When most people think of generals, they see leaders skilled at management, delegation, tactics and strategy. When generals look at generals, they realize that not all generals are equally skilled. Some are excellent administrators, some are good at strategy while others are good at tactics. When the Union Army wanted a man who could establish a perimeter and hold a position they turned to one of the greatest defensive generals in the history of the United States, General George Thomas.
He gained the confidence of all who served under him, and almost their love. This implies a very valuable quality. It is a quality which calls out the most efficient services of the troops serving under the commander possessing it.
Thomas's dispositions were deliberately made, and always good. He could not be driven from a point he was given to hold. He was not as good, however, in pursuit as he was in action. I do not believe that he could ever have conducted Sherman's army from Chattanooga to Atlanta against the defenses and the commander guarding that line in 1864. On the other hand, if it had been given him to hold the line which Johnston tried to hold, neither that general nor Sherman, nor any other officer could have done it better.
Like Robert E. Lee and Winfield Scott, George Henry Thomas was a Virginian in the United States Army at the outbreak of the War Between the States. Lee chose to remain with his state, resigning his commission when Virginia seceded. Scott decided to remain with the Army that he had shaped into an effective fighting force. Thomas sought out Scott's advice and predictably, Scott told him to stay with the U. S. Army. That advice served the army well.
Joe Johnston eluded the watchful eye of George Thomas and his commanding officer, Robert Patterson, moving to support P. G. T. Beauregard at Manassas. Following the Rebel victory, Thomas was one of four commanders chosen by General Robert Anderson to join him in Kentucky. His choice of Thomas concerned President Abraham Lincoln because of other defections of Virginia officers. Meeting with Anderson and William Tecumseh Sherman at Willard's Hotel in Washington, D. C., Sherman stood by his friend, convincing President Lincoln that Thomas would remain in the U. S. Army.
Battlefield at Mill Springs
Following the Confederate invasion of Kentucky in September, 1861, Thomas relieved William Nelson in command of Camp Dick Robinson, near Perryville, where recruits from Kentucky and Tennessee were being given basic instruction. He had two jobs: continue the training of the recruits and keep a watchful eye on the Cumberland Gap. It wasn't long before General Felix Zollicoffer tried to advance through the gap into Kentucky. After being turned back in the rugged hills of Eastern Kentucky, Zollicoffer advanced across the Cumberland Plateau to Mill Springs on the Cumberland River, where he established a camp. Thomas advanced to Logan's Cross Roads on January 18 and took a defensive position waiting the arrival of General Alfred Schoep from Somerset, Kentucky. Zollicoffer attacked the following day and was routed by Thomas.
After Ulysses S. Grant defeated Albert Sidney Johnston's forces at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, Thomas moved into Tennessee under the command of Don Carlos Buell. As did most of Buell's forces, he arrived at Shiloh late in the second day and did not see any action. He commanded the Right Wing of Union forces as they advanced on Corinth, Mississippi, briefly commanding both Grant and Sherman. Facing overwhelming federal force, Beauregard withdrew from his position at Corinth, giving Thomas the town. Soon, though, the Confederate Army of Mississippi would be under Braxton Bragg.
In a stunning move, Bragg relocated his army from Tupelo to Chattanooga, then advanced towards the Ohio River. Buell was forced to withdraw because of Bragg's aggressive move and before the battle of Perryville, Kentucky, the renamed Army of Tennessee had reclaimed serious portions of Tennessee and Kentucky. Thomas was ordered to take over from Buell, but refused the command. Following Perryville, which most people consider indecisive, Buell was relieved of command and William S. Rosecrans was placed at the head of the Army of the Cumberland. At the battle of Stone's River, with both his flanks in retreat, Thomas stood his ground. Two days later the Army of the Cumberland returned to defeat Bragg.
In spite of the victory Rosecrans decided to regroup and resupply his army, a feat that took six months. After forging ahead against the retreating Army of Tennessee, Rosecrans decided to regroup (again) in Alabama, finally advancing and capturing Chattanooga in early September, 1863. In the previous year the Army of the Cumberland had fought only two major battles. Bragg, however, was determined not to give up the Western and Atlantic Railroad without a fight and Thomas reported stiff resistance even before coming out of the gaps in Lookout Mountain. He began moving north along the Lafayette-Chattanooga Road when he ordered John Croxton to flush out the Rebel brigade to his right. Croxton wired back "Which of the four or five brigades in front of me did you mean?" The battle of Chickamauga had begun.
Snodgrass Cabin at the site of the last stand of the United States Army at Chickamauga
On the first day Thomas formed a strong line at the top of a low ridge along today's Battleline Road. On the second day Confederate forces broke through Rosecrans line at Brotherton Cabin, south of Thomas's position. The Rebels wheeled to the right and began folding up the Union flank. To protect his own line and give routed Union forces time to retreat to Chattanooga, Thomas began to form a makeshift line along the ridges near Snodgrass Cabin. In one of the historic stands in world history, Thomas formed a weak line, barely a man deep and with little or no ammunition, which successfully held off the entire Army of Tennessee. For more on this historic stand, see Granger saves the Federal right Later that day a humbled Rosecrans ordered Thomas to withdraw to Rossville, then Chattanooga. Although the Army of the Cumberland suffered the worst defeat in the history of the United States Army, Thomas maintained his position until ordered to withdraw. It was the one shining light in a dreadful day for his army.
