THOMAS SHOWS HE'S NO SLACKER IN TAKING OFFENSIVE by Robert Meiser
Special to the Washington Times, 8 Jan. 2000
Summary: It assuredly is especially tragic when a soldier loses his life in a useless or mismanaged battle or campaign. Fortunate indeed therefore were those who served under George Thomas, for there was no more competent commander on either side, North or South, to whom one could entrust one's life. He wasted no lives because he made no significant mistakes, yet at the same time he accumulated a long record of remarkable military achievement. In fact, Thomas appears to be the only Civil War general on either side of whom this can be said. This article reviews the facts and adds voice to those who argue for a long overdue reevaluation of Thomas's record and place in history, in line with what this remarkable man deserves.
1st Lt. Walter Boley, 88th Indiana Infantry Volunteers, died May 15, 1864, on the battlefield at Resaca, Ga. His regiment was part of the XIV Army Corps, described as probably the most able Union corps in the war, East or West. The XIV Corps was part of the Union Army of the Cumberland, Maj. Gen.George Thomas commanding.
Families of slain soldiers want to feel their loved ones did not die needlessly. Boley's family need not have been concerned. There was no better general to whom a soldier could entrust his life than George Thomas.
A son of Virginia, Thomas (of Thomas Circle fame) elected to fight for the Union, unlike Robert E. Lee. As a result, the Thomas family turned his picture to the wall and disowned him.
Many historians for years have accepted the thesis, grounded in the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, that Thomas, while solid on the defense, was deficient in aggressiveness. Other historians have disagreed vigorously, noting that the opinions of Grant and Sherman were at best unfounded or at worst based on envy and self-interest. This schism exists even though the facts are not really in dispute.
One fact is that Thomas was the only Civil War general who made no significant mistakes and at the same time accumulated a long record of remarkable military achievement.
In early action, he served under the elderly Gen. Robert Patterson, who on the eve of First Bull Run was charged with keeping Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnstons army in the Shenandoah Valley from the main action. Contrary to Thomas' advice to cross the Potomac inside (east) of the mountains, between Johnston and Bull Run, Patterson moved outside, to the west. This enabled Johnston to slip away and play a decisive role in the Union defeat at Bull Run.
After a day of desperate fighting at Stones River in Tennessee in December, 1862, Thomas urged Gen. William S. Rosecrans, commander of the Army of the Cumberland, to hold his ground, saying, ``This army does not retreat.'' Thomas advice was accepted that time, resulting in a Union victory.
The XIV Corps then was in the vanguard on the Union march to Chattanooga. When Rosecrans split his army at Chattanooga into three parts, it was against the advice of Thomas, who suggested that Rosecrans first consolidate around the city. The result: a near Union disaster at Chickamauga.
Two of the three corps commanders and Rosecrans himself retreated at Chickamauga, but Thomas stood and fought, gaining a brilliant defensive victory over Gens. Braxton Bragg and James Longstreet (in the sense that, against all odds, he exacted about as much damage on the attackers as the Union suffered, while saving the Union army to fight another day).
On that critical September day in 1863, he earned his title ``Rock of Chickamauga.''
Thanks to Thomas that day, the Union army remained in possession of Chattanooga and was able to regroup, and Thomas succeeded Rosecrans as commander of the Army of the Cumberland. Little more than two months later, the combined forces of the armies of the Cumberland, the Tennessee and the Ohio, under the overall command of the newly transferred Grant, again took the field against Bragg's army and defeated him at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge.
Significantly, Thomas' army was the key to victory. Grant's plan was to flank and then roll up Bragg's army from the north, using Sherman's Army of the Tennessee while Thomas maintained diversionary pressure at the center. Sherman misread the terrain, however, and found himself stranded on a hill before the ridge. Thomas was then ordered to advance to the base of the ridge to increase the pressure on the Rebels and relieve it on Sherman.
Instead, in one of the most memorable moments of that memorable war, Thomas' men continued without orders up and over Missionary Ridge, routing the defenders.
The next spring, with Grant by then having headed east to face Lee and Lincoln having chosen Sherman to succeed to overall command in the West, Thomas counseled a flanking movement with Sherman's entire force directed at Resaca via the Sugar Creek Gap to cut off and defeat the Confederate army by then under Johnston.
