Judgement of history
General Thomas and History
“History will do me justice,” General Thomas had once said when he felt he was being treated unfairly. Perhaps it was his inherent idealism that led him to believe history is a high court of appeals, for he has hardly been accorded his historical due in the seventy-odd years [now 150 years] since his death. General Meade was cynical in the extreme on the same subject. “I don’t believe the truth ever will be known and I have a great contempt for history,” he said.
General Thomas applied modern technique to his methods of warfare; but his approach to the military profession was knightly; he believed in chivalry, honor, a code of loyalty among brothers in arms. In this medieval state of mind he could not visualize, as Meade did, the scramble for power among military men. He could not conceive of a real soldier, a West Pointer, stooping to intrigue and politics merely to advance himself – glory was to be won on the field, he believed, and not in whispered councils. He sacrificed his own ambitions to make certain he could not be accused of conniving to replace Buell and Rosecrans; and when it appeared to him that Schofield had done what he disdained to do, the, shock and anger of a brother officer betraying his caste was undoubtedly a contributory factor in his death. He held that such maneuvers for advancement were to be expected only of political generals, civilians temporarily in uniform. When he saw that Grant, Sherman, Sheridan and Schofield were bent on maintaining themselves in the highest posts of the Army, he could only hope that “history will do me justice.” Certainly his fellow generals did not, for the most part.
Thomas died less than five years after the war ended, before the flood of memoirs came from generals’ desks. Against their disparagements he could not defend himself from the grave and he would have had too much modesty and dignity to shout them down if he had been alive. Grant, Sherman and Sheridan in their autobiographies all covered one another with compliments and to a great extent ignored General Thomas. It probably seemed the safest course: too many people remembered his greatness, too many would point to achievements which could not be denied, to attempt in any other way to dim his reputation. Gamaliel Bradford noted in Union Portraits “Grant was apt to couple Thomas’ name with some innuendo, as was Sherman.”
After Sherman’s Memoirs were published, General H. V. Boynton came out with a book entitled Sherman’s Historical Raid; The Memoirs in the Light of the Record, in which he declared that Sherman was “intensely egotistical, unreliable and cruelly unjust to nearly all his distinguished associates. Our erratic general thrusts his pen recklessly through reputations as dear to the country as his own.” Boynton cited the Official Records to show that Sherman belittled Thomas, Buell, Rosecrans, Hooker, Blair, Logan and Stanton and claimed “he repeatedly loads failures for which he was responsible now upon Thomas, now upon Schofield, now upon McPherson.”
When Grant got around to writing his Memoirs, he was in a gentler frame of mind concerning Thomas. Grant wrote:
“As my official letters on file in the War Department as well as remarks in this book reflect on General Thomas by dwelling somewhat upon his tardiness it is due to myself as well as to him, that I give my estimate of him as a soldier. I had been at West Point with Thomas one year and had known him later in the old army. He was a man of commanding appearance, slow and deliberate in speech and action; sensible, honest and brave. He possessed valuable soldierly qualities in an eminent degree. He gained the confidence of all who served under him, and almost their love. This implies a very valuable quality. It is a quality which calls out the most efficient services of the troops serving under the commander possessing it.
Thomas’ dispositions were deliberately made and always good. He was not as good, however, in pursuit as in action. I do not believe that he could ever have conducted Sherman’s army from Chattanooga to Atlanta against the defences and the commander guarding that line in 1864. On the other hand, if it had been given him to hold the line which Johnston tried to hold, neither that general nor Sherman, nor any other officer could have done it better.” [Even here a left handed compliment about having only defensive qualities. Did Grant forget about Nashville? Did he forget about Snake Creek Gap where Thomas’ plan would have won the Atlanta Campaign in a week? -webmaster]
Among his other contemporaries, Generals O. O. Howard and Joe Hooker expressed themselves with unqualified praise of Thomas as a commander, both having served under him at Chattanooga and Atlanta. The sensitive Howard wrote: “His words and acts of confidence drew toward him my whole heart, particularly when I went into battle under him.”
Hooker was a bitter man after the Civil War and he had nothing but contempt for Grant, Sherman, McClellan, Burnside and most of his fellow generals. In the last letter he wrote before his death in 1879, discussing the statue of Thomas to be unveiled in Washington with the Rev. William Earnshaw, General Hooker said: “I assure you it is the only equestrian statue in Washington that will be likely to receive the admiration of all who gaze upon it; and in my judgment the representative of the most gifted soldier this country ever produced, and the best man in all respects it has ever been my fortune to know.”
Such a compliment was a rarity from a man who looked upon his fellow generals as a collection of blunderers, glory-grabbers and poseurs. That Hooker was able to utter such praise of another man was due not wholly to Thomas’ ability and achievements as a soldier but also to his character. It was his character, as well as his unusual talents, that was responsible for the many victories he gave the Union.
General Thomas was the one military leader who never led his men into a defeat, and twice he retrieved the army from disaster while serving under another man. Fletcher Pratt in his analysis of the Civil War generals stated that their Southern opponents could always claim Grant and Sherman won their victories because of a large margin of superiority in men and resources, while Thomas alone was able to win with inferior materials.
Yet there is little to mark Thomas’ passing in American life. In Washington, there is a greening bronze statue of him astride his horse at Thomas Circle, near which Mrs. Thomas kept an apartment with her spinster sister until her death in 1889. In the State Museum at Richmond there is the sword he received for valor in the Mexican War from the citizens of Southampton County. Otherwise obscurity has claimed him. His hope that “history will do me justice” now sounds more plaintive than prophetic. His reward has been slight in consideration of all he suffered in his determination to uphold the Union. His sisters died in Virginia at the turn of the century, still bitter about what they viewed as his betrayal, his Virginia friends had turned from him, and he did not live long enough after the war for such wounds to be healed. And he died while trying to defend himself for what he should only have been praised.
The memory of General George H. Thomas lived longer in the hearts of the soldiers who served under him than in the minds of contemporary generals. His soldiers remembered his kindness, his consideration for their welfare, his skill and courage when he committed them to battle, and they passed this memory of him along to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren; they told of “Old Pap” when they themselves were ancient oddities to be paraded on Memorial Day. And that in itself is a full measure of glory.
O’Connor, Richard: Thomas: Rock of Chickamauga, Prentice-Hall, Inc, New York, 1948, p.365-368.