Civil War: Did a knight’s sacrifice win the battle?

Mike West, The Murfreesboro Post, January 28, 2007

The site where Col. Julius P. Garesché fell.

Did the sacrifice of one knight win the day for the Union at the Battle of Stones River?

Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans apparently believed it did.

The knight in question was Col. Julius P. Garesché, Rosecrans’ chief of staff, whose life had been haunted by premonitions of death.

“The general later superstitiously expressed that Garesché had served as a Christ-like sacrifice to win the day’s battle,” wrote Larry Daniel in his book “Days of Glory.”

And indeed, Garesché was more of a priest than a warrior despite his grisly end on the battlefield.

Extremely nearsighted, he was born in Cuba of American parents. Garesché was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy when he was 16. While he was at West Point, he befriended Rosecrans, becoming a religious mentor to the younger classmate and was later responsible for his conversion to Catholicism.

For his work with the church, Pope Pius IX named Garesché a Knight of St. Sylvester for his service, which included organizing the first conference of the Vincent de Paul Society in Washington, D.C. A fervent writer, he penned countless letters to his wife, Marquitta, and other friends and family members in addition to contributing to the Freeman’s Journal and other publications on topical issues of the day.

A Mexican War veteran, he was assistant adjutant general in Washington prior to the Civil War. That position helped him win a brigadier general commission in the regular army for his friend, Rosecrans.
When Rosecrans was named commander in October 1862 of what was to become the Army of the Cumberland, Garesché was named his chief of staff. Garesché accepted the field post despite his own premonitions and his brother’s forewarnings.

Garesché was a second lieutenant serving with the 4th U.S. Artillery in Texas when he had the first dream forecasting his violent death. That portent followed an incident on family land near the junction of the Missouri and Mississippi River in which the cabin he was sleeping washed away into the Missouri River.

In his article, “The Strange Death of Julius Garesché,” the late Dr. Homer Pittard said Garesché’s brother, who was training to be a priest, interpreted the incident as an omen of disaster.

“This pronouncement made an indelible impression on Julius and thereafter every act involving physical danger and personal reverses became a piece of the mosaic fulfilling his destined violent end,” Pittard wrote.

And Garesché continued to have brushes with death, including a near miss with a locomotive in St. Louis.

Then came the final straw.

Garesché like his friend, William Rosecrans, was a fervent abolitionist. However, many of his relatives sided with the Southern cause. With an outburst of profanity, Garesché damned his secessionist relatives to hell, which caused him to again seek counsel from his brother, Frederick.

His brother, now a Catholic priest, revealed to Garesché he had received a revelation from heaven that Julius would die during his first battle. Furthermore, it was revealed to Father Frederick that his death would come within the next 18 months.

That pronouncement of doom was made Sept. 14, 1861, Dr. Pittard reported, but it did not stop Garesché from agreeing to join his friend, Rosecrans, in Tennessee.

His duties with the Army of the Cumberland were chiefly administrative, handling legal questions and penning orders for the army. Following Rosecrans’ instruction, Garesché issued the General Orders for the opening of Stones River:

General Orders: Headquarters Department of the Cumberland

In front of Murfreesborough, Dec. 31, 1862

“Soldiers, the eyes of the whole nation are upon you; the very faith of the nation may be said to hang on the issue of this day’s battle. Be true, then, to yourselves, true to your own manly character and soldierly reputation, true to the love of your dear ones at home, whose prayers ascend to God this day for your success.

“Be cool! I need not ask you to be brave. Keep ranks. Do not throw away your fire. Fire slowly, deliberately; above all, fire low, and be always sure of your aim. Close steadily in upon the enemy, and, when you get within charging distance, rush on him with the bayonet. Do this, and the victory will certainly be yours. Recollect that there are hardly any troops in the world that will stand a bayonet charge, and that those who make it, therefore, are sure to win.

By command of Maj. Gen. W.S. Rosecrans:

J.P. Garesché,
Assistant Adjutant-General and Chief of Staff.’

In the early morning hours before the start of fighting, Rosecrans, Garesché and other officers celebrated High Mass with the Rev. Father Cooney of the 55th Indiana Infantry officiating.

But the Confederate Army of Tennessee struck first and the Union army began to fold in the morning hours of Dec. 31, 1962. Faced with a disastrous defeat, Rosecrans and his staff saddled up and headed to the field of battle to rally the troops.

Rosecrans and his staff galloped from point to point, repositioning troops, giving orders instead of staying at his headquarters at a log cabin just off the Nashville Pike. Garesché was at his side “during the storm, advising, cheering and executing orders,” wrote John Fitch, provost general of the Army of the Cumberland.

“Calm yet courageous of heart, during that day he was observed, at an opportune moment, to retire to a private place, scan a page of his pocket Bible, and to move his lips in prayer. He seemed then, fearless of death; may we not say he was ready and willing to die for his country,” Fitch said.

While Rosecrans’ presence on the front lines helped the Union army hold its final position, his subordinates said he contributed to the chaos of the morning. Today, we would call it micromanaging.
Late in the morning, it became obvious that the Army of Cumberland must hold the line at the Nashville Pike at the area called the Round Forest by area residents.

Riding with his staff to the crucial spot, Rosecrans was spotted by a Confederate battery on the other side of Stones River. They fired, narrowly missing the commanding general.

Garesché was struck in the head by the cannon ball, decapitating him except for a portion of his bearded chin.

His blood and brains showered his friend, Rosecrans. His headless body rode his horse some 20 paces before falling off. A small sign at Stones River Battlefield still marks “Where Garesché fell” near the railroad tracks.

It was Garesché’s first battle and it was slightly more than 15 months since his brother issued his fatal but accurate prediction.

“Garesche’s appalling death stunned us all,” Gen. Phil Sheridan wrote in his memoirs, “and a momentary expression of horror spread over Rosecrans’ face, but at such a time the importance of self-control was vital, and he pursued his course with an appearance of indifference.”

Other officers seeing the bloody Rosecrans believed he was seriously wounded. “Alas, it is the blood of poor Garesché,” Rosecrans said.

Those who knew him said Rosecrans was deeply impacted by the death of his friend. After the battle, he was seen to cut the brass buttons off his uniform and place them in an envelope labeled: Buttons from the uniform I was wearing the day Garesché was killed.

Col. W.B. Hazen, another close friend of Garesché, was fighting to hold the Round Forest when the chief of staff fell.

“About ten minutes after Colonel Goddard informed me of his death, I chanced to pass the spot where he lay. He was alone, no soldier — dead or living thing — near him. I saw but a headless trunk; an eddy of crimson foam had issued from where his head should be.

“I at once recognized his figure, it lay so naturally, his right hand across his breast. As I approached, dismounted, and bent over him, the contraction of a muscle extended the hand slowly and slightly towards me,” Hazen wrote.

Upon his dead finger, was his West Point class ring. Hazen removed it and retrieved his pocket-sized Bible.

“I then parted with all that remained of one who in life was my dearest friend, and possessed of the highest virtues that grace an honest man,” he said.

Hazen then sent men to remove Garesché’s body from the battlefield. It was given a rare night burial in a small cemetery near the battlefield until it could be recovered and shipped to Cincinnati and then on to Washington, D.C. where his brother officiated at the funeral.

To H.W. Halleck, general in chief

“We have to deplore the loss of Lieutenant-Colonel Garesché, whose capacity and gentlemanly deportment had already endeared him to all the officers of this command, and whose gallantry on the field of battled excited their admiration.”

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