The Forgotten General

Historians’ perspectives on George H. Thomas

Historians offer different explanations of why George H. Thomas has been subordinated to Grant, Sherman and Sheridan.

The only notable tribute to Thomas at West Point is a plaque on an administration building that was once the stables for black cavalrymen after the Civil War. Col. James T. Seidule, chief of military history at the U.S. Military Academy, admits that this marker "probably isn't the memorial he deserves. I personally think he is vastly underrated, though he is starting to receive the attention he deserves."

Seidule believes that Grant, Sherman and Sheridan were more celebrated in part because they all went on to be generals in chief, thus raising their stature among professional soldiers. At West Point today, Seidule teaches the importance of Thomas' role at Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge and Nashville, and says, "We really highlight the moral courage he exhibited by staying with the Union despite all of the pressure to join his home state."

Thomas' treatment at West Point is also a symbol of how he has been handled by history, compared with the millions of favorable words written and spoken about top generals who were his contemporaries.

James I. Robertson Jr., biographer of Stonewall Jackson and a longtime professor of Civil War history at Virginia Tech, thinks Thomas deserves greater fame. He blames not only the general's disputed reputation for caution, but also his "lack of exciting or captivating personality such as found in Sherman.... Thomas was methodical and diligent—traits that do not allow much room for engaging personality. Such were his assets and his debits. While many equate him with [James] Longstreet for slowness, other historians rank him with Grant and Sherman as the leaders in ultimate Union victory."

John Bowers, author of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, agrees, writing that "Thomas was never the life of a party. He neither rose from poverty nor went off the deep end through drink or craziness. Could Thomas be a little too boring to fit comfortably into the American mythology? Thomas seems to have always, maddeningly, done the right thing."

Professor Mark Grimsley of Ohio State University, a prolific analyst of Civil War leadership, ranks Thomas below Sherman and above Sheridan, but says, "The more I learn about him, the more respectful I become." Thomas' place in historiography partly replicates "the contemporary tension between him and the Grant/Sherman crowd," Grimsley adds.

Grimsley thinks the main reason that Thomas is less known today is because "we have no truly satisfactory biography." Most of those done in the decades after the war were overly praiseful, and the absence of a recent biography (not to mention a personal memoir like those left by the other generals, who long outlived him) has deprived Thomas of recognition by the broader public.

Not every historian agrees. Steven Woodworth of Texas Christian University, whose book on the Army of the Tennessee focuses on Sherman, considers Thomas "the most overrated general of the war." He sees a tendency "to make Thomas into a superman, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound or capture Atlanta by the end of May 1864. I don't believe he could have performed either of those feats."

In Kentucky, in 1887, a military post—Fort Thomas—was named for the general; today it is a city of 17,000. But in other parts of the South, the Thomas name still sparks disagreement.

In July 1985, the state of Virginia placed his childhood home on its tour of historic sites and erected a roadside marker to identify it. But aside from the General Thomas Highway near his home, there is no monument to the Union general.

"I don't know if he will ever be a hero in Southampton," says Lynda Updike, president of the county's historical society. "But one has to admire his desire to choose the side he felt was right rather than to follow his peers."

George Thomas may have been right when he told a fellow officer, "Time and history will do me justice." But they seem in no hurry to do so.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.