thomas in mexico

“On the 26th of June 1845, with his Company, Lieutenant George Thomas left Fort Moultrie under orders to report to General Zachary Taylor. Company “E” arrived at New Orleans July 19th, and on the 24th under the command of Taylor, sailed for Texas, and in August, with the Third and Fourth Infantry took position at Corpus Christi, being the first United States troops to occupy the soil of Texas. With the Army of Occupation, Company “E” advanced to the Rio Grande in March, 1846, and was subsequently ordered with the Infantry and Company “I” Second Artillery, under Major Brown, to garrison the fort opposite Matamoras. These troops were subjected to bombardment from the 3d to the 9th of May. Their loss, however, was slight, but included the gallant Major Brown, who was succeeded in command by Captain Hawkins of the Seventh Infantry.

On the 9th, the siege was raised in consequence of the defeat of the Mexican army by General Taylor at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, on the 8th and 9th. When the defeated Mexicans were hastily crossing the river before Taylor’s pursuing forces, the artillery fire from the forth increased their fright and confusion.

During June and July, Lieutenant Thomas was detached with a section of his battery, and was with the Vanguard in its advance to Reynosa and Camargo. Having rejoined his company, he took part in the battles about Monterey, September 21d-23d, and such was his bearing that he was brevetted Captain “for gallant and meritorious conduct.” In his report, General J. P. Henderson, commanding Texan volunteers, wrote: “I beg leave also, under the authority of General Lamar, to compliment Lieutenant Thomas of the Artillery and his brave men for the bold advance and efficient management of the force under his charge. When ordered to retire he reloaded his piece, fired a farewell shot at the foe and returned under a shower of bullets.”

General Twiggs, commanding First division, said, “Captains R. Ridgely and B. Bragg, and their subalterns, W. H. Shover, G. H. Thomas, J. F. Reynolds, C. L. Kilburn, and S. G. French deserved the highest praise for their skill and good conduct under the heaviest fire of the enemy, which, when an opportunity offered, was concentrated on them.”

The senior first lieutenant, Braxton Bragg, having been promoted to a captaincy, Lieutenant Thomas commanded Company “E” from November 21st, 1846, to February 14th, 1847, when Captain T. W. Sherman assumed command. He accompanied General Quitman’s brigade in its march to Victoria in December 1846.

In the battle of Buena Vista, February 22nd – 23rd, 1847, Lieutenant Thomas was conspicuous for efficiency and bravery, and was subsequently brevetted Major “for gallant and meritorious conduct” in this battle. The following passages from official reports prove that this reward was fully earned. General Taylor said, referring to the subalterns of the artillery, and including Thomas by name: “they were nearly all detached at different times, and in every situation exhibited conspicuous skill and gallantry.”

Captain T. W. Sherman wrote: “I was directed to take my battery back to the plateau, where I joined Lieutenant Thomas, who had been constantly engaged during the forenoon in the preservation of that important position, and whom I found closely engaged with the enemy, and that, too, in a very advanced position.

Lieutenant Thomas more than sustained the reputation he has long enjoyed in his regiment as an accurate and scientific artillerist.”

General Wool attributed the victory to the artillery: “I also desire to express my high admiration and to offer my warmest thanks to Captains Washington, Sherman and Bragg, and Lieutenants O’Brien and Thomas, and their batteries, to whose services at this point and on every part of the field, I think it but justice to say we are mainly indebted for the great victory so successfully achieved by our arms over the great force opposed to us — more than twenty thousand men, and seventeen pieces of artillery. Without our artillery, we would not have maintained our position a single hour.”

The victory at Buena Vista ended the war in Northern Mexico, but Company “E”, Third Artillery, was left with other troops south of the Rio Grande until August 20th, when the last of our forces re-crossed into Texas. “

Reference: Van Horne: The Life of Major-General George Thomas, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1882

Background song: Green Grow the Lilacs (midi file sequenced by Barry Taylor)

This is a song about a soldier’s love for a Mexican girl. One story about the song speculates that soldiers during the war liked to sing this song. Across the way, Mexicans, who could not understand the words, could only hear “GREEN GROW”. So that an Anglo-American became to be called a “Gringo” by the Mexicans.

