Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview
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GEORGE HENRY THOMAS (March 31, 1816–March 28, 1870)

Charles F. Ritter

Union General George H. Thomas ended the Civil War as he began it, with a decisive victory over Confederate forces. Indeed, during his thirty­year­long military career, he never lost a fight and is known to history as “The Rock of Chickamauga.” Recognizing Thomas’s important contribution to Union victory, Ezra Warner says that he was the “third of the triumvirate who won the war” (Warner, 500). In fact, George Thomas is the only Union general to do what President Abraham Lincoln (q.v.) wanted all his generals to do—destroy Confederate armies.

It is symptomatic of Thomas’s historical reputation that he gained his wellknown sobriquet from the Union defeat at Chickamauga but that he is little recognized for the Union’s final victory in the Western Theater of the war, Nashville. No fewer than ten biographers have attempted to rectify this oversight in the last century and a half. Yet interest in Thomas is so low that one major university library has moved its four biographies of the general to off­campus storage. Perhaps this lack of interest stems in part from Thomas’s own elusive nature. Another factor to explain his obscurity may lie in the price he paid for overshadowing Ulysses S. Grant (q.v.) and William T. Sherman (q.v.) at Chattanooga and for defying Grant at Nashville.

Born on a prosperous farm in Southampton County, Virginia, on March 31, 1816, Thomas was one of five children of John and Elizabeth (Rochelle) Thomas. He descended from English, Welsh, and French Huguenot ancestors long resident in the region. Educated at Southampton Academy, Thomas read law with his uncle James Rochelle, the clerk of the country court. But the law bored him. A family friend, Congressman John Y. Mason, suggested he go to West Point, where he graduated twelfth in his class of forty­two in 1840. Although the lively “Cump” Sherman was his roommate, his classmates called him “Old Tom because of his serious demeanor. Commissioned a second lieutenant in the 3rd Artillery upon graduation, Thomas was sent to Florida, where he par

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