The Rock Of Chickamauga

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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.

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.

The high commands of both sides attempted to bring a measure of professionalism to the tangled situation. The South installed Maj. Gen. George Bibb Crittenden, a West Point graduate, over Zollicoffer, and the North brought in Thomas as strike-force commander. Crittenden had the harder job. Zollicoffer was as prickly as he was incompetent. He disobeyed Crittenden’s order to use the Cumberland as a shield and placed his troops between Thomas and the river. It was no place for a battle, but rather than risk trying to get back across the Cumberland, Crittenden decided to make a fight of it. He took his soldiers on a night march through heavy rain, hoping to surprise Thomas in his camp. It was a daring plan, and it might well have worked against a less careful adversary. But Thomas had put out an elaborate trip-wire alert system. He had picket companies patrolling the area a mile in front of his main force and mounted sentinels three-quarters of a mile in front of the pickets.

Thomas told Grant he didn’t know who ordered the charge; Granger said “when those fellows get started all hell can’t stop them.”

The Battle of Mill Springs, also known as Fishing Creek and Logan’s Crossroads, began around dawn on January 19, when advance Confederate units struck at Thomas’s pickets. The Union men fell back to a solid defensive line, and as Zollicoffer’s brigade tried to sort itself out, Thomas hit hard on the flank. The Rebel line trembled, broke, and ran. Thomas kept after the Confederates for almost eight miles. By sundown Crittenden’s army of four thousand men had melted away.

In tearing open the first gap in the Confederacy’s western flank, Thomas demonstrated the command style that would carry him through the rest of the war. No one likes surprises on a battlefield, and Thomas did what he could to see there were as few as possible. He briefed his officers carefully so they would know what was expected of them. He saw to it that pickets were out in good order, and he stayed on the field so the men could see him. Thus Thomas exhibited three of the qualities in an officer most prized by the troops: He communicated well with them, he was careful about their safety, and he was there.

Unfortunately, Thomas was not always as popular with his peers and superior officers. He arrived at Shiloh too late to do anything but provide burial details, but he did manage to get into one of the many disputes over rank that blighted his career. Thomas was not much concerned with the trappings of high position. He often was a uniform behind and wore his colonel’s coat for five months after making general. He was acutely sensitive, however, to the proprieties of rank. He complained vigorously when he received a lower commission than he felt he had earned, and twice he refused to accept higher ones he thought inappropriate. Gen. Henry Halleck, who was trying to squeeze out Grant, shoved the victor of Shiloh aside and gave command of his Army of the Mississippi to Thomas. Unwilling to be used as a source of embarrassment to a fellow officer, Thomas asked to be relieved and sent back to his Mill Springs division. It was a magnanimous gesture, but if Grant was grateful, he never said so.

This punctiliousness was bothersome to the high command, which was trying to get on with the war. Even Lincoln, normally the most solicitous of leaders, got snappish about Thomas. When Thomas complained that Rosecrans had been improperly promoted over him, Lincoln rewrote the date of Rosecrans’s commission, giving him seniority. Rank didn’t mean much at Chickamauga, but leadership counted for everything.

In the summer of 1863 Rosecrans, with Thomas as second-in-command, led the Army of the Cumberland into Tennessee. At first everything went off splendidly. Rosecrans deftly faked Braxton Bragg out of Chattanooga, seizing a vital stronghold in an almost bloodless campaign. Rosecrans could have regrouped his forces, but instead he committed the fundamental error of mistaking withdrawal for retreat. Convinced he had the Army of Tennessee on the run, Rosecrans plunged into the trap Bragg was setting for him. The kind of careful picket work Thomas had done at Mill Springs might have let Rosecrans know what he was getting into, but he pushed forward scarcely knowing where his own troops were. Bragg struck back a dozen miles south from Chattanooga, in the valley of Chickamauga Creek. Chickamauga was an old Cherokee word meaning “river of death,” and for two days the river lived up to its name as both sides lost nearly a third of their men.

It was, as were all fights in this snarled Tennessee country, an unruly business. Bad luck turned difficulty into disaster. A Union division pulled out of the line just as James Longstreet and his brigades, newly arrived from Gettysburg, hit. In a moment the Union right flank evaporated. No one likes to take a beating, but to find yourself in sudden and desperate danger during a campaign you thought you were winning is particularly dispiriting. The troops broke and headed for the rear, taking much of the high command with them. Rosecrans, a devout Roman Catholic, was seen crossing himself as he rode back to Chattanooga, where he had to be helped from his horse. Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, who was on the field, wrote to Washington, “Bull Run had nothing more terrible than the rout of these veteran troops.”

