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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 613

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This is the grave of George Thomas.

Born in 1816 in Southhampton County, Virginia, Thomas grew up in a family of slaveholders. They owned 685 acres and 24 slaves in 1829, despite the fact that his father had died in a farming accident. In fact, he was very nearly killed in Nat Turner’s Revolt. The family had to hide in the woods as the slaves freeing themselves and looking for blood were hunting them down. People have long wondered in the aftermath whether this affected Thomas’ position on slavery. Many have tried to read an quasi-abolitionist past into his early years because of his later heroism in putting down treason in defense of slavery. But he was a slaveholder himself, so this seems unlikely. Some have suggested that he taught his slaves to read, but more slaveholders did that than is usually realized, particularly very wealthy ones, so this isn’t much of a sign either way. Part of the debate is that Thomas left no record as to his actual thoughts on the institution.

Thomas entered West Point in 1836. At the age of twenty, he was very old for his appointment. He became close friends with William Tecumseh Sherman while there. He was a solid cadet and graduated 12th in his class in 1840. He was assigned to Florida and the attacks on the Seminoles. He then served in a variety of posts before the United States decided to steal half of Mexico to expand slavery in 1846. He did very well in the Mexican War, leading a gun crew effectively at Buena Vista, Monterrey, and other key battles. He was excellent at artillery at received three brevet promotions and many accolades from superior officers, from Zachary Taylor to Braxton Bragg. After the war, he was back in Florida and then became an instructor at West Point, where among other things, he worked to stop the overworking of horses during cadet drills, leading to his nickname of “Slowtrot Thomas.” He was promoted to captain in 1853 and married in 1854. The next year saw his promotion to major of the 2nd Calvary. He was very close to Robert E. Lee at this point and they often traveled together. He was shot by a Comanche arrow in Texas in 1860, passing through the bottom of his neck skin and into his chest. It was ultimately a pretty minor injury though. He took a leave of absence in 1860, falling from a train platform in Virginia and hurting his back severely, to the point he considered leaving military service altogether. Recovering and on the way to New York to see his wife’s family, he stopped by to see Winfield Scott, telling him that his commander of the Department of Texas, David Twiggs, was a secessionist and could not be trusted.

In 1861, the South committed treason in defense of slavery. But George Thomas did not. He refused. He stuck with his nation. In doing so, not only did he surprise his fellow leading southern officers who were all-in on treason in defense of slavery, but he also disgusted his entire family, who disowned him. He never lived in the South again. After the war, he sent some money to his destitute sisters, who had lost all their human property. They declined it and wrote back saying they had no brother.

Thomas’ choice to remain in the American military was not wholly accepted in the North either. A lot of officers thought he was suspicious since he was a southerner and a slaveholder. But his northern wife seems to have turned him toward a more Unionist stance. He was rapidly promoted by the Union, to lieutenant colonel in April 1861 and then to full colonel in May and then to brigadier general of volunteers in August. He became one of the leading generals in the western theater, after participating in First Manassas.

Thomas was assigned to command the First Division of the Army of the Ohio under General Don Carlos Buell. After Shiloh, which he did not arrive to in time to fight, he was promoted to major general and given command the Right Wing of the Department of the Mississippi after Grant’s brief demotion following the battle. Back under Buell later in 1862, he played a critical role at Stones River, holding the center of the Union lines and preventing a defeat at Bragg’s hands. Then of course at Chickamauga, he refused Rosecrans’ orders to retreat, saying he would have to stay behind to ensure the safety of the Army’s safety. This message was actually delivered by future president James Garfield, who responded that Thomas was “standing like a rock.” This his famed nickname, “The Rock of Chickamauga” was born. Thomas replaced Rosecrans in command of the Army of the Cumberland just before the Battle of Chattanooga in November 1863, in which his troops defeated the treasonous Confederates during the charge up Missionary Ridge, one of the most important victories in the war.

On Sherman’s march to Atlanta, Thomas’ troops were in charge of the logistics and engineering and once again, he did a great job. When Sherman started the March to the Sea, Thomas led his men back to stop the invasion north by John Bell Hood in the Franklin-Nashville Campaign. Grant became impatient with his reluctance to crush Hood’s army, but he justified it by saying that they were extremely inexperienced and needed time. As Grant personally traveled west to take command of it, Thomas attacked and dealt Hood a brutal blow at the Battle of Nashville on December 15, 1864. For this, he received a promotion to full major general, which he appreciated but which also kept him behind Phil Sheridan in the rank due to the date and which he felt he deserved after Chickamauga. But there was also some suspicion of him due to being a southerner and the levels of gossip and factionalism inside both the Army and the Lincoln administration were always a sight to behold. Also, Grant and Thomas never got along personally for reasons that remain unclear.

After the war, Thomas continued to command the Army of the Cumberland. He did what he could to protect freedmen and fight the Ku Klux Klan. Knowing his enemy and disgusted by the instant rise in Confederate nostalgia after the war, he wrote in 1868:

[T]he 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.

Thomas got caught up in the intrigue around Andrew Johnson as well. Johnson hated Grant and of course saw him as his chief rival in 1868. Johnson did everything he could to get rid of Grant, including trying to force him to become ambassador of Mexico. He wanted to name Thomas as general-in-chief to replace Grant. He even submitted his name to the Senate. Upon hearing this, Thomas immediately cabled the Senate to withdraw his name from consideration. He was not going to be Andrew Johnson’s pawn. Instead, he requested a transfer west to command the Military Division of the Pacific, based in San Francisco. Now, Thomas had enemies like everyone else. One was John Schofield, who he had kicked out of West Point for disciplinary problems a long time ago. Thomas ended up commanding Schofield during the war and in 1870, the latter wrote an article criticizing Thomas’ conduct in the Nashville campaign. Thomas sat down to write a response, had a stroke in the middle of the letter, and died. He was 53 years old.

George Thomas is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Troy, New York. None of his blood relatives attended his funeral, but the entire top brass of the United States did.

This grave visit was funded by LGM reader donations on my recent trip to upstate New York. If this isn’t the kind of grave you want to see, I don’t know what is! If you would like this series to visit other generals who crushed treason in defense of slavery, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Tecumseh Sherman is in St. Louis, as is Don Carlos Buell. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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