A little while ago I commented on the idea of having a civil war fantasy league . I would like to take this opportunity to talk about my ideal “first round” choice for my roster of leaders. George Thomas is a suitably obscure but also undeniably important general whose excellence and obscurity demonstrates some of the cultural cross-currents that still hinder an honest appreciation of Civil War history in our society.
George Thomas was part of a short list of Civil War leaders whose “divided loyalties” left them mistrusted and hated by both sides. Amazingly enough, I appear not to be the only supporter of the often-neglected George Thomas, whose lack of family support and relatively early death left him bereft of the cheering section or the memoirs to keep his brave deeds and meritorious life in the public eye. Nonetheless, he does have an excellent website for those who wish to find out more about his life .
The central mystery that must be explained is how a Virginia born son of the plantation aristocracy became such a ferocious Unionist (for there is no other way to describe Thomas’ unswerving loyalty to the Union). The answer appears to be in the riddle of the Nat Turner revolt, which erupted the area he grew up (including his family’s plantation, in fact), and which seems to have given Thomas a lifelong fear of anarchy and rebellion and a very acute personal awareness of the security threat of plantation slaves to their erstwhile owners.
Another fateful act in Thomas’ life was his abandonment of a career in law to enter the military academy, where he became known as a dedicated student, his attention to detail and his refusal to accept bullying (he stood up to bullies at West Point in self-defense and in defense of one his roommates, and a future commanding officer, one William Tecumseh Sherman ).
Thomas’ early career demonstrated great promise, and he seems to have been a good teacher. His bravery in the Second Seminole War in Florida (where he was key in the defense of Fort Lauderdale during that war, a place that ought to put a statue in his honor ). He was part of the flying artillery that served as one of the biggest US advantages in the Mexican-American War, and winning some battles nearly on its own (like Palo Alto, for example). After the war he married a woman from New York (Francis Kellogg), already showing his lack of interest in the turbulent and seditious politics of the antebellum South. During this period he also taught cavalry tactics and artillery to some of his future Civil War opponents and compatriots. Generalthomas.com notes sensibly that while J.E.B. Stuart and Philip Sheridan were capable students of cavalry tactics that John Bell Hood was a poor student in artillery, given the evidence of their performance in the Civil War.
It would appear that the fact that Thomas was a Virginian accounted for his being assigned out of his home area (possibly due to concerns about his reliability), first in West Virginia and thereafter in the Western Theater. His leadership at the Battle of Mill Spring in early 1862 was one of the Union attacks that broke the cordon defense of the South and led to massive territorial losses in the Western Theater by the South. Though the battle has largely been forgotten by all but the most hardcore Civil War enthusiasts, it earned him a promotion to Major General of Volunteers.
Thomas’ performance thereafter ranged from steady to spectacular. He was General Don Buell’s second-in-command at Perryville, blunting Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky, refusing to replace his commander after the battle. He then served Buell’s successor, General William Rosecrans loyally, his skills in tactical defense (for which he is mostly remembered nowadays) twice preventing decisive defeat, once at Stones River (where along with Sheridan he blunted a massive attack by Bragg), and the other at Chickamuga, where he earned his nickname as the “Rock of Chickamuga.” After this battle, he is given command of the Army of the Cumberland, and holds Chattanooga for the Union as Bragg’s siege turns ugly.
During the ensuing Battle of Chattanooga Thomas’ troops successfully charge Missionary Ridge after being originally relegated to the sideshow of taking Orchard Knob, giving the Union a decisive victory and opening the way to Atlanta (and earning him a promotion to Brigadier General in the Regular Army). During Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign, it was Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland that would serve as the mobile force to outflank Confederate General Johnson’s lines time after time, forcing him back closer and closer to Atlanta. During this campaign Thomas wins another battle on the tactical defensive by stopping Hood’s attack at the Battle of Peachtree Creek.
Thomas’ military genius was really demonstrated in his last campaign, though. With a motley crew of soldiers pulled mostly from garrison duty around Tennessee and Schofield’s Army of the Ohio, Thomas smashed Hood’s army at the Battle of Nashville in one of the few truly decisive battles of the entire Civil War, following up the battle with a rigorous pursuit that destroyed Hood’s army as an effective fighting force, and paving the way for Wilson’s Selma and Montgomery Raids in early 1865 that wiped out the last Confederate resistance in Alabama. For this Thomas was made a Major General of Volunteers.
Despite Thomas’ military genius, which makes him worthy of a first round pick in a civil war fantasy draft, as a man of personal honor he had few equals in a very cutthroat and corrupt time, refusing to take advantage of the political support of President Andrew Johnson (another famously Unionist Southerner from my home region of Appalachia) to skip over other generals like Sheridan, Sherman, or Grant in the status-conscious postwar U.S. Army. In 1870 he died in San Francisco, his genius in battlefield tactics, the motivation of his soldiers in the Army of the Cumberland (who fought for decades to keep his memory alive), and in logistics made him one of the Civil War’s most notable military leaders. His firm loyalty to the Union despite family pressure and his refusal to play dirty politics against other officers make him one of the most noble soldiers of the Civil War in character and honor. For that, we salute General George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamuga.