“Time and History Will Do Me Justice”
by: Brett Michael Mills M.A.
Dean of Social Studies
St. Thomas High School
4500 Memorial Drive
Houston, Texas 77007
The contentious events surrounding George Thomas’s Civil War career have received scant attention over the years, much like the man himself. Was Thomas the slow, methodical, mediocre soldier he has often been portrayed? Or, is he deserving of the higher accolades his partisans then and now claim for him? The answer to these questions can be found in the midst of a clash beginning during the war and continuing after Thomas’s death in 1870. An examination of this quarrel will reopen the debate on what type of general Thomas was, and shed light on some of the other key figures of the conflict.
According to biographer Thomas Van Horne in his 1882 work on George H. Thomas, the general stated, “Time and history will do me justice”.1 The time has come to examine whether or not Thomas deserves the “justice” he sought from Clio, remembering that justice is an unbiased adjustment of contradictory claims.
The feud centered on the relationship between Major General George H. Thomas, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, and Lieutenant General U.S. Grant. However, it also included W.T. Sherman and John M. Schofield, both men appearing as prominent players in the drama. All the parties in this dispute were men of high distinction and achievement.
The controversy itself lies mainly in the clash of personalities and army politics. Because Grant, Sherman, and Schofield all outlived Thomas, they were able to get the last words in a dispute that finds its origins at the beginning of the war. Due to this “final say” concerning Thomas, much of what has been written about his abilities and achievements is based on the memoirs of these three men.
The post-war battle over wartime achievements was prevalent in both the North and the South during the 1870s and 1880s. Most of the disputes centered on the various reputations of men whose careers were made or broken by their service during the conflict. The enhancement of reputations was carried out in the plethora of memoirs and newspaper reminiscences published during this time. Although some of the writing during this period is filled with easily ascertained falsehoods, designed to enhance or protect the writer’s reputation, others are filled with far more insidious and subtle attempts to enhance the writer’s reputation at the expense of others. These writings left the reader certain of the veracity of the author’s musings and established some long-held and erroneous beliefs relating to certain principle figures during the war.
The memoirs of Grant, Sherman, and Schofield fall into this later category. Grant’s memoirs were an attempt to establish his legacy after a failed presidency. Sherman and Schofield’s works were attempts to crown a lifetime of military achievement. However, much of their work is filled with errors, falsehoods, and deceptions that were included to erase the possibility of future generations finding fault in their conduct.
Much of the neglect Thomas was subjected to over the course of the last century is a direct result of a subtle campaign by the Grant clique after Thomas’s death in 1870. Thomas’s Civil War reputation was battered in memoirs, first by Sherman, then Grant, and later Schofield. Each of the men characterizing Thomas variously as deliberate, slow in mind and in action, and not possessing a high degree of activity of the mind. Although each of the men was careful to add something about the loyalty and character of Thomas, the damage was already done. The great esteem with which the country held this triumvirate’s wartime service ensured these memoirs received acceptance at face value by the vast majority of readers. Thomas was dead and had no way to defend himself against their accusations. As a result, the characterization provided by Grant, Sherman, and Schofield is the one generally remembered today.
In an attempt to find “justice” one must present both sides of an argument. A reexamination of the facts is in order so that an impartial judgment of the existing claims can be made. In determining why Thomas was disparaged after the war, one must first look to the beginnings of the controversy between the four men. By examining the relationship of these men at critical points throughout the war one can determine why Thomas was attacked after his death. Doing so sheds light on the personality of all involved and reveals a great deal about the character of the men who won the war. More importantly, it establishes a base for the better understanding of the relationships, politics and conduct of the war.
The Foundations of Controversy
The foundation of the problems between Thomas and the others can be traced to the ante-bellum institution of the army. The pre-war army was one where politics played a significant role in promotion and duty assignments. The small nature of the service insured familiarity among the officers serving. If an officer did not know another officer personally, he was sure to know his reputation. By examining the pre-war careers of Thomas, Grant, Sherman, and Schofield it is easy to discern why future relationships became so strained.
George H. Thomas was a native of Virginia and graduated from West Point in 1840. Thomas’s ante-bellum career was filled with a variety of assignments in both artillery and cavalry. He saw combat in Florida, Mexico and in Texas before the Civil War. In addition, Thomas spent time at West Point as an instructor and pursued a number of scientific endeavors. Thomas was an extremely well-rounded and experienced officer, who was on the rise at the outset of the war.
