The Rock of Chickamauga

George Thomas swore an oath.

I, George Henry Thomas, appointed a lieutenant in the Army of the United States, do solemnly swear that I will bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the rules and articles for the government of the Armies of the United States.

Thomas, raised on a plantation in Southampton County, Virginia, came to the United States Military Academy at the age of 20, having found that life as a law clerk lacked excitement. At West Point he roomed with a cadet from Ohio, William Tecumseh Sherman. The two became close friends, and Thomas became known for his serious demeanor.

Thomas took his oath in 1840, graduating 12th in a class of 42 cadets. Commissioned into the artillery, he soon went to Florida to fight in the ongoing guerilla war against the Seminoles. There he won praise from his battery commander, the first of many commanders and subordinates in the field to note Thomas’ calm demeanor and deliberate calculations even when under fire.

With war looming with Mexico, in 1846 Thomas went to Louisiana to join Zachary Taylor’s so-called Army of Occupation on its march into Texas. Now thirty years old, the lieutenant distinguished himself at the Battle of Monterrey, gaining brevet promotion to captain, and at Buena Vista, receiving the brevet rank of major. “The services of the light artillery,” Taylor reported after Buena Vista, “always conspicuous, were more than unusually distinguished.” He also became fast friends with his fellow artillery officer Braxton Bragg.

Southampton County presented this sword to Thomas after the Mexican War.

The end of the war brought the inevitable end to Thomas’ temporary wartime rank and he reverted to his lieutenant’s position and pay. After another tour in Florida, he received one of the Army’s plum postings: artillery instructor at West Point, requested by the academy’s commandant, Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee. Impressed by Thomas’ dedication to his craft, Lee added cavalry instruction to his duties. Top students he recommended for prime cavalry postings included J.E.B. Stuart and Fitzhugh Lee; Thomas also recommended expulsion for John Schofield, who would later command a corps under Thomas in the Nashville campaign.

After his tour at West Point (and marriage to an abolitionist New Yorker), Thomas went to the Southwest to join the 2nd Cavalry where he again served alongside Lee. Lee and Thomas undertook a number of missions together, travelling to isolated outposts to dispense military justice, and became close friends. The regiment also included future Confederate commanders Albert Sidney Johnston and William Hardee. Thomas fought Comanches and other tribal fighters, suffering an arrow wound in 1860.

Thomas, now a major and temporary commander of his regiment, took a year’s leave after his wounding and had returned to Virginia when Southern states began to secede from the Union. While there, a fall from a train platform left him with a back injury that hampered him for the rest of his life. Virginia’s governor offered him a post in charge of ordnance, which Thomas declined. And when Virginia left the Union in April 1861, Thomas refused to resign his commission even as almost all of the Commonwealth’s professional soldiers turned their backs on their allegiance.

Thomas wrote no memoirs and destroyed his personal papers, making it difficult to clearly define his thinking on the matter. But one point remained clear. “Whichever way he turned the matter over in his mind,” his wife Frances wrote later, “his oath of allegiance to his Government always came uppermost.”

The decision went over poorly with friends and family; his sisters turned his portraits to the walls of their plantation and declared that they had no brother. Prize student J.E.B. Stuart wrote of his desire to capture and hang Thomas as a traitor to Virginia.

Thomas immediately replaced Lee on the U.S. Army’s rank list when his old friend broke his own oath rather than fight for his country, gaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. Less than two weeks later he replaced Albert Sidney Johnston as colonel. Thomas commanded a brigade in the Shenandoah Valley in the war’s opening months before going to a small independent command in eastern Kentucky.

There, his division defeated a larger Confederate division commanded by George Crittenden at the Battle of Mill Springs in January 1862. Thomas gave the Union its first serious battlefield victory, inflicting much greater casualties on the Confederates and pushing them back into Tennessee.

Thomas continued to command his division, part of the Army of the Ohio. He did not fight at Shiloh, arriving on the second day after the armies had broken contact. In the reorganization that followed the near-disaster, Thomas commanded one of the army-sized “wings” of Henry Halleck’s forces at the Siege of Corinth. Afterwards he served as second-in-command of the Army of the Ohio at the Battle of Perryville, and commanded the center at the Battle of Stones River at the end of the year.

Commanding XIV Corps at Chickamauga, Thomas rallied his own troops and stragglers from other formations along Horseshoe Ridge to prevent the Union army’s defeat from turning into a rout. The “Rock of Chickamauga” commanded the Army of the Cumberland in breaking the siege of Chattanooga and afterwards as part of Sherman’s army group marching on Atlanta.

Thomas’ army pursued John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee back into Tennessee, defeating them at Franklin and destroying them at Nashville in December 1864 – the only Civil War battle in which one of the opposing armies was put totally out of action.

As a corps and army commander, Thomas’ actions reflected his outward personality – calm and deliberate (and masking an explosive temper). He organized a very modern staff, responsible for intelligence collection, logistics and communications. Sherman handed over all of his army group’s logistics to Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland staff.

After the war, Thomas commanded occupation troops overseeing Reconstruction, defending newly-freed former slaves from both local government and the newly-founded Ku Klux Klan. In November 1868 Thomas also sounded one of the first warnings against the emergent “Lost Cause” mythology that would still resonate a century and a half later:

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.

Thomas asked for a transfer to California, and suffered a stroke there in March 1870 while writing an answer to a particularly scurrilous piece of libel penned by Schofield. None of his family attended his funeral, and he was buried in his wife’s home town of Troy, New York.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 718 public statues and monuments to Confederate soldiers, generals and political leaders in Southern states, not counting those that are part of battlefield memorials. At least a dozen of those statues represent Robert E. Lee, always facing northward to guard against Yankee interference. Lee’s name graces dozens of schools and hundreds of streets.

There’s only one public statue of George Henry Thomas, facing southward from Thomas Circle in Washington D.C. Thomas only needs one statue; it highlights the other key difference with his old friend Lee.

George Thomas kept his oath.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.