George Henry Thomas

George Henry Thomas (July 31, 1816March 28, 1870), the "Rock of Chickamauga", was a career U.S. Army officer and a Union general during the American Civil War.

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General George H. Thomas

Thomas was born in Southampton County, Virginia. Graduating from the U.S. Military Academy in 1840, he served as an artillery subaltern in the war against the Seminole Indians in Florida (1841), and in the Mexican War at the battles of Fort Brown, Resaca de la Palma, Monterrey, and Buena Vista, receiving three promotions for distinguished gallantry in action. From 1851 to 1854 he was an instructor at West Point. In 1855 he was appointed a major of the 2nd Cavalry by Jefferson Davis, then secretary of war.


The Civil War

At the outbreak of the Civil War, three of Thomas' regimental superiors—Albert Sidney Johnston, Robert E. Lee and William J. Hardee—resigned. Many southern-born generals were torn between loyalty to their state and loyalty to their country. Thomas struggled with the decision but opted to remain with the United States.

Thomas was promoted in rapid succession to be lieutenant colonel and colonel in the regular army, and brigadier general of volunteers. In command of an independent force in eastern Kentucky, on January 18, 1862, he attacked and routed the Confederate Generals Crittenden and Zollicoffer at Mill Springs, gaining the first important Union victory in the war. It was one of only two occasions in the war in which an army was dispersed in a battle on an open field (the other was Nashville, also a Thomas victory).

He served under Don Carlos Buell and was offered, but refused, the chief command in the anxious days before the Battle of Perryville. Under William Rosecrans he held the center and thus saved the Union army at the Battle of Murfreesboro (Stone's River) and was in charge of the most important part of the maneuvering from Decherd to Chattanooga during the Tullahoma Campaign (June 22July 3, 1863) and the crossing of the Tennessee River. At the Battle of Chickamauga on September 19, 1863, he earned the name of "The Rock of Chickamauga," by some accounts being all that saved a terrible defeat for the North from becoming a hopeless rout.

Thomas succeeded Rosecrans in command of the Army of the Cumberland shortly before the Battle of Chattanooga III (November 2325, 1863), a stunning Union victory due mainly to his behind-the-scenes management. In William Tecumseh Sherman's advance through Georgia in the spring of 1864, the Army of the Cumberland numbered over 60,000 men, and Thomas's staff did the logistics and engineering for Sherman's entire army group. At the Battle of Peachtree Creek (July 20, 1864) Thomas' defense severely damaged John B. Hood's army in its first attempt to break the siege of Atlanta.

When Hood broke away from Atlanta in the autumn of 1864, menaced Sherman's long line of communications, and endeavored to force Sherman to follow him, Sherman abandoned his communications and embarked on his March to the Sea. Thomas stayed behind to fight Hood. Thomas, with a smaller force, raced with Hood to reach Nashville, where he was to receive reinforcements.

At the Battle of Franklin on November 30, 1864, a large part of Thomas's force, under command of John McAllister Schofield, held Hood in check long enough to cover the concentration at Nashville.

At Nashville, Thomas had to organize his forces, drawn from all parts of the West and including many young troops and even quartermaster's employes. He declined to attack until his army was ready and the ice covering the ground had melted enough for his men to move. The North, including General Ulysses S. Grant himself, grew impatient at the delay. General John A. Logan was sent with an order to supersede Thomas, and soon afterwards Grant left the Army of the Potomac to take command in person.

Before either arrived, Thomas made his attack on December 15, 1864, and the Battle of Nashville was the most crushing defeat of any army on either side in the whole war. Hood's army was completely ruined and never again appeared on the field. For this brilliant victory Thomas was made a major general in the regular army and received the Thanks of Congress.

Last Years

After the end of the Civil War, Thomas commanded military departments in Kentucky and Tennessee until 1869. President Andrew Johnson offered Thomas the rank of lieutenant general—with the intent to eventually replace Grant with Thomas as General in Chief—but the ever-loyal Thomas asked the Senate to withdraw his name for that nomination because he didn't want to be party to politics. In 1869 he was ordered to command the Division of the Pacific with headquarters at San Francisco. He died there of apoplexy, while writing an answer to an article criticizing his military career, on March 28, 1870. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, in Troy, New York.

Thomas's Legacy

Thomas was beloved by his soldiers, for whom he always had a fatherly concern. He never had any ambitions outside of the military, remaining in the army his entire life. His victory at Nashville was a masterpiece, and for years was the only American Civil War battle studied in European military academies.

His cadets at West Point gave him the nickname of "Slow Trot Thomas," and this sobriquet was used to diminish his reputation. He moved slowly because of an injured back, but he was mentally anything but slow, only methodical. He was known for accurate judgment and thorough knowledge of his profession and once he grasped a problem and the time was right for action, he would strike a vigorous, rapid blow.

In the years following Thomas's death, Generals Grant and Sherman {and their partisans} attempted to minimize his importance and accomplishments. The veterans' organization for the Army of the Cumberland, throughout its existence, fought to see that he was honored for all he had done.

Thomas was in chief command of only two battles in the Civil War, the Battle of Mill Springs at the beginning and the Battle of Nashville near the end. Both were victories. However, his contributions at the battles of Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Peachtree Creek were decisive. His main legacy lay in his development of modern battlefield doctrine and in his mastery of logistics.



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