The Anti-Lee: George Henry Thomas, Southerner in Blue

ECW welcomes guest author Kenly Stewart

George Thomas shown among the higher echelon of Union commanders. Library of Congress.

On August 21, 1831, a reckoning fell upon Southampton County, Virginia. Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher turned prophet and zealot, led one of the largest and deadliest slave rebellions in American history. Years of enslavement, family separations, and physical torture ushered in the day declared by the Prophet Jeremiah centuries earlier: “For this is the day of the Lord God of hosts, a day of vengeance, that he may avenge him of his adversaries: and the sword shall devour, and it shall be satiate and made drunk with their blood.” Using fear as a force multiplier, Turner and his followers indiscriminately killed white men, women, and children. Facing almost certain death, one fifteen-year-old, George Henry Thomas, with his widowed mother and siblings, fled the family plantation for safety.[1]

After witnessing such carnage, one may wonder if Thomas ever questioned the inhumane system that resulted in such an outpouring of violence. Nothing in his pre-war background suggests Thomas opposed the institution his family was deeply embedded in. “He did not outwardly question the validity of the slave system in which he had grown from childhood,” writes Brian Steel Wills.[2] Yet thirty years later, he chose a path that saw him help finish Turner’s war on slavery. By doing so, Thomas established himself as the anti-Robert E. Lee.

Born July 31, 1816, in Southampton County, Thomas was a native Virginian and southerner just like his better-known contemporary, the ever-controversial Lee. However, whereas Lee remains well known today, apart from students of the American Civil War, Thomas is little remembered. Thomas’s modern obscurity would surprise no one more than his colleague and sometimes rival, William T. Sherman. In 1887 Sherman rebuked a claim made by British general Garnet Wolseley, First Viscount Wolseley (one of the foremost British generals of the era who became the Commander-in-Chief of all Forces). Wolseley, who had met Lee in 1862, argued:

when Americans can review the history of their last great rebellion with calm impartiality, I believe all will admit that General Lee towered far above all men on either side in that struggle. I believe he will be regarded, not only as the most prominent figure of the Confederacy, but as the great American of the nineteenth century, whose statue is well worthy to stand on an equal pedestal with that of Washington, and whose memory is equally worthy to be enshrined in the hearts of all his countrymen.[3]

Sherman vehemently denied this claim by first reviewing the successes of Grant and then contrasting Lee to Thomas:

I offer another name more nearly resembling General Lee in personal characteristics, General George H. Thomas, probably less known in England, but who has a larger following and holds a higher place in the hearts and affections of the American people than General Lee. He, too, was a Virginian…When the storm of civil war burst on our country, unlike Lee, he resolved to stand by his oath and to fight against his native State, to maintain the common union of our fathers. [4]

As Sherman hinted, Thomas and Lee came from strikingly similar backgrounds. Both were natives of Virginia, born to prosperous, slaveholding families. Each graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and spent the entirety of their pre-Civil War careers in the U.S. Army. Each served with distinction during the Mexican War. The early 1850s found them back at West Point, Thomas as an instructor and Lee as superintendent. There they developed a personal friendship. By the late 1850s both were officers in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry on the Texas frontier. Their divergence came during the trying early months of 1861.

Soon after the surrender of Fort Sumter, Lee declined President Lincoln’s offer to command the main U.S. field army (Winfield Scott, another Virginian, commanded the entire U.S. Army in the early months of the war). Lee resigned his commission on April 20, 1861, and quickly offered his services to Virginia which soon thereafter seceded to join the Confederacy. Thomas faced a similar decision, being offered high ranking positions in the military forces of Virginia. He declined these offers and refused to resign his commission. Thomas and Lee’s respective decisions reflected internal conflicts of clashing loyalties that thousands of Americans faced.

Gary W. Gallagher argues Lee had three “levels of loyalty” before the war, namely, loyalty to Virginia, the United States, and Southern slave society.[5] “He strongly identified with the slaveholding South, and this loyalty, which aligned nicely with his sense of being a Virginian, helped guide him in the secession crisis,” notes Gallagher.[6] Lee’s loyalty to Virginia and Southern slave society eventually trumped his loyalty to the U.S., led to his resignation, and quickly developed into a fourth source of loyalty, the new Confederacy.

