ECW welcomes guest author Kenly Stewart
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.
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. 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.
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. 
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. “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. 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.” 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. 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.”
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.
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.”
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. 
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. 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
 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.
 Wills, George Henry Thomas, 12.
 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.
 Ibid, 444.
 Gary W. Gallagher, Becoming Confederates: Paths to a New National Identity (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013), 8-34.
 Ibid, 17.
 Einolf, George Thomas, 86.
 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.”
 Frances Thomas, quoted in Henry Coppee, General Thomas (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1893), 36.
 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.
 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.
 Einolf, George Thomas, 287-289.
 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.
 “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.
 Garfield, Oration, 19.
 Quoted in Einolf, George Thomas, 340.