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Pap Thomas, The Rock of Chickamauga

George H. Thomas Chronology

YEAR AGE EVENT
1816 - George Henry Thomas is born in Southampton County, Virginia near present day Newsoms on July 31, 1816.   To see birthplace go to Thomas home.
1829 12 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.
1831 15 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 Thomas farm:

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 strong.

For more information go to  Nat Turner

1835 19 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.
1836 19 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' dedication.         

1836 19 Enters the United States Military Academy at West Point in MayOne 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.     
1840 23 Graduated from West Point ranked 12th in class. Commissioned Second Lieutenant in the Third Regiment of Artillery by President Van Buren.
1844 27 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. 
1847 31 Brevetted to Captain and then to Major after distinguished services during the Battles of Monterrey and Buena Vista (Mexican War).

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.   

For more information: Thomas in Mexico

1851 34 Posted to West Point as Instructor of Cavalry and ArtilleryLt. 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.
1852 36 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 in D.C.
1853 37 Thomas is promoted to Captain in December 1853.
1855 38 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.
1860 44 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 Texas.
1861 44 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.

It 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.

1861 44 Promoted to Colonel in the Regular Army in May and takes command of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.  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.
1861 45 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.
1862 45 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.

For a poem on the death of a young soldier go to Battle of Mill Springs

1862 45 Promoted to Major General of U.S. Volunteers.
1863 46 Thomas is given command of the 14th Corps, Army of the Cumberland, after his key contributions to Rosecran’s victory at Stones River in January.

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For more information: Battle of Stones River                       

1863 47 Thomas’ heroic defense at Chickamauga in September saves the army. 

"During the 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 Chickamauga"

 

 

 

For a multimedia animation on the Battle of Chickamauga go to: Chickamauga  

For a stirring poem by Kate Brownlee Sherwood: "Thomas at Chickamauga"

See a painting of Thomas at Chickamauga by Rudy Ayoroa.

19th U.S. Infantry, one of the many regiments which stood like a rock with Thomas at Chickamauga.

                 

1863 47 General Thomas is given command of the Army of the Cumberland in October.  Under Thomas' steady hand, this veteran western army will be almost invincible.

Go to Thomas' staff for additional info. 

1863 47 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 'esprit de 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.  Go figure.

For more information: Chattanooga

See Thomas and staff on Lookout Mountain

For a new poem about the Army of the Cumberland at Missionary Ridge, go to ALL HELL WON'T STOP 'EM.

1863 47 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.

See Thomas Oath of Office.

1864 48 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' advice, missed opportunities like Snake Creek Gap would occur, or even worse, tragedies like Kennesaw Mountain would happen.
1864 48 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 Hood’s 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".

For more information: Henry V. Boynton, "Was Thomas slow at Nashville?"

For an interesting PowerPoint Presentation by Mr. Dan Hughes on General Thomas' performance at Nashville : Link

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1864 48 Promoted to Major General, Regular Army.  Thomas reaches an elite position as there are less than a dozen slots in the regular army for this grade. 
1865 48 Received the 'Thanks of Congress' Citation in March, 1865 for the Nashville victory.
1865 48 General Lee surrenders his army at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.
1867 50 President Andrew 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.   

1868 51 The Tennessee State Convention unanimously nominates Thomas for president.  Thomas declines the honor.
1869 52 From Benjamin F. Scribner, How Soldiers Were Made:

The 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.

1870 53 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 waits.

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."  

Photo of final resting place of General Thomas 

Thomas Genealogy

 

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