One of the fascinating subchapters of history is the story of the man who did not quite make it—the talented man, richly deserving, who rises very near to the top and then, in a sudden moment of crisis, sees all that he has gained slip away from him. Looking back afterward we may see clearly that his solid achievements greatly outweigh his failures. Taken all in all, his career has been a success. Yet the real pinnacle eludes him, and instead of coming down in history as one of the country’s giants, he is remembered simply as a good competent man who lacked something—good fortune, perhaps, or the capacity for doing precisely the right thing at a time of extreme pressure.
Sometimes, with such a man, a full reappraisal is called for. History can render faulty verdicts; now and then a man is fully entitled to a sort of posthumous promotion. In other cases history’s verdict seems fair enough, but we are left with the tantalizing realization of the part that luck can play in the life of a man or a nation.
The Edge of Glory: A Biography of General William S. Rosecrans, U.S.A., by William H. Lamers. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 499 pp. $6.95.
The American Civil War is especially rich in cases of this sort, partly no doubt because it saw so many obscure men placed in the center of the stage with incalculable values depending on their actions. Their contemporaries rendered judgment on them while the heat was still on; they looked for concrete results, and they did not always bother to make an objective examination of the way those results were achieved.
One of the most interesting of all the Civil War soldiers is William S. Rosecrans, major general in the United States Army, a solid soldier and also a man of genuine brilliance, who—if things had gone just a little differently—could conceivably have gone on to occupy the place U. S. Grant finally occupied. His story is examined in detail by William M. Lamers in a spirited biography, The Edge of Glory .
Rosecrans is worth knowing: a burly, red-faced man, jovial, well-liked by his soldiers, devoutly religious but gifted with a sure command of profane idiom, loyal to the Union, refusing to play politics—all in all, a good man. His military record was excellent. As McCIeIlan’s right-hand man he was largely responsible for McClellan’s successful campaign in West Virginia in the first year of the war. He served with distinction under Grant, winning the battles of Iuka and Corinth and having a bitter falling-out with Grant afterward: these two battles fell just a little short of the sweeping success that both men wanted, and they argued over who was at fault. Rosecrans took over the dejected Army of the Cumberland after Don Carlos Buell was removed, restored its morale, and fought and won the Battle of Stones River at the end of 1862.
Lincoln went on record as considering the Stones River victory one of the most important of the war. Actually, the battle was a stand-off; the Union army came within a hairsbreadth of rout, and was at last able to claim a win simply because the Confederate commander, the inexplicable Braxton Bragg, retreated from the field after having telegraphed to Richmond that he had won a great triumph. Yet however it may finally be judged, the battle did show Rosecrans as owning one of the basic traits of a great field commander—inability to admit that he had been licked.
In the following summer came Rosecrans’ most glittering achievement: the campaign of maneuver which compelled Bragg to evacuate central Tennessee, including the vital city of Chattanooga, and retreat into northern Georgia. This was as fine a strategic accomplishment as any in the war, and it fully establishes Rosecrans’ claim to high rank as a military leader. At the middle of September, 1863, the national administration might with justice have concluded that Rosecrans was its best general.
It never came to that conclusion, because this campaign, like Rosecrans’ own rise, came to a full stop at Chickamauga.
When Bragg retreated, Rosecrans pursued, and in pursuit he was careless, apparently assuming that his only problem was to overtake the foe who was running away so fast. But Bragg was strongly reinforced, and he turned to strike, and Rosecrans had let his army get so scattered that Bragg might have regained all he had lost if he had recognized and used his opportunity promptly. In the end, Bragg gave Rosecrans just time enough to pull his army together, and when the Confederate blow was struck—on September 19 and 20—the Federal general had his men in hand.
Sometimes it seems that Chickamauga must have been one of the most completely dreadful of all Civil War battles. The two armies all but wrecked themselves. Each one lost approximately twenty-eight per cent of the total number on the field, the butcher’s bill for the two armies together ran to an appalling 34,000, and the old legend which said that the word Chickamauga meant “river of blood” got abundant confirmation. And for Rosecrans personally, the battle was unmitigated disaster.
One of this general’s troubles was that battle overstimulated him. He was the bravest of the brave, but in action he grew excitable, issuing too many orders too rapidly, acting sometimes on inadequate knowledge. It was so here. Toward noon on the second day, Rosecrans overhastily moved a division from a comparatively quiet sector to a place that was under heavy pressure. The movement left a temporary gap in the Federal line, and before the gap could be closed the hard-hitting General James Longstreet struck into it with an army corps. The whole right wing of Rosecrans’ army was routed, and the General himself was caught up in the rout and separated from the main battlefield. Apparently the spark went out of him. For once in his life he admitted defeat. He rode back to Chattanooga, letting the rest of the battle fight itself. In the end he had to stand siege in Chattanooga, on the defensive, his bright prospects gone.
Mr. Lamers suggests that the defeat looked a great deal worse than it really was; that if Rosecrans had lost a battle he had nevertheless won the campaign, whose great objective had been to occupy and hold Chattanooga, and this led ultimately to the bisection of the Confederacy; and that because both Grant and Secretary of War Stanton disliked him, Rosecrans was relieved of his command when he ought to have been retained. His argument is persuasive, even if not wholly convincing: at the very least it makes it clear that there is a good deal to be said on the side of this general whose career was wrecked.
In any case, Rosecrans was shelved, then and thereafter, and his qualities all in all were good enough to entitle him to this reappraisal. He was one of those men who, as the title of the book suggests, touched the edge of glory without going any farther.