This Eccentric Officer 'Knew' He Would Die in His First Battle
By Dr. Homer Pittard
OF THE 1,717 battlefield deaths among the 13,176 Union casualties at bloody Stones River, the most dramatic was that of Lt. Col. Julius Peter Garesche, Chief-of-Staff, Army of the Cumberland. Garesche met violent death on the morning of Dec. 31, 1862, at a time when the Union right had crumbled and was being driven back in disorder against the Nashville Pike.
The general commanding, impulsive Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans, had taken the personal responsibility of forming a new line. Detached companies, regiments, and pieces of artillery, streaming through the cedars to the south of the pike, were halted and placed in patchwork alignment facing the enemy. Shouting encouragement to spur the flagging spirits of his men, Rosecrans rode along the lines and across the open fields. In full view of the Confederates, who had by then moved into position, he became a prime target. Following close at his heels were his chief-of-staff and two orderlies.
Near the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, which bisects the field, a shell tore through a tall cedar. Rosecrans and his tiny entourage galloped into its path. There was a slight puff and 100 yards beyond them the projectile bounced along the ground and then exploded. Garesche's head was squashed like a pumpkin and carried away. Only a fragment of the jaw carrying a patch from his full beard remained. As his horse jogged along, the headless trunk sat erect for some 20 paces and then slid to the ground.
Decapitations were almost routine in cavalry and closeup artillery combat. On the afternoon of the previous day, a corporal, standing in front of the general's marquee, had been beheaded by a stray solid shot. Of course Garesche's demise was significant because of his prominence among the members of the general staff. He was Rosecrans' pen and voice. His proxy dispatches to be found in the Official Records are classics of conciseness and precision. But the most impelling and macabre circumstance surrounding his violent end was that Garesche was possessed by an absorbing presentiment that he would die in his first battle. The men around him were aware of this and his actions were closely observed as the Battle of Stones River approached.
At West Point, despite his facility for collecting demerits and a debilitating encounter with goitre, Garesehe had graduated in 1841, standing 30th in a class of 52. An aloofness accentuated by extreme nearsightedness had restricted his circle of friends while at the Academy. However, he had formed a fast friendship with William Roseerans, who was his academic junior by one year. Later Garesche was instrumental in leading his future commander into Catholicism and, as assistant adjutant general in Washington, slashed red tape to procure Roseerans his commission as brigadier general in the Regular Army.
Garesche's post-Academy assignment was a second lieutenancy with the 4th Artillery stationed at Fort Brown, Tex. It was at this point that he became absorbed with his first great presentiment that he was destined to suffer a violent death. This was some 21 years before Stones River.
During the interval between graduation and his first assignment he had visited his father in St. Louis. His family, having come into possession of 2,000 acres of land lying at the junction of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, was experiencing difficulty with woodcutters and squatters. In order to secure rights until the courts could decide the issue, an armed guard had been employed to patrol the area. Julius volunteered his services and spent several days with two other men tramping through the underbrush and swamp-infested lowlands. One afternoon after a long search for a camping ground the three men found an abandoned cabin. Although it perched precariously on the banks of the Missouri it was satisfactory for the late hour, and blankets were spread on the floor. During the night the water rose and the earth supporting the cabin crumbled away. Julius and his companions were awakened by the creaking timbers and catapulted through the doorway to safety just as the cabin settled and slowly disappeared in the waters below.
Appraising the incident later, brother Frederick, who was training for the priesthood, interpreted it 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. Years later, in Louisville, his nearsightedness carried him one night from the street onto a railroad track. Again he escaped death by stumbling aside as a train rushed by. There was no doubt now; his brother's words assumed oracular proportions.