Longstreet was triumphant. “They have fought to the last man,” he said, “and he is running.”

But Thomas wasn’t running anywhere. As a correspondent at the time wrote, “One of those crises had now arrived, rare in the history of any country, where the personal character and power of an individual become of incalculable value to the general welfare.”

Thomas assembled a defense line along Horseshoe Ridge. It didn’t matter what regiment or brigade the men were from as long as they could handle a gun. There were no speeches and no calls for greatness, just George Thomas riding quietly among the men. If Old Reliable was sticking around, it was probably going to be all right. The only emotion Thomas evidenced was scratching his beard more than usual. He told a colonel the men had to hold their position regardless of the cost, and the colonel replied, “We’ll hold it, General, or we’ll go to heaven from it.”

Many of them did, but the rest held through the day until Thomas retired in good order. Chickamauga was a bloody defeat, but Thomas had saved the Army of the Cumberland.

In Washington President Lincoln, who began the conflict knowing so little about war he took books out of the library to read up on military tactics, had developed the strategic sense that comes with understanding what is really important. The army was beaten, but it still held Chattanooga. If it could stay there, the President noted, “the Rebellion must dwindle and die.”

First Rosecrans had to go. In Lincoln’s harsh but accurate evaluation, he was “confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.” Lincoln gave Thomas command of the Army of the Cumberland with orders to hold on to Chattanooga until Grant could come and rescue the Tennessee campaign.

 

When Grant arrived, there occurred one of those social mischances that should not matter in so serious an enterprise as war but do. Grant, wet and hungry after a long ride in the rain, got to Thomas’s headquarters around nine o’clock at night. Preoccupied, Thomas seemed not to notice that Grant was sitting by the fire with water puddling out of his uniform. Only after one of Grant’s staff asked did Thomas offered his commander quarters, fresh clothing, and food. Grant never put on any great airs, but he did not like being made to feel cheap.

Grant largely ignored Thomas in planning the battle to regain the initiative at Chattanooga. Grant also wrote off the Army of the Cumberland as an attacking force. It had been used up at Chickamauga. He wanted Sherman.

Chattanooga was yet another Civil War battle that did not go even faintly the way it was supposed to. Missionary Ridge, a six-hundred-foot escarpment defended by rifle pits at the bottom and Bragg’s marksmen with sixty pieces of artillery at the top, confronted the Federal army. Grant had in mind something very grand, a massive double end run around the ridge. Sherman would swing wide to the left and deliver the main attack on Bragg’s flank at dawn, while Joe Hooker swept in from the right to cut off the Rebel retreat. Thomas and his weary Cumberland Army, positioned in the center at the base of Missionary Ridge, were not to move until Hooker was in sight.

Grant’s plan went off the rails almost at once. On November 23 Thomas occupied Orchard Knob, high ground before Missionary Ridge, and, the day after, Hooker’s men handily drove the Confederate defenders from Lookout Mountain. But the main battle had to be postponed for a day so Sherman could get his men in place to assault the Confederate position at Tunnel Hill. Sherman moved at sunrise but, even outnumbering his opponents almost six to one, he could make no headway. By three in the afternoon Sherman was still bogged down on the left, and Hooker, who had lost five hours repairing a bridge, was nowhere to be seen on the right.

 
The conventional wisdom has it that Sherman was delighted when Hood replaced Johnston. But nobody said so then.

From his command post at Orchard Knob, Grant could see the battle was getting away from him. “We must do something for Sherman,” he said. Hoping a demonstration at the center would make Bragg draw troops away from Tunnel Hill, he ordered Thomas to advance on the rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge. The first part was easy. The Rebel riflemen, reasonably enough, retreated in the face of an approaching army. Once the Cumberland men got the pits, however, they were on their own. They had no fire support on either side. They had no orders to advance and none to retreat. Staying put was a death warrant for the troops; they were being torn apart by shortrange artillery and musket fire from the summit. And so eighteen thousand men of the Army of the Cumberland did what only trained professional soldiers can do. They advanced toward the firing.

An astonished Grant watched the men scramble up the slope “like a swarm of bees.” Sharply he asked Thomas who had ordered the charge. Thomas said he didn’t know, but Gordon Granger, commander of the IV Corps, allowed that “when those fellows get started all hell can’t stop them.”

Whether an accident or a miracle—and it was called both—the charge was a blow the Army of Tennessee could not survive. Bragg lost control of his men as they poured off the field in panic. By the time Hooker played his part in Grant’s plan, there was no interdicting the Southern retreat. The Union army didn’t own horses that fast.

