George Henry Thomas is born in Southampton County,
Virginia near present day Newsoms on July 31, 1816.
To see birthplace go to Thomas home.
Thomas' father John
Thomas dies in a farm accident. His mother Elizabeth Rochelle Thomas
carries on with the large farm but has to sell some land to pay debts.
Her brother James Rochelle, the Southampton County Clerk, oversees George's
education and will later point him in the direction of a law career.
Southampton Insurrection. George and his
family are forced to flee their farm to the safety of the local city during the Nat
Turner revolt. This must have been a terrifying
experience for a young boy, but much later, George is said to have stated
that if he were in their place, he would have fought for his freedom also.
In his purported confession, Nat mentions stopping at the
On my way back, I called at Mrs.
Thomas's, Mrs. Spencer's, and several other places, the white families
having fled, we found no more victims to gratify our thirst for blood, we
stopped at Maj. Ridley's quarter for the night, and being joined by four of
his men, with the recruits made since my defeat, we mustered now about forty
Although George's uncle
had died by then, on November 18, George is sworn into office as the deputy
county clerk by Rochelle's successor. A promising career in law
seems to be in his future.
However in March,
Congressman John Y. Mason, an old friend of James Rochelle, visits
Southampton and offers George an appointment to West Point. Why George
changes his mind about his law career and accepts the appointment is not
clear. Was he drawn to the technical aspects of a Civil Engineering
education or perhaps to the desire for the adventure of a soldier's life?
It is a fateful decision.
Before entering the Academy, Thomas visits Washington
to thank Congressman Mason for his appointment. The meeting was brief
as Mason only said to him, "No cadet appointed from our district has ever
graduated from the Military Academy, and if you do not, I never want to see
you again". The Congressman needn't have worried about George Thomas'
Enters the United States Military Academy
at West Point in May. One
of his roommates during his plebe year was William Tecumseh Sherman.
Another roommate Stewart Van Vliet tells the story of an upperclassmen
storming into their room to haze them. George stepped up to the young
man and told him to leave immediately or he would toss him through the
window. As they were in an upper story room, the cadet thought better
about it and left. Van Vliet said that they were never harassed again.
George Thomas however was not a perfect cadet as he collects 20 demerits in
his first year alone. In his second year George is honored with an
appointment to cadet corporal, in his third year to sergeant and senior year
to cadet lieutenant.
Graduated from West
Point ranked 12th in class. Commissioned Second Lieutenant in the Third
Regiment of Artillery by President Van Buren.
Promoted to First Lieutenant after
distinguished service in the Seminole War
during 1841 to 1842. By 1844 he served at New Orleans, Charleston
Harbor, and Fort McHenry in Baltimore learning his trade in the artillery.
He writes his brother that his meager pay was preventing him from getting a
wife and he despaired that he might have to remain a bachelor.
Brevetted to Captain and then to Major
after distinguished services during the Battles of Monterrey and Buena Vista (Mexican
Lt. Thomas commands a gun in the light
artillery in Captain Braxton Bragg's battery. During these battles he
'flies' from one hot spot to another taking his gun where it is needed most.
His bravery is noted and he is mentioned in dispatches which leads to his
brevets. By the end of 1847, Lt. Thomas was one of only two men in his cadet class who had
earned a total of three brevets in seven years.
Brevet promotions were somewhat
honorary and, as the number of officers of each grade were limited by law,
it did not mean a promotion to that grade was eminent. This was the
only way to quickly honor a soldier's field performance as the concept of
awarding combat medals would not come until the Civil War. Promotion
in the small regular army of those days was very slow.
When he returns home, the people of Southampton present
him with a ceremonial sword engraved with the words Florida, Ft. Brown,
Monterrey and Buena Vista.
Posted to West Point as Instructor of Cavalry and Artillery.
Lt. Thomas taught cavalry
tactics to Phil Sheridan and J.E.B. Stuart. On the other hand, he taught artillery tactics
to John B. Hood. Hood must have slept through his classes. He would fail his 'final exam'
at Nashville in 1864.
On November 17th, Thomas
marries Frances Lucretia Kellogg of Troy,
N.Y. She would prove to be a true soldiers' wife as she would later
travel to the Texas frontier to be with her husband, and bravely
visited him at the front during the Civil War as Thomas did not take a single day of leave during
the entire war. Many years after his death, she would
move with her sister to a home in Washington, DC with a view of the Thomas
statue. She died on December 26, 1889
Thomas is promoted to
Captain in December 1853.
After serving as commanding
officer at Fort Yuma (one of the
toughest assignments in the army) for a year, Thomas is promoted to Major in the regulars and ordered
to the elite Second Regiment of Cavalry.
The commander is Col. Albert Sidney Johnston and the executive
officer is Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee. Some say that Secretary
of War Jefferson Davis appointed the best southern officers to this regiment in
anticipation of a rebellion. The nickname for this regiment is
"Jeff Davis' Own" and it will produce eleven generals for the Confederacy.
