George Henry Thomas

George Henry Thomas, third of the triumvirate who won the war for the Union, was born in the middle of slave territory in Southampton County, Virginia, on July 31, 1816. Curiously enough, he and his sisters (who disavowed him until the end of their days after he adhered to the cause of the Union in 1861) were in the center of Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831 and were compelled with their widowed mother to flee their home and hide in the nearby woods. In 1836 he was appointed to the Military Academy on the recommendation of a family friend and Congressman from his district. Thomas was graduated in 1840, ranking twelfth in the class in which W. T. Sherman stood sixth and Paul O. Hebert, later an obscure Confederate brigadier, was first. Thomas served in the artillery for fifteen years, was stationed at various coastal forts, and took part in operations against the Seminoles and in the Mexican War. In the latter he was brevetted captain and major for gallantry at the battles of Monterey and Buena Vista. When the 2nd Cavalry (later denominated the 5th) was authorized in 1855, he became one of its, first majors and until the outbreak of the Civil War was stationed almost constantly on the Indian frontier in Texas. During most of this period his colonel was Albert Sidney Johnston, his lieutenant colonel Robert E. Lee, and his senior major William J. Hardee. Much has been written about Thomas when he approached his moment of decision in 1861, mainly because he had applied for the position of commandant of cadets at Virginia Military Institute on January 18, 1861; his enemies asserted that at the time he was manifestly pro-secessionist. However, two months later he flatly turned down the offer of Virginia's Governor John Letcher to become chief of ordnance of the state's forces. By virtue of Johnston and Lee's joining the Confederacy, Major Thomas was advanced to lieutenant colonel and colonel three weeks after the bombardment of Fort Sumter. He commanded a brigade under General Robert Patterson in the Shenandoah during the campaign of First Manassas and was made a brigadier general of volunteers on August 17, 1861. Thereafter his service was in the western theater of war. Transferred to Kentucky, he commanded the Union forces which dispersed the Confederates under F. K. Zollicoffer at Mill Springs in January, 1862, and was present at Shiloh in D. C. Buell's Army of the Ohio in April. Thomas was promoted to major general of volunteers to rank from April 25; and first under Henry W. Halleck, then under Buell, and later under W. S. Rosecrans, he rendered service at the siege of Corinth, the battles of Perryville and Stone's River, and the disaster at Chickamauga. His performance in these battles was not surpassed by any subordinate commander in this nation's history. On the crest of Horseshoe Ridge at Chickamauga, with three-fifths of the Union army streaming to the rear along with its commander, Thomas planted himself and a decimated array of broken regiments, brigades, and divisions, and held his ground until late afternoon, when he retired, without serious molestation, to Chattanooga. For this heroic stand, the "Rock of Chickamauga" was made a brigadier general in the Regular Army on October 27, 1863. The following month the battle of Chattanooga was fought, during which Thomas' men, without orders, stormed the heights of Missionary Ridge and drove Braxton Bragg's Confederates from their position. In the Atlanta campaign Thomas' Army of the Cumberland, containing nine infantry and three cavalry divisions, plus artillery and some unattached troops, constituted more than half of W. T. Sherman's entire force. After the Federal occupation of Atlanta and the movement of John B. Hood northwestward to Alabama and Tennessee, Thomas was detached with some 35,000 men to Nashville, where another 35,000 were brought from commands in other theaters. At Franklin, Tennessee, on November 20, 1864, Hood's Army of the Tennessee was badly used up in a frontal assault on the Federal breastworks and in December was virtually cancelled out as an organization by the results of the two-day battle of Nashville. This action earned for Thomas the nickname of the "Sledge of Nashville." On January 16, 1865, he was promoted to major general, U. S. Army, to rank from the date of the battle of Nashville and in March received the thanks of Congress by a resolution dated the third. He continued in command of the Department of the Tennessee until 1867, during which time President Johnson attempted, without success, to exploit him for political reasons by using his name to supersede U. S. Grant in command of the army, a ploy which Thomas refused to go along with. He was assigned at his own request in 1869 to the command of the Division of the Pacific and the next year, while in command there, with headquarters at San Francisco, died of a stroke in his office on March 28, 1870. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Troy, New York, his wife's home.

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Reference: Generals in Blue. Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge.