The Rock Of Chickamauga


Of all the great commanders in the Civil War, the most consistently underrated and overlooked is Gen. George H. Thomas, the big Virginia cavalryman who fought for the Union. From January 1862 at Mill Springs, where he won the first major Federal victory of the war, through December 1864 at Nashville, where he destroyed the Army of Tennessee, Thomas never lost a battle when he was in command.

If ever one man altered the course of a war in a single afternoon, it was Thomas, who took scraps of units from a beaten army and pulled them together into a defensive perimeter that held the line at Chickamauga and saved the Western command. Two months later, at Chattanooga, Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland put the Union in position to break the rebellion with one of the most stunning assaults in military history.

Although Thomas won many honors and promotions and there is an impressive bronze equestrian statue of him in Washington today, it is unlikely many of the motorists who drive by him on Massachusetts Avenue know who he was. His fame, one historian said, “never really caught up with his talents.”

Thomas is partially to blame for this lack of recognition. He liked to go about his work quietly. He once said he would not have his life “hawked about in print for the amusement of the curious.” He was one of the few field commanders in the Union army who did not write their memoirs or publish their papers. Thomas was still on active service when he died, and the task of honoring his memory and defending his record fell to eager but secondary hands.

Thomas had a soldier’s instinct for being at the right spot on a battlefield, but he was often poorly placed for building a historical reputation. His victory at Mill Springs has been dismissed as a muddled affair by historians eager to write about the more classically crafted battles of the Eastern theater. Thomas went into the history books as the Rock of Chickamauga, but that action is often seen as only one of a number of pieces in the larger mosaic of Union disasters. The storming of Missionary Ridge was an epic of war, but command of the forces to exploit that gain was given to another general. On the road to Atlanta, Thomas provided the base that allowed William Tecumseh Sherman to weave his flamboyant flank attacks, and flamboyance is always more interesting than solidity. Thomas’s victories at Franklin and Nashville, among the most decisive in the war, were subsumed in the attention given to the final campaigns of Sherman and Ulysses Grant.

Lincoln said that Rosecrans was “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.” Grant replaced him with Thomas.

Finally, Grant and Thomas never got along. It was important for Grant to be comfortable with people, and Thomas made him uneasy. Thomas exhibited a vaguely aristocratic manner that got under Grant’s skin, and sometimes Thomas ignored his chief’s orders entirely. After a lifetime of service Thomas had developed his own schedule. Once he decided what was the right action to take and when was the appropriate time to take it, no one—not Grant, not Sherman, not Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, not President Lincoln himself—could make Thomas alter his agenda. Grant never admitted to any personal animosity toward Thomas, but when it came time for dividing credit up among his generals, he was particularly stingy with the Virginian.

The men serving under Thomas were more generous. Nicknames, when freely given, are generally a sign of affection. No one had more than Thomas. He was variously known as Pap, Old Slow Trot, Uncle George, and Old Reliable. His demeanor at West Point was so grave that his fellow cadet William Rosecrans called him General Washington. In something of a public relations overreach, he was also called the Sledge of Nashville. But even if Thomas had never stood at Chickamauga, he was bound to have been known as the rock of something. It was in his nature.

A six-footer weighing more than two hundred pounds, Thomas cut a heroic figure. A Chicago journalist said the general appeared “hewn out of a large square block of the best tempered material that men are made of… square face, square shoulders, square step; blue eyes, with depths in them, withdrawn beneath a penthouse of a brow.” Thomas, the reporter concluded, was “the right kind of man to tie to.”


As Rosecrans’s nickname for him suggested, George Henry Thomas was the kind of soldier who looks like a future general from the moment he puts on his first uniform. In 1840 he was graduated twelfth in his class at West Point, six behind Sherman, his first-year roommate. While Sherman stayed in the ranks, however, Thomas was made corporal. Promotion was sluggish at best during the mid-nineteenth century, but Thomas served for a year in the Second Seminole War, earning a brevet promotion for bravery in action. He was one of Zachary Taylor’s gunners during the Mexican War and was breveted for heroism at Monterrey and Buena Vista.

After the war he pulled a tour as an artillery and cavalry instructor at West Point. Among his students were Phil Sheridan, who learned from him, and John Bell Hood, who did not. The horses Thomas had to work with were dreadful haybags. One was flat blind, and another suffered from some kind of nervous disorder and kept falling down. At the academy Thomas picked up one of his more enduring nicknames, Slow Trot, because he wouldn’t let his students drive their poor mounts any faster.