Major Thomas is wounded by an arrow while
leading a cavalry charge during a skirmish with Comanches on the Texas frontier
(Clear Fork of the Rio Brazos). For more information go to Thomas in
Fort Sumter is fired upon in April, 1861:
The Civil War begins. Thomas stays with the
Union. The personal price he paid was his
disownment by his sisters and his home state of Virginia.
is interesting to note that, at the outbreak of the war, George Thomas is one of the very
few senior Union officers with long field experience in both the artillery and cavalry
arms. Thomas will put this experience to great use during the war.
He will rarely see
defeat in battle and never when he is in top command.
Promoted to Colonel in the Regular Army
in May and takes command of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry at Carlisle
He leads them in several engagements in the Shenandoah Valley including Falling Waters in
July where he was a brigade commander under General Robert Patterson. Later the 2nd
Cavalry becomes the 5th Cavalry when the Dragoons and the Regiment of Mounted Rifles are
re-organized into the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Cavalry in August 1861
based on their service seniority.
Promoted to Brig. General of Volunteers
in August and posted to the Department of the Cumberland in the Western Theatre. His
first assignment was to command and train the 6,000 Kentucky and Tennessee volunteers at
Camp Dick Robinson, KY. This marks the start of what one day would become the 60,000
strong Army of the Cumberland. See Thomas
statue in Lebanon, KY.
Thomas victory at Mill Springs,
Kentucky in January opened the eastern end of the Confederate defensive line in
the Western Theatre. This was a division-sized battle and was very significant because it
was the first decisive Union victory in the West and denied the Confederates the Cumberland Gap.
Unlike Grant who would be surprised at Battle of Shiloh a few months later,
Thomas had his men ready and his scouts out and detected the approach of the
enemy. The pre-dawn attack by the Confederates was supposed to be a
surprise, but instead Thomas absorbed the attack and ordered a punishing
counterattack which left the Confederates abandoning their camp, flags,
wounded and all their equipment the next day.
Thomas heroic defense at
Chickamauga in September saves the army.
heavy fighting of the 20th, Thomas was the only general officer left on the field of rank
above a division commander. Learning sometime later in the day of the disaster on
our right, he gathered his troops together from all parts of the field to the position
selected by himself after the break on the right. Here in a more marked degree even
than at Stone's River, he displayed his great staying quality. Posting his troops on
the lines he designated, he, so to speak, placed himself with his back against a rock and
refused to be driven from the field. Here he stayed, despite the fierce and
prolonged assault of the enemy, repulsing every attack. And when the sun went down
he was still there. Well was he called the "Rock of Chickamauga", and
trebly well for the Army of the Cumberland that George H. Thomas was in command of the
left at that battle. On the 20th, when the hour of supreme trial came and he was
left on the field with less than one half of the strength of the army that the day before
had been barely able to hold its own against the rebel assaults, he formed his 25,000
troops on "Horseshoe Ridge", and successfully resisted for nearly six long hours
the repeated attacks of that same rebel army, largely reinforced until it numbered twice
his command, when it was flushed with victory and determined on his utter destruction.
There is nothing finer in history than Thomas at Chickamauga."
-Henry M. Cist, The Army of the Cumberland
"Under the shadow of a spreading oak, near Snodgrass house, is a
grizzled soldier, calm, silent, immovable, who resolves to hold the field until night
comes ... hemmed in by appalling ruin yet supreme above disaster
... The Rock of
Chickamauga." - J.S. Ostrander, Two September Days
This stand by Thomas prevents a wholesale Union rout and the loss of
Chattanooga and possibly the Union retrenching all the
way west to Nashville.Chattanooga,with its major Railway networks, will be the
key logistical base
for the Atlanta Campaign that next
spring. Atlantaís capture just prior to the 1864 election will
guarantee Abe Lincolnís re-election. If it wasn't for Thomas'
heroic leadership, the need to recapture of Chattanooga
would have taken months, and Atlanta would have been in
solid rebel hands until well after the
November elections, possibly
costing Lincoln the election.
Click on arrow to hear Jimmy Driftwood's song "Rock of
For a multimedia animation on the
Battle of Chickamauga go to:Chickamauga
In November, Thomas Army of the
Cumberland executes a successful frontal assault against the Confederate Army of Tennessee
up Missionary Ridge and wins the Battle of Chattanooga for U.S. Grant.
General Grant had arranged his battle plan such that his friend General Sherman
with his Union Army of the Tennessee would get a chance for the victory with a flank
attack, but when Sherman stalled due to the excellent defense of General Cleburne (plus it
didn't help that Sherman initially attacked the wrong hill which gave away
any surprise), Grant turned to Thomas
to save a deteriorating tactical position.
The new attack, as planned by Grant,
was to be a simple
demonstration towards the heights of General Bragg's center to try to draw troops away
from Sherman's sector and so give Sherman a better chance for success.
Unknown to Grant however, by that time General Sherman had basically quit for the day.
