The First Catholic President — Almost

Most people know that John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960, was the first Catholic president of the United States. Many are also aware that Al Smith was the first Catholic to run for the presidency, in 1928. Very few, however, know about the Catholic Civil War general who almost became Abraham Lincoln’s vice-president and would have been in line to succeed him when he was assassinated.

William Starke Rosecrans was born in 1819 to a Methodist family in Kingston, Ohio. He was the son of Crandell Rosecrans and Jane Hopkins, and the great-grandson of Stephen Hopkins, colonial Governor of Rhode Island and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Hopkins also co-authored, with John Adams, the draft of the Articles of Confederation.

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At the age of 13, Rosecrans left home and took up work as a store clerk. Unable to afford college, he decided to seek an appointment to the United States Military Academy (West Point). He interviewed with a congressman who had been planning to nominate his own son, but he was so impressed by Rosecrans that the congressman nominated him instead.

Rosecrans graduated fifth in his class at West Point in 1842. Among his classmates were James Longstreet and Abner Doubleday. After about a year in the engineer corps, he returned to his alma mater as a professor.

Although West Point was something of a hot bed of Episcopalians, it was there that Rosecrans was drawn to the Catholic Church. After study and prayer, he made up his mind: In 1845, he wrote home about his decision to become a Catholic.

Rosecrans continued teaching at West Point, but he resigned from the army in 1854 and had tremendous success in business. He became involved in mining operations in Virginia (West Virginia today), and his geological surveys helped locate many profitable veins of coal. He also became president of a navigation company formed to transport coal. He invented odorless oil, a round lamp wick, a short practical lamp chimney, and an economical method of manufacturing soap.

One day in the laboratory, a lamp exploded and burned him very badly. He was bedridden for 18 months. Just as he was recovering from his burns, the Civil War broke out. He returned to the Army, originally as aide-de-camp to General McClellan, but before long he was made a colonel of volunteers.

For his gallantry and success at the Battle of Rich Mountain (West Virginia) in 1861, he was made a brigadier general. During the succeeding years he held various commands in West Virginia, Mississippi, and Tennessee — until September 19-20, 1863, when he was defeated by Gen. Braxton Bragg at the battle of Chickamauga (Tennessee). Because of that defeat, Rosecrans was relieved of command of the Army of the Cumberland. He was eventually given command of the Department of Missouri, a position he held until the end of the war.


After the war, Rosecrans resigned from the army. In 1868, he was named the U.S. Minister to Mexico. He was elected to Congress in 1880 and again in 1882. From 1885 to 1893 he was registrar of the U.S. Treasury. He once turned down the nomination for governor of Ohio. He did, however, try to accept the nomination to be vice-president under Abraham Lincoln.

Horace Greeley was editor of the New York Tribune, America’s most influential newspaper from the 1840s to the 1870s. Greeley promoted the Whig and Republican parties, as well as various issues and reforms. He was considered the most powerful editor of his day, and by the end of the Civil War he had become a foe of President Lincoln. Greeley wanted the Republican Party to dump Lincoln at the 1864 Republican Convention.

Greeley (who would run for president in 1872) approached Rosecrans with the idea that he should challenge Lincoln for the nomination, but Rosecrans refused to have any part in the scheme. When Lincoln later learned of Greeley’s plan, he appreciated Rosecrans’s loyalty.

Lincoln developed moves to counter Greeley at the convention, and he won the nomination to run for a second term. Hannibal Hamlin had been Lincoln’s vice-president; he and Lincoln had a good working relationship, but they were not close personally (they had not met until after they were elected). Hamlin was from Maine and associated with northern radicals. Lincoln wanted to mend relations with the South, so he was looking for a new running mate.

Lincoln knew that he could count on the former general’s loyalty, and he also knew that Rosecrans was held in high regard and would therefore strengthen the ticket. During the 1864 Republican National Convention, the head of the Ohio delegation, James Garfield, telegraphed Rosecrans to ask if he would consider being Lincoln’s vice-president. Rosecrans replied positively. Unfortunately, Garfield never received the return telegram. The details are murky, but many people believe that Edwin M. Stanton, the Secretary of War, intercepted and suppressed it.

Stanton had control over the military telegraph, and he had ordered that all telegrams from generals should be brought to his attention — and Stanton did not like Rosecrans. By the time the convention was about to end, Lincoln still had not received Rosecrans’s reply, so he named Andrew Johnson as his vice-president. Later, when Lincoln learned that Rosecrans had wanted to accept, it was too late. Lincoln was assassinated a few months later, and Johnson became president — a post that likely would have been Rosecrans’s if the return telegram had made it back. (Johnson later faced impeachment related to his efforts to remove Stanton from office.)

Rosecrans passed away in California on March 11, 1898. Even without becoming president or vice-president, he left his mark on history as a Civil War general, an inventor, and a politician/civil servant. He also made a significant impact on the history of the Catholic Church in America.

Rosecrans’s brother, Sylvester Harden Rosecrans, was attending Kenyon College, the leading Episcopalian institution in Ohio, when he received a letter from William regarding his conversion to Catholicism. The letter so intrigued Sylvester that he decided to learn more about the Faith. He also ended up converting. He transferred to a Jesuit institution, Fordham University in New York, and graduated in 1846.

Sylvester then decided to study for the priesthood. The Bishop of Cincinnati sent him to study in Rome, where he was ordained a priest in 1852. Ten years later, he was consecrated as the titular Bishop of Pompeiopolis and Auxiliary Bishop of Cincinnati. When the Diocese of Columbus was created in 1868, he was named its first bishop. He served in that position until he passed away in 1878.


  • Ronald J. Rychlak

    Ronald J. Rychlak is the associate dean and MDLA Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (Revised and Expanded) (2010) and Righteous Gentiles (2005).

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