George Henry Thomas
Union General George H. Thomas, nicknamed the “Rock of Chickamauga,” played a pivotal role in several significant Tennessee Civil War battles. Born July 31, 1816, in Southampton County, Virginia, Thomas gained local fame as a boy when he rode through the county to warn neighbors of the Nat Turner-led slave uprising of 1831. This helped him gain appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated with distinction and became an instructor in artillery and cavalry. During the Mexican War, Thomas fought in the Second Cavalry, ironically beside several other young officers such as John Bell Hood and Albert Sidney Johnston, who later would be his antagonists during the Civil War.
In 1861 Thomas remained loyal to his country, a stance detested by many of his Virginia friends and family members. In fact, due to Thomas’s Virginia roots, Federal officers were wary of giving him command. However, the methodical but resolute Thomas proved he could fight and win at the battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky, in January 1862, when his command defeated a Confederate force from Johnston’s army led by General Felix Zollicoffer. Thomas’s soldiers routed the Confederates and Zollicoffer was killed. Mill Springs was the first significant Union victory in the western theater of the war.
In the Kentucky campaign of 1862, Thomas again served with distinction at the battle of Perryville on October 8. He was offered the command of his superior, General Don Carlos Buell, but Thomas demurred, accepting instead a subordinate position in the U.S. Army of the Cumberland under General William S. Rosecrans. At the end of the year, at the battle of Stones River near Murfreesboro, Thomas’s soldiers survived heavy casualties to hold the Union center at a place known as the “Round Forest” and to maintain control of the vital Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad line. Once again, Thomas had proven his resilience and ability in battle.
His reputation as a gifted field commander was cinched during the battle of Chickamauga in September 1863. General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee initially intended to overwhelm Rosecrans’s divided army. Thomas, however, escaped from one trap at McLemore’s Cove on September 9 while other Union commanders also managed to avoid confrontations. On September 18 Rosecrans concentrated his three corps along Chickamauga Creek, with Thomas’s corps placed at the center. When the Confederates attacked the next day, they smashed through both the right and left flanks of the Union line by early afternoon, leaving the fate of the Army of the Cumberland in Thomas’s hands. He rallied his soldiers and began to repulse repeated Confederate attacks. By 3:30 p.m., however, his command had weakened to the point that Thomas began to give ground. To his rescue came the reserve corps of General Gordon Granger. Together Granger and Thomas managed to hold their position, at least until dusk, when they retreated to Chattanooga. The battle of Chickamauga was a Union defeat, but Thomas gained the nickname “Rock of Chickamauga” for his stand, which undoubtedly saved the Army of the Cumberland from a disastrous rout.
That fall Thomas was given the command of the Army of the Cumberland, but his force was assigned a limited role in General U. S. Grant’s planned assault of Confederate positions along Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863. During the battle, however, Thomas’s soldiers surged through the Confederates positioned at the base of the ridge and then, without orders, charged up the steep ridge slope, surprising the Confederates and chasing them from the field. With this rousing victory, Thomas and his men avenged their earlier defeat at Chickamauga.
After the Union’s successful Atlanta campaign of 1864, General William T. Sherman in late October 1864 detached portions of Thomas’s army and ordered the soldiers to return to Tennessee to defend the Union rear and the capital city of Nashville from a possible invasion from Confederate General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee. A Union army under General John Scofield slowed Hood’s march north at the battles of Spring Hill and Franklin in late November, inflecting heavy Confederate casualties at the latter battle. Thomas then exasperated the Union high command by waiting for two weeks to strike the greatly weakened Army of Tennessee outside of Nashville. But when Thomas struck on December 15-16, 1864, he left the Confederate army in shambles; the war in Tennessee was virtually over. Thomas, a Virginia native, had served with distinction from the beginning to the end of that struggle, bringing victory to the Union cause.
After the Civil War, General Thomas remained in the military and was commander of the Military Division of the Pacific when he died in San Francisco on March 28, 1870.
Francis F. McKinney, Education in Violence: The Life of George H. Thomas (1961)