The Headless Horseman At Stones River


The Battle of Stones River resulted in 13,176 casualties for the Union army under William Rosecrans engaged there. Of those 13,176 casualties, 1,171 were deaths. However, of those over 1,000 deaths, the most dramatic was that of Lieutenant Colonel Julius Peter Garesche on December 31, 1863. Garesche was the Chief-of-Staff of the Army of the Cumberland.

Garesche’s Fate

On the morning of the 31, the bloodiest battle per number engaged began. Both William Rosecrans and Braxton Bragg made plans for the same maneuver that morning. The Union army was ordered to attack the Confederate right and the Confederate army was ordered to attack the Union right. The Confederates moved at dawn and caught the Union forces off guard while eating breakfast. The Federal line was pushed back three miles where the Confederate assault was halted by the third division under Philip Sheridan.

During the chaos that ensued by the surprise Confederate attack, William S. Rosecrans, or Old Rosy as he was referred to, rode back and forth along his lines attempting to rally his men and establish a new line. Rosecrans shouted words of encouragement to the companies, regiments, and artillery retreating through the woods to the south of the pike. While riding along the lines, Rosecrans became the primary target of the attacking Confederate troops.

It was near the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad where a shell split a cedar tree. Rosecrans and his staff rode into the path of the shell. The shell hit the ground and bounced before exploding. Garesche, riding with Rosecrans at the time, was hit in the head by the shell and decapitated. All that was left of his head was a piece of his jaw still holding onto a piece of his beard. The horse continued to gallop with the decapitated Garesche still astride the horse for about 20 paces with blood spewing from his body and splattering Rosecrans’s uniform.

Brigadier General William Hazen, who saw the temporary burial of Garesche, wrote the following about the event:

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.

This was a major loss for Rosecrans and the army. Garesche would write and voice Rosecrans orders. In addition to this, another fact makes his death even more significant: Garesche predicted his death before the battle. His prediction went back many years earlier.


Garesche had previously graduated from West Point in 1842. Upon graduating, Garesche visited his father in St. Louis who had just gotten 2,000 acres of land at the junction of the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers. Garesche’s father sent his son along with two others to patrol the area. During their patrol, Garesche found a cabin on the banks of the Missouri River. During the night Juluis was woken up by the cabin crashing into the river and the patrol narrowly escaping death. Julius’ older brother, Fredrick, stated that he believed the experience as an omen of disaster.

These words from Fredrick, who was training to be a priest, impacted Julius. Julius continued to experience “near-death” experiences which made his fears even worse. To try to find relief from his worries, Julius joined the Society of St. Vincent of Paul. However, when the Civil War broke out, Julius found a division between himself and his southern family.  Julius gave his southern family the nickname of “turncoats” and damned them to a living hell.

In response to this, Garesche sought out his brother Fredrick’s advice as he was now a priest. In response to this sin by Julius, his brother predicted that Julius would be killed in his first battle. This prediction came true on Dec. 31, 1862, as Garesche was indeed killed during his first battle. As the Confederates broke through the Federal line that first day of battle, Gareshe prayed for a moment in a grove of trees. He then went with Rosecrans, riding up and down the lines where he met his demise.


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