George Henry Thomas

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George Henry Thomas

Born July 31, 1816
Southampton County, Virginia
Died March 28, 1870
San Francisco, California

Union general known as the
"Rock of Chickamauga"

Alienated his family and friends by siding with
the Union, then became one of the top leaders in
the Union Army

Although George Henry Thomas was born into a Southern slaveholding family, he sided with the Union at the start of the Civil War. He went on to become one of the most successful Northern generals. In fact, some historians have ranked him behind only Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry) and William T. Sherman (1820–1891; see entry) among the men they consider most important in securing victory for the Union. Thomas's brave stand during a Union defeat in 1863 earned him the nickname "Rock of Chickamauga." He is also remembered for leading the Army of the Cumberland to an impressive victory at Nashville in 1864. Despite Thomas's successes, some Union leaders questioned his loyalty almost until the end of the war. But the men who served under him loved his cool, steady style and his commitment to always being prepared.

Raised on a Virginia plantation

George Henry Thomas was born on July 31, 1816, in Southampton County, Virginia. Like many other Virginia plantation (large farming estate) owners, his parents, John and Mary Thomas, owned slaves. Black people were taken from Africa and brought to North America to serve as slaves for white people beginning in the 1600s. The basic belief behind slavery was that black people were inferior to whites. Under slavery, white slaveholders treated black people as property, forced them to perform hard labor, and controlled every aspect of their lives. States in the Northern half of the United States began outlawing slavery in the late 1700s. But slavery continued to exist in the Southern half of the country because it played an important role in the South's economy and culture.

When Thomas was fourteen years old, his father died. Thomas then became the man of the house, charged with taking care of his family and their farm. In 1831, a slave named Nat Turner (1800–1831) who lived on a nearby plantation started a slave revolt. Turner and a small band of followers murdered the family that owned them, then roamed the countryside, adding dozens of angry slaves to their group along the way. After learning of the revolt, Thomas hid his family in the woods and then rode from house to house to warn others of the danger. The poorly organized rebellion was crushed within two days, and Turner and a number of his followers were eventually executed. But the revolt caused panic in communities throughout the South and fed white fears of a widespread slave rebellion.

Chooses a military career

With the encouragement of his mother, Thomas studied law for awhile as a young man. But in 1836, a local politician helped him obtain an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York. Thomas was so excited to receive military training at the prestigious school that he showed up several weeks early to prepare for his first term. He studied hard at West Point and finished twelfth in his graduating class of 1840.

After graduating, Thomas joined the army and was posted to an artillery unit. The artillery division of combat forces included heavy weapons like cannons and the men who hauled and operated them. Thomas always enjoyed working with the big guns. Over the next decade, he fought in the Seminole War (1835–42; a clash between the U.S. Army and the Seminole Indian tribe over lands in Florida) and the Mexican War (1846–48; a dispute between the United States and Mexico over territory in the West). He earned two promotions for bravery on the battlefield.

In 1853, Thomas returned to West Point as an artillery instructor. While there, he met and married Frances Kellogg. Two years later, he joined the Second Cavalry in Texas, where the American military was involved in battles over territory with various Indian tribes. In 1860, Thomas was taking part in one of these fights when a Comanche warrior shot him in the chest with an arrow. Thomas removed the arrow himself and then went for medical treatment.

Supports the Union in the Civil War

Thomas was still recovering from his wound when the Civil War began in 1861. By this time, the Northern and Southern sections of the country had been arguing over several issues for many years. The main issue dividing the nation was slavery. Growing numbers of Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow the practice. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life.

America's westward expansion only increased the tension between the North and South. Both sides wanted to spread their political views and way of life into the new states and territories. Finally, the ongoing dispute convinced a group of Southern states to secede (withdraw) from the United States and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. Thomas's home state of Virginia was one of those that joined the Confederacy. In March 1861, the governor of Virginia offered him a position of leadership in the state's volunteer military forces.

Thomas faced a difficult decision. After all, he had been raised in Virginia, and his family and friends supported the Confederacy. But he had worn the uniform of the U.S. Army for many years and felt an intense loyalty to his country. He ended up swearing allegiance to the United States and joining the Union Army. Unfortunately, his decision alienated many of the people he cared about. In fact, both of his sisters wrote him letters saying that they did not consider him their brother any longer.

