For The Al: The Rock of Chickamauga, George Henry Thomas

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

As the prospect of civil war loomed in 1860, southern partisans in the U.S. Army began shuffling commands around, to put all the southern-born officers together. That way, they could work and train together, forming relationships, cohesion and teamwork that they could take with them together in the event of secession. And when the break did come, half those southern-born officers did in fact leave together.

Among those who did not was the man with three first names: George Henry Thomas.

Here’s a Civil War story you don’t know and need to: Over 100,000 white southerners, known as Southern Unionists or Southern Loyalists (as well as Yankees, Scalawags and Tories among their detractors, alongside less printable names) served in the Union army during the Civil War. Every southern state except South Carolina contributed at least a full battalion to the Union. Tennessee alone produced 42,000 loyal men to fight for the Stars and Stripes.

If there is ever going to be healing for the still-festering wounds of the Civil War, it will come when we who hail from the South are ready to admit that the Cause was wrong. That will be a hard pill to swallow; clearly we are not yet ready to swallow it. One thing that will make it much easier will be if we learn to tell the stories of the many thousands of southerners who knew better than to be taken in by the Cause.

If you asked the Southern Unionists why they were fighting for the North, they’d have told you they weren’t fighting for the North. They were fighting for the Union.

Among that roll of honor, Major General George Henry Thomas – son of Virginia – stands head and shoulders above the rest. “Old George H. Thomas is in command of the cavalry of the enemy,” wrote J.E.B. Stuart to his wife. “I would like to hang, hang him as a traitor to his native state.” The two had studied together at West Point.

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Why does Thomas deserve The Al? Let me count the ways:

1. Thomas brought the Union’s disastrous early losing streak to a close by winning its first strategically significant victory, at Mill Springs, Ky. on January 18, 1862. He was in a position to do so because his prowess and natural leadership (his men identified with him as a fellow “soldier’s soldier” yet also looked up to him as “Pap Thomas”) were so much in evidence that between April and August of 1861 he had been promoted to lieutenant colonel, then colonel, then brigadier general. At Mill Springs, he broke the Confederate hold on Kentucky, and – probably even more important in the long run – delivered a much-needed morale boost. It’s hard to overstate how shocking the loss at First Bull Run and the series of subsequent defeats were for the Union. It became an open question whether the Union might make terms and quit. Mill Springs shored up political support to see the war through.

2. At the Battle of Chickamauga, September 18-20, 1863, commanding Union general William Rosecrans – whose commission had been backdated so he could fake seniority and get promoted to that command ahead of Thomas – committed a major tactical blunder, and Union lines collapsed. Confederate troops charged in, and the defeat threatened to turn into a rout from which the campaign might not recover. Thomas held his ground, inspiring his troops to stay and bear the brunt of the attack, in order to provide cover for the rest of the Union forces at Chickamauga to organize a retreat. A message runner (future U.S. President James Garfield) informed Rosecrans that Thomas was “standing like a rock.” The Army of the Cumberland was saved, and Rosecrans was removed from command in favor of Thomas. He led the Cumberland to a dramatic reversal of fortunes, culminating in a decisive Union victory in November in the Chattanooga Campaign. (Ironically, the climactic battle was won in part by dumb luck.) The Union gained permanent control of Tennessee and strategic dominance of the entire western theater, as well as the staging point from which Sherman’s Atlanta campaign would be launched and supported the next year. Thomas was known forever after as The Rock of Chickamauga.

3. After the Chattanooga Campaign, a chaplain asked Thomas if the Confederate dead should be buried separately by state. “No, mix ’em up,” said Thomas. “I’m tired of states’ rights.”

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Special $5 Treasury note honoring Thomas, 1890

4. When John Hood found he could not directly stop Sherman’s march to Atlanta, he turned around what was left of his Army of Tennessee and tried to cut off Sherman’s lines of communication to the Union stronghold in Chattanooga, hoping to draw Sherman off to fight him. But when Hood got to Tennessee, he found The Rock of Chickamauga – who was once his teacher at West Point – waiting for him. Thomas smashed the Army of Tennessee so hard that it ceased to exist; its few remaining men dispersed and joined themselves to other Confederate forces. Thomas earned yet another nickname, The Sledge of Nashville, and a very-long-overdue promotion to major general. (“I suppose it is better late than never,” he commented. “I earned this at Chickamauga.”)

5. After the war, with much of the South in desperate, starvation-level poverty, Thomas sent generous financial assistance to his two sisters living there. They sent the money back, declaring that it must have been sent to them by mistake, as they had no brother.

6. One of the main reasons the wounds of the war have not healed is the vast superiority of southerners as storytellers. Our national memory of the war has been disproportionately shaped by the way the South has told its own story, for the simple reason that northerners, in general, can’t tell a story worth a nickel. Thomas saw what was happening early on; he sounded the alarm in 1868:

The greatest efforts made by the defeated insurgents since the close of the war have been to promulgate the idea that the cause of liberty, justice, humanity, equality and all the calendar of the virtues of freedom, suffered violence and wrong when the effort for southern independence failed. This is, of course, intended as a species of political cant, whereby the crime of treason might be covered with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism, so that the precipitators of the rebellion might go down in history hand in hand with the defenders of the government, thus wiping out with their own hands their own stains; a species of self-forgiveness amazing in its effrontery, when it is considered that life and property—justly forfeited by the laws of the country, of war and of nations—through the magnanimity of the government and people was not exacted from them.

Alas, that was one battle with the Confederacy he was destined to lose.

7. Thomas spent the postwar years overseeing the military government of various regions of the South under Reconstruction, and in particular suppressing the Klan. He set up military courts that would enforce labor contracts for black citizens who couldn’t get redress in civilian courts.

8. He retired to upstate New York and was buried there. None of his blood relatives attended his funeral.

For the honor of the Union and the South: The Rock of Chickamauga for The Al.

Image HTs – color, b/w, T-note

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2 Responses to For The Al: The Rock of Chickamauga, George Henry Thomas

  1. J. Skeeters says:

    Nice article. You forgot to mention, however, that after the war he was given the prestigious command of the entire western United States and was stationed at the Presidio in S. Francisco. He died there in 1870 and was later buried in N.Y. . His ceremonial sword given to honor his successes in the Mex-american war by his hometown is now a centerpiece in a museum in Richmond , Va.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Thanks for the additional information; very encouraging to hear about the sword in Richmond, where these matters are not taken lightly.

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