December 15, 2017

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

William Rosecrans almost became our first Catholic president

John F. FinkWhen I’ve visited my son in San Diego, I’ve noticed Rosecrans Street running near the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. And when I’ve visited my daughter in Santa Monica, we’ve driven on Rosecrans Avenue in southern Los Angeles. I’m reminded of a once‑important Catholic in U.S. history. He almost became the first Catholic president.

But William Starke Rosecrans didn’t get to California until after he made a name for himself during the Civil War, where he fought mainly in Tennessee.

He was born in Ohio in 1819, and managed to get an appointment to West Point Military Academy. After graduating fifth in his class in 1842, he had an engineering assignment before returning to West Point to teach engineering.

It was then that he converted to Catholicism, and he was a devout one, known to wear a crucifix and pray the rosary. After he told his family about his conversion, his brother Sylvester also converted. Sylvester became the first bishop of the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio.

William was given an engineering assignment to Newport, R.I. While there, he volunteered to lead the construction of St. Mary Church, one of the largest churches constructed at that time. It’s where John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier were married in 1953. There’s a memorial window in Rosecrans’ honor in the church.

He resigned from the Army in 1854 and soon became a successful businessman, including heading an oil refinery in Cincinnati. He obtained patents for numerous inventions.

When the Civil War began, Rosecrans offered his services, serving first in Ohio as a colonel. He was quickly promoted to brigadier general as he began to win victories for the Union forces. He served briefly in Washington where his opinions clashed with those of Gen. Ulysses Grant and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

Given command of the Army of the Cumberland, he fought battles in Tennessee, winning most but losing the Battle of Chickamauga, apparently because of a badly-worded order. The northern press loved Rosecrans for his bravery, displayed as he fearlessly rode ahead of his troops. He became one of President Abraham Lincoln’s favorites.

Lincoln was campaigning for re‑election in 1864. During the Republican convention, he had James Garfield send a telegram to Rosecrans asking him to be his running mate in the election. Rosecrans immediately accepted with a return telegram, but Lincoln never received it. It’s believed that Secretary of War Stanton intercepted it.

After not hearing from Rosecrans, Lincoln chose Andrew Johnson, who became president after Lincoln was assassinated. If Lincoln had received the telegram, Rosecrans might have been the first Catholic president.

After the war, Rosecrans moved to California. He was one of the incorporators of the Southern Pacific Railroad. He served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico for a short while. He was asked to run for governor of Ohio twice and governor of California, but he refused, earning the nickname “the Great Decliner.” He did, though, serve as a U.S. Congressman from California from 1881 to 1885.

He died at age 78 at his ranch in Redondo Beach, Calif., in 1898. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. †

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