Thomas held similar beliefs to Lee argues Christopher J. Einolf noting both, “thought of themselves as Southerners, and both based their decisions on the particularly Southern moral values of honor and duty.” The difference came in the direction Thomas’s sense of “honor and duty” pointed. For Thomas “his oath as an army officer and the debt he owed his country were more important than his feelings of affection for his family and native state.”[7] And while emancipation and abolition were not official policy in 1861, Thomas knew serving under a Republican administration would, at the very least, entail restrictions on slavery. As the war transformed from a war for the Union to one dedicated slavery’s destruction, Thomas transformed as well.

Friends cursed Thomas and family disowned him following his decision. “I would like to hang, hang him as a traitor to his native state,” coldly proclaimed his former student and army comrade J.E.B. Stuart.[8] Thomas’s sisters turned his picture to the wall and broke off communication with him. Despite such heavy personal sacrifices, “whichever way he turned the matter over in his mind,” Thomas’s wife Frances later reflected, “his oath of allegiance to his Government always came uppermost.”[9]

Contributing to his modern obscurity, Thomas spent most of the war in the Western Theater, not the Eastern where the myth of Confederate military invincibility under Lee took root. Ironically, Thomas’s most storied moment came during the Battle of Chickamauga, one of the few major Union defeats in the west.

At Chickamauga on September 20, 1863, the last day of the second bloodiest battle of the war, an inadvertent gap in the Union line combined with a massive Confederate infantry assault shattered the Army of the Cumberland. Thomas rallied broken units and held back multiple attacks, ensuring the safe retreat of the rest of the army. In 1870 former Union Major General and future U.S. President, James A. Garfield, summarized Thomas’s leadership during the battle:

While men shall read the history of battles, they will never fail to study and admire the work of THOMAS during that afternoon. With but twenty-five thousand men, formed in a semi-circle of which he himself was the center and soul, he successfully resisted, for more than five hours, the repeated assaults of an army of sixty-five thousand men, flushed with victory, and bent on his annihilation.[10]

Garfield has traditionally been credited with bestowing upon Thomas his famous nickname, “The Rock of Chickamauga.” A rock, Garfield noted, “against which the wild waves of battle dashed in vain.”[11]

Thomas’s greatest victory came at Nashville in December 1864, where he achieved one of the most complete victories of the entire war. Nashville also contains another layer of significance. Thirty-three years after fleeing Nat Turner’s Rebellion, this white Southerner’s command included thousands of African Americans. “For the rest of his life, Thomas strongly supported civil, political, and legal equality for Africans Americans,” Einolf writes, showing the courage shown by these soldiers profoundly changed Thomas. [12]

Thomas continued to serve a wounded nation during the early years of Reconstruction as commander of the Department of the Cumberland which included all of Tennessee and parts of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.[13] Dedicated to protecting the civil rights of newly freed persons, he used military courts when local courts failed to protect them and authorized early military action against the KKK. Thomas extended grace to his former foes but exhibited no patience for early apologists of the Confederacy. “Everywhere in the States lately in rebellion,” Thomas noted bitterly in 1867, “treason is respectable and loyalty odious. This the people of the United States, who ended the rebellion and saved the country, will not permit, and all attempts to maintain this unnatural order of things will be met by decided disapproval.”[14]

With their fates seemingly destined to be intertwined, Thomas died of a stroke on March 28, 1870, with Lee dying seven months later. Thomas never produced a memoir and burned most of his personal papers, but his role as the anti-Lee was widely noted. Garfield proudly announced that “unlike Lee, when the supreme hour of trial came, he [Thomas] rose to the full height of the great occasion, and, esteeming the sanctity of his oath and the life of the Republic more precious than home, or kindred, or State.”[15]

George Henry Thomas statue in Thomas Circle. Wikimedia Commons.

