The Rock Of Chickamauga


Grant was hailed as the hero of the West, and properly so. His battle had not gone according to plan. Battles rarely do. But he had kept his head and altered his tactics to suit changing conditions. When something didn’t work, he tried something that did. That was good enough for Lincoln, who summoned Grant to Washington to take overall command of the Union army. Grant was free to choose his successor in the West.

If generalships were awarded like civil service positions, on the basis of test scores and previous experience, Thomas would have gotten the job. His record in the field was without blemish. He had brought the Union victory at Mill Springs. He saved the day at Chickamauga and won it at Chattanooga. Thomas could not be faulted on any account save one: He and Grant didn’t like each other very much. Grant kept Thomas as commander of the Army of the Cumberland but gave the top assignment to his friend, Sherman, whose record up until then had been spotty. Two years before, Sherman had been removed from the field under suspicion of being insane. He was not a tidy keeper of a battlefield. Grant had been surprised at Shiloh largely because Sherman had not put out a proper picket line, and Sherman had failed utterly at Chattanooga. But Grant had liked the fiery redhead since Paducah, when Sherman, who was senior to Grant at the time, offered to waive any consideration of rank to keep Grant supplied.


Grant was putting together a new command structure, and he knew he could work with Sherman. He wasn’t so sure about Thomas. Grant may also have been betting not so much on what Sherman had been but on what he could become given the wider responsibilities of theater command. Whatever Grant’s reasons, the success of the Western armies makes it difficult to argue with his decision.

There was never a more mismatched pair than Thomas and Sherman. Thomas slept long and deeply of a night. Sherman never seemed to sleep at all and was forever prowling about his camp at night in his undershirt, smoking cigars. Thomas talked very little and measured his words carefully when he did. Sherman was an exhausting talker with a freely expressed opinion on everything. Nothing was more exciting than having Sherman enter a room, one officer said, and nothing was more relaxing than having him leave it.

They had only one thing in common: Each, in his own way, was a superb commander. Thomas was a craftsman of war who put every element in its proper place before committing himself. Sherman was an artist, sloppy about details, who dealt in visions. As they moved toward Atlanta, Thomas saw enfilades, sally ports, and vedettes. Sherman saw a giant slash cutting the Confederacy in half. Together they complemented each other and made a great, if not always harmonious, team. As Sherman said of Thomas, “He’s my off-wheel horse and knows how to pull with me, though he doesn’t pull in the same way.”

Cumberland Army soldiers on the road to Atlanta might complain, and some did, that they did the fighting while Sherman got the glory. But those were the assigned roles. Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland crowded Johnston’s Tennessee troops belly to belly in the center, keeping them pinned and restricting their response to Sherman’s left-and-right-wing sallies.

There was some friction between the two. Sherman believed in moving fast and traveling light. He hated baggage trains and ordered them kept as small as possible. Thomas, who had wrenched his back in a train accident before the war, liked to take care of himself and his staff. Each night he set up an elaborate outlay of officers’ tents. Sherman knew when he was licked. If he couldn’t command his old roommate in this matter, however, he could needle him. Sherman liked to ride up to the Cumberland Army camp as if he had come upon a construction site in the Georgia countryside and ask a sentry what it was. When told it was General Thomas’s command, Sherman would reply, “Oh, yes, Thomastown. A very pretty place indeed. It appears to be growing rapidly.”

Sometimes, disturbed by Thomas’s deliberateness, Sherman took a more querulous turn. During the campaign Sherman wrote Grant: “My chief source of trouble is with the Army of the Cumberland, which is dreadfully slow. A fresh furrow in a plowed field will stop the whole column and all begin to intrench [ sic ].”

Certainly mistakes were made. Sherman missed his chance to bag Johnston’s army at Resaca, Georgia. If he had used Thomas’s heavy striking force to slam the door on Johnston’s line of withdrawal instead of a light, insufficiently horsed detachment that pulled up short, he might have done so. Against the advice of Thomas, Sherman ordered up a bloody and needless battle at Kenesaw Mountain. Thomas lost more than nineteen hundred men trying to storm a position that was taken easily by maneuver a few days later.


Nevertheless, the Georgia campaign was a dazzling success. When Sherman announced in September 1864 that Atlanta had been fairly won, the Union, at last, had the Confederacy by the throat. The question was how to end the campaign.