Sherman, however, decided to send Gen. John McPherson, who had succeeded him in command of the Army of the Tennessee. McPherson reached Resaca with superior forces but failed to advance and turn the Confederate flank. Johnston sensed the danger and was able to retreat. (Despite McPherson's failure, Sherman later would choose him and others over Thomas for critical tactical maneuvers.)
Johnston then withdrew intact to defend Atlanta. Sherman was impatient with the speed of his advance and ordered, over Thomas' objections, a frontal assault against Confederate defensive positions at Kennesaw Mountain. The result was a costly Union defeat.
With Gen. John Bell Hood replacing Johnston at the outskirts of Atlanta, the Confederates attacked Thomas at Peachtree Creek. Thomas prevailed. Again Sherman used McPherson's and John Schofield's armies in flanking movements around Atlanta, rather than that of Thomas.
With Confederate abandonment of Atlanta, Sherman embarked on his March to the Sea. In doing so, he took the heart of Thomas' forces, the XIV Corps, with him and left Thomas to face Hood in the West with Schofield's small army and Union remnants.
Throughout this period, Grant's plan had been for Sherman to maintain pressure in the West while he hoped to defeat Lee in the East. It didn't work out that way. Grant was stalemated and in fact suffered mightily at the Wilderness and, most notably, Cold Harbor.
Thomas in the meantime consolidated at Nashville, toward which Hood was pointing his Rebels. Thomas was concerned mainly at this time with building up his army with what by now were mostly recruits and equipping cavalry desperately short of horses and equipment. Grant was frantically eager for Thomas to attack and, when he didn't, sent Gen. John Logan on his way with orders to replace Thomas.
Grant himself headed for Nashville to oversee the campaign. After an ice storm further delayed Thomas, the order to attack finally was given - and carried out magnificently - on Dec. 14 and 15, 1864.
Part of Thomas' thinking was to prepare his cavalry for pursuit of what he expected to be his defeated adversary, particularly because Grant specifically was calling on Thomas to defeat and then pursue and annihilate a battered army. As Thomas realized all along, an effective cavalry was the means to achieve that goal - thus his insistence on taking the time necessary to build one.
As a result, not only did Thomas defeat Hood's army at Nashville in a campaign still studied for its military brilliance, but he went on to pursue and remove it as a fighting force throughout the rest of the war.
One should compare Thomas' record to the blemished records of such stalwarts as Grant, whose plan failed at Chattanooga but who won in spite of himself, who engaged in needless slaughter at Cold Harbor, and who let opportunity slip by failing to supervise the tunnel operation properly at Petersburg. (Union troops besieging the city tunneled under the Confederate lines and set off an explosive. Union troops advanced into the crater that was created and were slaughtered.) One cannot imagine Thomas allowing that golden opportunity to be mismanaged so criminally.
Thomas also should be compared to Lee, who ordered Pickett's Charge, who led losing campaigns in Northern territory and whose overall losses in his numerous aggressively achieved ``victories'' were more costly relatively and strategically than those of his ``defeated'' foes, and to Sherman, who in the first part of the war suffered paralysis from a bout of near insanity and who, along with Grant, failed at great cost and huge risk to prepare at Shiloh and who ordered the disastrous charge at Kennesaw Mountain.
To Thomas' credit, he alone did not have to be hit on the head with a 2-by-4 to get the message. Yet ironically, the only truly successful frontal assaults on established works during the war were achieved by Thomas, at Missionary Ridge and Nashville.
Finally, the personal character of the man distinguished him. In the military politics that prevailed to an astonishing degree in both armies, where ambitious generals had their political sponsors in Congress, Thomas had none because of his estrangement not only from his family, but from his state. His advancement to the highest levels of military rank in a highly politicized arena, therefore, was on merit alone and in spite of jealous comrades who sought to discredit him at every turn.
After the war, he declined nomination as Army chief of staff because he knew it came as a result of politics. His personal character, marked by courage, dignity, honesty and compassion, was beyond reproach.
Thus, there can be no doubt in the minds of the families of Lt. Boley and the countless other Union soldiers who served under Thomas that their soldierly sacrifices, even that ultimate military sacrifice, death, were not in vain.
Copyright © 2000 News World Communications, Inc. Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times
Note: Robert Meiser lives in Northern Virginia and is a
of Lt. Walter Boley, who was killed at Resaca.