“By such pursuits, in connection with unflagging professional study,
he made full preparation for his subsequent career as a general. And
when other leading commanders made mistakes when he did not, the fact
may be attributed to their inferior natural ability and inferior professional
attainments. It was not expected that generals, although graduates of West
Point, who had given strength of manhood to civilian pursuits, would equal
one who had devoted himself continuously and earnestly for twenty-four years
to the complete mastery of the science of war”2
Ulysses Simpson Grant graduated from West Point in 1843. Grant later related in his memoirs that he despised his years at the academy and his biographer William S. McFeely explained: “He liked neither West Point nor peacetime army posts. It was war itself, not army life, that aroused Grant.”3
Grant’s prewar career had not marked him as an officer on the make. Actually, other than being brevetted for bravery in Mexico, Grant’s army career was a failure. While serving on the West Coast in the 1850s, Grant became bored, lonely and despondent because of separation from his family. According to various sources Grant began to drink heavily. This and other factors occasioned his resignation from the Army in 1854.4
Grant was also a failure in the civilian world, clerking in his father’s store when war broke out. The contrast between the pre-war experiences of Grant and Thomas is sharp, and would later result in a good deal of animosity between the two men. As a result of the differences in their backgrounds others would later claim: “that in Thomas’s presence, Grant was ill at ease and embarrassed, as if he recognized in his subordinate a man of stronger and loftier character.”5 While this characterization seems strong, it does provide insight into Grant’s character, a man driven to succeed after his earlier failures and fearful of those who would tarnish his wartime success.
William Tecumseh Sherman graduated from West Point with Thomas in 1840. Sherman’s time in service was characterized by a variety of administrative posts. Unlike Grant and Thomas, he did not see combat in either Florida or Mexico. Sherman left the army in 1853, and after various stints as a banker and a lawyer, he received the post of superintendent at the Alexandria Military Academy (the future Louisiana State University). Sherman was a brilliant man with a nervous energy about him. He differed from the formal Thomas considerably in both his unkempt appearance and manners. But, the two were on friendly terms at the outbreak of hostilities, having maintained contact since their academy days.
John M. Schofield was the youngest of the four men, and the least experienced. He graduated from West Point (1853) after being dismissed for a year because of misconduct. Schofield explained the episode as: “an event…which very nearly proved fatal to my prospects, and I have often wondered that it did not have some effect on my hopes.”6 The young cadet was reinstated after receiving assistance from Senator Stephen Douglas, who personally went to the Secretary of War on his behalf. This event takes on additional importance in the future relationships between Schofield and Thomas because the later served on the board voting for Schofield’s dismissal. The later enmity Schofield demonstrated toward Thomas most likely found its origins in his dismissal.7 Apparently, the incident did not affect the prospects of Schofield, who was later appointed as a philosophy instructor at West Point in 1855. While working at West Point Schofield became enamored with the pursuits of physics and astronomy. Schofield would later write, “My taste for service in the line of the army, if I ever had any, was gone…”.8 In 1860 the war found Schofield as a professor of physics at Washington University.
Schofield’s limited pre-war service centered mainly on academic pursuits and only a cataclysmic event like the Civil War could have returned him to duty. A harbinger of the future relationship between Schofield and Thomas is illustrated in Schofield’s writing: “The hardest lesson I had to learn (while at West Point) was to submit my will and opinions to those of an accidental superior in rank who, I imagined, was my inferior in other things.”9
There is no doubt that Thomas was aware of these men’s pre-war careers, or their reputations. It was a personal insult for many of the regular officers to see men who left the army, upon reentering the service, receive similar or higher rank than them. This mortification increased when these officers knew the failed pasts of many of their new brother officers. Thomas like other career officers looked down on most of the men who achieved their Civil War posts due political patronage. Unfortunately for future relationships, Grant, Sherman, and to an extent Schofield, were recipients of political patronage throughout the war.
Unlike other officers in the Federal army, Thomas was politically inept. Thomas was never quite able to grasp the importance of maintaining good relations with civilian authorities, who he felt meddled in Army affairs. While modern in his approach to warfare, Thomas was very much the gentleman soldier of the 18th century in regard to his belief in honor, chivalry, and relations with brother officers. He expected volunteer officers to engage in politics, but for Thomas it was disgraceful for a graduate of West Point to do so.
Grant’s ability to understand the true relationship between civil and military authorities, coupled with the patronage of Congressman Elihu Washburne, helped him achieve overall command of Union forces. His working relationship with Lincoln provided the Union forces the synergy needed to take the war through its final phases.
Sherman also possessed a keen understanding of the political arena and had backers within the Byzantine world of Washington politics. His father-in-law, former Senator Thomas Ewing, and his brother Senator John Sherman ensured political support, and kept him abreast of the political pulse of the nation. His letters before and during the war are filled with musings and opinions on currents in American politics. Unlike his friend Thomas, Sherman was no political neophyte and understood the political nature of the conflict sweeping America in the 1860s.
“Schofield was an adept politician with a flair for cultivating the right connections. Indeed his army career reflected his polished social aptitude.”10 Schofield used his political acumen throughout the war, resulting in the patronage of the President himself, who pushed Schofield’s confirmation as major general of volunteers through the Senate.11 Unlike Thomas, Schofield believed in the importance of cultivating political allies and using those allies to help him advance.
