Why all the Fuss About George H. Thomas?

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.

19 thoughts on “Why all the Fuss About George H. Thomas?

  1. Ray O'Hara May 22, 2011 / 7:25 am

    Have you been peeking in at ACWUSA?
    the problem lies with the over claiming of the Thomasophiles. not only must Thomas be accepted as the BEST ALLTIME one must also accept that the rest were all 2nd raters. Their stridency creates the backlash that hurts Thomas’s rep.

    Sherman didn’t like battles and he sought to avoid them but unlike Joe E or Lil’Mac he would fight.
    It is a sign of his skill that he achieved his objectives and he has entered the ranks of great commanders without a signal battlefield victory.
    He was a throwback to the time of Turenne.

    I don’t see it with Sheridan, no one had more overwhelming numbers than he did at places like Winchester and Five Forks and he almost blew FF.

    Meade was a good battlefield commander and good in general. July 2nd strikes me as the finest tactical performance by any general on either side in the war.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 22, 2011 / 8:35 am

      I’m aware of certain online discussion groups (such as the usenet group) and what is being discussed. I find them amusing, especially when it comes to postmortem analysis of why no one posts any more. Sometimes a post there is well worth discussing here where it can get serious attention from people wise enough not to post there: thus “Othering” has gotten some attention here.

      I think Dispatch Depot at Civil War Talk is a cut above usenet (actually, several cuts). There are doubtless others.

      However, one person’s obsession with what northerners think of “the South” (and how bad northerners are) did not influence the content of my post outside of mentioning that bizarre claim. A serious and competent historian would know how Thomas’s Virginia roots shaped many things about his career, but the debates over his Civil War stature are not one of them.

  2. John Foskett May 22, 2011 / 7:45 am

    A large dose of the modern pro-Thomas movement may be fueled by contrariana – folks who need to appear insightful and objective by finding an “alternative” to the long-glorified images of Grant and Sherman. They seem, however, to just duck certain thorny issues. For example, when Thomas was ordered to succeed Buell in September, 1862 during the Rebel invasion of Kentucky, he begged off with the excuse that the army was in the midst of a campaign, battle might be imminent, and he didn’t know Buell’s plans. This led to the poorly-fought Battle of Perryville a couple of weeks later in which Thomas occupied a role which resembled that of the proverbial potted plant. Suffice to say that his “efforts” on October 8 could be described with the word “pouting” involved. Less than a year later George Meade was thrust into an identical position and could have advanced the same excuses. Yet Meade did his duty and put together what ultimately became a federal victory mere days later. I haven’t read Bobrick’s hagiography, but I’d be surprised if he dealt with this question objectively.

  3. TF Smith May 22, 2011 / 7:59 am

    Putting aside the out and out fans, is it simply that Thomas is the example of a Virginian who did the right thing?

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 22, 2011 / 8:37 am

      Thomas’s fans don’t seem to me to be southern. I don’t see a sectional issue shaping alignments over him.

      • TF Smith May 23, 2011 / 6:21 pm

        The reply I meant to post “here” went south, as it were…


  4. Noma May 22, 2011 / 8:58 am

    I’m not very familiar with the intricacies of the Thomas-Grant-Sherman relationship. I know that Grant was impatient with Thomas at various times, for failing to attack. But in his Memoirs Grant seems to make sure to praise Thomas’s fighting ability as well.

    Is there any correspondence in which Thomas talks about his relationship with Grant and Sherman?

    To me, the big mystery in this controversy, is if Grant and Sherman so much looked down upon Thomas, what explains their response to his death in 1870?

    As Jean Edward Smith describes it:

    …Sherman walked into the president’s office with sad news from the West Coast. The War Department telegraph office had just received a message from San Francisco. “I’m afraid Old Tom is gone,” said Cump. George H. Thomas, commander of the Pacific Division, suffered a massive stroke the evening before and died instantly. Sherman was closer to Thomas than to any other officer. They had been classmates at West Point and they shared a mutual respect that transcended rand or station. Grant was thunderstruck. He had been impatient with Thomas, but he never doubted Old Tom’s ability or determination. Above all, he admired his loyalty to the Union. Thomas’s heroic service during the war was a matter of record.

    What was less well known was his complete dedication to the policy of Reconstruction. As the New York Times noted, though Thomas was a Virginian, “he took the part of the freedmen and hemp them protect themselves. He was the shield of order and society against anarchy and chaos in the South.” …

    Of course, none of Thomas’s blood relatives attended his funeral. They basically severed relationship with him because of his loyalty to the Union. But Grant and Sherman were there, and Sherman gave the eulogy.

    So, if they had so much disdain for Thomas, how can all this be explained. Or is Smith overstating the case when he says that Grant was “thunderstruck” upon learning of Thomas’s death?

    It just seems like a great outpouring for Thomas from Sherman and Grant for someone they supposedly held in contempt. What is the explanation?

    • Tony Gunter May 23, 2011 / 9:07 am

      Thomas asked his wife to destroy all of his papers after his death, so very little personal correspondence survives … which makes Thomas a fairly difficult biographical subject.