In the early days of the war, Thomas fought in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. In August 1861, he was promoted to brigadier general and sent to Kentucky. From that point on, he fought in nearly every major battle in the war's western theater (the area west of the Appalachian Mountains). He saw his first major action at Mill Springs, Kentucky, in January 1862. His brigade fended off a surprise Confederate attack and helped open a path for Union forces to move into Tennessee. Thomas also fought in Mississippi at Corinth (October 1862), and in Kentucky at Perryville (October 1862) and Stone's River (also known as Murfreesboro; December 1862–January 1863).

The "Rock of Chickamauga"

Of all the battles in which Thomas fought, he is probably best known for his performance at the Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia. In September 1863, Confederate general Braxton Bragg (1817–1876; see entry) sent several of his men into the Union lines claiming to be deserters (soldiers who leave the army illegally before their term of service is completed). The "deserters" told Union leaders that Bragg's forces were retreating. Union general William Rosecrans (1819–1898) believed the story and ordered his army to spread out into a thin line, twenty miles wide, and follow the Confederates.

But Bragg had not really retreated. In fact, he was waiting nearby for the Union troops to spread out, so that he could attack them one section at a time. Thomas soon learned the truth about the Confederate plans. After pulling his troops back into defensive positions, he warned the other Union leaders of the danger. Rosecrans collected his army near Chickamauga Creek, and Bragg launched a full-scale attack on September 19.

It soon became clear that the Confederate forces held an advantage in the battle. One side of the Union line was pushed back almost immediately. But Thomas's brigade held their side of the line for five long hours, and even gained some ground on the Confederates. Finally, Thomas received orders to abandon their position. He organized a fighting retreat that protected the other Union forces. Although the Union had lost the battle, Thomas had saved Rosecrans and his army. Northern newspapers gave him the nickname "Rock of Chickamauga" for his brave performance.

Defender of Nashville, Tennessee

A month later, General Ulysses S. Grant took command of all the Union armies in the West. Grant chose Thomas to command the Army of the Cumberland. By this time, Confederate forces had pushed the Union troops back to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and set up a siege of the city (a blockade intended to prevent the delivery of food and supplies). On November 25, Thomas and his army led an assault on Missionary Ridge—the strong point in the Confederate defenses—that helped break the siege.

In May 1864, Thomas and his army helped Union general William T. Sherman capture the important Southern industrial city of Atlanta, Georgia. That fall, Sherman's army continued moving through Georgia on its destructive "March to the Sea." Meanwhile, Confederate general John Bell Hood (1831–1879; see entry) began moving his forces northward toward Tennessee. Thomas and his army of thirty-five thousand men were sent to defend Nashville. If they failed to prevent Hood from taking the city, the Confederates would have a clear path to continue moving north.

Hood reached Nashville in December 1864. Thomas and his men remained behind the city's defenses as the Confederates set up a siege. At this point, Union leaders wondered why Thomas was hesitating and pressured him to attack. Despite his impressive service to the Union, some people questioned his patriotism. In fact, Grant almost removed him from command. But Thomas believed that proper preparation was a key factor in winning battles. He allowed his tired army to recover and regain their strength, then attacked with great force on December 15. His Army of the Cumberland conquered Hood's troops and forced them to retreat southward all the way to Mississippi.

Thomas's successful defense of Nashville ended up being one of the most decisive Union victories of the Civil War. Afterward, he was promoted to the rank of major general. But Thomas felt he had earned this honor a year earlier. He believed that the promotion had been delayed because he was from the South. "It is better late than never, but it is too late to be appreciated," he stated. "I earned this at Chickamauga." The U.S. Congress later recognized his contributions to the Union cause and gave him their official thanks.

Dies shortly after the war ends

After the war ended in a Union victory in 1865, Thomas remained in the military and took command of the Department of the Cumberland. For the next few years, he used his troops to help rebuild the city of Nashville. He also helped establish new state governments in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. His fair treatment of his former enemies earned the respect and appreciation of many Southerners. In 1869, Thomas requested a transfer to the West. He took command of the Division of the Pacific in San Francisco, California, that June. But he died of a stroke less than a year later, on March 28, 1870.

Where to Learn More

Cleaves, Freeman. Rock of Chickamauga. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1948. Reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974.

Green, Carl R., and William R. Sanford. Union Generals of the Civil War. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1998.