A statue of Thomas was unveiled in Washington D.C in 1879. It still stands in the center of the eponymous Thomas Circle today. Numerous former Union generals, President Rutherford B. Hayes (himself a former Union general), and thousands of veterans attended the dedication ceremony. Sherman delivered a speech containing a bold prediction:

The day is coming, gentlemen of Virginia, of North Carolina, of South Carolina, of Alabama, when you and your fellow-citizens will be making their pilgrimage to this magnificent monument…and say that there was a man who, under the tumult and excitement of the times, stood true and firm to his country, and that he is a hero, and that brave George Thomas will become the idol of the South.[16]

Alas, Sherman’s prediction has not come true. Thomas, the Southerner in blue, remains the South’s forgotten son. Yet as the anti-Lee, Thomas can be a source of inspiration for a new generation of Southerners. We need figures to be proud of, while finally discarding the toxic myths of the Lost Cause. Lee remains the central figure in this myth, and the claim he had no choice but to side with Virginia over the U.S. is crucial to the narrative. Thomas disproves this simplistic claim, revealing there was nothing preordained or inevitable about Lee’s decision.

While his achievements on the battlefield were legion, Thomas deserves to be honored for remaining loyal to his country at great personal cost, fighting to preserve the Union, and helping ensure the emancipation of millions in bondage. His efforts after the war protecting the civil rights of African Americans also deserves wider recognition. If the city of Richmond decides to replace Lee’s statue with someone else, Thomas presents an ideal candidate.

____

About Kenly Stewart: I am a freelance writer and historian in Fayetteville, NC. Completed my undergraduate degree in history at Campbell University and graduated with my Master’s of Divinity from Wake Forest University. I’ve been hooked on the Civil War since visiting Bentonville Battlefield when I was six. 

[1] Christopher J. Einolf, George Thomas: Virginian for the Union (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007) and Brian Steel Wills, George Henry Thomas: As True as Steel (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2012) are the two most thoroughly researched biographies of Thomas. This article relied on both.

[2] Wills, George Henry Thomas, 12.

[3] William T. Sherman, “Grant, Thomas, Lee.,” in The North American Review, Vol. CXLIV, ed. Allen Thorndike Rice (New York: Allen Thorndike Rice, 1887), 437. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/chi.22084553.

[4] Ibid, 444.

[5] Gary W. Gallagher, Becoming Confederates: Paths to a New National Identity (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013), 8-34.

[6] Ibid, 17.

[7] Einolf, George Thomas, 86.

[8] J.E.B. Stuart, quoted in Einolf, George Thomas, 99. Einolf notes “In the original letter, one can see where the ink smudged as Stuart bore down hard on his pen in writing and underlining the word ‘hang.’ There is little doubt that he meant it.”

[9] Frances Thomas, quoted in Henry Coppee, General Thomas (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1893), 36.

[10] James A. Garfield, Oration on the life and character of Gen. George H. Thomas, (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co, 1871), 32. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/loc.ark:/13960/t8w95kc20.

[11] Ibid. Mark Grimsley has noted the origins of Thomas’s famous nickname are uncertain and was not used in newspapers before 1869. Therefore Garfield is unlikely to have bestowed the nickname during the war. See Grimsley, “Rock of Chickamauga,” American Iliad, The Civil War Monitor, September 20, 2019, https://www.civilwarmonitor.com/blog/rock-of-chickamauga.

[12] Einolf, George Thomas, 287-289.

[13] Mark L. Bradley, The Army and Reconstruction, 1865-1877 (United States: Center of Military History, United States Army, 2015), 12, https://history.army.mil/html/books/075/75-18/index.html.

[14] “General Orders No. 21 Headquarters Department of the Tennessee,” United States Congressional serial set, Volume 1324 (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1868), 198, https://books.google.com/books?id=Y3ZHAQAAIAAJ.

[15] Garfield, Oration, 19.

[16] Quoted in Einolf, George Thomas, 340.