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.

His original orders were to hound the Army of Tennessee to its death, but Sherman was starting to think about salt water. In propounding his idea for a march to the sea, Sherman elevated military strategy to a higher level. “If we can march a well appointed army right through this territory,” he wrote Grant, “it is a demonstration to the world foreign and domestic, that we have a power which [Jefferson] Davis can not resist. This is not war, but rather statesmanship.”

Grant didn’t like the idea at first. The Army of Tennessee, now under the command of John Bell Hood, was still in the field. But Grant acquiesced when Sherman promised both to sweep to the Atlantic shore and to have Thomas take care of Hood.

The conventional wisdom has it that Sherman was delighted when Davis sacked Joseph E. Johnston and replaced him with Hood late in the Atlanta campaign. Hood was a gallant officer who had left a leg at Chickamauga, but he was known to be an impetuous commander, given to bold and ill-considered action. The memoirs of several Union officers relate how delighted they were at the prospect of a blunderer’s appearing at their front. Most of these sentiments, however, were written well after the war was safely won, and it is possible Sherman may have been made uneasy by the change of command. Joe Johnston had always been Sherman’s patsy. Johnston was a classicist well versed in the history and the art of war. He knew the rules. He knew what was possible and what was not. Johnston understood that Sherman held the whip hand. While looking for just the right opportunity to hit back, which he never seemed to find, Johnston danced to Sherman’s tune. John Bell Hood, on the other hand, was tone-deaf. He did not know the rules and usages of war, and it is unlikely he would have abided by them if he had. He was a dangerous man. He attacked when there was no prospect of victory and didn’t mind running up a big butcher’s bill. Sherman could beat Hood, but it might be expensive. After Kenesaw Mountain, Sherman had become the most parsimonious of field commanders, shunning big battles and direct assaults whenever he could.

Sherman’s decision to split forces was a brilliant one in that it allowed both generals to do what they did best. Sherman, rid of Thomas’s circus tents, could really fly, while Thomas, whose specialty was the calculated sledgehammer blow, could pound the life out of John Hood.

Sherman stripped the Virginian of some of his best troops and headed for the ocean while Thomas turned to face Hood. Thomas might have been well advised if, like Sherman, he had cut off all communication lines with Washington before he started.

After going over some of the same ground they covered on the way to Atlanta, Thomas and Hood met in earnest on the frozen turf outside Nashville. It was a terrible business.

The string was running out for Hood. His battered army was getting hard to hold together, and he was tired of maneuvering to no effect. It was time to say the hell with it and fight. Hood was a gambler, and he decided to trust to what Albert Sidney Johnston had called “the iron dice of battle.” He brought his army to attack Thomas at Franklin. Hood waved aside Nathan Bedford Forrest’s advice to try turning the Union flank and ordered a frontal assault. It was a sad thing to do. At Gettysburg George Pickett had led a charge following an extended artillery bombardment and lost 1,354 men trying to cover one mile. Hood proposed to send his men twice that far with no artillery preparation at all.

Grant grew so upset at what he saw as Thomas’s tardiness that in six days he scribbled out three separate orders relieving him.

“I don’t like the looks of this fight,” said the Confederate general Benjamin Franklin Cheatham. A veteran of the Mexican War who had fought at Belmont, Shiloh, Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga, Cheatham had seen more combat than most men, but he had never seen anything like the afternoon of November 30, 1864, when the Army of Tennessee rose and threw itself on the Union lines at Franklin. For a moment it looked as if the Rebels might pull it off. They ripped into the Union outer defenses, scattering two brigades and capturing eight guns. But it was no go. In a textbook demonstration of how to commit reserves, the Union brigade commander, Emerson Opdycke, without waiting for orders, plugged the gap in a melee of hand-to-hand fighting. Hood kept at it for almost six hours, finally calling off the attack at nine in the evening. More than six thousand Confederate troops, including five generals, had gone down.

After his shattering victory Thomas retired to Nashville to prepare the final knockout. Incredibly, the high command wanted more. Grant, in his Virginia headquarters, did not realize how completely Thomas had control of the situation and was afraid Hood might get loose. He badgered Thomas to attack. But Thomas was having none of it. The weather was too bad and the ground had iced over, making attack difficult. Besides, there were horses to look after and men to equip before fighting again.

“I thought,” Thomas said, “after what I had done in the war, that I ought to be trusted to decide when the battle should be fought. I thought I knew better when it should be fought than anyone could know as far off as City Point, Virginia.”

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