His tours of duty at Fort Brown and two years later at Fort McHenry, Md., were unhappy. His time was consumed by voluminous remorseful correspondence with his wife, Marquitta, personality clashes with superior officer Maj. Giles Porter, and brooding over a multitude of signs and omens. He also found time to write lengthy pedantic letters to the Freeman's Journal and Brownlow's Quarterly Review under the nom de plume of "Catholicus." These heated discourses ran the gamut from divorce to divorce laws to attacks on the President's power over the army.
Eight years before the outbreak of hostilities he was assigned to the Adjutant General's Office in Washington as senior assistant with the rank of captain. Continuing his Catholic lay work he organized a chapter of the Society of St. Vincent of Paul, an organization dedicated to the relief of suffering among the poor. In this work he appeared to find the solace that had not been his since his life had become entangled in mysticism. In May of 1861 he was commissioned brevet major and in August, a full major in the Adjutant General's corps. A few days after his elevation there occurred another incident in the long, exasperating series of ill omens.
Many of Julius' relatives were in the Southern Army, a sensitive fact that kept him busy at the candle table. In a discussion of this sad state with one of his acquaintances he grew emotional, referring to his Confederate relatives as turncoats and damning them to a living hell. Profanity was out of character for Julius, and being considerably disturbed he turned again for counsel to his brother, Father Frederick. Frederick listened, and then, with what must have been the great light of prophecy shining from messianic eyes, he made his great and final pronouncement. Yes, this incident of sin on the streets of Washington had great significance in the destiny of Julius. In fact this was the culminating act and he, Frederick, had received a heavenly commission to reveal the ultimate death of Julius during his first battle. In fact the revelation set a timetable 18 months hence. The date of the brotherly session was Sept. 14, 1861.
At first, because of the turn of events, Julius refused to accept his death warrant. He was sure that a commutation of sentence occurred later that year after the Confederates lost their post-Bull Run chance to take Washington. Also, he was a general staff officer and because of this would not be called into field service. Yet as time went on he must have pondered the will of the Lord and his obstinacy in not permitting it to be fulfilled.
In April of 1862, he began to seek an appointment to field service. Extensive correspondence with General Buell did not produce immediate results although he was proffered a brigadier generalcy in McDowell's army in Virginal This he refused, preferring to win the commission in the field and perhaps, too, because he had already committed himself about presidential appointments in his "Catholicus" letters years before.
Opportunity came when William Rosecrans, his West Point friend, superseded Buell in Kentucky. On November 5, 1862, Garesche was relieved of duty in the Adjutant General's Office, and was appointed Chief-of-Staff, Army of the Cumberland. His subsequent brief career saw his star rise quickly, for his fluency with the pen and his dedication to duty made him Rosecrans' closest confidant.
Garesche's last morning on earth began in a small tent near headquarters. High mass, with Rev. Father Cooney of the 55th Indiana Regiment officiating, was celebrated. One hundred yards away to the north a thin mist hung close to the river, and Van Cleve's division could be seen moving up closer to the ford. The Battle of Stones River was less than a half hour away. During the early hours of the morning, battle sounds to the south and the retrograde movement of McCook's right wing revealed that Rosecrans' strategy had gone awry. In the bedlam behind the pike, one observer saw Garesche dismount and enter a small grove of trees. It was also observed that after opening his prayer book and reading for a few moments, he remounted and joined Rosecrans. Five minutes later he was dead. It had been 15 months and 17 days since his brother's prophecy.
Brig. Gen. William Hazen, who directed the shallow, temporary interment of Garesche on a tiny knoll nearby, describes the scene in a letter found in the Annals of the Army of the Cumberland:
I saw but a headless trunk: an eddy of crimson foam had issued where the 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 his hand slowly and slightly towards me. Taking hold of it, I found it warm and lifelike. Upon one of the fingers was the class ring, that (to me) beautiful talisman of our common school.
The following day the body was removed and carried to Nashville for embalming. The Surgeon General's reports carried this grisly note: "On discovering a protuberance extending some five inches from the spine I thought it well to remove it for the sake of conformity." Interment was later made in Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Washington, D.C.