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American Civil War: Major General George H. Thomas

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American Civil War: Major General George H. Thomas

General George H. Thomas, USA

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

George H. Thomas - Early Life & Career:

George Henry Thomas was born July 31, 1816, at Newsom's Depot, VA. Growing up on a plantation, Thomas was one of many who violated the law and taught his family's slaves to read. Two years after his father's death in 1829, Thomas and his mother led his siblings to safety during Nat Turner's bloody slave rebellion. Pursued by Turner's men, the Thomas family was forced to abandon their carriage and flee on foot through the woods. Shortly thereafter, Thomas became an assistant to his uncle James Rochelle, the local clerk of court, with the goal of becoming a lawyer.

After a short time, Thomas became unhappy with his legal studies and willingly accepted an appointment to West Point. Arriving at age 19, Thomas shared a room with William T. Sherman. Becoming friendly rivals, Thomas soon developed a reputation among the cadets for being deliberate and cool-headed. Graduating 12th in his class, Thomas was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to the artillery. Dispatched for service in the Second Seminole War in Florida, Thomas' commanding officer stated, ""I never knew him to be late or in a hurry. All his movements were deliberate, his self-possession was supreme..."

George H. Thomas - Mexico:

Serving under General Winfield Scott, Thomas was brevetted to first lieutenant in 1841. With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846, Thomas saw action with Major General Zachary Taylor's army in northeastern Mexico. After performing admirably at the Battles of Monterrey and Buena Vista, he was brevetted to captain and then major. With the conflict's conclusion, Thomas was given the post of instructor of artillery at West Point in 1851. Impressing West Point's superintendent, Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, Thomas was also given the duties of cavalry instructor.

In this role, Thomas earned the lasting nickname "Old Slow Trot" due to his constant restraining of the cadets from galloping their horses. The year after arriving, he married Frances Kellogg, the cousin of a cadet from Troy, NY. Appointed a major in the 2nd Cavalry in 1855, Thomas was assigned to the Southwest. Combating the Native Americans for the remainder of the decade, he narrowed avoided death on August 26, 1860 when an arrow glanced off his chin and hit his chest. Pulling the arrow out, Thomas had the wound dressed and returned to action.

George H. Thomas - The Civil War:

Returning home on leave, Thomas became concerned as states began leaving the Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln. Turning down Governor John Letcher's offer to become Virginia's chief of ordnance, Thomas stated that he wished to remain loyal to the United States as long as it was honorable for him to do so. On April 12, the day that the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter, he informed his family in Virginia that he intended to remain in federal service. Promptly disowning him, they turned his portrait to face the wall and refused to forward his belongings.

Labeling Thomas a turncoat, some Southern commanders, such as J.E.B. Stuart threatened to hang him as a traitor if he was captured. Though he remained loyal, Thomas was hampered by his Virginia roots for the duration of the war as some in the North did not fully trust him and he lacked political backing in Washington. Quickly promoted to lieutenant colonel and then colonel in May 1861, he led a brigade in the Shenandoah Valley and won a minor victory over troops led by Brigadier General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.

George H. Thomas - Building a Reputation:

In August, with officers like Sherman vouching for him, Thomas was promoted to brigadier general. Posted to the Western Theater, he provided the Union with one its first victories in January 1862, when he defeated Confederate troops under Major General George Crittenden at the Battle of Mill Springs in eastern Kentucky. As his command was part of Major General Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio, Thomas was among those who marched to Major General Ulysses S. Grant's aid during the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862.

Promoted to major general on April 25, Thomas was given command of the Right Wing of Major General Henry Halleck's army. The bulk of this command was made of up of men from Grant's Army of the Tennessee. Grant, who had been removed from field command by Halleck, was angered by this and resented Thomas' position. While Thomas led this formation during the Siege of Corinth, he rejoined Buell's army in June when Grant returned to active service. That fall, when Confederate General Braxton Bragg invaded Kentucky, the Union leadership offered Thomas command of the Army of the Ohio as it felt Buell was too cautious.

Supporting Buell, Thomas refused this offer and served as his second-in-command at the Battle of Perryville that October. Though Buell compelled Bragg to retreat, his slow pursuit cost him his job and Major General William Rosecrans was given command on October 24. Serving under Rosecrans, Thomas led the center of the newly named Army of the Cumberland at the Battle of Stones River on December 31-January 2. Holding the Union line against Bragg's attacks, he prevented a Confederate victory.

George H. Thomas - The Rock of Chickamauga

Later that year, Thomas' XIV Corps played a key role in Rosecrans' Tullahoma Campaign which saw Union troops maneuver Bragg's army out of central Tennessee. The campaign culminated with the Battle of Chickamauga that September. Attacking Rosecrans' army, Bragg was able to shatter the Union lines. Forming his corps on Horseshoe Ridge and Snodgrass Hill, Thomas mounted a stubborn defense as the rest of the army retreated. Finally retiring after nightfall, the action earned Thomas the nickname "The Rock of Chickamauga." Retreating to Chattanooga, Rosecrans' army was effectively besieged by the Confederates.

Though he did not have good personal relations with Thomas, Grant, now in command of the Western Theater, relieved Rosecrans and gave the Army of the Cumberland to the Virginian. Tasked with holding the city, Thomas did so until Grant arrived with additional troops. Together, the two commanders began driving Bragg back during the Battle of Chattanooga, November 23-25, which culminated with Thomas' men capturing Missionary Ridge.

With his promotion to Union general-in-chief in the spring of 1864, Grant designated Sherman to lead the armies in the West with orders to capture Atlanta. Remaining in command of the Army of the Cumberland, Thomas' troops were one of three armies overseen by Sherman. Fighting a number of battles through the summer, Sherman succeeded in taking the city on September 2. As Sherman prepared for his March to the Sea, Thomas and his men were sent back to Nashville to prevent Confederate General John B. Hood from attacking Union supply lines.

Moving with a smaller number of men, Thomas raced to beat Hood to Nashville where Union reinforcements were heading. En route, a detachment of Thomas' force defeated Hood at the Battle of Franklin on November 30. Concentrating at Nashville, Thomas hesitated to organize his army and wait for ice to melt. Believing Thomas was being too cautious, Grant threatened to relieve him and dispatched Major General John Logan to take command. On December 15, Thomas attacked Hood and won a stunning victory.

George H. Thomas - Later Life

Following the war, Thomas held various military posts across the South. President Andrew Johnson offered him the rank of lieutenant general to be Grant's successor, but Thomas declined as he wished to avoid the politics of Washington. Taking command of the Division of the Pacific in 1869, he died at the Presidio of a stroke on March 28, 1870.

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