Reputations and politics sewed the seeds of conflict before any of the men had an opportunity to interact in their new roles. The proud Thomas had difficult accepting that men like Grant and Sherman could advance so high after mediocre ante-bellum careers. “No doubt Thomas shared the opinion of many, in and out of the Army, that Grant was a man of careless habits who had strangely come to the front by good fortune rather than by the display of great ability.”12 James Wilson, who served under both men, recalled: “ I have always been inclined to think Thomas, having graduated higher at West Point, entered a more scientific arm of the service and served personally with great distinction, regarded himself a better soldier than Grant, and that he thereby, perhaps unconsciously, resented Grant’s assignment to duty over him.”13 The feelings were mutual and Grant reciprocated Thomas’s disdain with his own.
As for Sherman and Schofield, Sherman entered the war counting Thomas as his friend. Problems between the two would not become apparent until later in the war, after the careers of Grant and Sherman became intertwined. Schofield harbored resentment toward Thomas because of the West Point incident, and this resentment would increase after Schofield was sent to serve under Thomas during the Nashville campaign. Reading between the lines of Schofield’s memoirs, it is apparent he felt he was intellectually, if not soldierly, superior to Thomas.
Perhaps the later controversy was inevitable due the vast differences in the men’s pre-war careers. Many of the initial problems can be traced to Thomas’s preconceived notions of the men, although it must have been hard for a career officer to see men of questionable military ability rejoin the army at the same rank it had taken him over twenty years to accomplish.
The Controversy Builds at Corinth
When comparing U.S. Grant and George Thomas the prevailing conception is that of two extremely different personalities. In reality these two men had a good deal in common in regard to their personalities. “In many ways Thomas and Grant were similar. They were men who presented an impassive, stoic, almost stolid countenance to the world, but deep inside them was a core of sensitivity. As with many men of similar temperaments, perhaps for that reason, there was a complete lack of sympathy between the two men which was to manifest itself later in several small, but significant incidents.”14
The enmity between Grant and Thomas has generally been traced to one of two incidents. The first involved Grant’s removal and replacement by Thomas after the battle of Shiloh (1862) and the second revolved around the affairs culminating in the destruction of Bragg’s army at Chattanooga (1863). Before examining these two incidents, it may be suggested the ill-feelings the two developed for each other may have had its start in the Fort Donelson and Mill Springs campaigns. Both men vied for men, material and recognition from the convoluted command structure in the western theater. This created a bit of a rivalry that became exacerbated by the events following Shiloh.
The battle of Shiloh was the bloodiest battle of the war up to that point. The country was shocked by the casualty figures and both Lincoln and Grant’s superior, Major General Henry Halleck, looked for answers in the days following the battle. Halleck had for some time thirsted after overall command in the western theater, and viewed the events surrounding Shiloh as an opportunity to achieve this goal. He had already attempted to remove Grant by spreading accusations of drinking and failure of duty after the Fort Henry and Fort Donelson campaign, but when he failed at these attempts he was forced to maintain his successful subordinate. After word of Shiloh reached him, Halleck (ever the opportunist), went south to investigate rumors Grant was drunk during the battle. This was precipitated when Secretary of War Stanton sent him a telegram asking, “whether any neglect or misconduct on the part of General Grant or any other officer contributed to the sad casualties that befell our forces.”15 Although he publicly sustained Grant, Halleck took the opportunity to rid himself of this threat to his influence. Grant was “promoted” to second-in-command of the Federal forces then advancing on Corinth. Replacing Grant as commander of the Army of the Tennessee was George Thomas.16 Among Thomas’s new division commanders was William T. Sherman.
The situation was appalling to Grant who later recalled, “My position was so embarrassing in fact that I made several applications during the siege to be relieved.”17 To make matters worse, General Halleck spent the majority of his time with the Thomas’s command throughout the advance on Corinth. According to McKinney, Halleck played the role of spiteful hostess who makes a fuss over one guest in order to emphasis her neglect of the other. Halleck was overly solicitous of Thomas’s advice to the exclusion of Grant’s.18 Sherman remembered the scene years later in his memoirs:
“…I found him seated at a campstool, with papers on a rude camp table;
he seemed to be employed assorting letters, and tying them up in red tape
in convenient bundles. After passing the usual complements, I enquired
if it were true that he was going away. He said, ‘Yes.’ I then inquired the
reason and he said, ‘Sherman you know. You know that I am in the way
here. I have stood it as long as I can, and can endure it no longer. ‘”19
According to Sherman, he convinced Grant to stay and the result was the establishment of an enduring friendship between the two for the rest of the war.
