‘George Thomas Virginian for the Union’

By CHRISTOPHER J. EINOLF

Reviewed by Dave Mercado

General George H. Thomas was a Southern born Union officer who commanded the outstanding Army of the Cumberland and he was one of the great generals of the American Civil War.  However today, for a number of reasons, he is relatively unknown to the American public. 

Any author writing a biography of General George Thomas is faced with a major hurdle in that most of Thomas’ private papers were burned at his request when he died, and the fact that he died suddenly of a stoke soon after the Civil War which left no chance for a memoir.  The author addressed these problems by relentlessly researching every collection of Thomas Papers available and reviewing as many private letters that he could.  Other authors may have done this also, and used them to influence their writing, but Mr. Christopher Einolf has done more.  He quotes from the Thomas letters giving the reader a glimpse of the real Thomas. 

The author uses an understated writing style that I think would have been appreciated by Thomas himself.  He lets the facts speak for themselves in many cases and lets his readers draw their own conclusions.  However he is not shy about sharing any new understanding of Thomas that he has reached.  His description of how Thomas’ attitude about Blacks changed, from one of  a conventional Virginia land owner to a real Civil Rights advocate and that this change came not so much as an evolutionary process but more of a ‘frame-break’ moment after the Battle of Nashville when he saw for himself how well his Black troops fought, gives us a new major insight into the man.  This view came as a revelation for me as I never agreed with some early Thomas biographers who assumed that Thomas had some innate goodness in him that would not allow him to treat Blacks unequally.  With his aristocratic Virginia upbringing, it did not make any sense.  To me Mr. Einolf’s analysis rings true. 

The author’s battle descriptions and analyses are very good with the notable exception of the Battle of Chattanooga.  He basically subscribes to the standard ‘miracle theory’ or to luck, as he has the soldiers saying, for the great success at Missionary Ridge.  He states that ‘military historians’ say the artillery was badly placed, and that the Union soldiers could scurry up the ravines unseen by enemy soldiers.  This may be true, but the author misses the point that the prime factors in winning the battle was the effort of General Joseph Hooker and the fact that Thomas delayed his attack as long as he honorably could (by ignoring Grant's early 'suggestions' to attack) which allowed Hooker time to flank the ridge from Lookout Mountain.  Confederate veterans on high ground and in good defensive positions would ordinarily not have been worried about any Federal charge, but with the added knowledge that a Union Corps was marching across their line of retreat, they decided it was time to skedaddle.  That aside, the author’s description of Stones River, Chickamauga, and the other battles is very good and his conclusions are astute.

Mr. Einolf’s chapters on Thomas’ post war actions and decisions during the occupation and the early reconstruction periods are given the detail they deserve.  The author shows how Thomas had a unique perspective on the situation due to his being a Southern gentleman, a Unionist and knowing first hand the qualities of the black men who fought for their freedom.  These two chapters really differentiate this book from other Thomas biographies. 

In his concluding chapter entitled "Thomas in Historical Memory" Mr. Einolf goes into the reasons for loss of Thomas’ place in history.  This makes for very interesting reading especially in what he has to say about the 'Lost Cause Theory' as formulated by the Southern Historical Society.1  While I personally think he is too mild with regard to Generals U. S. Grant and William T. Sherman in their treatment of General Thomas during the war and later in their memoirs which contributed greatly to the loss of George Thomas in history, Mr. Einolf's opinion on this matter has merit.  

Overall this biography is excellent and a very creditable addition to the literature on the American Civil War.

Notes

1. For further reading on the effect of the old writings of the Southern Historical Society with its 'Lost Cause Theory' on General Thomas' reputation, see  http://www.aotc.net/Antithomasspin.htm

 

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