Rosecrans Instrumental in Keeping Western Va. Union

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series featuring Civil War veterans with Wheeling connections. The series will lead up to the planned move of Wheeling’s “Soldiers and Sailors Monument” from Wheeling Park to the side yard of West Virginia Independence Hall.

By Margaret Brennan

Local Historian

The people of Wheeling, Virginia in 1861 would have been very familiar with General William S. Rosecrans, as he was a prominent Union leader in the early days of the Civil War in western Virginia, the First Campaign. From December 1861 to March 1862, he made his headquarters in Wheeling, at 75 12th St., still standing. He and his wife lived in Centre Wheeling and his daughters attended Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy.

We know the Civil War started at Fort Sumter in April 1861, and both sides sought control of western Virginia. Fighting began at Philippi on June 3, 1861 but by the end of that year Confederate forces were effectively eliminated from the area, largely due to the expertise of General Rosecrans.

William Starke Rosecrans was born in Delaware County, Ohio, near Sunbury, Sept. 6, 1819. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1842, fifth in his class of 56. A fine engineer, “Rosy” became an assistant professor at West Point. Because of poor health and disenchantment with the army, he left in 1853, but when the war broke out, Rosecrans volunteered.

General George B. McClellan was in charge of the troops in western Virginia and to maintain control of the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, decided to fight at Rich Mountain. General Rosecrans, a staff officer, ended up doing the fighting as McClellan never appeared but took responsibility for the victory on July 11, 1861.

After the disaster at First Manassas on July 21, McClellan was called on to lead the Army of the Potomac, leaving Rosecrans to command the Department of Western Virginia. In September 1861, the general won another key victory at Carnifex Ferry, near Summersville, stopping the Confederates from gaining control of the Kanawha Valley.

For the army Rosecrans had as his medical inspector the outstanding Dr. William A. Hammond who would soon become Surgeon General. It was widely felt that a new army ambulance was needed so the general designed the Wheeling or Rosecrans ambulance which became the workhorse of the war, first widely used at the bloody September 1862 battle of Antietam.

At the end of March 1862, Rosecrans left Wheeling to make way for General John Fremont. Rosecrans went on to command the Army of the Cumberland in October 1862, but he ran afoul of General Grant and an unfortunate decision at Chicamauga sealed his fate. He was removed from command and had a rather checkered life thereafter. In 1898, Rosecrans died in California at 79 and was eventually buried at Arlington. The importance of his sure hand in securing a Union western Virginia and protecting Wheeling from Southern invasion cannot be overemphasized.

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