Book Review: Master Of War

Master Of War, by Benson Bobrick

Known mostly for his works on the history of the English Bible as well as a history of astrology, in this book historian Benson Bobrick writes about an unjustly obscure Union General [1] whose cause the author unstintingly takes, General George Thomas, best known as “Slow Trot” or the “Rock Of Chickamuga,” where he is known at all, but often considered below the popular triumvirate of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan [2] among successful Union generals. On the whole, I find the author’s case to be quite persuasive, and as a fellow partisan of Thomas and firm believer in his greatness as a general and as a professional with no interest in interfering with political matters, the biggest criticism I can make of this work is that the author feels it necessary to do to Grant and Sherman and Schofield, for example, what those men often did to him, belittle his excellence and demean his glory. I do not think such efforts are necessary to defend the honor or promote the skill of Thomas, whose excellence is such that the sniping of others against him can be refuted from the facts alone—the reality of the course of battle, the dispatches sent through the war office, the damning with faint praise found in carefully manicured memoirs, and the like.

As might be expected from a book with the title Master of War, it is to be expected that the author focuses mainly on Thomas’ experience in war, and this is an accurate perception. The vast majority of the book’s almost 350 pages of text are devoted to Thomas’ experience in the Civil War. The first chapter of the book examines Thomas’ childhood in Southeastern Virginia, the site of Nat Turner’s notorious slave rebellion. After this, the author explores Thomas’ courtship and marriage in his thirties, his experiences in the military from West Point to the Civil War, including conspicuous service as an artilleryman during the Mexican War, and the experience he gained of the wider world. The last chapter examines Thomas’ postwar experience in Reconstruction and his death from a stroke in 1870 while writing a fierce letter in defense of his reputation while leading the District of the Pacific in San Francisco. The other nine chapters of the book are devoted to Thomas’ Civil War experience, from initial distrust about his loyalty among many Union leaders, glory at Mill Springs, capable service as a subordinate to Buell from Shiloh to Perryville, his able defense of Hell’s half acre at Stones River, his conspicuous efforts in the Tullahoma campaign and at Chickamuga, his indomitable spirit at Chattanooga, where his troops successfully stormed Missionary Ridge in anger at the slights their army had suffered from compatriots, his able service alongside Sherman during the Atlanta campaign, and two chapters devoted to his near-miraculous efforts to first stop Hood’s quixotic invasion of Tennessee and then to utterly destroy his army at Nashville. This last battle was one of the most notable military achievements in the Civil War, or any other war, given the wide disparity in casualties, the fact that Thomas’ army was an ill-assorted group of widely disparate and often second-rate parts, and that it involved two consecutive days of victory against prepared positions in winter followed by a vigorous pursuit that lasted for weeks and led to the Confederate Army of Tennessee ceasing to exist as a recognizable force. For that alone, Thomas deserves immortal fame as a master of war.

The author notes strikingly that Thomas was uniformly successful as a general. None of his attacks were repulsed and none of his defenses were breached, including when outnumbered more than two to one on the second day of Chickamuga, or when desperately holding off the onslaught of Bragg’s attack at Stones River. His successful attacks at Mill Springs, Chattanooga, and Nashville were decisive and purchased victory without a great cost to his men. Little wonder his men held him in such high esteem, for they knew that under his care they would win and live. Yet for all his obvious talent, he was a man who suffered from political matters. This makes sense when we understand that Thomas, as a native Southerner, lacked a great deal of possible mentors among the Union leadership, and that as a professional who sought to fight professionally rather than politically, he left himself open to charges of having McClellan’s notable and terminal illness, “the slows,” such as after Chattanooga and before Nashville. He was also rather diffident, twice excusing himself from taking over from the general in charge over him, which in an army of ambitious graspers was likely incomprehensible. Yet despite his notable political deficits, his graciousness and flamboyant competence, in the absence of other flamboyant qualities, made him well respected even by those who cut him down in their private missives. This is a brave and spirited book in defense of a courageous man. One only wishes the author had not felt it necessary to defend such a great men by demeaning others.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Book Review: Master Of War

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