Thomas initially seems to have been unaware that he was been used by Halleck to remove Grant. However, once the realization was made, Thomas requested removal from Grant’s old command. According to Thomas’s biographers, Thomas felt Grant was wronged in regard to rank, as he was Grant’s junior in date of rank. Thomas felt the issue of rank and Grant’s former relationship with the Army of Tennessee made Grant’s claim to command superior to his own. Thomas’s personality and strict adherence to military propriety did not allow him to supersede a man he felt deserved the position based on seniority. Unfortunately, the damage in the two’s relationship was done.
Due to Halleck’s attempts to have him relieved, Grant, who at that time possessed the best combat record in the west, was feeling insecure about his future. “Evidently his resentment turned from Halleck, who was solely responsible for the situation to Thomas who had succeeded him in command of his army. The war correspondent Shanks of the New York Herald observed that the ill feeling between the two generals ‘grew out of the anomalous situation’”.20 Colonel Henry Stone agreed stating in 1895, “Undoubtedly here (in the advance of Corinth) began that misunderstanding between the two generals which has never been cleared up.”21 Grant blamed Thomas for his removal, believing he somehow maneuvered it, and it wasn’t until years later that he learned of Halleck’s duplicitous behavior.22
The ill-feelings between Thomas and Grant grew exponentially during the Chattanooga campaign, marking Sherman’s more active role in the later controversy. Sherman firmly attached himself to Grant’s rising star during the siege of Vicksburg and Grant, for his part, was grateful for the support and loyalty Sherman demonstrated during his dark days at Corinth. Grant was anxious to see his friend Sherman rise with him as he scaled the heights of the Federal army.
Thomas served under Major General William S. Rosecrans throughout the Tullahoma campaign, culminating in the battle of Chickamauga. It was his brilliant defensive action there that earned him the sobriquet “Rock of Chickamauga” and saved the Federal army from a complete disaster. However, the Army of the Cumberland was besieged in Chattanooga after the battle leaving Lincoln and his advisors frantic to retrieve the situation.
In response to the situation in the west, Grant received overall command of the theater, while Sherman replaced him as commander of the Army of Tennessee. On October 19, 1863, Grant ordered Thomas to assume command of the Army of Cumberland. Stanton gave Grant the authority to maintain Rosecrans or replace him with Thomas, and he quickly chose Thomas. “While he held no special fondness for Thomas, Grant cared even less for Rosecrans.”23 Upon giving Thomas command in Chattanooga, Grant sent the following telegraph to his subordinate:
Major General Thomas Louisville, Oct. 19, 1863 –11:30p.m.
Hold Chattanooga at all hazards. I will be there as soon as possible. Please inform me how long your present supplies will last, and the prospect for keeping them up.
Thomas responded, “I will hold the town till we starve.”25 “Doubtless Thomas’ reply to Grant had been brief and abrupt because he was irked over the fact Grant believed it necessary to order him not to retreat. It was almost an insult to the sensitive Thomas that Grant felt he must issue such an order.”26 Once again issues of personality were to affect the already strained relations between the two men.
Grant moved to Chattanooga in order to take overall command, arriving on October 23. His arrival and subsequent meeting with Thomas on the night of the 23rd has been presented by many as the event that established the future sour relationship between the two men for the rest of the campaign and war. However, much of what was written about the meeting was shaped by the writings of Colonel James Wilson, then a member of Grant’s staff. Much of Wilson’s account can be discounted after one compares it to the other versions of the meeting. According to Wilson, Grant arrived late on that evening, wet and exhausted, enduring the journey after being injured when his horse fell. The new commander’s clothes and boots were soaked from the weather, but no one on Thomas’s staff offered him a dry uniform. Wilson observing the situation said, “General Thomas, General Grant is wet and tired and ought to have some dry clothes, particularly a pair of socks and a pair of slippers. He is hungry besides, and needs something to eat, can’t your officers attend to these matters for him?”27
Horace Porter, a member of Thomas’s staff, remembered the event much differently. “As soon as Grant had partaken of a light supper immediately after his arrival, General Thomas had sent for the general officers and most of the members of his staff to come to headquarters. A member of Thomas’s staff quietly called that officer’s attention to the fact that the distinguished guest’s clothes were pretty wet and his boots thoroughly soaked with rain after his long ride through the storm and intimated that colds were usually no respecters of persons. General Thomas’s mind had been so intent upon receiving the commander, and arranging for the conference of officers, that he entirely overlooked the guest’s travel-stained condition…all of his old-time Virginia hospitality was aroused and he at once begged his newly arrived chief to step into a bedroom and change. The general thanked him politely, but positively declined to make any additions to his personal comfort, except to light a fresh cigar.”28
Wilson has received a reputation for expanding his own role in events and he seems to have done so in regard to this meeting, placing himself at the forefront of the incident. Porter ended up serving the rest of the war on Grant’s staff and it would seem that had Thomas intentionally ignored Grant, Porter would have reported it. Grant mentioned nothing about the incident in his memoirs and ended up staying with Thomas at his headquarters for a number of days following the incident, so he must not have felt Thomas was being intentionally rude to him.29
The nature of the two men’s animosity lies more with exchanges of their respective staffs than it does with the initial meeting. However, Thomas’s coolness toward his superior was apparently evident. “Thomas’s feeling was so marked that it was adopted by his staff as the model for their official relations with Grant’s headquarters. As a result, transactions between the two chiefs-of-staff deteriorated in several instances to personal rudeness. Friendly cooperation between the two staffs was never established.”30 Both Thomas and Grant can be held accountable for this lack of cooperation among staffs.
