Schofield and Thomas: Blind Ambition at Nashville
John M. Schofield graduated in the West Point class of 1853, but not before being dismissed first and then being re-instated. Schofield’s dislike for General Thomas started at this time. George H. Thomas was an instructor there and a member of Schofield’s court of inquiry for an incident of lewd behavior towards several cadet candidates that Schofield was responsible for, which cost the candidates a chance of passing their entrance exams. McKinney writes:
“The Schofield court was one of the disciplinary measures in which Thomas became involved during this tour of duty. The enmity of John M. Schofield toward Thomas is a matter of history. It probably started at this time.
The trouble began on June 18, 1852, when the class of 1856 were presenting themselves as candidates for admission. Schofield had been detailed to instruct a section of these candidates in mathematics so that they could pass their entrance examinations. Four of the candidates failed in this course and three of these had been members of Schofield’s section. The record of the Schofield court is restricted material because its publication might embarrass the descendents of the accused, but from the correspondence that passed between West Point and the chief engineer of the army it is evident what happened. Schofield permitted his class to be turned into a burlesque by making the uses of their procreative and eliminative organs the subject of a blackboard examination. In reporting the affair to the Secretary of War, Schofield’s offense was called disgraceful and exemplary punishment was recommended. The Secretary agreed and Schofield was dismissed from the Academy. Two weeks later this decision was reconsidered [due to the intervention of Senator Stephen A. Douglas who, as Schofield says, ‘was the kind of man I had looked for in vain up to that time’] and the matter was referred to a court of inquiry. Thomas served as a member of this court.
In his autobiography, Schofield states that he was sentenced to be dismissed, and that Thomas and one other officer were the only ones of thirteen members who declined to vote for remission of the sentence. The identity of these votes, however, Schofield claimed he did not learn until two years before Thomas’ death when, as Secretary of War, he gained access to the transcript of the court’s proceedings.”1
It will take some time, but John Schofield will do his best to get revenge. At the start of the Civil War, Major Schofield was the adjutant to General Lyon in Missouri and fought at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek where Lyon was killed. Much later, when he was commander-in-chief of the army in the 1890’s, Schofield would get himself awarded the Medal of Honor apparently for some attack that he ordered at Wilson’s Creek that no one after the war readily remembered. Later, he seemed to be so ashamed of his blatant string–pulling that he did not mention the award in his autobiography.
Although fighting in no other major battles, he shows up in 1864 in Tennessee a Major General, and is appointed to command the Army of the Ohio. It pays to have friends.
Later, when the planning is being done for the March to the Sea, it is odd that Schofield does not lobby for a command under Sherman where it is presumed that the opportunity for glory would be, but instead, is willing to remain behind under Thomas. It turns out he knows he will be senior to all others serving with Thomas and thus will be automatically second-in-command. Opportunity appears to be knocking.2
While Thomas goes to Nashville to organize his pick-up army, he orders Schofield to shadow Hood from the Georgia border, and slow him down if possible, but in no way bring on a major engagement with Hood. Schofield appeared befuddled, and would have been caught at Spring Hill, but for an untimely miscue from the Confederate leadership.
He fell back to the Harpeth River at Franklin and prepared to fight a defensive battle. He went with the trains to safety across the river, and left Stanley and Cox to fight the battle on the south side. There was a terribly fierce fight, and in part due to Hood’s decision for a frontal charge over long open ground, the Union was successful. The next day, Schofield’s army entered the lines at Nashville. It was Dec 1, 1864.
Thomas was both forming a defense at Nashville using civilian quartermaster troops and equipping a cavalry force for attack and pursuit. From this time on, he was getting harsh telegrams from U.S. Grant at first urging then ordering him to attack at once despite the state of his forces or the weather. Thomas began to smell a rat. The author Freeman Cleaves picks up the story:
“Freezing weather still hung on. Fuel was consumed at a great rate, but although Thomas had woodcutters out every day, there were no big fires for the soldiers to warm themselves. Only fires for cooking were allowed. No day was complete without a nagging telegram from Grant. “If you delay attacking longer, the mortifying spectacle will be witnessed of a rebel army moving for the Ohio, and you will be forced to act, accepting such weather as you find,” the General-in-Chief wired on the eleventh. “Delay no longer for weather and re-enforcements.”
