What got you interested in General Thomas?
I've been reading about the Civil War since I was a boy, and identifying with my ancestors who fought on the Confederate side. My great-grandfathers were soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia, and I'm sure that if I had been one of them, then and there, I would have volunteered for the Confederate army just as they did. If you grow up, as I did, on Lee Street in Danville, the last capital of the Confederacy, it's hard to imagine that there were Virginians who actually fought for the Yankees. And if you follow Lee's army every step of the way to Appomattox, it's easy to ignore the fact that there was another war going on out there west of the Blue Ridge. In the past I have been heard to say, only slightly in jest, that to me, if it happened beyond the mountains, it might as well have been a battle between Belgium and Bulgaria.
So the massive fact of George Thomas, a Virginian who fought for the North and became one of the Union's great generals, grew upon me gradually, until I became fascinated with him. He was from Southampton County, where my paternal ancestors were from. What drove him to make the decisions he did? What kind of man was he? What kind of soldier? In his place, would I have done the same thing? The fact that he is such a towering figure, and so few Americans know anything about him, made me want to tell his story.
What's the most interesting thing about Thomas?
Thomas had such a cross to bear. Coming north from Virginia he faced the distrust of Northern politicians, including Lincoln. He was clearly burdened by the fact that he was fighting against the South, and that people in the South—including his own relatives—were very angry at him. Thomas, of all the major figures of the war, had more internal stuff to deal with, which makes him more complex and more interesting. He was a Virginian who fought for the North and became one of the great generals. Tens of thousands of Southerners fought for the North, but Thomas was the one who was most resented because he was the most successful in fighting.
You say in the article that to this day Thomas is reviled by many Southerners—why do they still feel so strongly?
A lot of people are still fighting the Civil War. Some people hate Thomas for the same reason that some people still fly the Confederate flag. I hope that won't go on forever, and it's dwindled, but it's still there. When you write Civil War books, as I do, you find that a lot of people are not only interested in and sympathizing with the Confederate army in a historical sense, but some of them are still waving the flag.
Do Civil War historians argue about that when they get together?
There's a lot of disagreement, as among all historians about any subjects, but a lot of the arguments about the Civil War—among serious historians—really get down to details rather than the big picture, because that's pretty well understood now.
Why was Thomas opposed to slavery even though he had had slaves and lived through the Nat Turner rebellion?
He was opposed to slavery because it became his duty to be. Based on things that he said and did in the process of being a Union general and in his post-war career, he clearly thought that slavery was a bad thing. If this had been a book instead of an article, I would have included a lot more of that. It's striking that he was separated from his family because of what he did, and they were still down there in the plantation society, which he had left when he went into the army.
In the article you say that different historians give different reasons for why Thomas has fallen into obscurity. What's your explanation?
I think mainly the attention given to Grant and Sherman, who fought in the East, where the war eventually ended. Appomattox and the march through Georgia and all that are so dramatic that they overshadowed Thomas, who was fighting beyond the mountains in the western theater.
Thomas Circle in Washington. D.C. is close to Smithsonian's offices. Have you been there and seen the statue?
Yes, and it's a good statue; it's pretty well done. He may have been more portly than the statue shows him, though.