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17 Responses to The Anti-Lee: George Henry Thomas, Southerner in Blue

  1. John Pryor says:

    What is truly tragic in the narrative is that the core loss that Thomas suffered, the love of his family and the respect of many of his peers, predated any Lost Cause narrative. It was independent of any decision that Lee or other border state white southerners made. Indeed, Lee didn’t even.rise to prominence as a counterweight until years later. The author unfortunately backfills in history, with its postwar anger and despair, and fails to truly understand that there were many lonely decisions being made in Virginia in the spring of 1862. They were just as difficult, and personally sustainable, as Thomas’s. And I personally would have stood with the Rock

  2. darylmcdonald0208 says:

    An excellent article on a true patriot and fourth best General on both sides after Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan. Traitor butcher Lee is much farther down the list for failing to resign and continuing the war after Lincoln’s re-election by which time everyone knew further loss of life was a useless sacrifice. The reputations of both men are still affected by the myths of the Lost Cause.

  3. navyblue77 says:

    thank you Kenly. This is terrific essay about a great American and one worth remembering. While many of his brothers from slave-holding states took up arms against their nation, Thomas remained true to his oath of office, a lifetime oath for everyone who has taken it. Garfield and Sherman got it that right in their eulogies as Thomas kept his promise to the nation and made the right call, while others did not. He was a man of trememdous phyical and moral courage. And, of course, The Rock was part Lincoln’s war winning team — Lincoln as commander in chief, Grant as general in chief, Halleck as chief of staff (that’s right folks, props to Old Brains as a highly effective COS) and Meade, Sherman, Thomas and Sheridian as army commanders — unbeatable! Is there another installment of Southerners in Gray in the works — Farragut or Scott perhaps? Thanks again and well done.

  4. John Pryor says:

    I hope the administrators are noticing one of the results of these simplistic good guy/bad guy we virtuous, he evil types of absolute paradigm postings: a precipitous decline in responses? The initial posting is so locked in moral judgment that why would one bother post a contrary or more deliberate reflection?

    And Meg, Grant, if only indirectly through his subordinate Meade, wasn’t playing with Lee until 1864. With a much larger field force, superior logistics, infrastructure, and putatively manpower, he so squandered these advantages, and wrecked the offensive capacity of the AOP, that the notorious Mr Lee was able to force him into a near 10 month long siege. The war was not won, nor Lincoln reelected, in front of Richmond. Ironically, as much as I loathe Lee bashing, it is easy to admit it may have been won the day Thomas made his lonely decision to stay with the old flag.

    • Todd Berkoff says:

      Grant wrecked the offensive capacity of his army?? How about what Lee did to the ANV? Lets crunch the casualties of Lee’s time in command of the Army of Northern Virginia. By percentages, Lee suffered on average 20 percent casualties in the major battles he fought or about 121,000 men lost, the most number of casualties of any commander. At the Battle of Chancellorsville, for example, Lee lost 22 percent of his army, while Hooker’s army lost 12 percent. Chancellorsville, although technically brilliant, secured no ground for the Confederacy and resulted in no strategic benefits and the death of Stonewall Jackson.

      At Gettysburg, Lee’s army lost over 30 percent casualties and resulted in no strategic gain for the Confederacy.

      During the Overland Campaign, Lee’s forces lost over 50 percent casualties, comparable to Grant’s forces, and yet Lee gained no strategic advantage over Grant. It was a matter of time before the cities would be captured and the ultimate surrender of Lee’s army.

      Compare this to any of a number of US strategic victories at New Orleans, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Cedar Creek, to name a few. While Lee focused on heroic warfare and dramatic charges, Grant/Sherman/Thomas/Halleck focused on grand strategy and the big picture.

    • Dan says:

      “…the notorious Mr Lee was able to force [Grant] into a near 10 month long siege…”

      Yeah, I’d bet that was not really Lee’s plan.

    • Hello John … i am glad you posted your “deliberate reflection” … like you, i could do without the name-calling and the “holier than thou” moral exculpation from authors … insults and moralizing from the comfort of 21st century aren’t arguments … while the author’s essay could have been just as good, perhaps better, without “anti-Lee” in title, it is after all a “free country” … i trust you are not calling for censorship.

