'Rock of Chickamauga' Deserves More Granite

By Brown, John S. | Army, July 2016 | Go to article overview

'Rock of Chickamauga' Deserves More Granite


Brown, John S., Army


July 31 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, regarded by many historians as among the three most accomplished Union generals in the American Civil War. He shares this honor with Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman. His most noteworthy battlefield performances were in Chickamauga and Peach Tree Creek, Ga.; Mill Springs, Ky.; and Missionary Ridge, Nashville and Stones River, Tenn.

The prestige that accompanied Grant and Sherman eluded Thomas, in part because of personal diffidence and in part because of his origins as a Virginian. Both of these aspects of his character offer food for thought in studying the military as a profession.

George Henry Thomas was born in Southampton County, Va., in 1816 to John and Elizabeth Thomas, well-todo plantation owners. His father died in an accident in 1829, exposing the plantation and family to financial distress. In 1831, Nat Turner's slave rebellion swept into Southampton County, forcing 15-year-old George, his siblings and his widowed mother to flee and go into hiding.

The rebellion was suppressed, but the future military officer abandoned whatever notions he may have had of slaves being happily content in the service of benevolent masters. Thomas was a slave owner but unlike many Southerners, he remained mute concerning the legitimacy of the institution.

Thomas received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy when he was 20 years old. He graduated in 1840 and was commissioned an artillery officer. He served two years in Florida against the Seminole Indians, with his artillerymen generally serving in an infantry role. He was brevetted to first lieutenant in recognition of his service there. After several other postings throughout the South, his regiment was sent to reinforce then-Brig. Gen. Zachary Taylor in Texas as the Mexican War loomed.

Thomas and his artillerymen served with distinction at the battles of Resaca de la Palma, Monterrey and Buena Vista. Indeed, in these battles, effective American artillery proved to be a decisive force. Thomas was brevetted to captain, and then to major.

After being ordered to another assignment in Florida, Thomas returned to West Point in 1851 as a cavalry and artillery instructor. There he formed a close professional relationship with the superintendent, then-Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee. He also met and married Frances Lucretia Kellogg from Troy, N.Y. The couple remained at West Point into 1854, then Thomas served for a year with the 3rd Artillery regiment in California and Arizona. In May 1855, he was assigned to the newly organized 2nd (later 5th) Cavalry Regiment under then-Col. Albert S. Johnston.

Over the next five years, Thomas campaigned actively in Texas. He served for a period as the acting regimental commander and was wounded by a Comanche arrow in a spirited engagement along the Brazos River. He again served alongside Lee as well as with then-Lt. John B. Hood, thenMaj. William J. Hardee and other notable future adversaries.

Thomas went on a leave of absence in November 1860. He was visiting his wife's family in upstate New York as the Union finally unraveled and the Civil War commenced. Over half of the officers in the 2nd Cavalry Regiment resigned their commissions and joined the Confederacy. Thomas was offered a position as Virginia's chief of ordnance. He refused, remained loyal to his oath, and assumed command of the remnant 2nd Cavalry Regiment, then at Carlisle Barracks, Pa.

Those of his colleagues who had "gone South" characterized Thomas as a traitor for remaining loyal to the Union rather than seceding with his state. Thomas's Virginia family is alleged to have disowned him, turning his picture to face the wall, burning his letters, and refusing any help from him for the rest of his life.

Thomas commanded a brigade in the Shenandoah Valley during the First Bull Run Campaign, and then was reassigned to the Ohio Valley. …

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