William D. Whipple (West Point –1851) replaced the gregarious James Garfield when Thomas assumed command from Rosecrans, and the light atmosphere of headquarters was replaced by a serious professionalism. Whipple was a “crusty, but capable regular officer whose pedantic objections to Rawlins’ (Grant’s chief-of-staff) instructions in the coming weeks were tinged with gratuitous rudeness.”31 Rawlins was deeply loyal and personally very close to Grant, leaving little doubt that Thomas’s staff behavior was related to his chief on a regular basis.
To make matters worse, Sherman and his Army of the Tennessee were brought in to “rescue” the beleaguered Army of the Cumberland. Grant wanted his loyal subordinate and old command to take the glory for the coming battle. This caused a great deal of animosity among the men of Thomas’s army. “Grant incurred the active dislike of the Army of the Cumberland by complaints and hints that without his old command, the Army of the Tennessee, Chattanooga was in a hopeless condition.”32 Sherman’s army was to destroy Bragg’s right flank while Thomas and Hooker demonstrated against his center and left flank.
Despite Grant’s later claims to the contrary, the battle did not go as planned. Sherman was stopped cold by Patrick Cleburne’s division on the right, and Thomas’s men, much to Grant’s chagrin, scaled Missionary Ridge, winning the battle in dramatic fashion. After the assault Grant was quoted as saying “Damn this battle, I had nothing to do with it.”33
During the fight, there had been a great deal of tension between Thomas and Grant, exacerbated by Rawlins who, with his ability to scold Grant, “forced [him] to react harshly during the attack on Missionary Ridge.”34 One can surmise that Rawlins, who was already fighting with Thomas’s staff, did not care for the slow manner in which Thomas carried out Grant’s “suggestions” throughout the battle. Worried about his superior’s image he scolded Grant enough that Grant became angry with Thomas. This was especially prevalent when the Army of the Cumberland charged up Missionary Ridge, seemingly without orders.35 Despite the Army of Cumberland’s success, “Thomas lost more than he gained at Chattanooga. Grant came away with an impression of him as slow and argumentative, an opinion that time would not mellow.”36 Likewise Thomas also left Chattanooga with a negative impression, believing Grant was too much of an improviser, leaving too much to chance and a general who risked the lives of men unnecessarily.
Atlanta and Nashville Campaigns
Grant’s victory at Chattanooga elevated him to the post of General-in-Chief of the Federal army, with the rank of Lieutenant General. Grant did not forget those who were loyal to him. Wanting someone who was loyal and trustworthy as his commander in the western theater, he promoted William T. Sherman as his replacement to command the Division of the Mississippi. Sherman’s appointment was surely disappointing to Thomas, but not surprising to him. Sherman’s loyalty had paid off and he received the recognition and authority he long sought. He and Grant’s fortunes were now intertwined like never before. Thomas’s recent victories were ignored; however, he did retain command of the Army of Cumberland as it took part in the advance on Atlanta.
The campaign and capture of Atlanta is perhaps one of the best-executed Federal movements of the war, with Thomas and his army playing a pivotal role. “ Thomas, in command of the Center, was given one of the most difficult roles in the art of war. He was to move straight into Johnston wherever he might be and fight him cautiously and persistently.37 The complexities of the role arose from the fact that he was to pin down an enemy equal in strength to his own without exactly knowing where that force was located. While doing this, the Army of the Cumberland was to provide an impenetrable wall which, in safety, the services of supply could function. Thomas was to hold Johnston so tightly in position that he could not change front to repel a flank attack by McPherson or Schofield. He had the responsibility of keeping Johnston from breaking the Union line, enveloping it, or turning its flank.”38 In other words, Thomas was responsible for the safety of the army and for providing a foundation in which the two wings could then perform flanking movements on the enemy. Due to the nature of the assignment, and as a result of the size of Thomas’s army, it proved difficult for him to move with the same type of speed as the flanking forces.
Thomas and his army performed their task with great distinction throughout the campaign, but not without raising the ire of the impatient Sherman. Sherman complained to Grant about the speed of the advance and blamed its slowness on Thomas, “My chief source of trouble is with the Army of the Cumberland which is dreadfully slow. A fresh furrow in a plowed field will stop an entire column and all begin to entrench. I have again and again tried to impress on Thomas that we must assail and not defend.”39 Sherman’s words reinforced Grant’s already established impression of Thomas, and since the correspondence was private, Thomas had no way to defend himself. After analyzing Thomas’s assigned task and the skill in which he conducted it, Sherman’s attacks seem blatantly unfair, and reinforce the idea Sherman was loyal to only one man – Grant.
