by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Rosecrans Avenue is one greater Los Angeles’ longer west-east thoroughfares, running from the Pacific Ocean in Manhattan Beach nearly thirty miles to its terminus at Euclid Avenue in Fullerton. For about seven years I lived just south of Rosecrans in the latter city and had no clue who the street was named for and that goes for untold numbers of commuters who’ve plied the road over the years.
Thanks to a carte de visite photograph in the Homestead’s collection, taken by famed photographer Mathew Brady (who is said to have taken the earliest known photo of William Workman in 1851), we have a visual representation of the street’s namesake: General William S. Rosecrans (1819-1898), a high-ranking general in the Union Army during the Civil War who spent his last years living on a large ranch in the area in and around modern Gardena.
Rosecrans was a native of Delaware County, Ohio, just north of Columbus, who entered West Point in 1838 and graduated fifth among the 56 members of the class of 1842. Nicknamed “Rosy” from his years at the academy, the future general married Anna Hegeman (the couple had a son and four daughters) shortly after graduation and soon after became a Roman Catholic.
Working as an engineer with the Army, Rosecrans worked on coastal defenses briefly and then taught at West Point through 1847 and did not serve in the field during the Mexican-American War. He went back into engineering projects, but health problems caused him to resign from the Army in 1854. In civilian life, he was an inventory and secured several patents. One of his projects was an experimental oil lamp, but the prototype exploded causing severe burns and some disfigurement on his lower face, which he largely disguised with a beard.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Rosecrans reentered military service and was with Genereal George McClellan’s staff and rose to the command of Union forces in what became the state of West Virginia. In 1862, he was sent to Mississippi and was the commander of Union forces there working under General Ulysses S. Grant. Though he won some key battles, his failure to pursue fleeing Confederates infuriated Grant.
Rosecrans then took on command of the Army of the Cumberland in Kentucky, where he fought to a draw at a battle in the winter of 1862-63, when other Union forces were badly beaten by the rebels. However, at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863, Rosecrans was routed and had to retreat. Grant, recently appointed to oversee all western Union forces relieved Rosecrans of his command. Popular with his men, but often at cross-purposes with officers and his superiors, especially Grant, Rosecrans remained bitter about his situation the remainder of his life and blamed Grant for what happened to him.
Though commander of forces in Missouri, he was isolated from the prime fields of battle for the remainder of the war and he resigned in 1867. The following year, President Andrew Johnson appointed Rosecrans Minister to Mexico, which had just overcome the French invasion, and he remained in that role for a year.
Rosecrans then relocated to California and looked for property to acquire. While on a visit to the Los Angeles area in 1869, he acquired portions of Rancho Sausal Redondo and public lands near it, totaling some 13,000 acres. Significant litigation over how lands were being handled were ended in 1873 to the favor of the former general and others.
A newspaper article several years ago gave the rough boundaries of his property as from Florence Avenue on the north to near Artesia Boulevard on the south and from Crenshaw Boulevard on the west to Central Avenue on the east. At the southwestern portion of his holdings, near the present intersection of Vermont Avenue and his namesake street, Rosecrans built his ranch house (not far from Larry Flynt’s Lucky Lady Casino).
However, Rosecrans, who had mining and other interests, including engineering, spent much of his early years in California living in San Francisco. In 1880, he was elected to represent constituents in the Bay Area the House of Representatives as a Democrat, serving two terms from 1881 to 1885. For several years afterward he was the register of the federal treasury, but poor health, including what was termed “nervous prostration” and other maladies, forced him to give up his post and, in 1893, he returned west and took up a suite at the Hotel Redondo on the ocean.
While he was in Washington, D.C. in his treasury position, the opening of a direct transcontinental railroad route to Los Angeles ushered in the famed Boom of the 1880s. Among the enormous numbers of real estate developments that popped up in greater Los Angeles was the Rosecrans tract and townsite, which were heavily advertised in those two main years of the boom, 1887 and 1888 (when William Workman’s nephew, William Henry Workman, was mayor of Los Angeles.)
After his return to the South Bay, he became a familiar fixture at veterans’ events and other public functions and became a big supporter of Los Angeles Harbor during the “Free Harbor Fight” with the Southern Pacific Railroad’s competing port at Santa Monica. Rosecrans was frequently lauded for his work by the Los Angeles Times, whose publisher, Harrison Gray Otis, was president of the Free Harbor League championing Los Angeles Harbor.
As that battle was winding down, in favor of Otis and others, Rosecrans, who was critically ill several times in his later years, came down with his final illness and he died at his ranch in March 1898. Hailed as a war hero and a good citizen in the Los Angeles area, Rosecrans was given a lavish funeral, including his body lying in state at city hall, a mass at St. Vibiana Cathedral, and then was buried in a large tomb at Rosedale Cemetery. However, less than five years later, his remains were disinterred and moved to Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington.
As well-known in the region as Rosecrans was in the last years of the 19th century, he is virtually forgotten today. If it wasn’t for his namesake street, there would be no physical reminder of him at all, much as is the case with another Union general profiled on this blog not long ago, General George Stoneman, who was also a governor of California.