George Henry Thomas was born in 1816 to a plantation and slave owning family in Virginia, just hardly out of North Carolina. George’s father died in 1829, leaving Thomas’ uncle to do the fatherly duties in George’s life. Thomas would frequently break the Virginia law making it illegal to teach enslaved peoples to read and taught his families 15 enslaved peoples to read. When Thomas was 20 years old, standing almost six feet tall, he was appointed to West Point. Here, he earned the nickname “Old Tom” because he was much older than his peers. One of those peers and his roommate was William Tecumseh Sherman. In 1840, Thomas graduated from the academy ranking 12th in his class. After he graduated, he was granted a commission as a second lieutenant in Company D, 3rd U.S. Artillery.
Then, war with Mexico broke out at the urging of presidents Tyler and Polk. During the Mexican-American War, Thomas served with future Confederate general and opponent Braxton Bragg under Zachary Taylor. Here, Thomas received an honorary promotion to captain. This resulted from his actions at the Battle of Monterrey. After this promotion, Thomas received a brevet to major for his actions at Buena Vista.
After America defeated Mexico and peace was settled, in 1851, Thomas was given a position as a cavalry and artillery instructor at West Point under Robert E. Lee. Lee was not the only future Civil War general he would encounter at West Point. Thomas instructed J.E.B. Stuart, John Schofield, John Bell Hood, and William Rosecrans. It was here that Thomas earned the nickname “Old Slow Trot.”
Then, with the election of Abraham Lincoln, the secession of Southern states, and the firing of Fort Sumter, the Civil War began and Thomas, though a Virginian, decided to remain with the Union. His family would never forgive him for this decision and backlash spread. Thomas’ former student, J.E.B. Stuart wrote “I would like to hang, hang him as a traitor to his native state.”
In the early stages of the war, Thomas led a brigade to victory against Thomas Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. Following this victory, in 1862, Thomas defeated a Confederate force at Mill Springs, Kentucky. Thomas continued to build his reputation as a Corps commander in the Army of the Cumberland at battles such as Stones River. As the Civil War progressed, Thomas made his name for his famous stand at the Battle of Chickamauga, which we will analyze later on in this article. This resulted in his replacing Rosecrans as the general of the Army of the Cumberland.
Following the war, Thomas was given command of the Department of the Cumberland in Kentucky and Tennessee. In addition, he was also given command of West Virginia, parts of Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. Here, Thomas attempted to protect freedmen from attacks on their freedoms and rights. In 1869, he requested to be moved to command of the Department of the Pacific. In 1870 in San Francisco, Thomas died from a stroke.
The city of Chattanooga played a critical role in the western theater of the American Civil War. The city sat on the banks of the Tennessee River and flowed through the Appalachian Mountains. The city was the crossroads for four different major railroads. This railroad junction became a focal point for Federal operations in the west because, if captured and severed, Confederate supply lines in the west would be decimated.
By the summer of 1863, the Confederate high tide was receding. Willliam Rosecrans had successfully executed the Tullahoma Campaign, outflanking Bragg’s army and forcing them to abandon Chattanooga. Having successfully executed these flanking maneuvers, Rosecrans believed that Bragg would retreat to Rome, Georgia. In response, Brag divided his army into three corps and spread them out across Tennessee and Georgia. However, Rosecrans had made a major mistake as Bragg had not retreated to Rome but had instead focused his men at LaFayette, Georgia. Bragg received 9,000 men under Simon Bolivar Buckner and detachments from Joseph Johnston. Launching from LaFayette, Georgia, Bragg followed the Federal Army of the Cumberland north and engaged with them at Davis’s Cross Roads.
On September 18, Bragg took his force to the west side of Chickamauga Creek. He planned to position his troops between Rosecrans’ army and Chattanooga. Bragg may have been able to smash the Federal corps individually had his move not been delayed by infighting within his subordinates on the 11th and 13th. However, they did delay and Rosecrans was given a chance to move his force back from an exposed position to the passes through Missionary Ridge and concentrate his divided corps.
On September 18, skirmishes broke out between the Union infantry and mounted infantry and the Confederate infantry. That same day, Bragg also received reinforcements under John Bell Hood, the first of Longstreet’s troops to arrive. Had Bragg engaged in full force that day, he likely would have crushed the one army corps that was stationed at Chickamauga. However, Union cavalry with carbine rifles held the Confederates at bay. The next day, September 19, cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest clashed with a brigade from Thomas’ corps. Troops were fed into the fighting until a full scale battle had broken out. Thomas’ men were situated in a curved line along the Lafayette Road and faced the most intense fighting of the battle. The Union line was initially pushed back nearly a mile but eventually regained their position when McCook’s corps arrived.
Then, near midnight, Bragg received more reinforcements when Longstreet finally arrived. Bragg then put the left wing of his army under Longstreet and the right under Leonidas Polk. The next day, on the 20th, Pope pushed back the Federal right. In response to this, Rosecrans moved a brigade to the left from the right wing of the army believing that a gap had developed in the Federal line. This created a gap in the Federal line that Longstreet smashed through. McCook’s command collapsed and McCook’s and Crittenden’s corps retreated back to McFarland’s Gap. Rosecrans retreated with the corps and their commands, abandoning the rest of his army.
Thomas at Chickamauga
On the night of the 18th, Thomas sent his men on a forced march to strengthen and protect the Union left. This was critical for the protection of the Army of the Cumberland.
On the second day of battle, Thomas extended his lines to the north from Lee and Gordon’s Mill. This line extended to Kelly Farm. On the 19th, Thomas sent troops from Kelly Farm to attack and defeat what Thomas believed to be an isolated and small Confederate force. However, upon reaching the Confederate force, they quickly learned that they were facing Confederate cavalry. This led to a major engagement that occupied the fighting for the rest of the day.
Thomas’ real fame was earned on the third day of the battle, the 20th. Rosecrans’ decision to move a brigade under Thomas J. Wood created a gap in the line that the Confederate force under James Longstreet exploited. This sent most of the Union army into a frantic retreat.
The only Union force to not retreat with Thomas’ corps. George Thomas began to consolidate the scattered Federal troops on Horseshoe Ridge and Snodgrass hill. Thomas received help from Gordon Granger who was in command of the reserve division of Federals situated in the rear of the Union army. Here, Thomas and his men withstood Confederate assaults on three sides and held fast till nightfall. Then, without the support of the rest of the army, they were forced to retreat through McFarland’s Gap to Rossville. This stand earned Thomas the nickname, “The Rock of Chickamauga.
Thomas made a brave stand that would solidify his reputation as a general and earn him the position of commander of the Army of the Cumberland following Ulysses S. Grant’s promotion and decision to relieve Rosecrans of command. Thomas stood strong at Chickamauga and saved the entire Federal army there from destruction. One could argue that Thomas saved the war in the west for the Union army as he allowed the Federals the chance to concentrate at Chattanooga and eventually smash their way out, repulsing Bragg’s army from the mountains around the city.
Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson. Pg. 672-74