MAJOR GEORGE H. THOMAS IN TEXAS
by Colonel M. L. Cummins
Many of our regular army officers, in both armies of our Civil War, acquired valuable field training in Texas from 1846 to 1861. Among them was Major General George Henry Thomas known in history as “The Rock of Chickamauga” because, with 25,000 men he held 65,000 Confederates in check. There is nothing finer in history than Thomas at Chickamauga.
He was born in Southampton County, Virginia, not far from where George Washington was born, on July 31, 1816. His father was English and his mother Huguenot, both of good sturdy stock. He studied in the law office of his uncle James Rochelle, until he was rewarded for an act of courage that saved human lives and property, by being appointed a cadet at the Military Academy at West Point, New York, July 1, 1836.
Gen. W. T. Sherman, who was Thomas’ classmate at West Point, said Thomas had extraordinary courage. During a Negro insurrection in Virginia it was necessary to resort to block-houses for protection. A messenger had to be sent. Thomas, though a mere lad, carried the message and for that brave act was rewarded by General Andrew Jackson appointing him a cadet at West Point.* He was successful and graduated twelfth in a class of forty-two on July 1, 1840. He was appointed Second Lieutenant, Third United States Artillery. The next year he took part in the Florida War and was brevetted for gallantry and good conduct.
Our Army of Occupation under General Zachary Taylor was ordered to Corpus Christi, Texas, in the autumn of 1845 in anticipation of hostilities with Mexico. Lieutenant George H. Thomas commanded the first United States Army company to occupy the soil of Texas, Company E, Third United States Artillery.
He took part in the successful defense of Fort Taylor, Texas, May 3 to 9, 1846. After Major Jacob C. Brown, Seventh United States Infantry, was killed by a cannon ball at Fort Taylor, its name became Fort Brown.
Lieutenant Thomas aided in the decisive victory at Resaca de la Palma, Texas, on May 9, 1846, by pouring a steady and galling fire upon the fugitive masses of the enemy escaping across the Rio Grande near the fort. He was brevetted captain for gallantry in the battle of Monterey, and major for gallantry at Buena Vista, where his coolness was largely responsible for the victory.
At the close of the Mexican War, he was placed in charge of the commissary at Brazos Santiago, Texas, near the mouth of the Rio Grande, in August 1848.
On May 12, 1855, his valuable services were rewarded by being appointed major of the new Second United States Cavalry, under the command of Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston and Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee. The appointments to that regiment were by selection and not by seniority, and were the pick of the army, in officers, men, horses and equipment. Units were selected and enlisted by picked officers: like the “Mobile Grays,” as Company A was known, enlisted by Captain Earl Van Dorn at Mobile, Alabama, and mounted on gray horses, and Company F, which formed the other company of Major Thomas’ squadron. The latter was a bay horse troop of soldiers enlisted at Louisville, Kentucky.
When organized in 1855, the Second United States Cavalry consisted of five squadrons of two companies each. As there was no law covering the organization of cavalry, which was then a new branch, the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, took advantage of the omission and appointed its officers from the army at large or from civil life, as he pleased.
Three squadrons were armed with the Springfield rifle-carbine; one squadron with a movable-stock carbine with a barrel 10 or 12 inches long and one squadron with a breech-loading Perry carbine. All were armed with Colts navy revolvers and dragoon sabers. One squadron had gutta percha or leather scabbards and pistol cases, and one squadron had gutta percha cartridge boxes. The leather saber belt and carbine sling were provided to attach at the carbine which was a broad strap over the left shoulder with a snap on the right side. Four squadrons had Grimsby equipments and the other six had the Campbell saddles. The saddle was brass mounted and had wooden stirrups. A gutta percha talma, or raincoat, was issued with large loose sleeves, extending to the knees. They wore a close-fitting dark blue jacket trimmed with yellow braid, a silken sash, a black hat, looped with an eagle at the right side with trailing plumes of ostrich feathers on left. Long pale blue trousers were worn. They had brass scales for the shoulder to turn the saber strokes of the enemy. There were no boots or gauntlets. They were drilled in the new tactics just written by Major Wm. J. Hardee. Out of twenty officers who joined the Second Cavalry in 1855, sixteen became generals during the Civil War.