Sherman’s attacks on Thomas were a way to shift blame for the inevitably slow progress the army was making in light of the upcoming presidential elections. Lincoln needed a victory and it reveals a good deal of Sherman’s mentality and character that his letters to Grant at this time are full of criticisms of Thomas, McPherson, and Schofield, but absent of any acknowledgement of failures on his part (Snake Creek Gap and Kennesaw Mountain are two examples). Sherman portrayed himself as the aggressive and audacious commander, whose only fault was the sloth of his subordinates.
After the capture of Atlanta (Sept. 2, 1864) Sherman prepared to march a portion of his force through Georgia and on to the coast, allowing John Bell Hood’s army to remain in his rear. Sherman was unable to destroy Hood’s army in the aftermath of the Confederate evacuation of Atlanta. However, he managed to convince Grant and the administration of the importance of his “March to the Sea” and, despite a good deal of trepidation on their part, his plan was approved. As part of their approval, Sherman was required to provide an ample force for the defense of Tennessee. Sherman readily agreed and placed George Thomas in command of this force.
Grant accepted Sherman’s assurances of providing ample forces in his rear without any attempt at verification. This led to serious problems for Thomas during the campaign. In addition, Grant approved Sherman’s plan over the misgivings of the President and Secretary Stanton. If Sherman or Thomas were to fail, the responsibility would lie with Grant. The horrendous casualties suffered by the Army of the Potomac during its spring campaign, in combination with a failure in the west, might prove disastrous to Grant’s personal fortunes.
Unfortunately, Sherman did not provide Thomas with the ample force he promised; instead Thomas was forced to cobble together an army. Sherman states in his memoirs, “it was all important to me and to our cause that General Thomas should have an ample force, equal to any and every emergency.”40 Instead, Sherman left Thomas with Stanley’s IV Corps of 15,000 and Schofield’s XXIII Corps of 12,000 to provide the 27,000 man veteran foundation for Thomas’s army. However, Sherman did not take into account the fact that 15,000 officers and men of this force received furloughs to vote in the presidential election and others were mustered out because of expiration of their terms of enlistment. They were replaced by 12,000 raw troops in newly formed regiments. In addition Sherman had stripped these corps of most of their transportation and artillery in order to fill his army’s needs as it advanced through Georgia.41 Thomas was left with virtually no cavalry, artillery, or logistical support for the troops he was left with.
Sherman also promised Thomas the use of A.J. Smith’s XVI Corps (10,000 men), but they did not arrive in Nashville until November 30 (less than 24 hours before the arrival of Hood at the city). Sherman also credited Thomas with 16,000 troops in Nashville and 10,000 cavalrymen, although in fact, the Nashville troops were actually civilian members of the Quartermaster Department and the cavalry were dismounted as a result of being forced to give their healthy mounts to Kilpatrick, who accompanied Sherman.42 Thomas was forced to rely on units from throughout the Department of Cumberland and beyond to establish a semblance of an army. He did not have cavalry in sufficient numbers and lacked war material of all varieties. Most importantly, he had very little time to bring his army together, organize and equip it.
From the beginning of Hood’s Nashville campaign, Thomas was under intense pressure to stop the Confederate offensive. “Probably no other commander ever under went two weeks of greater anxiety and distress of mind than General Thomas during the interval between Hood’s arrival and his precipitate departure from Nashville. The story is too painful to dwell upon, even after the lapse of twenty-three years.”43
Despite intense pressure from Grant and the threat of removal during the campaign, Thomas insisted on preparing and organizing his force to his satisfaction before engaging Hood. While Thomas organized the army at Nashville, Schofield in command of the IV and XXIII Corps, managed to inflict extensive damage on Hood’s army at the battle of Franklin (Nov. 30, 1864). The events of Schofield’s role during the battle remain controversial. Schofield was later accused of not retreating from his exposed position at Columbia when ordered and of not personally directing the fighting at Franklin, instead, leaving the direction of the battle to his subordinates (while taking credit for himself).44 According to General Steedman, Schofield had nothing to do with the planning of the battle as he latter claimed, nor did he participate actively during the battle.45 More importantly for the campaign and future controversy, Schofield blamed Thomas for not reinforcing him at Franklin, and according to Thomas partisans, conspired to have him relieved (with Schofield gaining the command).46 If these accusations are true, it would leave one to suspect that Schofield would later have a powerful motive to discredit Thomas in an effort to deflect scrutiny from his own actions.
