Why Thomas stayed with the Union
After George Thomas' sudden death at age 53 in 1870, the same year as Robert E. Lee, the Southern 'Lost Cause Theory' proponents spread many stories to explain why George H. Thomas of Virginia stayed with the Union. One of the cornerstones of their theory was that honorable southern men as represented by General Lee had 'no choice' but to fight for their home state. George H. Thomas was a severe threat to their theory and had be be dealt with because if Thomas was allowed to be considered an honorable man, then their house of cards would fall. Their stories range from him being a strident secessionist who 'chickened out' after Fort Sumter, to him staying with the Union because it was an easier way to promotion as both A. S. Johnston and Lee, his superiors in his cavalry regiment had left. Another story had his northern wife browbeat him into remaining with the Union.1
The Lost Cause theory has been handed down from father to son for many generations. Even today many southern writers have a hard time saying anything good about George Thomas despite his outstanding combat and personal record.
In reality Thomas knew that staying with the Union would cost him both professionally and personally. Before the war, he had benefited from the influence provided by the Virginia congressional delegation who made sure their 'favorite sons' were promoted in a timely manner. Thomas was surprised when Virginia seceded, but must have known that if he didn't follow his state into the Confederacy, his professional career would suffer. During the war Thomas had little support in Congress, while less worthy men who did, were promoted over him time and again.
But, by the start of the war, he had served the national government for over twenty years, and, in contrast to Lee, his postings had allowed very few days in his home state of Virginia, and this had given him a wider view on what was meant by 'The United States'.
Here, from General Thomas himself, is his straightforward explanation of why he stayed with the Union. It was stated in response to the presentation of a gold medal given to him on the second anniversary of the Battle of Nashville by the Governor of Tennessee.
"Some thirty years ago I received my diploma at the Military Academy, and soon after a commission in the Army.
On receiving that commission I took an oath to sustain the Constitution of the United States, and the Government, and to obey all officers of the Government placed over me. I have faithfully endeavored to keep that oath. I did not regard it so much as an oath, but as a solemn pledge on my part to return the Government some little service for the great benefit I had received in obtaining my education at the Academy." 2
1. Francis Macdonnell: The Confederate Spin on Winfield Scott and George Thomas, Civil War History Magazine, December 1998. http://www.aotc.net/Antithomasspin.htm
2. Wilbur Thomas: General George H. Thomas The Indomitable Warrior, New York: Exposition Press, 1964, p. 605.