A Noted General Who Might Have Been President


In his day, he was regarded as one of the Civil War’s greatest strategists and came within an undelivered telegram of being the first Roman Catholic to occupy the White House.

Yet today William Stark Rosecrans-- officer, civil engineer, congressman and real estate mogul--is remembered, if at all, as the man who gave his name to a thoroughfare that stretches from the Pacific Ocean into Orange County.

A century ago, Angelenos would have recognized the name Rosecrans as that of a town--a landlocked Atlantis--that rose and sank on the swells of the great real estate boom of 1887 and eventually was swallowed whole by Gardena.


“Old Rosy,” as he became known to his troops, could trace his roots to Dutch settlers who arrived in the New World in 1651. William was born in Ohio in 1819 and, while attending West Point, converted to Catholicism.

Later, as the father of a rapidly growing family, he resigned his commission in 1853 and launched business ventures in mining and oil refining.

While he was experimenting with coal oil, a safety lamp exploded in his face. It took him 18 months to recover from the severe and disfiguring facial burns that left him with a permanent smirk.

When the Civil War broke out, Rosecrans reenlisted. Although he knew many of his men by name, his outspoken refusal to let his troops go into battle unless they were properly clothed, fed and armed quickly earned him the bitter enmity of his superiors, a reputation as a “silly, fussy goose”--and the loyal gratitude of his men.

By early 1863, Rosecrans was the Union’s man of the hour, the victorious commander of the Cumberland Army, inventor of the Army ambulance and the first general to use photographic maps.

The fact that Rosecrans was also an adamantly anti-slavery Democrat soon caught the eye of newspaper editor Horace Greeley.


Greeley believed that Rosecrans, as a Catholic, could secure the Irish immigrant vote against incumbent President Abraham Lincoln. But Rosecrans, who enjoyed and reciprocated Lincoln’s respect and backing, turned the editor down.

“My place is here. The country gave me my education and has a right to my military services,” the general said.

In September 1863, in a moment of peace before the two-day Battle of Chickamauga, his staff watched as Old Rosy clutched a dirty-looking string of rosary beads and checked the cross attached to his watch chain. His prayers notwithstanding, Rosecrans lost the battle and was relieved of command and sent to Missouri.

Deeply embittered against Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant for relieving him, Rosecrans decided to accept the National Union Party’s nomination as Lincoln’s running mate. (The Republicans renamed themselves the National Union Party to contest the election of 1864 and actively sought an anti-slavery Democrat to fill out the ticket.)

Rosecrans telegraphed Rep. James A. Garfield to convey his acceptance, but the cable never reached its intended reader. Secretary of War Stanton controlled all telegrams from active-duty officers and simply crumpled it up.

A year later, Lincoln was dead and Andrew Johnson, not Rosecrans, was president.

Rosecrans said a final farewell to the men of his regiment and resigned from the Army in 1867.


After brief service as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, he settled in San Francisco with his wife and four children. Through his friendship with Collis Huntington and because of his engineering skills, Rosecrans was brought on board as one of the 11 founders of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

In 1867, traveling south, he purchased 13,000 acres of the Rancho Sausal Redondo (Ranch of the Round Willow Grove). His property was bounded approximately by what would become Crenshaw Boulevard on the west, Florence Avenue on the north and Central Avenue on the east. It is unclear where the southern boundary was.

Using a horse and buggy, a rag, a compass and the help of a small boy, Rosecrans set out to survey his land. The boy’s job was to keep his eye on the rag, which was tied to a spoke in the wheel, and to call out “Tally!” every fifth turn of the wheel. From that, Rosecrans had calculated that every cry of “Tally!” equaled about 100 feet.

In the middle of his holdings, six miles south of Los Angeles, on the southeast corner of what would become Vermont and Rosecrans avenues, he built a home, planted fruit trees and farmed wheat. Since there was no Catholic church in the immediate area, Rosecrans opened his home for Sunday Mass.

In 1881, he left his son, Carl, in charge and headed east to represent California in Congress until 1885.

In 1887, near what is now Vermont Avenue and Gardena Boulevard, he laid out his namesake town in 3,000 lots averaging 50 by 140 feet and priced at $50 each. He also built a hotel, launched a narrow-gauge railway and promised prospective land buyers a 500% return on their investment.


When all was finished, lot values rose to $240. Rosecrans used the profits to pay off some dubious Nevada mining ventures and continued farming 1,100 acres.

Serving as registrar of the U.S. Treasury from 1885 to 1893, Rosecrans solicited his Washington friends in the “Great Free Harbor Fight” that helped make San Pedro the official port of the city of Los Angeles. Linked by friendship, religion and a common cause, he helped the Dominguez family raise funds to build a chapel in 1892 that would become St. James Catholic Church.

By then, Rosecrans was a well-loved local figure. Contemporary accounts describe him as having kindly blue eyes and being loyal to a fault, yet also moody, nervous and impulsive. Somewhat rumpled in his appearance, he lived out his declining years traveling between his ranch house and the Redondo Beach Hotel on the Redondo Railway, which he had built to haul grain and bring land buyers to Rosecrans.

When Rosecrans died in 1898, his body lay in the Los Angeles City Hall council chambers, where soldiers stood guard and thousands filed past him.

Thousands of mourners stood silently to catch a glimpse of the casket carried by former Confederate and Union soldiers from St. Vibiana’s Cathedral down Main Street to Washington Boulevard and on to East Los Angeles’ Calvary Cemetery. The procession was complete with a military band, riderless horse and mounted cavalry. But not long after the coffin was lowered into the ground with a 21-gun salute, it was raised and sent to Arlington National Cemetery for reburial.

By the late 1950s, all the Rosecrans property had been developed and the family home razed.


Ft. Rosecrans Military Reservation on San Diego’s Point Loma, Rosecrans Hall at Loyola Marymount University, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3261, an elementary school and park are all named in honor of the general.

But his best-known legacy is Rosecrans Avenue, which runs through 15 cities and is traveled by tens of thousands daily. It is a fitting memorial to a man whose own road was long and well traveled.