However, Pap Thomas' boys were looking for retaliation for
Chickamauga. They were supposed to stop after they took the first line of rifle
pits per Grant's order, but when they got there, they instinctively knew
that the rebel artillery would play havoc on their position. Here the
training of Rosecrans and Thomas took over. The Army of the Cumberland
corps' made them continue up the steep ridge. This
spontaneous charge becomes one of the few successful frontal assaults against an
entrenched enemy in the entire war.
Lt. Arthur MacArthur, future father of
Douglas MacArthur, earns the Medal of Honor during this battle.
After the battle, Grant gives top command in the West to
the failure Sherman over the more senior Thomas.
Promoted to Brigadier General, Regular
Army in December. This is very significant to
Thomas as it means he will remain a General Officer even when the volunteer
army is mustered out of service after the war.
General Sherman enters Atlanta in
September and later, the history books. However, had Sherman followed Thomas
plan at Snake Creek Gap back in May, the campaign would have been over in the first week.
Thousands of lives would have been saved. It is telling that Sherman never mentions
in his memoirs or official reports that the few times he decided to reject Thomas'
missed opportunities like Snake Creek Gap
would occur, or even worse, tragedies like
George Thomas defeats General John B.
Hood at the Battle of Nashville in December. His battle plan, which uses cavalry as a key
part of his offensive, is considered a masterpiece. Nashville proves Thomas to be
generations ahead of the other general officers in battle tactics and is a forerunner of
the mobile operations of WW II.
By the 1890's this battle is one
of the few Civil War examples studied in European military academies and was considered on
a par with the Battle of Austerlitz. This is quite a compliment since European
military men generally considered the War Between the States as 'two armed mobs chasing
each other around the countryside'.
Equally important is Thomas' two week pursuit of Hoods army after
the battle. It does not allow the gallant Army of Tennessee time to re-group and completes the
wreckage of Hood's army as rebel stragglers by the thousands try but are unable to rejoin, and
decide to leave the war for good. This type of full pursuit is unheard-of in a winter
campaign but was part of Thomas' plan from the start and was why he waited until his
cavalry horses were roughshod before commencing the attack.
This battle, with its final destruction of the Confederate's main
western army, does more to end the war than any other single event in the conflict.
Despite Thomas' impressive performance, after the
battle, General Grant will take away much of his infantry because he feels
that Thomas was "slow".
General Lee surrenders his army at
Appomattox on April 9, 1865.
Johnson asks the Senate to confirm Thomas to the rank of brevet Lt. General. President Johnson wants to replace U.S. Grant as Commander-in-Chief
of the Army because Grant is openly running for president.
Johnson was the War Governor of Tennessee and knew
Thomas well and held him in high regard. He was prepared to promote
Thomas over Generals Grant, Sherman, Meade and Sheridan. Thomas, ever the
honorable gentleman and soldier, quickly asks the President to recall the nomination as he knows it is inspired
primarily by politics.
He would rather pass up a chance at
three stars than be
used to interfere with a brother officer's career. Too bad some
other senior generals did not share his high ethical standards when it
came to lobbying for promotion.
The Tennessee State Convention unanimously nominates
Thomas for president. Thomas declines the honor.
From Benjamin F.
Scribner, How Soldiers Were Made:
General frequently rallied me upon my large and increasing family, and said,
"I think you might name one of your children for me." So when my next son
was born I wrote to him announcing that "George Henry Thomas Scribner has
this day reported in person for duty." The General was at Washington, and by
return of mail I received a document bearing all the official marks of
special orders, with the following extract: "George Henry Thomas Scribner
having reported in person for duty, is hereby assigned to the care of his
mother until further orders."
When the boy was one year old his photograph was taken
and mailed to the General's address at San Francisco, where he was then
stationed. But soon after a letter with signs of mourning around it came to
hand from Mrs. Thomas, informing me of the death of her husband and
acknowledging the receipt of the picture. However great must have been
the grief of his noble widow, the Army of the Cumberland shared it with her,
and they will ever love and cherish his memory, and deplore the great loss
which his comrades and his country have sustained.
General Thomas dies of a stroke in San
Francisco on March 28th on duty at his headquarters of the Military Division of the
Pacific. A very private person, he had no intention of leaving memoirs, but was content
that in the fullness of time, history would do him justice. Patiently, he
The following is from Henry M. Cist, The Army of the Cumberland:
"His kind consideration for the feeling of others was one of his
marked characteristics. With a pure mind and large heart, his noble soul made him
one of the greatest of Nature's nobleman: a true gentleman. The experience of
Chickamauga ripened his powers and developed him to his full height. As the General
who won the first victory in the West, who saved an army by his skill and valor, and who
was the only General of the war on either side able to crush an army on the battlefield,
George H. Thomas, "the true soldier,
the prudent and undaunted commander, the modest and incorruptible
patriot", stands as the model
American soldier, the grandest figure of the War of the Rebellion."