But it was hardly possible for Hood to move if Thomas could not. “I will obey the order as promptly as possible, however much I may regret it, as the attack will have to be made under every disadvantage”, replied Thomas in a stubborn frame of mind. “The whole country is covered with a perfect sheet of ice and sleet, and it is with difficulty that the troops are able to move about on level ground.” General Whipple, Thomas’s chief of staff, began to declare that someone was using the wires to undermine his commander at Washington. Thomas sent for Steedman, able veteran of Chickamauga. Could it be Governor Johnson? he asked. Steedman did not think so. He had talked with Johnson and knew him to be aboveboard at least. Thomas suggested that he look into the matter.
Steedman returned to his headquarters and assigned some detective work to an aide. This officer, Captain Marshall Davis, went to the telegraph office and picked up a message from Schofield to Grant: “Many officers here are of the opinion that General Thomas is certainly too slow in his movements.” Steedman hastened with the message to Thomas, who examined it carefully and inquired, “Steedman, can it be possible that Schofield would sent such a telegram?” Steedman remarked that Thomas should be familiar with the handwriting of his own general. Thomas put on his glasses and held up the message before the light. “Yes, it is General Schofield’s handwriting…Why does he send such telegrams?” Several years later Steedman recalled that he “smiled at the noble old soldier’s simplicity and said: ‘General Thomas, who is next in command to you, and would succeed you in case of removal?’ ‘Oh, I see,’ he said as he mournfully shook his head.”3
Did Schofield really undermine General Thomas in the mind of Grant? Or did Grant merely use Schofield as a convenient Judas? We may never know.
Did Schofield ever feel remorse for his actions? Apparently not. Here is what he says in his memoirs:
“Time works legitimate “revenge”, and makes all things even. When I was a boy at West Point I was court-martialed for tolerating some youthful “deviltry” of my classmates, in which I took no part myself, and was sentenced to be dismissed. Thomas, then already a veteran soldier, was a member of the court, and he and one other were the only ones of the thirteen members who declined to recommend that the sentence be remitted. This I learned in 1868, when I was Secretary of War. Only twelve years later I was able to repay this unknown stern denial of clemency to a youth by saving the veteran soldier’s army from disaster, and himself from the humiliation of dismissal from command on the eve of victory.”4
Considering that he was doing his best to get Thomas dismissed, this is obviously pure fantasy. He then goes on to state his considered opinion of Thomas as a commander:
“I believe it must now be fully known to all who are qualified to judge and have had by personal association or by study of history full opportunities to learn the truth, that General Thomas did not possess in a high degree the activity of mind necessary to foresee and provide for all the exigencies of military operations, nor the mathematical talent required to estimate “the relations of time, space, motion, and force” involved in great problems of war.”
With this smear of Thomas’ military abilities, he goes on to inform us that it was he who was the real mastermind of the Nashville victory. He stated that he made some suggested changes to the plan that turned the tide, and that Thomas never gave him credit for it.
O’Connor in his book “Thomas: Rock of Chickamauga”, quotes from a newspaper article written by General Steedman, the man who rode to the sound of the guns at a critical time at the Battle of Chickamauga, which refutes General Schofield’s attempt at ‘ex post facto’ glory:
“Robbing a grave of a body is a light crime compared with stealing the honors which rightfully belong to a dead illustrious patriot. The letter of General J. M. Schofield, claiming that he suggested changes in the battle of Nashville which were adopted by General George H. Thomas, surpasses in cheek and falsehood all the absurd lies about the war we have ever read. Schofield’s claim to a part of the laurels that encircled the brow of the grand old “Rock of Chickamauga” makes the self-lauding fiction written by General Sherman a modest production. There are four living witnesses—Generals Wood, Smith, Wilson and Steedman—who were in the council of war held in the St. Cloud Hotel, in Nashville, presided over by General Thomas, all of whom can testify that General Schofield states a deliberate falsehood when he says that, as the ranking officer next to the commanding general, he waived his right to speak last and promptly sustained General Thomas.
