Question of the Week for May 26, 2014

Would George Thomas have been a better selection to lead the Union armies in Georgia, in 1864, rather than William T. Sherman? Question submitted by Philip Leigh.

Major General George Thomas

Major General George Thomas

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8 Responses to Question of the Week for May 26, 2014

  1. Amanda Warren says:

    Thomas was definitely a better general all around. But Sherman was a prized member of Grant’s clique which is what elevated him into his position. Together with Sheridan and a couple of others, they were certain they were the only ones getting anything done in the Union Army (thus Sherman’s message to Grant which rightfully offended Meade, as described in Chris Mackowski’s recent post). They emphatically clung to an attitude that none of their little cadre could do any wrong, and none outside of it could do anything right.

    Grant and Sherman’s skewed vision prevented them from appreciating Thomas’s abilities. One example is Thomas’s suggestion to advance into Snake Creek Gap. Sherman finally adopted the plan but placed his pet McPherson, rather than Thomas, in command and it was botched. Sherman was mighty forgiving of McPherson’s failure, yet he repeatedly minimized or overlooked altogether Thomas’s achievements, for example at Peachtree Creek. There is no counting how many lives were lost or ruined by the policy of favoritism practiced by Grant et al.

  2. Phil Leigh says:

    Thomas would have done better than Sherman.

    Sherman’s first mistake was ignoring Thomas’s advice about using Snake Creek Gap to attack Johnston’s rear, which was compounded by sending McPherson through the Gap with discretionary orders as opposed to using Thomas who intended to use the route to attack the Rebel rear. As expert Thomas Buell put it, “The Atlanta campaign… would have ended in a week if Sherman had listened to Thomas.”*

    Thomas pointed-out a second Sherman mistake prior to the futile attack on Kennesaw Mountain by explaining to Sherman that the Federal forces were spread to thin to mass a sufficient number to make a breakthrough in the middle of the Rebel line as Sherman intended. Sherman rejected Thomas’s warning by sarcastically responding, “I suppose the enemy intends to surround us with his smaller force.”** As is commonly the case, Sherman presumably used of sarcasm to suppress disagreement because of his own insecurities.

    Grant probably chose Sherman to lead the Atlanta campaign because Grant: (1) feared Thomas as a personal rival, (2) had more experience with Sherman, and (3) was cognizant of the political benefits that might result from General Sherman’s relationship to his US Senator brother. In his definitive analysis of the Atlanta Campaign Albert Castel concludes, “Had Thomas’s personal relationship with Grant permitted him to command in Georgia in 1864, almost surely Union victory would have been easier, quicker, and more complete.”***

    Sherman should have destroyed the Confederate Army of Tennessee at Jonesboro. “During the Atlanta Campaign two opportunities to win [a smashing] victory presented themselves to Sherman…[A]t Jonesboro he had has a second opportunity. He stood with six powerful infantry corps in the midst of weakened, widely separated parts of the Rebel army. Beyond question, he had it in his power to destroy much of the opposing force.”****

    Even more convincing evidence of Sherman’s lost opportunity at Jonesboro are the comments of Confederate Private Sam Watkins, “Every private solider knew that Hood’s army was scattered from Atlanta to Jonesboro…without…any spirit to do anything…I have ever thought that Sherman was a poor general not to have captured Hood and his whole army at that time.” ***** Since the situation was obvious to a mere Private, it should have been obvious to Sherman.

    In his “War Like a Thunderbolt” about the Atlanta campaign Russell Bonds agrees with Watkins and McMurry (and Castel): “[Jonesboro] was a devastating defeat for Hardee and Hood. But it was also another missed opportunity for Sherman, who had been in position to annihilate Hardee’s Corps, or bag it entirely.”


    *Thomas Buell, “The Warrior Generals”, (New York: Crown Publishers, 1997) p. 361
    **Daniel Vermilya, “The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain”, (Charleston, South Carolina: History Press, 2014) p. 79
    ***Albert Castel, “Decision in the West”, (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1992) p. 565
    ****Richard McMurry, “Atlanta 1864”, (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2000) p. 182
    *****Sam Watkins, “Co. Aytch”, (Yardley, Penna.: Westholme Publishing, 2013) p. 228

  3. 14corps says:

    I agree with Phil And Amanda. As early as February 1864 when his scouts found that Snake Creek Gap was undefended, General Thomas formulated a plan to defeat the rebels by interposing his Army of the Cumberland across Johnston’s railroad and line of retreat, then provided Grant a logistically sound plan of quickly getting to Atlanta. Grant fearful of Thomas as a real rival ( Grant has already derailed General Rosecrans), choose his crony Sherman over Thomas even though Thomas was senior, and as his men won the battle of Chattanooga, rated the promotion by army tradition, and knowing that Sherman flopped badly at Chattanooga. This decision to promote Sherman over Thomas was ‘army politics’ at its worst. It would cost thousands of unnecessary lives when mistakes like Kennesaw Mountain are factored.