      Now without name calling or asserting my moral superiority, here’s my deliberate, and hopefully respectful, response to you. Sure, Grant and superior resources, but so what … the United States had more of everything the entire war … but they also had a much higher bar for victory … unlike the Confederate States, where a tie was as good as win, the United States had to conquer territority the size of western Europe to prevail … and in all my reading, i don’t ever recall the Confederate States ever loosing a battle or a campaign because they didn’t have enough of something … finally, our great country was founded by the side that absolutely had less of everything in their fight against the British.

      Regarding your comment about a wrecked AOP, Grant had a tough time making good his losses after the Overland Campaign, but i think most careful readers would disagree the AOP was ever constrained offensively. Meade and Grant blew their initial opportunity in front of Petersburg with poor tactical execution, but the siege was a result of bad United States generalship and not anything Lee did, other than hustle the ANV south after Beauregard held-off the Yanks.

      Finally, i agree that the war was not won in front of Richmond, nor was United States victory inevitable … it was instead the result of the deep contingency historians write about — “big” historical outcomes depend of thousands of little events — like Thomas’ decision. However, i do think Lincoln’s reelection had something to do with two big contingent events — Sheridian’s decisive victories in the Valley and Sherman’s successes in Georgia.

      i enjoyed reading your comments.

  5. Glen Robertson says:

    Another simplistic anti-Southern essay. The attempts to justify Nat Turner’s butchery are particularly disgusting. I grew up in Southampton County. I respect both George Thomas and William Mahone who also grew up there and faced with this monumental decision chose differently. But I don’t give a damn bit of respect to a murderous madman. Nat Turner was evil. If this self-righteous little twit ever faced a crisis as great as the one these men faced in 1860 I would hope people 161 years later wouldn’t be so cavalierly judgmental about the choice made. Maybe ECW needs to raise its standards. This essay was lightweight virtue signaling trash.

    • Dan says:

      Nat Turner was no more evil than those who enslaved him.

      • John Foskett says:

        And therein lies the problem. Anybody who looks at Turner in isolation is pursuing an agenda. Nobody in his/her right mind defends murder, etc. But nobody in his/her right mind ignores the brutal system that fomented these rebellions, either. It’s the same as anybody criticizing the actions of the Dakota in Minnesota in 1862 without recognizing the evil, corrupt system that led to that rebellion. Posturing righteous outrage at what Turner did while remaining silent about the brutal slavery system that created the conditions for his uprising deserves zero credibility.

    • mark harnitchek says:

      Perhaps ECW will respond to you … and maybe they should … in the interim, here are their standards for essays:

      — Any and all topics on the Civil War
      — Must be the author’s original work
      — No more than 1,500 words
      — Sources must citied using Chicago or MLA format

      Mr. Kenly met those standards … is your comment about the need for “ECW … to raise its standards” a call for censorship of Mr. Kenly’s right of free expression … sure sounds like it … and i thought southern VA was a bastion for the defense of personal liberty.

      Here’s a thought … follow the same standards and submit a thoughtful rebuttal, without the name calling of course.

  6. Bob Huddleston says:

    No, George Thomas was not discriminated against during the War. Indeed, he did quite well. His promotion record during the Civil War is a part of this discussion.

    Promotion in the regular army was by regimental seniority through the rank of captain, then by branch of service (i.e., infantry, artillery, etc.) through the rank of colonel. General officers were promoted by the direct action of the president. All Regular Army promotions were subject to the approval of the Senate, but this was, for non-general officers, pro forma. At the end of 1860, Thomas was roughly the seventy-fifth officer in terms of seniority in the United States Army.

    Col. Robert E. Lee, First Cavalry, resigned on April 25, 1861, causing a chain reaction of promotions: a lieutenant colonel to colonel, and a major to lieutenant colonel, and a captain to major. Lt. Col. John Sedgwick moved up to Lee’s position and the senior major in cavalry (cavalry, mounted rifles and dragoons were all separate for field officer promotions until their consolidation in August), George Thomas, Second Cavalry, was promoted lieutenant colonel. When Col. Albert Sidney Johnston, Second Cavalry, resigned as of 3 May, the same thing happened and Thomas succeeded Johnston as colonel of the Second Cavalry.

