Special Report

Catching Up With “Old Slow Trot”

Stubborn and deliberate, General George Henry Thomas was one of the Union’s most brilliant strategists. So why was he cheated by history?

The Amazon loses 8,800 acres a day to "This army does not retreat," Gen. George H. Thomas famously asserted. Later in 1863, he rallied Union troops in the Battle of Chickamauga, in Georgia. His equanimity shows in a Civil War portrait, as it did in the heat of combat. (Rudy Ayordoa / David Perry Collection)
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Then, just when he was ready, a sleet storm froze both armies in place for days. Grant, furious that Thomas had failed to engage the enemy, decided to relieve him from command, first with one general, then another. Finally he started to go west to fire him in person. But before he left Washington, the ice melted in middle Tennessee.

On December 15, Thomas, unaware that Grant intended to fire him, roared out of his works against Hood. In two days his troops crushed the Rebel army. His infantry, including two brigades of U.S. Colored Troops, smashed into Hood's troops while the Union cavalry, dismounted with its fast-firing Spencers, curled around and behind the Rebel left. Almost a century later, historian Bruce Catton summed up the battle in two words: "Everything worked."

Thomas "comes down in history...as the great defensive fighter, the man who could never be driven away but who was not much on the offensive. That may be a correct appraisal," wrote Catton, an admirer and biographer of Grant. "Yet it may also be worth making note that just twice in all the war was a major Confederate army driven away from a prepared position in complete rout—at Chattanooga and at Nashville. Each time the blow that finally routed it was launched by Thomas."

Nashville was the only engagement in which one army virtually annihilated another. Thomas B. Buell, a student of Civil War generalship, wrote that in Tennessee, Thomas performed the war's "unsurpassed masterpiece of theater command and control....So modern in concept, so sweeping in scope, it would become a model for strategic maneuver in 20th-century warfare." After it, there was no more large-scale fighting west of the Blue Ridge.

When the bloodshed was over at last, after Lincoln was assassinated and the nation was recovering from the shock, 150,000 soldiers of all the Union armies converged on Washington for the most memorable victory parade in the nation's history. All of them, that is, except the Army of the Cumberland. When Sherman proudly passed in review before Grant, President Andrew Johnson and multitudes of cheering onlookers, Thomas had already said goodbye to his few remaining troops. Back in Nashville, in a message that his innate reserve did not let him utter in person, he described his thoughts as he watched their last parade:


"The coldest heart must have warmed" at seeing the men who had endured "this great, modern tragedy," he wrote—men "who had stemmed with unyielding breasts the rebel tide threatening to engulph the landmarks of freedom, and who, bearing on their bronzed and furrowed brows the ennobling marks of the years of hardship, suffering and privation, undergone in defense of freedom and the integrity of the Union, could still preserve the light step and wear the cheerful expressions of youth."

Thomas' own youth was long behind him. In four years of hard service, he had taken not a single day of leave. During Reconstruction, he commanded troops in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. He was considerate toward ragged defeated soldiers, but he was as strict as the angriest Northern Radical in opposing the Ku Klux Klan and defiant politicians. "Everywhere in the states lately in rebellion, treason is respectable and loyalty odious," he said. "This, the people of the United States, who ended the rebellion and saved the country, will not permit."

When President Johnson wanted to make him a full general, Thomas declined, understanding the move as Johnson's attempt to sidetrack Grant's progress toward the White House. He said he had done nothing since the war to deserve promotion, and if the honor was for wartime service, it had come too late. When he heard talk of nominating him for president, he staunched that too. So Grant was duly elected, in 1868, and soon afterward transferred Thomas to San Francisco. There, in 1870 at the age of 53, the Rock of Chickamauga suffered a stroke and died.

The train bearing his body crossed the country to his wife's hometown of Troy, New York, with troops firing salutes along the way. President Grant and General in Chief Sherman, putting aside for the moment their criticism of Thomas, led the throng of mourners at the funeral. But no one was there from the Thomas family of Southampton County. Shortly after Lee's surrender, Union general John Gibbon had heard that the Thomas sisters were suffering, and sent them a wagonload of supplies as a token of his friendship for their brother. Judith Thomas would not accept, insisting she had no brother George, that he had died on the day Virginia seceded.

About Ernest B. Furgurson
Ernest B. Furgurson

Ernest B. Furgurson is the author of Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War and Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War, plus other books about war and politics.

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