Generalship in the American Civil War: George Henry Thomas [1816 CE – 1870 CE]

The fact that the man who was probably the best battlefield general of the American Civil War [1861 CE – 1865 CE] is buried in a relatively neglected gravesite in Troy, New York, merits a bit of explanation.

The Civil War produced a bumper crop of noteworthy generals, ranging from the tactically brilliant Nathan Bedford Forrest to the woefully incompetent Ambrose Burnside.

Some of the general officers in both the armies of the North and South were notably eccentric. Examples abound, including Benjamin Butler, whose major contributions to the North’s war efforts were unsurprisingly legal rather than military, such as his definition of the runaway slaves who sought Union protection as contraband. Even such icons of Southern military prowess as Thomas [Stonewall] Jackson could be prone to what might charitably be characterized as idiosyncrasies: at one point Jackson ordered pikes for his troops.

Few were aberrant enough to foster speculation of full blown psychosis, with the possible exception of the egregious George B. McClellan, whose ego survived bungling an opportunity to destroy Lee’s army at Antietam, despite McClellan’s having been provided with a copy of the Southern battle plan, primarily because McClellan was simply incapable of coordinating his attacks.

Given the brutality and uncertainty of the war, it is hard not to have sympathy for generals like John Sedgwick, who is often remembered for being shot dead through the head trying to rally Union troops under Confederate fire on the battlefield of Spotsylvania, shouting “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Claims that he was cut down in the middle of the word “distance” are almost certainly apocryphal.

Lee, Jackson, Forrest, Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan are usually considered the leading candidates for greatness when it comes to evaluating Civil War military leadership on the battlefield.

Lee was undoubtedly a genius in defensive actions. Pointing out lapses in his record regarding offensive campaigns can elicit personal attacks and calumnies as vituperative and ill-founded as those aimed at Longstreet when he noted Lee’s shortcomings after the war.

Jackson died too early for a balanced evaluation of his considerable worth, as did the Union’s John Reynolds, who perished later at Gettysburg.

Forrest could never overcome Southern class prejudice sufficiently to earn the major command his demonstrated talent on the battlefield earned him. He never faced the challenges his ability merited.

Grant scores high on determination, courage, and persistence, but his casualties score even higher, leaving him an American Zhukov.

Sherman’s brilliant march through largely defenseless Southern territory after the Battle of Atlanta was more impressive logistically than as an example of outstanding battlefield generalship: there is a reason he concludes his memoirs with a detailed accounting of the order of march of his foraging army.

Sheridan proved his worth and more at the Battle of Cedar Creek and during the Appomattox Campaign, but his major commands came too late in the war to determine its fundamental outcome.

There was another Union general whose contributions qualify him for inclusion in the pantheon of Civil War battlefield leaders: George Henry Thomas. He and his soldiers achieved notable success from the early days of the conflict to the closing stages of the war. His talents were demonstrated in actions both defensive and offensive. Troops belonging to his command twice achieved what no other soldiers managed to do during the war: they attacked and routed sizable enemy forces from prepared defensive positions, in one instance effectively destroying the opposing army as a combat entity.

George Henry Thomas was born in Virginia. As a boy, he and his family had to flee their home to escape Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion. At West Point Sherman was one of his roommates. His actions during the Seminole Wars, the Mexican – American War, and his record as an instructor at West Point won him promotions and respect.

In 1852 he married the 31 year old Frances Kellogg, five years his junior.

When The Civil War broke out Thomas, unlike so many other West Point graduates from the South, honored his oaths of loyalty to the United States government.

His January 1862 victory at Mill Springs was one of the first for the Union in the war. It stopped a Confederate offensive in eastern Kentucky, forcing the Southern troops to retreat. He figured prominently in the apparent stalemate at Perryville, which ended an invasion of Kentucky by Bragg’s forces, following which Bragg retreated to Tennessee. At Stones River [December 31 1862 – January 2 1863], Thomas stopped a retreat of Union troops, contributing significantly to a Union strategic victory on a field bloodier than Shiloh or Antietam. At Chickamauga [September 1863], Thomas rallied retreating soldiers and held the Union line to prevent the destruction of the Army of the Cumberland, winning him the sobriquet The Rock of Chickamauga.

In the Battle of Chattanooga that November, as Sherman’s men wandered about without significantly engaging the enemy, Thomas’s troops were ordered to take the Confederate positions at the foot of Missionary Ridge. This they did, only to find their position subject to fire from the enemy line at the crest of the ridge.

The Union troops could not stay where they were. They would not retreat. They attacked uphill and drove the Confederates from a position of such natural strength that Grant said a line of skirmishers should have held it. Sheridan was said to have toasted an uphill Southern gun emplacement from a small flask only to have the Confederates fire at him, splashing him with dirt: he vowed to take the guns for that. Douglas MacArthur’s father, Arthur MacArthur, won a Medal of Honor for his role in the battle.