The truth is General Schofield did not speak at all until all the other generals had given their opinions, and then only said he would obey orders. General Schofield knew three days before the battle of Nashville that Schofield was playing the part of Judas, by telegraphing to General Grant at Washington disparaging suggestions about the action of Thomas, saying in one dispatch: “It is the opinion of all our officers with whom I have conversed that General Thomas is too tardy in moving against the enemy.” It was known to a number of our officers that, pending the battle, which was postponed for several days by Thomas because our army could not move on account of the earth being covered with ice for miles around Nashville, produced by a heavy rain freezing as it fell, Schofield was intriguing with Grant to get Thomas relieved in order that he might succeed to the command of our army as the General next in rank to Thomas. The character of Schofield as an ambitious, unscrupulous intriguer caused suspicion to fall upon him as the person who was disparaging General Thomas at Washington, and he was watched and exposed to Thomas as a deceitful, unfaithful subordinate who was engaged in a plot to relieve and disgrace his commander, the ablest, most honored and dearly loved soldier of the Army of the Cumberland. It was Major General George H. Thomas who planned and fought the battle of Nashville on his own plan, and General Schofield had nothing to do with originating or modifying that plan, nor did his command participate actively in the battle. Schofield’s command, the XXIII Corps, a magnificent body of gallant soldiers, was in reserve, did very little fighting in the battle of Nashville, and suffered but a trifling loss in the engagement. The infantry forming our line of battle was under the command of General A. J. Smith, who commanded the right; General Wood, who commanded the center; and General Steedman, who commanded the left. The right was protected by our cavalry under the command of the gallant General Wilson. General Schofield was ordered by General Thomas to support General Smith with his command, and while in the execution of the order a portion of his command was engaged and lost a few men.
We were not in the battle of Franklin, but we know from the statements made to us by hundreds of soldiers who were in that battle that it was Generals Stanley and Cox who commanded the troops in the field, while General Schofield, who now seeks to rob the brave and skillful officers who were with the troops and commanding them of the honor due them, was on the north side of the Harpeth River, two miles from Carter’s Hill, where the battle was fought. It was an intrepid, heroic Ohio soldier—General Opdyke—who, seeing the peril of our troops when the rebels broke through our lines, ordered his men with the bayonet to drive back the enemy, gallantly led them to execute his orders and saved the army. Stanley was badly wounded in the fight. Cox, although exposed to the balls of the enemy, nobly did his duty and escaped unhurt. Opdyke, who was promoted for his heroism, passed the ordeal unscathed. During the whole of the terrible bloody fighting of the battle of Franklin, the nominal commander, the man who had the right to command by virtue of his rank, and who would have been personally in command if he had not been an exceedingly cautious man, comes forward now and claims to be not only the hero of Franklin, but the wise and able general whose suggestions gave victory to General Thomas’ army at Nashville.
In the name of the grand hero who sleeps in his honored grave, we protest against the recognition of the false, infamous claim of Schofield, whom we brand as the slanderer of both the living and dead soldiers of the Army of the Cumberland. We do not say that General Schofield is a rank coward, but we can, from personal knowledge, safely state that he possesses the “rascally virtue called caution” in an eminent degree. We know from remarks we heard him make at Chattanooga that he envied and hated Thomas because the soldiers loved and honored him. The ambition of Schofield was boundless, and his military career an utter failure. He may have been under fire, but he was never exposed to the balls of the enemy to our knowledge, and we served under him for some time. He had several opportunities while we were under his command to get in range of the bullets of the enemy, but we never knew him to be reckless enough to expose his carcass to the fire of the rebels.”5
General John M. Schofield was one of those despicable men that rose to the top of their profession by a combination of back-stabbing and brown-nosing. The end result is that he is rightfully forgotten. He wrote a book in 1897 entitled “Forty-Six Years in the Army” dwelling on a lackluster career that no one cares to remember. Oddly, this tome was republished as a paperback in 1998. The best that the publisher could say about the book in the Forward was, “It merits reissue, both for what it tells us about Schofield and his times and for what it tells us about ambition …”
In Conclusion I have added in reference 6, a link to the 1896 article by Henry V. Boynton which offers more information on the Battle of Nashville, and in reference 7, a link to the enlightening back-story of the oily relationship between Schofield, Grant and Halleck.
1. F. F. McKinney: Education in Violence, The Life of George H. Thomas. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1961, p. 55.
2. T. Van Horne: The Life of Major General George H. Thomas, 1882, p.441.
3. F. Cleaves: Rock of Chickamauga, The life of General George H. Thomas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1948, P. 259-260.
4. J. M. Schofield: Forty-Six Years in the Army. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998, p.241-242.
5. R. O’Connor: Thomas: Rock of Chickamauga, NY: Prentice-Hall, 1948, p.376-378.
6. H. V. Boynton: Was General Thomas Slow at Nashville? With a Description of the Greatest Cavalry Movement of the War and General James H. Wilson’s Cavalry Operations in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. NY: Harper, 1896.
7. Bob Redman: Schofield vs. Stanley, Army of the Cumberland and George H. Thomas source page.