Here between the sesquicentennial commemorations of Chickamauga in September and Lookout Mountain in November, it seems appropriate to write a few summary paragraphs and posts about one of the greatest generals in the Civil War – George H. Thomas.
When we think of the great generals of the War, names like Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, Grant, Meade, and Sherman come quickly to mind. The list is even longer of those who were found to, or deemed to have, deadly deficiencies of character or initiative. When simply looking at the battle record of even the greatest names, there are grave defeats and questionable tactics. Few have as solid a record as Union General George Thomas, yet his name is not as well-known here 150 years later.
I have recently been reading more on Thomas, given the season of the 150th commemorations, and am much enjoying the biography “Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas” by Benson Bobbrick. It is extraordinarily well-written.
When I think of Thomas in my earlier Civil War studies some years ago, I recall an account as told by Alexander K. McClure – a prominent Chambersburg, Pennsylvania attorney, anti-slavery newspaper publisher, and political activist. This was in the early War, not long after Sumter, while Patterson’s troops were encamped on his farm. Having invited the veteran General Patterson and his staff to dinner, the entire group enjoyed a pleasant evening of cigars on the porch of his farmhouse. Naturally, the topic of a pending war was primary in the conversation. McClure recorded that the consensus of these generals and colonels was “agreed that it might be necessary to fight one general battle, but beyond that the war could not possibly be extended.” This sentiment prevailed due to confidence in superior resources in the North. Only two officers voiced concerns opposed to this general line of thinking. One was the Virginia native, George H. Thomas, who warned “how terribly the South was in earnest, and how desperately its people would fight for their homes.” The other dissenting opinion was offered by Abner Doubleday, who spoke of having been “in immediate intercourse with the Southern people. He declared with great earnestness that if one general battle was fought between the North and the South, it would precipitate the bloodiest war of the century.” Apparently not long after this exchange, Doubleday was called away to duties with his command, and General Patterson remarked that it was a shame that Doubleday was “gone in the head.” An additional McClure recounting of this incident records that after Doubleday’s departure, several of the officers ridiculed his opinion of an extended war, with one of them saying that Doubleday was a Spiritualist, and a little “gone in the head.” This is an early reference to a viewpoint usually thought to have only been a quirky belief of Doubleday in the latter years of his life. But whatever it says about Doubleday’s personality and theology, or lack of personality and theology, it certainly demonstrates a macro sort of understanding of the global nature of the crisis facing the country. It could also be seen as eerily prophetic!
At this season of the second half of October of 1863, General Rosecrans was being removed from command of the Army of the Cumberland, and it was given to Thomas. To review, at Chickamauga, Rosecrans was in rapid retreat, while Thomas – soon to be called the Rock of Chickamauga, cobbled together a stout defense at Horseshoe Ridge and Snodgrass Hill and averted a total disaster. Of Rosecrans and his numb reactions after the battle, Lincoln said that he appeared “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.” He had to be replaced.
Grant, now in charge of this theatre, sent the news of the transfer of command at Chattanooga on the 19th and visited in person on the 23rd. Getting there was no small task. The Union forces were essentially under siege and desperately short of rations. A well-devised plan by Thomas for a successfully-executed amphibious operation on the 27th opened up supply lines both by land (called the “cracker line”) and water (the Tennessee River). This provisioned the Army of the Cumberland for future operations.
Actually, Grant and Thomas were not pals. Grant saw the latter as too slow and deliberate for his tastes. Thomas was indeed a man of careful thought, but also of strong action when the moment of crisis arrived. Unlike Grant who would fling wave after wave of men in attacks, Thomas would calculate more thoughtfully and judiciously – though not in the extreme sense of McClellan, for example.
Thomas would only live until 1870 and did not write memoirs as so many other generals would compose after the War. And he deliberately destroyed his personal papers. But he was indeed a hero in the north (note the picture and caption), and rightly so … even if he is only now being historically resurrected to a more appropriate appreciation.
I’ll return with more writings on Thomas in subsequent posts.