Union's Thomas Gets Due Credit; General Rose in Ranks Quickly, Delivered One of First Victories

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Among Civil War historians there has long been a suspicion that Gen. George H. Thomas has never quite received his due as a Federal commander.

True, he had never lost a battle and had played a key role in Federal victories in Tennessee at Chattanooga and Nashville. Even more important, he had saved the day for Gen. William S. Rosecrans' army after its disaster at Chickamauga, Ga. But Thomas had fought in the West, not in Virginia, the main theater of the war. And unlike virtually every other prominent general, he never wrote a memoir.

In his new biography of Thomas, historian Benson Bobrick does not disguise his admiration for his subject, calling Thomas America's greatest soldier-patriot since George Washington. Why, then, his relative anonymity? The author charges that Thomas was the target of deliberate efforts by Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman to denigrate his reputation.

Thomas was that rare instance of a West Pointer from Virginia who sided with the Union. He paid a heavy personal price for this decision; neither of his sisters ever spoke to him again. Ironically, his loyalty was slow to be rewarded; within the Lincoln administration, there continued to be doubts about Thomas' commitment to the Union.

Nevertheless, Thomas rose rapidly in the expanding Union Army. In January 1862, he gave the Union one of its first victories when his division defeated a Confederate force at Mill Springs, Ky.

Later that year, the Union high command became impatient with Gen. Don Carlos Buell's cautious leadership of the Army of Ohio, and offered its command to Thomas. To the surprise of the War Department, Thomas declined, replying that Buell was better qualified to lead the desired advance. Such diffidence did not inspire confidence in Washington.

Eventually Buell gave way to Rosecrans, whose command was designated the Army of the Cumberland. Commanding a corps at the bloody Battle of Chickamauga on Sept. …