The Union commanders watched the attack in amazement. Grant asked who had ordered the advance uphill. Thomas said he had not, and General Granger added “When those fellows get started all hell can’t stop them.”

It appears that Thomas’s men, finding themselves in an untenable position at the foot of the ridge, attacked uphill in part to respond to the humiliations they were subjected to by the Union units newly arrived in Chattanooga, in part to wipe out the stain of Chickamauga, and in general to respond to the impossible position they had been put into in a way that would silence their critics and restore their pride with a very public display of courage. Thomas did not give the order to attack up the ridge, but he certainly contributed to the esprit de corps that motivated his men.

The Confederate soldiers had made the understandable mistake of siting their line on the topographical rather than the military crest of the ridge: the highest points rather than the line that presented the best field of fire against attackers. The steepness of the ridge and spurs descending the slope provided cover for the Union soldiers, as did Confederate troops retreating from rifle pits at the foot of the ridge.

During the siege of Atlanta in July 1864, Thomas’s troops inflicted severe casualties on Hood’s men in the Battle of Peachtree Creek.

As Sherman and his men departed on their March to the Sea, Thomas and his troops raced Hood to Nashville, where Federal reinforcements were expected. John Schofield’s Union troops inflicted heavy casualties on Hood’s army during a hard fought action at Franklin [November 30, 1864].

In December Thomas found himself reorganizing his army in Nashville, which Hood invested. The reputedly imperturbable Grant sent a flurry of messages urging Thomas to attack. Grant was being fed false information about Thomas by Schofield, who was scheming to replace his superior.

Thomas replied to Grant with careful explanations of what he needed to attend to before attacking, including the necessity of providing the cavalry with horseshoes that could handle ice and snow. Grant, irritable and impatient, sent General John A. Logan to replace Thomas, and shortly thereafter set off to take command himself.
Logan arrived shortly after Thomas’s overwhelming victory of December 15 – 16.

Hood’s army was effectively destroyed. Logan did not try to take command. Thomas was promoted to Major General. His response to the honor was muted: he was reported to have characterized the promotion as better late than never, as he had earned it at Chickamauga.

His victory at Nashville was studied with intense interest by European militaries for generations.

After the war, Thomas protected freedmen and used troops to suppress Ku Klux Klan activities. Not wanting to participate in the virulent politics of the era, Thomas requested and received a posting in San Francisco, where he died of a stroke in 1870 while responding to an article by John Schofield attacking his military career. His southern relations unreconciled, he was buried in his wife’s home town of Troy, New York.

The fact that Thomas has only belatedly and in part received the recognition he deserved can be attributed to a number of factors. One was that he was a Southerner fighting for the Union. Another was his poor personal relationship with Grant. Perhaps as important as these, however, was the conflict with John Schofield dating back to his days as an instructor at West Point.

After the war and after Thomas’s death, Schofield persistently criticized Thomas’s performance. Schofield seems to have been motivated by the fact that Thomas voted to sustain Schofield’s expulsion from West Point before the war. Schofield’s dismissal was eventually overturned on appeal.

Schofield capped his career when he became the 28th United States Secretary of War [1868 – 1869], though he lived on to 1906. Part of Schofield’s 1879 graduation address at West Point is memorized by cadets at West Point, the Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, and the Air Force Academy:

“The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army. It is possible to impart instruction and give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice as to inspire in the soldier no feeling, but an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to excite strong resentment and a desire to disobey. The one mode or other of dealing with subordinates springs from a corresponding spirit in the breast of the commander. He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them respect for himself. While he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect towards others, especially his subordinates, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself.”

Schofield recommended himself for a Medal of Honor when he was Secretary of War. The nomination was vague on details and specifics of the action, but the medal was awarded to Schofield nonetheless.

Further Reading:

• James McPherson’s The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era is perhaps the best single volume treatment of the American Civil War.

• The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant is a masterpiece, despite its omissions and shortcomings. Gertrude Stein was correct in identifying the author as one of the best American prose stylists.

• The Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman are as informative and idiosyncratic as might be expected.

• The Century Magazine’s voluminous collection of post-bellum writings of generals from both sides provides insight into the war, its leaders, and the ongoing arguments about their actions and legacies. The four volume set of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War has been intelligently edited and condensed into the 1227 page single volume edition, Hearts Touched by Fire. Both provide acute insights into how reputations were formed.

• Recent biographies of Thomas include Christopher Einolf’s George Thomas: Virginian for the Union; Brian Steel Wills’ George Henry Thomas: As True as Steel; and Benson Bobrick’s Master of War: The Life of George H. Thomas.

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