      Sherman’s perceived problems with Thomas falls under “never met a finger he couldn’t point.” Sherman was a big talker who loved to project his screwups onto his subordinates. I don’t think this reflected on Sherman’s feelings of affection for Thomas, I think Sherman was just a grade-A jerk and was an equal opportunity supplier of unwarranted abuse.

      I think Grant knew to take Sherman’s complaints with a grain of salt. But Sherman was constantly wiring Grant of problems with the AotC, basically that the AotC would stop and entrench at the sight of a groundhog. The constant harping to Grant had to have an effect, and when Thomas failed to communicate to Grant regularly about his problems at Nashville, Grant reluctantly pulled the trigger.

      It seems that if Grant’s relationship with Thomas was as bitter as presented by Thomasphiles, Grant would have relieved Thomas of his post much more quickly and much more decisively. As it is, Logan’s order to relieve Thomas was full of equivocation, and Grant admitted being in the wrong for it afterwards.

  5. Ned Baldwin May 22, 2011 / 9:15 am

    I am interested in how we can clearly determine the contribution of a commander to a battle and as I try to examine battles I start to wonder if Thomas is really as great as claimed.

    For example, Thomas gets praised by his fans for the success of the charge up Missionary Ridge. The force that did this was definitely part of his command. But what did he contribute to the success of the charge? As far as I can tell, very little.

    Another example is Nashville. Yes, he won great victory there. But Hood’s army was so depleted in strength, leadership and morale, that I have to wonder whether beating him with a larger force should really be a measure of great skill.

    Its not even clear to me why one can definitively say that he surpassed Sherman on the battlefield proper.

    • Tony Gunter May 23, 2011 / 9:20 am

      I see your point, but … Thomas never had a Shiloh (no indications of a general movement in this direction, none at all!), Chickasaw Bayou (failed to ensure that pontoons were placed correctly, but even if placed in time for the assault would have been straight up the gut), a Tunnel Hill (doh! assaulted the wrong hill), or a Snake Creek Gap (massive turning movement without cavalry = fail).

      • Ned Baldwin May 23, 2011 / 12:27 pm

        Thomas had a whole brigade swallowed up in a surprise attack at Hartsville in December 1862. He also had a rude awakening on September 19, 1863 when he sent Brannan to attack what he though was an isolated enemy brigade only to find himself sucked into a general engagement. So perhaps he also had his “Shiloh” moments.

        Thomas also had a time when he too messed up where his pontoons should go — after Nashville he sent his pontoon train off on the wrong road.

        As for Tunnel Hill, I disagree that Sherman attached the wrong hill.

  6. TF Smith May 22, 2011 / 1:09 pm

    I was unclear; perhaps what attracts about Thomas – no matter the background of those attracted today – is simply that he is Lee’s antithesis?

    One expects, in the environment of the US in 1861, for Virginians of a given education and experience to go south; Thomas did not, which makes him somewhat unique, and that alone is enough to distinguish him?

    My personal opinion, for whatever that is worth, is he was a solid defensive commander, a professional, and in some ways, a more “modern” soldier than many of his peers – add the compelling personal story, and he stands out that much more than some of his fellow US army-level commanders by the end of the war.

  7. James F. Epperson May 22, 2011 / 7:34 pm

    The vehemence of the Thomasistas is one of the more remarkable things I have experienced on the Internet. It is belief without logic, the essence of a religious faith.

  8. Tony Gunter May 23, 2011 / 8:41 am

    Still not clear why James B. McPherson never shows up on the cool threads.


  9. Bob Huddleston May 23, 2011 / 11:32 am

    General Joseph J. Reynolds, Thomas’ chief of staff, who had been a classmate of Grant at West Point, told author Hamlin Garland after the war that “there was no feeling between Grant and Thomas” and said Thomas did not mean to be inhospitable [when Grant arrived in Chattanooga]. Thomas had told Reynolds: “Tell Grant to have no hesitancy about giving me orders. I will be ready to obey his every wish.” Reynolds said that the only thing Grant ever had against Thomas was that Thomas was slow. “And,” said Reynolds, using a quaint colloquialism, “it’s the God of Mighty’s truth he _was _ slow.” When he looked back Joe Reynolds could not believe that there was any bad feeling between Grant and Thomas. They were both big men, said Reynolds, and that night in Chattanooga “there couldn’t have been any discourtesy.”
    —- Bruce Catton, _Grant Takes Command _ (Boston: 1969), 40, quoting interview with General Joseph J. Reynolds, in the Hamlin Garland Papers, American Literature Collection, University of Southern California Library

  10. Bob Huddleston May 23, 2011 / 11:43 am

    George Thomas was a fascinating man and a very good general.

    He was involved in the Nat Turner revolt in Southampton Virginia as a boy, but outgrew slavery and Virginia, remaining loyal to the Old Flag in 1861. Among his friends was Uncle Billy Sherman, who was probably as responsible as anyone for Thomas receiving his first star.

