, “Old Rosy” had been spectacularly defeated at Chickamauga on September 20, 1863, and was dismissed the following year from his command in Missouri. To recoup his reputation and pay off his debts, Rosecrans chased fame and fortune in the West in one unpromising railroad or mining enterprise after another. This led him to put off a more promising, if not as potentially lucrative, career in politics.

During the war, Rosecrans came to support the Republican Party and its policy of military emancipation. He was even briefly considered as a potential Vice President for Lincoln in the 1864 campaign. After the war, however, he grew to dislike the hyper partisan politics of the day, causing him to turn down the nomination to be the Democrat’s candidate for Governor of California in 1867. The extremes of “cowardly treason and loyal fanaticism” plaguing post-war American politics were too much for him. As he told his brother Sylvester, he did not want a “copperhead traitor to define democracy for me.” Besides a short stint as Minister to Mexico at the end of Andrew Johnson’s presidency, Rosecrans repeatedly declined all proffered political appointments and indeed would not hold an elected political office until 1881.[1]

Still, Rosecrans did not totally eschew politics during these years. In August 1868, Rosecrans met with leading ex-Confederates including Robert E. Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard at White Sulphur Springs, VA. Rosecrans’s purpose was simple: he hoped to enlist prominent Southerners in his attempt to help Governor Horatio Seymour of New York defeat his Republican adversary, Ulysses S. Grant, in the presidential election of that year. The northern public was dismayed by the lack of contrition from white Southerners after the war, particularly by harsh laws they passed to control African Americans in the wake of slavery’s demise.  Rosecrans’s meeting and letter to Lee elicited a response from the former Confederate leader that the South accepted its defeat, that it was “entirely unfounded” that southern whites wanted to oppress southern blacks, and that “the great want of the South is peace.” The exchange was widely reprinted by newspapers across the country. After the meeting was over, Rosecrans wrote directly to Governor Seymour encouraging him to use the letter and speeches by similarly minded southerners to bolster the Democratic cause in the election. Although Seymour didn’t win, Rosecrans clearly understood that reconciliation between the sections would be essential to the Democrats recapturing the White House.[2]

Finally in 1880 Rosecrans reentered politics by openly throwing his support behind the candidacy of former Union General Winfield Scott Hancock. In an effort to appeal in a non-partisan way to former veterans, California Democrats including Rosecrans created the “Blue and Gray Hancock Legion.” As the organization’s president, Rosecrans wrote many circulars seeking to convince veterans that if they wanted an end to corruption and difficulties with the South, that is if they truly wanted a “uniting [of] the Blue and Gray,” they must join the Legion. Membership was not only open to Union and Confederate veterans, but to black and white men as well. In reward for his efforts, local Democrats in San Francisco nominated Rosecrans for the House of Representatives that fall. “Old Rosy” won his race even though his old chief of staff, the Republican James Garfield, defeated Hancock in the presidential election.[3]

Rosecrans’s two-term career in the House of Representatives proved to be an eventful and challenging period of his life. Like most Californians, he favored excluding Chinese immigrants and gave an address on the subject that was, ironically, quite similar to past nativist harangues against Catholic foreigners. Rosecrans controversially also decided to try to block an appropriations bill meant to provide the recently impoverished Grant with a federal pension. Grant returned the favor, writing very critically of Rosecrans in his famous Memoirs. After Rosecrans’s last term was over in 1885, Grover Cleveland, the newly-elected president and a Democrat, appointed Rosecrans the Registrar of the Treasury. Rosecrans held this position until he retired to California in 1892.[4]

Rosecrans lived the rest of his life out of the political spotlight. After his death in 1898, both Republicans and Democrats and veterans on both sides praised his career and attended his funeral. His death was thus a moment of reconciliation between former foes brought together to celebrate one of the last prominent military commanders of the Civil War.[5]

An engraving depicting William S. Rosecrans’s funeral in Los Angeles, California (Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1898).

 


[1] William S. Rosecrans to Sylvester H. Rosecrans, October 18, 1867, William S. Rosecrans Papers, University of California at Los Angeles Special Collections, Los Angeles, California (hereafter UCLA); William M. Lamers, The Edge of Glory: A Biography of William S. Rosecrans, U.S.A. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1961; reprint: Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1999), 424, 440-441.

[2] New York Times, September 5, 1868; Rosecrans to Horatio Seymour, September 6, 1868, New York Historical Society; David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 103-104.

[3] President William S. Rosecrans, Blue & Gray Hancock Legion Circulars, July 26 and August 4, 1880; “A Union Soldier’s Views. Speech of Col. Stuart M. Taylor at the Grand Mass Meeting held at Union Hall, October 18th, 1880 to ratify the nomination of Gen. W.S. Rosecrans, For Congress,” Rosecrans Papers, UCLA.

[4] “Chinese Immigration: Speech of Hon. William Starke Rosecrans, of California, in the House of Representatives, Thursday, March 16, 1882,” (Washington, 1882), Rosecrans Papers, UCLA; Lamers, Edge of Glory, 444-448.

[5] Los Angeles Times, March 17, 1898.