When Captain Thomas received his promotion, he was stationed at Fort Yuma, California. Yuma had the reputation of being the hottest post in the Army and a temperature of 116 degrees F. in the shade was not unusual. Whenever Yuma is mentioned in the army, the following story is told: A very bad soldier died at Fort Yuma. His habits and life were such that no one doubted his ultimate destination, so it was a matter of surprise when he was seen entering his squad-room the very first night after his funeral. When asked what he wanted, he said he had come back to get his blankets as it was too cold in Hell after Yuma, although it was only a half mile from the post.
Major Thomas joined his regiment in September 1855 at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, Mo. He started with his regiment October 27, 1855, on its two months march to Texas, but was detached at Fort Washita for court-martial duty.
The Second Cavalry was an experimental regiment and instead of the mounts being purchased at a regular contract price, their cost was not limited. The result was they outlasted the usual cavalry mounts and after six years of hard campaigning, Company F of Major Thomas’ squadron still had 44 of its original Kentucky bays. Sixty years later, when the same regiment marched into Mexico during Pershing’s punitive expedition, they lost thirty animals by death the first week.
Thomas rejoined his regiment at Fort Mason, Texas (pictured above), in May 1856 and remained there about a year. About September 5, 1856, he joined Colonel Robert E. Lee who was en route to Ringgold Barracks, Texas, as a member of the court-martial that tried Major Giles Porter, Fourth United States Artillery. Colonel Lee wrote his wife that he hoped to pick Thomas up at Fort Mason, which indicated that they were friends of the family. They arrived at Ringgold Barracks October 3, 1856. Lee had traveled 730 miles in 27 days and Thomas about 600 miles in 22 days.
Major Porter had as his lawyers Judge Bigelow and Colonel Bower who knew all the tricks of their profession to prolong the case, which lasted six months and deprived the Second Cavalry of some of its most valuable officers’ services for that period and thereby rendered their commands less efficient in the performance of their duties.
Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, Second United States Cavalry, was ordered to assume command of the Expedition against the Mormons in Utah May 18, 1857. After he arrived at Fort Bridger, he asked to have his entire regiment sent to him. It was ordered concentrated for the march at Fort Belknap (pictured below), in the north central part of Texas. The order was countermanded, much to the disgust of the regiment whose ardor for a fight had been aroused by the Mountain Meadow Massacre, in which thirteen children out of 136 emigrants had been spared and all the rest were killed.
George Washington Park Custis, the heir of George Washington, and father-in-law of Colonel Robert E. Lee, died October 7, 1857. Lee was executor of the estate and left for Arlington, Virginia, October 21, leaving Major Thomas in command of the Second Cavalry.
General David E. Twiggs had arrived to take command of the Department of Texas, when Colonel Johnston was ordered to the Utah Expedition. He was one of those despicable officers who use their official authority to embarrass and annoy those they dislike for personal reasons. General Richard W. Johnson accused him of never missing an opportunity to heap an indignity upon or to do an underhand injustice to Thomas. If I can judge from experience with similar men, the following was probably one of his reasons:
Thomas, during the War with Mexico, had refused to give up one of his battery teams for the use of Twiggs’ headquarters. The fact that Twiggs took along with him a Mexican woman may have strengthened his refusal. Twiggs’ woman was referred to in a toast of Major John Bankhead Magruder at a celebration after the capture of the City of Mexico. Under the shadow of the snow-capped volcano “Old Orizabo”, the senior officers had been toasted in turn. Magruder, known as “Prince John,” was toastmaster, and he said “Here’s to General Twiggs and Old Orizabo whom we all love (sarcastically), with a ‘hoary’ top and a stony bottom.” As Twiggs’ hair was white, be was obliged to accept the kinder spelling of the word ‘hoary,’ unless he acknowledged the reason or demanded an investigation, which he feared. Twiggs was defeated in getting the team of mules by proper authority, so he swore vengeance on the independent subaltern who dared to oppose him.
Ten years had passed and at last he had an opportunity to take out his spite. The entire Second United States Cavalry was at Fort Belknap on the Red Fork of the Brazos eight miles above its junction with the Clear Fork in Young County, near the present Graham, Texas.
Thomas was in command of his regiment. Twiggs then made the following disposition of the companies: Two were sent to Camp Cooper; eight companies were sent on an expedition to the Wichita Mountains, under command of Captain and Brevet-Major Earl Van Dorn; while Thomas was left at Fort Belknap with the non-commissioned staff, band and sick of the regiment. He protested against such a flagrant outrage to his rights as commander of his regiment and was finally supported by the War Department and ordered to join and assume command of the eight companies in the field. Twiggs, in order to prevent Thomas having an opportunity to gain any laurels in the field, recalled the expedition and distributed the companies to the different posts in the department. Thomas was assigned to Camp Cooper, one of the least desirable posts in Texas and the rest of the regiment was scattered, occupying Fort Belknap, Camp Colorado, Camp Radziminski, Indian Territory, Camps Ives, Verde, Hudson, Van Camp and Iverson near the clear fork of the Brazos, and Forts Inge, Mason and Chadbourne.
