Out of the august night, James Gurley came galloping past the massive oak before Elizabeth Thomas' white plantation house. Get out! he shouted. Take your family and run! Now! The renegade slave leader Nat Turner was coming with a band of vengeful slaves, rampaging from farm to farm, killing white men, women and children.
George Henry Thomas, 15, piled into a carriage with his mother and sisters and racketed along dirt roads into the darkness. Before they had gone far, afraid the assassins would overtake them, they abandoned the carriage and took to the woods. In and out of gloomy Mill Swamp, across Cypress Bridge and the bottomlands of the Nottoway River, they escaped to the county seat of Jerusalem, some 12 zigzag miles from home.
Nat Turner's 1831 insurrection, in Southampton County, Virginia, was the bloodiest slave uprising in American history. Before it ended, 55 whites were killed. It stirred deep fears across the South, sweeping aside any talk of gradual emancipation, and hardened both sides in the long-running debate that ended in civil war. What it did to young George Thomas, who as a Union general became one of the most successful, most controversial, yet least recognized figures of that war, remains a question unsettled.
While Turner and his band, armed with guns, clubs, axes and swords, carried out their gruesome task, Thomas' mother led her family to safety, helped to do so by some of her own slaves, according to local tradition. George's father had died two years earlier. The boy's uncle, James Rochelle, who had mentored him since his father's death, was clerk of the court where Turner confessed and was hanged that November. Young George was immersed in the initial panic, the mobilization of militia and the fury of citizens demanding prompt justice. He heard talk that all the trouble would never have happened if Turner had not been taught to read and write.
Teaching slaves was illegal in Virginia and across the South, but George was among the many who had broken the law, teaching his own family's 15 slaves to read.
After attending the local academy, he became his uncle's deputy clerk and took up the study of law at the county courthouse. But he was restless, and gladly accepted an appointment from his congressman to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He would long remember the parting advice he got from his brother John: "Having done what you conscientiously believe to be right, you may regret, but should never be annoyed by, a want of approbation on the part of others." It was advice that would prove prophetic.
Nearly six feet tall, solid in body and stubborn in temperament, George was almost 20 years old when he arrived at West Point. His roommate was a red-haired, impulsive Ohioan named William Tecumseh "Cump" Sherman. They became friendly rivals, and after four years Sherman had finished 6th, Thomas 12th, among the 42 members of the class of 1840. Along the way, Thomas put a halt to the hazing of some fellow cadets by threatening to throw a bullying upperclassman out a barracks window; after years helping supervise a sprawling plantation, he had learned to exert calm authority. Among the cadets, his gravitas earned him his first of many nicknames: Old Tom.
Five months after graduation, Thomas sailed for Florida and the long, ugly little war begun by Andrew Jackson to force the Seminole Indians onto reservations. Thomas' captain wrote an appraisal that would well describe his entire career: "I never knew him to be late or in a hurry. All his movements were deliberate, his self-possession was supreme, and he received and gave orders with equal serenity."
Real war lay ahead in Mexico, where as an artillery lieutenant under Gen. Zachary Taylor in 1846, Thomas won honorary promotion to captain for his conduct in the pitched battle of Monterrey. Then Thomas was breveted to major for the way he handled his guns at Buena Vista, when Taylor defeated Mexican general Santa Anna in the last major battle in northern Mexico.
Southampton County was proud of its son, and presented him a magnificent sword, its gold pommel clasping an amethyst, its silver scabbard engraved with the names of his battles. On its grip was the image of an elephant—among soldiers, to have been in combat was to have "seen the elephant." And Thomas was still devoted to home: disappointed that his brother had not picked a bride for him, George said, "I would prefer one from the old state to any other, and as I am now so much of a stranger there I am afraid I should not know where to look. ..." In his letters, he worried about his unmarried sisters, left lonely on the farm, saying "domestic differences are to me the most horrible of which I can conceive." He could not yet imagine the scope of the domestic differences that lay ahead.