In 1851 he headed to the prize assignment of artillery instructor at West Point. At every stop since his first arrival there, he had met and measured cadets and fellow officers who would figure in his future—Sherman, J.E.B. Stuart, John Schofield, William Rosecrans, Braxton Bragg, John Bell Hood, among dozens destined to become famous in Civil War history. None was more impressive than the superintendent of the academy, Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, and no one there impressed Lee more positively than upright, conscientious George Thomas.
Under Lee, Thomas had the additional duty of cavalry instructor. In that role, Thomas won yet another nickname, Old Slow Trot, for restraining cadets from galloping their mounts. Since his brother had not found him a bride, Thomas found his own—tall, strong-minded Frances Kellogg, an upstate New Yorker, cousin of a cadet from Troy. He wore his ceremonial sword for the only time in his life when they were married in the academy chapel in November 1852.
Within six months, Thomas had to leave his bride for duty in the far Southwest; it would be three years before he saw her again. In a desert clash with a Comanche brave, he narrowly escaped death when an arrow glanced off his chin before lodging in his chest. Thomas pulled it out and, after a surgeon dressed the wound, went about his business. Then, in 1860, with the country in crisis after Abraham Lincoln was elected president, Thomas headed home on leave.
While there, he worried about his future as the Southern states began to secede. Governor John Letcher offered to make him Virginia's chief of ordnance. In turning that position down, Thomas wrote: "It is not my wish to leave the service of the United States as long as it is honorable for me to remain in it, and therefore as long as my native State Virginia remains in the Union it is my purpose to remain in the Army, unless required to perform duties alike repulsive to honor and humanity."
A month later, in April 1861, on the day Confederate guns opened against Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, Thomas sent telegrams to his wife and sisters, stating that he would remain loyal to the Union. We do not know exactly what he said then or what was going on inside him at other critical moments, because all his personal papers were destroyed. But his wife said that "whichever way he turned the matter over in his mind, his oath of allegiance to his Government always came uppermost." When Lincoln called for troops to put down the insurrection, Virginia joined the Confederacy, along with most of her professional soldiers. But Thomas stayed true to his oath, and to this day has been reviled by many Southerners for that decision.
Even his own sisters turned his picture to the wall and denied that they had any such brother. They returned his letters unopened and ignored his request to send him the ceremonial sword he had left with them for safekeeping. He also lost contact with his brothers. Some called him a turncoat.
The truth is that Thomas, like many other soldiers, was torn by the wrenching decision he was forced to make. So was his friend Lee, who opposed secession and agonized over resigning from the U.S. Army that he had served so faithfully. But Lee ultimately headed South, saying he could not bring himself to fight against his home, family and friends. It is also true that Lee had a much larger stake in Virginia, in its plantations and history, than Thomas did in his more modest place in Southampton. And besides his loyalty to the old flag, Thomas was committed to a Northern wife who was as strongly Unionist as his sisters were secessionist.
His memories of Nat Turner's insurrection might have hardened him into a determined defender of slavery, as it did for so many of the Southern officers who went with the Confederacy. Instead—perhaps remembering the eager blacks he had taught to read and write—he fought to overturn the "peculiar institution." Though he left no bold statements of how he felt, when his duty came to include ending slavery, he carried it out just as forcefully as when it stood for simply preserving the Union.
Those who protest Thomas' decision have made less of the fact that old Winfield Scott, general in chief of the Army in the early months of the war, was also a Virginian. He had been a national figure since the War of 1812, but by late 1861 he had retired and no longer mattered. Tens of thousands of Southerners fought for the Union, but Thomas has been the focus of resentment for one reason: he was a better general than the others.
As early as his cadet days, Thomas' contemporaries had seen a resemblance to George Washington in his classic profile, his integrity and his restrained power. In 48 months of war, as his brown hair and well-trimmed beard began to gray, he would attain a certain grandeur that only strengthened that comparison. He seldom showed his explosive temper, but when he did, it was remembered. He disdained theatrics and politics; to general and future president James A. Garfield, his whole life seemed "frank and guileless." Thus in character, if not in gambling instinct, he also closely resembled Lee, who was a role model for so many younger officers who served under him.