Editor's note: This article was
originally published in The Charger in the Fall of 2000.
In the winning of battles no other
commander in the Civil War, North or South, equaled the slow moving,
keen-minded Virginian, George H Thomas. In January, 1862 he won the
first battle in the west at Mill Springs. In December, 1864 he won
the last battle in the western theatre at Nashville--the only battle
of the war in which the defeated army was totally broken up, never
to again assemble. In the three year interval he served under (and
as the right hand man) to General Buell at Perrysburg, General
Rosecrans at Stones River, General Grant at Chattanooga, General
Sherman on the Atlanta campaign -- all Union victories in which
Thomas played a major role.
Only once in the war did he suffer
defeat, but his courageous and skillful action in it earned him a
sobriquet for the rest of his career and in the history books -- The
Rock of Chickamauga. In October, 1863 the Union army was strung out
in a north to south five mile line on the west side of Chickamauga
Creek, opposed by a slightly larger army under Gen. Braxton Bragg.
Seeking to find a weakness, the Confederates attacked through the
heavy undergrowth all the first day without success. Thomas’
divisions held the left (northern-most) wing which was the critical
position; if it should crack, the entire Union army would be cut off
from its base in Chattanooga. He was opposed by divisions under Gen.
(and bishop) Leonidas Polk. Thomas’ men did not crack.
On the second day, the bloody
carnage was resumed. The positions remained unchanged until around
noon when the inexplicable and disastrous order came to Gen. Wood
from Rosecrans to pull his division out of line. Longstreet’s men
poured through this gap, the blue divisions on either side crumpled,
and in short order the entire right (southern) wing was in
disorganized retreat, fleeing along with Rosecrans and his staff for
Sixty percent of the army was out
of action. Thomas saw what had happened and what must be done. He
ordered his divisions to fall back a short distance to higher
ground. He faced two of them south and reordered his artillery. He
called up Gen. Granger’s reserve corps and absorbed through the
lines numbers of broken regiments from the ongoing catastrophe. The
entire Confederate army tried for the rest of the day to break up
this patched-up force and failed. When night came the troops quietly
withdrew and marched in good order back to Chattanooga. Gen. Grant,
in overall command in the west, ordered Thomas to take over from the
discredited Rosecrans. In another month Thomas’ divisions would
charge up Missionary Ridge and change the character of the war in
|The Battle of
Chickamauga as depicted in Harpers Weekly, October, 1863
What was there in this man to make
him so successful, to make his soldiers so respect him, to compel
his commanding generals to so rely on him? We cannot in this brief
piece spell this out as it should be. (And it is lamentable that
with the surfeit of Civil War books published in recent years the
latest biography of Thomas dates to the 1960’s.) A few brief
anecdotes must suffice.
Thomas was methodical and he was
always prepared for battle. Perrysville was fought during a severe
drought. Water was scarce as the armies came together on the night
before the battle. Thomas marched his men six miles to where men and
horses had adequate water and then aroused them at 3 AM to get back
to the battlefield. His men were able to perform that day as no
others in either army.
On the first day of the battle of
Stones River the Confederates crumpled the Union line and put it in
a precarious position. At the evening staff meeting various generals
consulted on how they might detach and retreat. Thomas' opinion was
sought. “This army don’t retreat” he rumbled. Then what can be done?
“Tomorrow the rebels will hit our left flank. Right now move every
piece of artillery to the left.” It was done, the next day’s attack
was broken up, and Bragg was forced to retreat.
At Nashville, Thomas flatly refused
to attack Hood until the horses promised for his cavalry were on
hand. His delay so infuriated General Grant that he sent one of his
corps commanders west to relieve Thomas. But the horses arrived and
by the time Grant’s man got to Nashville the battle was on and the
Southerners suffered the most overwhelming defeat of the war.