    At the end of 1860, Thomas was roughly the seventy-fifth officer in terms of seniority in the Army. Four years later Thomas ranked number six in the United States Army, behind only Grant, Halleck, Sherman, Meade, and Sheridan. Not bad company!

    I also have a personal interest in Thomas since my great-grand father, Captain John Scott, Company H, Twenty-fifth Illinois Veteran Volunteers, was one of the Pap’s soldiers in the Army of the Cumberland.

    That said, I must take issue with the idea that Thomas was in any way one of the Great Captains of history, let alone the Civil War.

    First, Thomas commanded in only two battles: Mill Springs, a small (4,500 Federals to about 5900 Rebels) action where the total casualties were about 246 Union to 533 Confederate. Hardly much of a battle, since Thomas was forced to fall back after it was over. Thomas commanded some ten regiments and Crittenden eight; roughly two divisions fighting it out. Thomas casualties were low – but then so were Crittenden’s.

    From Mill Springs, January 19, 1862, until Nashville, almost exactly three years later, Thomas was never in command of a single battle; he was always in the position of having someone immediately over him, as the commander – and the one responsible for the victory or the defeat.

    At Nashville, Thomas commanded about 50 to 60,000 men – against an already nearly destroyed Army of the Tennessee with less than half that number. Thomas’ casualties were in the neighborhood of 3,000. According to Wiley Sword, Hood’s losses were about 2,300 killed and wounded and about 5,000 men captured at Nashville.

    Contrast that with the real victory that made Nashville possible: Franklin.

    Schofield had a force of around 23,000 against Hood’s 29,000. Schofield lost about 2300 men – but inflicted around 6,200 casualties on the Rebels, including what must have seemed to the Confederates, an entire brigade of generals!

    Given the relative strengths of the opposing sides, Schofield, with a slightly superior force, took out 3 Confederates for every one he lost. Thomas, two weeks later, facing a dispirited Army of Tennessee, minus the best of its generals, and with the Yankees outnumbering the Rebels two to one, was only able to remove two of the enemy for every one he lost.

    The Army of Tennessee was broken at Franklin, not Nashville.

    The claim “even though Grant hated and belittled Thomas” is also made. I am always amazed when I hear that since all it would have taken was for Grant to say the word and Thomas would not have received the coveted stars in the Regular Army. Some hatred!

    Grant outranked Thomas throughout the war and from Donelson on always was at a higher level of command. Grant was a theater commander when Thomas was still a corps commander: how could Grant, the victor of Donelson, Shiloh, the Vicksburg Campaign, and Chattanooga, have ever been “jealous” or “hate” Thomas?

    I will finish with the comparison that truly counts:

    From the day he took command of the Twenty-first Illinois in June 1861, until the end of the War, Grant was always the immediate commanding officer, with no one near by outranking him, as he rose from regimental command, to brigade, corps, army, army group, theater and continental command. The only exception was the roughly three months when Henry Halleck tried to prove he was as good a field general as he was a desk one!

    When Thomas was still a subordinate to Sherman, Grant was in command – and responsible for – of all of the United States Army forces from Maine to California. Grant forced three armies to surrender to him. That is a record unparalleled in the Civil War or practically any other war.

  11. Bob Huddleston May 23, 2011 / 11:50 am

    I am on the road so can not find the exact reference but in the relevant volume of PUSG covering post-Vicksburg is a letter from Halleck to USG telling him that the Washington “promotion” list for the next Regular Army Star is Sherman, McPherson, Thomas and Hancock. I suspect the order was determined by Halleck since the first two were not only Grant protégés, but also Halleck ones! The next three stars did, indeed, go in that order.

  12. Lafe Purcell May 8, 2019 / 3:45 pm

    It’s obvious that most posting here know there history. For my part, I think all sides have a point. Thomas was often undervalued as a General – especially in comparison to the results he achieved. At the same time, most contemporary evidence seems to suggest that while Grant was petty towards Thomas, Thomas in turn had that rare gift of being able to be dismissive of Grant with little more than a look – which certainly wasn’t the politically smart move when it had become clear that Grant’s star was in the ascendant. That undoubtedly crippled Thomas’s career and as a result his reputation. Every time he was given the opportunity , he routinely bested his opponents. Unfortunately by fueling the alienation from Grant, he ensured he was rarely given the opportunity. In a way, you have to respect him for being “true to his lights”. On the other, you have to wonder whether this was a result of pride rather than a genuine disdain for Grant’s abilities.

  13. Adriana Pena May 29, 2019 / 5:57 am

    The main complaint that Grant seems to have had against Thomas was that he was slow, and Grant believed in swift action. Thomas’ taking his time to attack Hood might well have driven him insane… it was, as someone said, like watching paint dry.

    Grant had put Thomas to watch Sherman’s back, to keep Hood from falling on Sherman’s rear. Any day that Thomas spent on preparations was one more day in which Hood could slip away and go after Sherman.

    You do not need more to have Grant to decide to use Thomas as little as possible. His strategy had no room for military leaders who took their time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s