When Colonel Lee was at Camp Cooper, he wrote Mrs. Lee June 6, 1857, of the intense heat there that killed a little boy of his command; and again, on June 22nd, of the death of a young son of one of his sergeants.
Major Thomas reported in May, 1859, that two hundred and fifty armed men, under the leadership of an ex-Indian agent, had marched toward the Brazos agency for the purpose of attacking the Village, but before arriving there they killed an Indian and then retreated to Martin’s Ranch. The Reservation Indians followed them and a combat ensued in which six white men and three Indians were killed and wounded. The affair created intense excitement. The army officers opposed the mob and did not believe the Indians guilty of stealing stock from the citizens as alleged.
In July and August, 1859, Thomas commanded the escort that had charge of moving the Indians from their reservations in Texas to Indian Territory. Thomas was full of energy. He thought it a good opportunity to take the field. On October 1, 1859, he set out from Camp Cooper with Companies C, D, F, G, and H on the Cimarron Expedition to the Red River country and the upper waters of the Canadian River. The command moved to a point 38 miles west of the 100′ west longitude, thence north and west near the Cimarron River, followed an Indian trail until a herd of buffalo obliterated it, and then returned to the Supply Camp on the Canadian River, October 31st. This scouting through the country had a good effect on the Indians and kept them on their reservation. The year before, General Twiggs had issued orders to consider all Comanche Indians off their Reservation hostile and they were to be treated accordingly.
After a rest of five days, the command marched Southwest to the head-waters of the Wichita, thence South to Sweetwater Creek, where Lieutenant William B. Royall with a squadron, Companies C and G, were detached to examine the stream to its mouth and the country along its route. Royall crossed the South branch of Red River and then marched by the direct route to Camp Cooper, where be arrived November 19th. The column continued the march across the tributaries of the Red River to the crossing of the South branch and thence to Camp Cooper where it arrived November 22nd. All that beautiful country, now prosperous ranches, lying between the Brazos and Cimarron Rivers from 99′ to 101′ 30′ west longitude was examined without meeting an Indian, but much valuable information, not previously known, was obtained.
Major Thomas, with Lieutenant William W. Lowe, thirteen men of the band, and a detachment of Company D set out from Camp Cooper July 23, 1860, for the head-waters of the Concho and Colorado Rivers. He was joined on the Colorado River on the 27th by Lieutenant Fitzhugh Lee with Company B and at Kiowa Creek, on the 31st, by Captain Richard W. Johnson with Company F., and Lieutenant A. Parker Porter with Company-A. The command then marched to and examined the country contiguous to the head-waters of the Concho River and between that stream and the Colorado River, without encountering hostile Indians. Major Thomas continued his operations until August 20th, when the expedition was disbanded and Companies A, B and F returned to their stations. He then started with the band and detachment of Company D for Camp Cooper and on the 25th discovered an Indian trail twenty-five miles east of Mountain Pass. The wagons were at once returned to Camp Cooper while the command with pack mules started in pursuit and marched forty miles, when nightfall compelled a halt. The pursuit was resumed at daybreak of the 26th and after a march of twenty miles the Indians were discovered on the Salt Fork of the Brazos River, just as they were about to leave their camp.
After a hot pursuit for some miles they abandoned their loose animals (twenty-eight in number) and escaped, except one, who having dismounted was killed, but not until he had wounded Major Thomas twice and also five enlisted men. Major Thomas was first wounded in the face by an arrow. It was a running fight and when it became evident that the whole party of Indians would be killed or captured, one old Indian who was badly wounded, made a stand, resolved to sell his life as dearly as possible and by delaying the soldiers allow the rest of the Indians to escape. The brave old Indian was wounded twenty times before he was finally dispatched and managed to kill or wound the following soldiers: Wounded Chief Bugler August Hausser, Privates John Zito and Casper Siddel of the band; Privates Hugh Clark and William Murphy, Company D. Murphy died of his wound on Nov. 23, 1860.
When Major Thomas saw that the old Indian was badly wounded, although the Indian had wounded him, he ordered his guide to tell the Indian in his own language that if he would surrender, his life would be spared.