  4. Bob Huddleston says:

    I think that Thomasites rank well above Lee worshipers in deifying their hero!

    George Thomas was a fascinating man and a very good general.

    He was involved in the Nat Turner revolt in Southampton Virginia as a boy, but outgrew slavery and Virginia, remaining loyal to the Old Flag in 1861. Among his friends was Uncle Billy Sherman, who was probably as responsible as anyone for Thomas receiving his first star.

    At the end of 1860, Thomas was roughly the seventy-fifth officer in terms of seniority in the Army. Four years later Thomas ranked number six in the United States Army, behind only Grant, Halleck, Sherman, Meade, and Sheridan. Not bad company!

    I also have a personal interest in Thomas since my great-grand father, Captain and brevet Major John Scott, Company H, Twenty-fifth Illinois Veteran Volunteers, was one of the Pap’s soldiers in the Army of the Cumberland.

    That said, I must take issue with the idea that Thomas was in any way one of the Great Captains of history, let alone the Civil War.

    First, Thomas commanded in only two battles: Mill Springs, a small (4,500 Federals to about 5900 Rebels) action where the total casualties were about 246 Union to 533 Confederate. Hardly much of a battle, since Thomas was forced to fall back after it was over. Thomas commanded some ten regiments and Crittenden eight; roughly two divisions fighting it out. Thomas casualties were low – but then so were Crittenden’s.

    From Mill Springs, January 19, 1862, until Nashville, almost exactly three years later, Thomas was never in command of a single battle; he was always in the position of having someone immediately over him, as the commander – and his superior officer was the man responsible for the victory or the defeat.

    At Nashville, Thomas commanded about 50 to 60,000 men – against an already nearly destroyed Army of the Tennessee with less than half that number. Thomas’ casualties were in the neighborhood of 3,000. According to Wiley Sword, Hood’s losses were about 2,300 killed and wounded and about 5,000 men captured at Nashville.

    Contrast that with the real victory that made Nashville possible: Franklin.

    Schofield had a force of around 23,000 against Hood’s 29,000. Schofield lost about 2,300 men – but inflicted around 6,200 casualties on the Rebels, including what must have seemed to the Confederates, an entire brigade of generals!

    Given the relative strengths of the opposing sides, Schofield, with a slightly inferior force, took out 3 Confederates for every one he lost. Thomas, two weeks later, facing a dispirited Army of Tennessee, minus the best of its generals, and with the Yankees outnumbering the Rebels two to one, was only able to remove two of the enemy for every one he lost.

    The Army of Tennessee was broken at Franklin, not Nashville.

    The claim “even though Grant hated and belittled Thomas” is also made. I am always amazed when I hear that since all it would have taken was for Grant to say the word and Thomas would not have received the coveted stars in the Regular Army. Some hatred!

    Grant outranked Thomas throughout the war and from Donelson on always was at a higher level of command. Grant was a theater commander when Thomas was still a corps commander: how could Grant, the victor of Donelson, Shiloh, the Vicksburg Campaign, and Chattanooga, have ever been “jealous” or “hate” Thomas?

    I will finish with the comparison that truly counts:

    From the day he took command of the Twenty-first Illinois in June 1861, until the end of the War, Grant was always the immediate commanding officer, with no one nearby outranking him, as he rose from regimental command, to brigade, corps, army, army group, theater and continental command. The only exception was the roughly three months when Henry Halleck tried to prove he was as good a field general as he was a desk one!

    When Thomas was still a subordinate to Sherman, Grant was in command – and responsible for – of all of the United States Army forces from Maine to California. Grant forced three armies to surrender to him. That is a record unparalleled in the Civil War or practically any other war.

  5. joe truglio says:

    I’m in agreement with all on Thomas. My opinion he was the best the Union had and that includes Grants pets Sheridan and McPherson.

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