The following is from Castels’ Decision in the West (Appendix A):

Sherman, Thomas, and the Snake Creek Gap Maneuver

The famous British military historian and theoretician B. H. Liddell Hart argues in his Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1958), 239-40, that Thomas’s plan was impractical and too risky: 1) It would have meant “a crossing of routes and a probable entanglement of the lines of supply” because Thomas would have had to swing out to the right while McPherson moved to the center; 2) “in the spy-ridden country the sudden disappearance of Thomas’s army which had been so long facing the Confederates” would have been “likely to put them on their guard”; and 3) the “turning movement had to be made by an uncertainly known route, and with still greater uncertainty as to whether Snake Creek Gap would be blockaded,” in which case two-thirds of Sherman’s army would have “found itself locked out in front of this narrow defile, with Johnston free to strike swiftly at the remaining third and at Sherman’s precious base” of Chattanooga.

The counterargument to the above is as follows: (1) It would seem reasonable to assume that a commander of Thomas’s experience and competence would not have proposed a logistically impractical plan. (2) In fact he did not, for McPherson’s army, contrary to what Liddell Hart implies, moved into Georgia via the “center” at Chattanooga anyway, and it easily could have taken over the position of the Army of the Cumberland north of Ringgold without any “crossing of routes” or “entangling of lines of supply” while Thomas set out for Snake Creek Gap, a movement he thus could have begun sooner and made faster than did McPherson. (3) If the region was “spy-ridden”, then obviously the Confederate spies failed Johnston most miserably when he needed them, for throughout the first week of the campaign he lacked precise and reliable information about the movements and location of the Army of the Tennessee until after it attacked Cantey at Resaca. (4) Thanks to his February demonstration and subsequent reconnaissances, the way to Snake Creek Gap was not an “uncertainly known route” to Thomas, and certainly Thomas’s knowledge of it was superior to that of McPherson, who never had seen that area and had to rely on inadequate maps. (5) Since Thomas would have had cavalry with him, he could easily have made sure of his passage through Snake Creek Gap before committing his main column to it. (6) Even if Thomas had been “locked out in front of this narrow defile,” he presumably would not have remained there stationary but would have turned back in ample time to help defend Chattanooga in the extremely unlikely event of Johnston’s launching an offensive to take it.

Liddell Hart in effect abandons his own argument by admitting that Sherman might have “augmented McPherson’s army from Thomas’.” However, he then tries to salvage it by asserting that Sherman dared not do this because of “Thomas’ sensitiveness” and the danger of offending the Army of the Cumberland’s “jealous esprit de corps” by detaching units from it to reinforce McPherson. Liddell Hart ignores or overlooks the fact that Thomas himself suggested sending the XX Corps to McPherson when the latter failed to take Resaca or cut the railroad. Sherman, not Thomas, was the one afflicted by “sensitiveness” and a “jealous esprit de corps”. After suffering the humiliation, which rankled him the rest of his life, of having his beloved Army of the Tennessee stopped cold at Missionary Ridge while the Army of the Cumberland broke the Confederate line, he was resolved that the former would play the star role in the next encounter with the enemy.

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Decisions like this one and at Kennesaw Mountain and, in fact, every decision where Sherman overruled Thomas’ advice, all totally backfired on him. These results must have galled Sherman considerably, considering he knew that his friend Grant had promoted him over Thomas. It may explain his disparaging comments about Thomas that he made behind Thomas’ back despite the fact that they both considered themselves best of friends. In a letter to Grant written just before he found out about Thomas’ great decisive victory at Nashville, he wrote, “I know full well that Gen. Thomas is slow in mind and in action…”. With ‘friends’ like that no wonder Thomas was lost to history.

References

Donn Piatt: Memories of the Men Who Saved the Union. New York & Chicago: Belford, Clarke & Co. 1887

Albert Castel: Decision in the West, The Atlanta Campaign of 1864. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas. 1992

H. V. Boynton: Sherman’s Historical Raid. The Memoirs in the Light of the Record. Cincinnati, OH: Wilstach, Baldwin & Co. 1875

This article has focused on the Federal side of Snake Creek Gap events and the tactical mistakes made by General Sherman. What about the Confederate mistakes of General Johnston and General Wheeler in leaving the Gap undefended in the first place?

For an in-depth look, go to WHY WAS SNAKE CREEK GAP LEFT UNGUARDED. This is an unpublished paper by the Atlanta historian Wilbur G. Kurtz (1882-1967), courtesy of the Atlanta Historical Society, Inc. For non-commercial use only. All rights reserved.