Regardless of Schofield’s role and despite the constant badgering of Grant and the threat of impeding relief from command, Thomas managed to win what is arguably the most decisive victory of the war. Hood’s army was destroyed as a fighting force and the Confederate threat in the west was ended. Despite his great victory, Thomas had been greatly vexed by Grant’s treatment during the campaign. Wilson, then serving as his cavalry chief later recalled a conversation with his superior: “Wilson, the Washington authorities treat me as if I were a boy. They seem to think me incapable of planning a campaign or fighting a battle.”47 Grant’s subsequent slow recognition of Thomas’s well-deserved promotion and poor recognition of the Nashville victory also hurt Thomas deeply.
As a result of Thomas’s great victory at Nashville, he was stripped of what remained of his command, serving the final months of the war in relative obscurity. Grant effectively shelved Thomas and began the process of chipping away at his wartime reputation. Grant realized that had Nashville turned out differently, both he and Sherman would have been ruined. Thomas would later pay the price for the anxiety he caused both men during this period.
Attacks on Thomas’s reputation began just before his death in 1870. Schofield wrote a letter critical of his performance during the Nashville campaign in a fashion worthy of a Machiavellian (he wrote it anonymously). Thomas (who had discerned the author’s identity) was in the process of replying, claiming, “It is an outrageous article, and as a military criticism is ridiculous, and easily answered…”48 when he died from heart problems. Unable to defend his honor, his death opened the door for first Sherman, later Grant, and finally Schofield to further mar his reputation in their memoirs.
These men sullied Thomas’s military reputation for the simple reason that they wished to establish and then present their wartime records unsullied for future generations. The relationship between Grant and Thomas was a difficult one, and in Grant’s opinion the Virginian had caused him unnecessary anxiety in the later stages of the war. Sherman had clearly fixed his career on the ascending star of Grant and would present nothing to tarnish either of their reputations. Schofield was writing long after the war and attempted to carve out a place in history that did not belong to him, if that reputation could be advanced at the expense of Thomas, so much the better. None of these men were alone in their efforts to record their own particular version of the war; it had become a cottage industry during the 1870s and 1880s. However, what makes their work so damaging was the esteem they were held by the American public. Grant’s work is considered by many to be a literary classic. As a result, their memoirs held more weight than others and the damage to Thomas was enumerable. All three men had fine war records, but their attempts to present error free careers borders on extreme egotism. This is unfortunate because it detracts from contributions of each of the men, however it reminds us of the complexity of human nature. The real victim of course was Thomas, and despite the best efforts of his many defenders, has never really received the justice he deserved from history.
While Thomas was often deliberate in his preparations, he saved men’s lives and was successful in every battle he fought. His record should be examined in its entirety and objectively with consideration to why Grant, Sherman and Schofield tarnished that record. Thomas’s greatest fault was perhaps his finest attribute; he was not a political general. He paid dearly for this throughout and in the years after the war.
Thomas was a man whose career suffered because of his southern birth, yet despite the disadvantages placed before him contributed greatly to the successful conclusion of the war. In the final analysis Thomas is deserving of his rightful place in history, along with Grant and Sherman. Perhaps John Bell Hood put it best, “Thomas is a grand man. He should have stayed with us, where he would have been appreciated and loved.”49
1 Thomas Van Horne, The Life of Major General George H. Thomas, (New York: 1882), p. 1.
2 Thomas Van Horne, The Life of Major General George H. Thomas, (New York: 1882), p. 18.
3 William S. McFeely, Grant: A Biography, (New York: 1981), p. 16.
4 The question of Grant’s drinking has been surrounded by such a great deal of myth and second-hand testimony that the true nature of his affliction is difficult to ascertain. Most recent scholarship indicates Grant was an alcoholic who was able to control his affliction. Anderson, Kevin, “Grants Lifelong Struggle with Alcohol” Columbiad: A Quarterly Review of the War Between the States (2:4, Winter 1999)
5 Clarence Edward Macurtney, Grant and His Generals, (Freeport, New York: 1953), p. 2
7 Francis F. McKinney, Education in Violence: The Life of George H. Thomas and the History of the Army of the Cumberland
, (Chicago: 1991), p. 54.
8 John M. Schofield, Forty-Six Years in the Army, (Norman, Oklahoma: 1998), p. 30.
9 Ibid., p. 6.
10 Wiley Sword, The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville, (Lawrence, Kansas: 1992), p. 99.
11 John M. Schofield, Forty-Six Years in the Army, (Norman, Oklahoma: 1998), p. xv.
12 Donn Piatt and H.V. Boynton, General George H. Thomas: A Critical Biography, (Cincinnati: 1893), p. 12.
13 James Wilson, Under the Old Flag: Recollections of Military Operations in the War for the Union, the Spanish, the Boxer Rebellion, ect, Vol. 1. (New York: 1912), pp. 273-274.
