The Rock Of Chickamauga

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Thomas went carefully about his business while his superiors fumed. Not being entirely helpful, Sherman wrote to Grant on December 16: “I know full well that General Thomas is slow in mind and in action but he is judicious and brave, and the troops feel great confidence in him. I still hope he will out-maneuver and destroy Hood.” On the day Sherman wrote, destroying Hood was precisely what Thomas was doing.

The problem between Grant and Thomas was that each had a different idea of what was important. Grant was thinking about his final campaign to defeat the Confederacy, and Thomas, with his eternal fussing about details, was putting the campaign at risk. Grant was willing to accept a partial victory as long as it kept Hood from upsetting his plans. Thomas, who had a more limited area of responsibility, was thinking about an individual action. Why go into battle if he couldn’t give Hood a thorough whipping? After all, that had been Grant’s original order to the Western army.

Grant grew so upset that in six days he scribbled out three separate orders relieving Thomas. Deciding to take personal command in the field, Grant gave the last relief order to a telegraph operator and went to his hotel to pack. The operator, on his own responsibility, decided to hold off sending the telegram until he received the regular night traffic from Nashville. The wires started clacking at about eleven, and when the code clerks deciphered the messages, it was all over. Thomas had struck Nashville on December 15, smashing one corps and, on the following day, two more. The Army of Tennessee, the bravest, unluckiest, and most poorly led military force in American history, had ceased to exist.

Sherman, fresh from his capture of Savannah, sent Thomas a wonderfully self-congratulatory Christmas Day message saying that “had any misfortune befallen you I should have reproached myself for taking away so large a proportion of the army and leaving you too weak to cope with Hood. But as the events have turned out my judgment has been sustained.”

 

Grant found Thomas’s pursuit of Hood inadequate. You were always on safe ground criticizing pursuit in the Civil War. Nobody, including Grant, did it well. But Grant’s charge was particularly churlish in this case. Thomas had already seen to it there wasn’t much left to pursue. After Thomas retired to winter quarters, Grant split up the Army of the Cumberland and doled it out to other units until it was essentially reduced to the IV Corps. As an army commander Thomas was out of business.

The War Department was in a giving mood that December, and Stanton asked Grant about rewarding Thomas with the three stars of a major general. Grant started to block the promotion but later relented. On Christmas Day Thomas found his name was on a promotions list being sent to the Senate for confirmation. He was ranked behind Sherman, George Meade, and Phil Sheridan. His unit surgeon, George Cooper, looked at the slate and allowed that “it is better late than never.”

“It is too late to be appreciated,” Thomas replied. “I earned this at Chickamauga.”

And then he started to cry.

In May 1865, after Lee and Johnston had stacked arms and sent their men home, the Union army put on the greatest parade ever staged on this continent. On the day given to Sherman and his armies of the West, somehow there was no room for George Thomas in the parade. He watched from the reviewing stand. As units of the old Army of the Cumberland rolled by in their insolent western gait, Thomas whispered to no one in particular, “They made me.”

After the war Thomas found himself briefly caught up in the turbulent politics of the Reconstruction. Andrew Johnson tried to exploit Thomas by offering to make him commanding general in place of Grant. Thomas wouldn’t bite. He frostily refused, saying the promotion was too late a reward for his war service and not justified by anything he had done since.

Thomas was assigned to the command of the Division of the Pacific in 1869, with headquarters in San Francisco. A detail man to the last, he sat at his desk on March 28, 1870, to write a letter to a newspaper correcting an erroneous article concerning his handling of the Nashville campaign. Several pages into the letter he was writing, “This was a very brilliant battle, most disastrous to the enemy, and as the writer in the Tribune says, no doubt contributed materially to the crowning success at Nashville.…” Suddenly the bold penmanship quavered. Thomas suffered a massive stroke and collapsed. He died that evening.

CHATTANOOGA: A BIRD’S-EYE VIEW