Juergensen, Hans. Major General George Henry Thomas: A Summary in Perspective. Tampa, FL: American Studies Press, 1980.

Korn, Jerry. The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1985.

Palumbo, Frank A. George Henry Thomas, Major General, U.S.A.: The Dependable General, Supreme in Tactics of Strategy and Command. Dayton, OH: Morningside House, 1983.

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George Henry Thomas

In the Civil War, George Henry Thomas (1816-1870), U.S. Army officer, received the sobriquet "Rock of Chickamauga" for saving a Union army.

George H. Thomas was born on July 31, 1816, in Southampton County, Va. He graduated from the county academy and read law before attending the U.S. Military Academy (1836-1840). In Florida he won a brevet to first lieutenant during 2 years of action with the 3d Artillery against the Seminole Indians. He served at Southern posts until the Mexican War, in which he became a major after battles at Monterrey and Buena Vista. He was an instructor from 1851 to 1854 at West Point; in 1852 he married Frances Kellogg. He was major of the 2d Cavalry on the Texas frontier from 1855 to 1860.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Thomas decided to remain with the Union and by June had been promoted to colonel, in command of a brigade in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. In August he became a brigadier general and division commander in Kentucky. He defeated a Confederate force at Mill Springs on Jan. 19, 1862, before moving into Tennessee with the Army of the Ohio.

After promotion to major general, Thomas commanded the right wing of the Union advance on Corinth, Miss. He led a corps against the Confederate invasion of Kentucky in September. He went on to command a corps in the Army of the Cumberland during the battle at Stones River, Tenn., in December and January, and during the Tullahoma campaign, which forced the Confederates into Georgia in the summer of 1863. When the armies met that September, the Union right collapsed, but Thomas held on the left to save the army and win the nickname "Rock of Chickamauga."

In October, 1863, Thomas became a brigadier general in the regular army. His troops stormed Missionary Ridge to win the battles around Chattanooga on November 23-25. Thomas led the Army of the Cumberland throughout Gen. William T. Sherman's Atlanta campaign from May through September 1864.

In October Sherman assigned Thomas to meet the Confederate advance into Tennessee. On December 15-16, outside Nashville, Thomas routed the Confederates in the most complete field victory of the war. He became a major general in the regular army on March 3, 1865.

From 1865 to 1868 Thomas commanded the military Division of Tennessee. He refused promotion to lieutenant general in 1868 because it resulted from Reconstruction politics. He assumed command of the Division of the Pacific in June 1869 but died in San Francisco on March 28, 1870.

Further Reading

The best biography of Thomas is Freeman Cleaves, Rock of Chickamauga: The Life of General George H. Thomas (1948). More detailed but partisan volumes are Francis F. McKinney, Education in Violence: The Life of George H. Thomas and the History of the Army of the Cumberland (1961), and Wilbur Thomas, General George H. Thomas: The Indomitable Warrior (1964).

Additional Sources

Palumbo, Frank A., George Henry Thomas, Major General, U.S.A.: the depenable general, supreme in tactics of strategy and command, Dayton, Ohio: Morningside House, 1983. □

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George Henry Thomas, 1816–70, Union general in the American Civil War, b. Southampton co., Va. He served in the Seminole War and in the Mexican War. Later he taught at West Point and served in Texas. As a brigadier general of volunteers, he was sent to Kentucky, where he defeated the Confederates at Mill Springs (Jan., 1862). Thomas served under General Buell at Shiloh, Corinth, and Perryville. In the Chattanooga campaign, his stand on Sept. 20, 1863, which saved the Union army from complete rout, won for him the sobriquet "Rock of Chickamauga." Appointed brigadier general in the regular army, he succeeded General Rosecrans in command of the Army of the Cumberland (Oct., 1863) and served under Ulysses S. Grant around Chattanooga and under General Sherman in the Atlanta campaign. With the fall of Atlanta (Sept., 1864), Grant ordered Thomas to pursue the army of General Hood into Tennessee. Although accused by Grant of moving too slowly, and threatened with the loss of his command, Thomas waited and finally defeated Hood at Nashville (Dec., 1864). This victory brought him a promotion to major general in the regular army. After the war he held various commands. At the time of his death he was commander of the Military Division of the Pacific.

See biographies by F. F. McKinney (1961), W. D. Thomas (1964), and B. S. Wills (2012).