George H. Thomas was one of the five best commanders on the Union side during the American Civil War. He was extremely competent and skilled. One could easily make a case for him as one of the top three Union commanders (with Grant and Sherman) and note that on a battlefield proper Thomas surpassed Sherman (as did Sheridan, and probably Meade). Sherman’s skills did not include being an especially capable battlefield commander.
So why, one may ask, have some people claimed that Thomas is being denied his rightful place among Union commanders? Why claim that there is (not just was) a conspiracy to denigrate his accomplishment and question his performance? In truth, of course, there is no such conspiracy (I’ve never seen any evidence of it), although one can argue that both Grant and Sherman did not hold Thomas in quite the same high regard as do his most impassioned advocates, some of whom seemed to have derived some of their edge from their postwar political opposition to Grant. After all, most of the areas where Thomas has come under critical examination (Chattanooga, Nashville) can be better understood as a simple lack of chemistry and trust between Grant and Thomas: both men seem to me to be rather prickly and proud in their interaction, and if Grant did not give Thomas the benefit of the doubt that he extended to Sherman and Sheridan, neither did Thomas show the same sort of loyalty to Grant that he extended to Buell and Rosecrans. Most relationships are best understood as two-way streets, and this one simply didn’t work. Moreover, if Grant gracefully conceded that the results at Nashville vindicated Thomas, Thomas never showed a reciprocal generosity.
The relationship between Sherman and Thomas is even more problematic, although, if one studies Sherman, one knows that Sherman expressed reservations about Grant as well, so it was not unlike him to raise questions about his colleagues as if he knew better. I suspect that Sherman fed Grant’s reservations about Thomas, and Grant, recalling that Sherman often presented himself as one of Thomas’s friends, gave those comments more credence; Grant was also able with Sherman to maintain a relationship even as Sherman raised questions about Grant’s ideas, especially during the Vicksburg campaign.
I’ve heard someone raise the possibility on a discussion group recently that the clash over Thomas’s performance might reflect some sort of sectional animus, but there’s absolutely no evidence for that (this fellow tries to see sectional animus in everything). Moreover, in truth it’s something of a one-sided fight, where Thomas’s especially advocates seem rather enamored of their hero as superior to all others. They tend to drawn from the same texts to construct their defense of Thomas, which is always in part an attack on Grant and Sherman (and those who write about them). Thus Benson Bobrick’s recent worshipful account simply rehashes the work of Henry Van Ness Boynton and Donn Piatt, who were among the early leaders of the pro-Thomas movement (in an exchange with me on History News Network, Bobrick proved unable to list any new contribution his Thomas biography had made). Others who have followed this path include Thomas van Horne, Freeman Cleaves, Francis McKinney., and Thomas Buell. They are cheered on by a small but vocal set of internet fans who were rather loud. I can recall a conference near Fredericksburg where someone asked Buell whether Thomas ever had done anything wrong, and Buell responded that nothing came to mind. Bobrick’s passionate and emotional defense of Thomas is in line with that approach (see the comments elicited by his book on Amazon). To date only Christopher Einolf has produced an account that seems dispassionate, and in some cases that was achieved by circumventing controversy.
Apparently this conflict is one over a rather small amount of ground. No one is arguing that Thomas was terrible: far from it. Some people do argue that Thomas was human, made mistakes, and might share some of the responsibility for his flawed relationship with Grant, but those ideas are evidently unacceptable to the Thomas true believers. Others wonder whether a more dispassionate look at Thomas’s battlefield performances might reveal flaws as well as a tendency to exaggerate what did happen, something scholars do for all Civil War generals, but apparently one can’t do this in the case of Thomas without becoming the target of intense abuse from a small circle.
So we are left with the question of why some people make such a fuss over George H. Thomas. Just to raise the question invites some interesting replies. We’ll see.