14 Richard O’Connor, Thomas: Rock of Chickamauga, (New York, 1948), p. 171
15 Stephen Ambrose, Halleck: Lincoln’s Chief of Staff, (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: 1990), p. 45.
16 Thomas actually assumed operational command of the “right wing” of Halleck’s newly reconstituted army. The right wing included most of Grant’s old army.
17 Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, (New York, 1982), p. 196.
18 Francis F. McKinney, Education in Violence: The Life of George H. Thomas and the History of the Army of the Cumberland, (Chicago: 1991), p. 138.
19 General William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, (New York: 1984), p. 255.
20 Richard O’Connor, Thomas: Rock of Chickamauga, (New York, 1948), p.172.
22 William S. McFeely, Grant: A Biography, (New York, 1982), p.120.
24 U.S. War Department, The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 volumes. (Washington DC: 1880-1901), Serial 53, p. 479. Hereafter cited as O.R.
25 O.R., Serial 53, p. 479.
26 Richard O’Connor, Thomas: Rock of Chickamauga, (New York: 1948), p. 227.
27 James H. Wilson, Under the Old Flag: Recollections of Military Operations in the War for the Union, the Spanish, the Boxer Rebellion, ect., Vol. 1. (New York: 1912), p. 273.
28 Horace Porter, Campaigning with Grant, (New York: 1897), p. 4.
29 Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, (New York: 1982), p. 313.
30 Francis F. McKinney, Education in Violence: The Life of George H. Thomas and the History of the Army of the Cumberland, (Chicago: 1992), p.275.
31 Peter Cozzens, The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: The Battles for Chattanooga, (Chicago: 1994), p. 46.
32 Richard O’Connor, Thomas: Rock of Chickamauga, (New York, 1948), p. 237
33 Ibid., p. 252.
34 Peter Cozzens, The Shipwreck of Their Hopes: The Battles for Chattanooga, (Chicago: 1994), pp. 247-248
35 The following exchange was reported by Brevet Brigadier General Joseph Fullerton (General Granger’s chief-of-staff). “As soon as this movement was seen from the Orchard Knob, Grant quickly turned to Thomas, who stood by his side, and I heard him say angrily: “Thomas, who ordered those men up the ridge?” Thomas replied in his usual slow, quiet manner: “I don’t know; I did not.” Then addressing General Gordon Granger, he said, “Did you order them up Granger?” “No,” said Granger; “they started up without orders. When these fellows get started all hell can’t stop them.” General Grant said something to the effect that somebody would suffer if it did not turn out well, and then stoically watched the ridge. He gave no further orders. Robert Underwood Johnston and Clarence Buell, editors, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 4., (Secaucus, New Jersey: 1983), p. 725.
36 Peter Cozzens, Shipwreck of Their Hopes: The Battles for Chattanooga, (Chicago: 1994), p. 392.
37 Sherman explained Thomas’s role in a message as: “Thomas will aim to have forty-five thousand men of all arms, and move straight against Johnston, wherever he may be, fighting him cautiously, persistently, and to the best advantage.” April 10, 1864. General William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Vol. 2, (New York: 1984), p. 28.
38 Francis F. McKinney, The Life of George H. Thomas and the History of the Army of the Cumberland, (Chicago, 1994), p. 317.
39 Brooks Simpson and Jean Berlin
, editors, Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865
, (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: 1999), p. 655.
40 General William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Vol. 2, (New York: 1984), p. 126.
41 Stephen Z. Starr, Grant and Thomas: December, 1864, (Cincinnati: 2001), p. 3.
42 Ibid., p. 4.
43 Colonel Henry Stone, a member of Thomas’s staff wrote this after the war. Robert Underwood Johnston and Clarence Buell, editors, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 4, (Secaucus, New Jersey, 1983), p. 454.
44 “It was Generals Stanley and Cox who commanded the troops on the field, while General Schofield, who now seeks to rob the brave and skillful officers who were with the troops and commanding them of the honor due them, was on the north side of the Harpeth River, two miles from Carter Hill, where the battle was fought”. General James B. Steedman wrote this and it appeared in the New York Times in 1881. Richard O’Connor, Thomas: Rock of Chickamauga, (New York: 1948), p. 378.
45 Richard O’Connor, Thomas: Rock of Chickamauga, (New York: 1948), p. 377.
46 Freeman Cleaves, Rock of Chickamauga: The Life of General George H. Thomas, (Norman, Oklahoma: 1948), p. 259.
47 James Wilson, Under the Old Flag: Recollections of Military Operations in the War for the Union, the Spanish, the Boxer Rebellion ect., Vol. 1, (New York: 1912), pp. 101-102.
48 Frank Palumbo
, The Dependable General: George Henry Thomas
, (Dayton, Ohio: 1983), p. 390.
49 Freeman Cleaves, Rock of Chickamauga: The Life of George H. Thomas, (Norman, Oklahoma: 1948), p. 296.