In Chattanooga, Thomas worked on the defensive position although he realized the position of the Army of the Cumberland was a tactical disaster. Limited rations and munitions, an enemy-controlled high point nearby, and their backs to a river spelled disaster to the West Point graduate. From Washington came "Fighting Joe" Hooker, from Mississippi came Sherman and on his way east to assume command of all armies, came General Ulysses S. Grant. After relieving Rosecrans from duty, Grant ordered Thomas to hold the city "...at all costs."
Orchard Knob, site of first Union victory during the battles of Chattanooga
By the time Grant arrived, Thomas had approved a plan to open up The Cracker Line in an effort to resupply Union forces. Grant quickly signed off on the plan and soon rations were making their way into the city. The men had come within a week of starving. After rations came munitions and guns. Finally, in late November, 1863, the Army of the Cumberland was ready to attack. First, Joe Hooker secured Lookout Mountain. Then William Tecumseh Sherman got bogged down attacking the northern end of Missionary Ridge. Grant ordered the Army of the Cumberland forward to take the skirmish line at the bottom of the ridge. At the base of the mountain the Army of the Cumberland did not stop. They continued, climbing the mountain to the Confederate line, which was easily routed. When Grant asked Thomas who ordered the attack, Thomas replied, "I don't know. I did not."
During the winter of 1863-64, Thomas held the forward Union position at Ringgold. In May, 1864, with General Sherman as his commander, Thomas began the Atlanta Campaign by sending in a brigade against a line of skirmishers at Tunnel Hill. Over the next 120 days Thomas repeatedly engaged Confederate forces, frequently anchoring the Union line while James Birdseye McPherson and John Schofield outflanked their opponents. As Sherman prepared for the March to the Sea he ordered George Thomas north to Nashville, where he was to block General John Bell Hood from advancing.
While in Nashville, Ulysses S. Grant ordered Thomas to attack Hood. Like the two previous commanders of the Army of the Cumberland, Thomas delayed the offensive maneuver, claiming he needed time to prepare and blaming the inclement weather, although he outnumbered Hood nearly 2-to-1. Grant became exceedingly impatient with Thomas, and Grant was not going to give him the time that Lincoln had given Rosecrans - he knew Thomas too well. After ordering Thomas "Delay no longer for weather or reinforcements" on December 11, 1864, Grant received word of the Battle of Nashville on December 16, with Thomas's aide telling the general-in-chief of the rout of Hood's Army. Grant stated in a note to Thomas on the 16th, "I was just on my way to Nashville, but receiving a dispatch from Van Duzer detailing your splendid success of to-day, I shall go no further." Grant had left his headquarters at City Point, Virginia during the Siege of Petersburg and was on his to Nashville to direct the battle. Grant gives no indication he would have relieved Thomas of duty.
Near the end of the Siege of Petersburg (Virginia), Thomas ordered Brigadier General James H. Wilson to advance into Alabama to destroy Confederate infrastructure. Wilson defeated General Nathan Bedford Forrest at Selma. Following the Surrender at Appomattox, Wilson's men moved into Georgia, eventually capturing Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
President Andrew Johnson proposed breveting Thomas to 4-star General after the Civil War, intending to replace Secretary of War Edwin Stanton with Thomas. On February 22, 1868, Thomas wired Senator Benjamin Wade (R-OH), telling him "My services during the war do not merit so high a compliment..." During the Presidential election of 1868, Thomas was ordered to occupy 29 Tennessee counties to offset the outrages of the Ku Klux Klan. He successfully controlled the Klan in Tennessee until it was "officially" disbanded. When Grant became President, Thomas was passed over for Lieutenant General, which went to Phil Sheridan, but when the command of the Department of the West was going to go to John Schofield, Thomas protested to Sherman. Schofield became Secretary of War and Thomas went to San Francisco to command the Department of the West.
Although not his first choice for assignment, Thomas was happy there. Back east, however, questions were being raised about Grant and Schofield and the events that occurred at Franklin and Nashville. Schofield entered into a bitter debate over his actions and President Grant's order to advance at Nashville. After 10 days of arguments in the press, Schofield sent the articles and replies to Thomas for his comments. After working privately for three hours, Thomas opened the door to his office and stated, "I need some air," then passed out. Doctors rushed to treat him, but he died hours later.
Biographies Biographies of famous, not so famous and infamous people from the North Georgia area or who had an effect on North Georgia The Civil War in Georgia Beginning with the Great Locomotive Chase and the battle of Chickamauga, to the Atlanta Campaign and the March to the Sea