According to General Richard W. Johnson’s Memoirs of Major General George H. Thomas, the Indian replied, “Surrender? Never! No, never! Come on Long-knives.” Such courage, such a spirit of self-sacrifice deserved a better fate.
The Indians called the cavalry “Long-Knives” as they were armed with sabres.
General Johnson had opportunities to get his story first hand, so his observations are of particular value. He remarks that a wounded Indian is much more dangerous than a wounded white man. A wound makes an Indian want to fight harder and it usually has the opposite effect on a white man. The Indian thought that he would get a greater reward in the next world if he killed a number of his enemies, and this belief made him desperate, as it made the Crusaders, also Mohammedan soldiers in battle, and Moros in the Philippines when they ran “Juramentado”.
Johnson wrote, that one badly wounded Indian is more dangerous than four not wounded, while one badly wounded white man is not only worthless for fighting, but requires the services of four able-bodied men to carry him to the rear, and by so doing reduces the force by five men.
Major Thomas went on leave on November 12, 1860, and was in Virginia when Twiggs surrendered the federal troops and forts in Texas, February 16, 1861. Thomas applied for a position as Commandant of Cadets and Instructor of Tactics in the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington on January 18, 1861.
While Major Thomas was on leave, recovering from his wound, Fort Sumter was fired upon, and the next day Thomas was on his way to Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania to reorganize and equip his regiment, then en route from Texas by boat.
He was promoted Lieutenant-Colonel Second United States Cavalry April 25, 1861, and got the vacancy caused by the resignation of Colonel Robert E Lee, accepted that date by the War Department.
General Thomas was a large man about six feet tall, deep chested and broad shouldered. He was robust and healthy, but his walk was slow and heavy. He was called in the army “Old Slow Trot“. He had silver-blue eyes that flashed only under emotion. He was calm and silent as a Sphinx, shy and modest as a maiden, brave and firm as a lion. Nothing could change his fixed purpose or swerve him from the goal of rectitude, for be had “no conception of the pliancy of truth,” according to General Geo. McCollum. At Mills Spring he virtually destroyed Zollicoffer’s Army; at Chickamauga, for the moment, he paralyzed Bragg, and at Nashville he completely annihilated Hood, destroying the hopes of the Confederacy.
Thomas may be accepted and proclaimed as the typical American soldier, tempering fire with prudence and uniting vigor with imperturbability. He was a commander who never had the “jitters” or “went haywire” as we call it, but was always steady and he inspired his commands with his cool courage.
While in command of the Military Division of the Pacific, he died suddenly on March 28, 1870. His old classmate, General Sherman, published General Orders Number Thirty Four from the Headquarters of the Army, on March 29th, 1870, commending him. The Senate and the House of Representatives published their sympathy and the President of the United States, members of the Cabinet and of both Houses of Congress attended his funeral at Troy, New York, April 18, 1870.
He died leaving no issue, but while the battles of Mill Springs, Stone River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge and Nashville add lustre to the history of the United States, the name of Major General George H. Thomas will live in the hearts of his countrymen. A magnificent monument to a magnificent man stands at Thomas Circle at the junctions of Massachusetts and Vermont Avenues with 14th and M Streets in Washington, D. C.
Of all the commendatory speeches made when the statue was unveiled on November 20, 1879, I select a few words from the speech of General William Tecumseh Sherman as he had been his classmate at West Point and afterwards they served together for fourteen consecutive years:
“The day is coming, gentlemen of Virginia, of North Carolina, of South Carolina, of Alabama, when you and your fellow citizens will be making their pilgrimage to this magnificent monument, just as we have done to that of Washington, and say that, there was a man who, under the tumult and excitement of the times, stood true and firm to his country, and he is the hero and that brave George Thomas will become the idol of the South.”
Brockett, L. P., Our Great Captains. New York, 1865.
Cullum, Maj. Gen. Geo. W., Biographical Register, Officers and Graduates of the Military Academy, II
Johnson, Gen. R. W., Memoirs of General George H. Thomas. Philadelphia, 1881.
Price, Captain George F., Across the Continent with the Fifth Cavalry. New York, 1885.
Reference: West Texas Historical Association Year Book XIV 1938 P. 73
* Webmaster note: This story by General Sherman, of Thomas’ appointment to West Point, has never been mentioned by anyone else including Thomas. Congressman John Y. Mason of Virginia appointed Thomas to West Point in 1836.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: My thanks to Mr. David Rusher of The Boeing Company for researching this article at the library of the University of Texas, El Paso.