The Rock Of Chickamauga


Then came service in the Western frontier with the 2nd Regiment of Cavalry. The American Army has never again produced so elite a troop. It was the work of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who wanted to create an entirely mounted unit as the showpiece of the service. Davis authorized the officers to spend top dollar for their horses, which were then color-coordinated by unit so that each troop had animals of complementary hues. The regiment armed itself with the latest weaponry, including some of the new breech-loading rifles. Most important were the officers. It was common to give command of a new regiment to a political appointee, but Davis wanted only professionals. He made Albert Sidney Johnston the colonel. Davis had served with Johnston in the Mexican War and thought him the finest officer in America. The lieutenant colonel’s slot went to Robert E. Lee. The two majors were Thomas and William J. Hardee, whose book on tactics would become a standard Army text. The junior officers included seven future generals: George Stoneman, Richard W. Johnson, and Kenner Garrard, who fought for the Union, and Hood, Earl Van Dorn, Edmund Kirby Smith, and Fitzhugh Lee, who served the Confederacy.

For West Point graduates and militiamen alike, combat was the true university of future Civil War generals. Being shot at is an experience like no other, and lessons learned under fire bite the deepest. The lessons, however, are not always the right ones. Veterans of the Mexican War, who had seen a brisk overland charge tipped with steel win the day, would find their assault troops drowning and dying in the swamps of Seven Pines two decades later.

Thomas, who had earned a reputation as a good artilleryman in Mexico and a better cavalryman in the Indian campaigns, developed his own syllabus. In Mexico he had seen battles nearly lost because of poor planning and inadequate supply. Fighting Indians in Texas, Thomas got a more personal lesson. Leading a mounted troop in pursuit of marauding Comanches, Thomas found himself opposed by a single brave. Standing with a bow and arrow, the Indian hit three soldiers and drove a shaft through Thomas’s chin, into his chest. Thomas pulled the arrow out and continued to command until the Comanche was killed. It was an impressive gesture, but surely a mounted troop could figure out a way to subdue a lone, unhorsed Comanche bowman without suffering four casualties.

Thomas made himself into the most meticulous commander of the war. “The fate of an army,” he once said, “may depend on a buckle.” Unlike generals who prided themselves on being fighters who couldn’t be bothered with bureaucracy, Thomas enjoyed paperwork and was good at it. He was careful about his files. He made sure that his correspondence was up to date before a fight and that no papers were awaiting his signature. On the morning of Nashville, Thomas stopped his staff in the street to make arrangements for fourteen bushels of coal to be delivered to a neighbor.


Thomas was a Virginian, and when the Civil War made men choose between their country and their state, he agonized more than most. For a time he entertained some thoughts about a position with the Virginia Military Institute. Finally, however, he wrote his wife, Frances, he was staying with the Union. “Turn it every way he would,” Mrs. Thomas later recalled, the most important consideration for her husband was “his duty to the government of the United States.”

Coming from a Confederate state and fighting for the Union put Thomas in a difficult position. To the North he was a Virginia slaveowner and, therefore, suspect. His Southern heritage had helped him gain advancement when men such as Jefferson Davis were running the War Department, but now it worked against him. Lincoln once struck his name from a promotions list, saying, “Let the Virginian wait.” To the South Thomas was a traitor. His property was confiscated and his family disowned him. After the war Thomas sent money and supplies to his financially distressed sisters in Virginia, but the women rejected the aid, saying they had no brother.

Thomas provided the Union with one of its few victories in the early months of 1862, when he was sent to help retrieve eastern Kentucky from Albert Sidney Johnston. The war was still very much of a pickup fight then, with both sides trying to find officers who could lead troops in the field. The opening skirmishes had been conducted by two generals who were in over their heads: Felix Zollicoffer, a firebrand Tennessee newspaper editor who had served in Congress, and a Union officer with the imposing name of Albin Francisco Schoepf. On paper Schoepf was the better man. Born in Polish Austria, he was a graduate of the Vienna military academy and had served in the Prussian army while Zollicoffer offered only a passionate devotion to the Southern cause. In fact there was little to choose between them. The autocratic Schoepf never learned how to handle the rude soldiery of the American volunteer army, and Zollicoffer, whose only military experience consisted of a year’s service fighting the Seminoles in 1836, simply didn’t know what he was doing.

They had scrabbled at each other in October at Wild Cat Mountain. Schoepf’s army first swept the Confederates aside but later, under vigorous counterattack, fled the field in what became known as the Wild Cat Stampede.