    The War now being well under way, Thomas was promoted to brigadier general, United States Volunteers, on August 17, 1861, to rank from the same day. His nomination was submitted to the Senate on December 6 and confirmed on February 3, 1862. Like Grant and Sherman and a host of others, this was made to provide more general officers. Had Thomas been at First Manassas he would have been promoted in July and been confirmed by Congress meeting in the First Session of the Thirty-sixth Congress. It was pure bad luck that Thomas was serving with Patterson – or, indeed, good luck for Thomas that he was not forgotten as a result: and the good luck came from the attention shown to him by the two Shermans, the future general and the senator.

    On June 8, William Tecumseh Sherman wrote to his brother Sen. John Sherman about Cump’s journey east. In the letter he mentioned to John, who was then with Patterson, that

    “There are two A no. 1 men there—Geo. H. Thomas Col. 2nd Cavy.—and Capt. Sykes 3 Inf.—mention my name to both, and say to them that I wish them all the success they aspire to, and if in the varying chances of war I should ever be so placed I would name such as them for high places—But Thomas is a Virginian from near Norfolk, and Say what we may he must feel unpleasant at leading an invading army—But if he says he will do he will do it well—He was never brilliant but always Cool, reliable, & steady—maybe a little slow. Sykes has in him some dashing qualities—Shepherd was a Classmate of mine—we never liked him much, but I am told he a good soldier. It is now 21 years since we graduated, and they are in their prime.”

    It is so trite to echo Uncle Billy’s slams on politicians, but most politicians I have encountered over the years, Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, care very much for their country and for the job they are doing. And they make conscientious efforts to select the very best people they can find for a job.

    John Sherman was one of this type and I would imagine he did look up Thomas, Sykes and Shepherd and when the time came for promotions to general Thomas and Sykes had a friend in Sen. Sherman.

    On March 6, 1862, the President submitted to the Senate the names of Thomas and four others for promotion to major general of volunteers (Thomas) and brigadier general of volunteers (the others), citing their service at Mill Springs. Following the normal procedures, the nominations were considered in committee, reported favorably and Thomas was confirmed on April 25. He was appointed the next day to rank from April 25.

    But these promotions came after Donelson and meant that Thomas remained junior to Grant (date of rank, February 16) and Rosecrans, Buell, John Pope, Samuel Curtis, Franz Sigel, John McClernand, Charles F. Smith, and Lew Wallace (all February 21), and Ormsby Mitchel (April 11)

    To carry the story to the end of the war, on October 27, 1863, Thomas was appointed brigadier general in the Regulars. His name was submitted to the Senate on December 31, 1863 and confirmed on February 29, 1864. On December 12, 1864, he was nominated by the president to be a major general in the regulars, confirmed on January 13, and commissioned on January 16, to rank from December 15, 1864. The importance of these two promotions was that Thomas, along with a handful of others, now was guaranteed a job in the army as a general officer after the “hostilities only” war-time volunteers had been mustered out.

    Of the two million men who wore blue in the Grand Army of the Republic, George Thomas ended the Civil War as number six, ranked only by Grant, Halleck, Sherman, Meade and Sheridan. Considering that he was a Southerner, and commanded in only one major battle, it was not a bad record.

    And considering that Grant or Sherman could easily have derailed him, if either or both had been “jealous” of his record — well, it is obvious they were not jealous, but recognized his undoubted ability, perhaps better than Thomas did himself — after all, Thomas had turned down earlier opportunities to command.

    • Dan says:

      Very well said. Thomas was treated in a way commensurate with his abilities. He was a solid subordinate, and he was rewarded in promotions and commands.

  7. 14corps says:

    A well done and greatly needed article on General Thomas. He died young at 53 only five years after the war and unfortunately did not get a chance to write his memoirs.

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