Was Gen. George Thomas Right – A Civil General Controversy
This article was inspired by the historical novel A Civil General, about George Thomas, a Virginian who became a general in the Union Army during America’s Civil War. Published by Sunstone Press, the book was co-authored by David Stinebeck and Scannell Gill, who wrote this article for ArmchairGeneral.com.
David Stinebeck, whose great-grandfather fought under General George Thomas and recorded the experience in his diaries, has a BA from Stanford University and a PhD in American Studies from Yale. He is the author of Shifting World: Social Change in the American Novel and co-author of Puritans, Indians and Manifest Destiny.
Scannell Gill graduates from Union College, has an MS in Marriage and Family Therapy from the University of Rhode Island, and is writing an original analysis of the multifaceted roles of women in society. Together they are working on a trilogy of novels based on the racial and economic history of Nantucket Island.
Thomas refused to accept a war of attrition as an honorable and reliable way for the North to win.
During the American Civil War, Union general George Henry Thomas’ fighting style—to crush the enemy in big battles and avoid a war of attrition—worked in the Western Theater, and differed significantly from the fighting styles of Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and William T. Sherman. Thomas was an intense tactician and strategist—thinking through all scenarios in the campaign and battles ahead—and he was certain that his kind of thinking was the quickest and best way to win the war. He was determined both to defeat the Confederate army in the West in a big battle or two (which his men in fact achieved at Missionary Ridge and Nashville) and to do it with fewer casualties than on the other side. Our careful accounting of all of Thomas’ engagements was unable to unearth a single one in which his men suffered more wounded and dead than the opposing forces.
But Grant and Sherman had a hard time trusting this kind of thinker and leader, and not just because he was a Virginian. Thomas wanted to be left alone to do his job and hated to curry favor with those above him whom he publicly supported but whose leadership, we believe, he did not respect. There is a scene in the novel, after Grant slogs his way to Chattanooga following Vicksburg, in which the two of them confront each other over Thomas’ personality. Grant basically says to Thomas, whom he has just picked to lead the Army of the Cumberland, why should I fully trust someone who does not play the game and curry favor with or climb over those above him, someone who turned down two earlier promotions because he did not want to appear ambitious?
Grant bullies Thomas in this scene but scores points against a general who wants only to do things his way and be judged on nothing more than the results. This, we believe, was also Thomas’ motive in having his wife destroy all his personal papers upon his death: he wanted to be judged only on his performance in battle—to dissuade any aspersions in the North that he was a Southerner or ridicule from Southerners mocking his service to the Union. He died of a stroke five years after the war while writing a defense of the remarkable victory at Nashville in response to an unfounded, anonymous attack by a fellow Northern general.
While Thomas refused to accept a war of attrition as an honorable and reliable way for the North to win, Grant was willing to overwhelm the South with numbers and was unconcerned about casualties on either side. He and Lee in the East tried to wear each other out, regardless of the loss of life. Thomas, from all indications, was appalled by this approach to war. He was convinced that dramatic, overwhelming victories by the North would, in fact, save lives on both sides, and bring the South to its knees far quicker. Grant and Sherman certainly felt they had won the war with their quite different strategy. We leave it to historians to judge whether Thomas’ approach would have worked as well in the East as it did in the West.
George Henry Thomas, we argue, saw America whole—all regions and all races. He could not imagine the North and South surviving without each other, and he fought with remarkable success to hold the nation together. The 10,000 people who came to his funeral in Troy, New York in 1870 understood that, as did the endless columns of soldiers who passed by the monument (at “Thomas Circle”) erected to him by his men in 1879 in Washington, D.C., the single biggest celebration in the country’s history up to that time. Thomas fought fiercely to save America for all of its residents, men and women, white and black alike, North and South. Today’s leaders can learn a great deal from him.
Question: Would George Henry Thomas’ style of war have worked as well in the East as it did in the West? Was it, in fact, both an honorable and reliable way to fight this particular war?
Our answer is that we simply do not know if it would have worked as well in the East, where a resounding victory on either side would have had devastating effects on public opinion. As for the second question, the results speak for themselves: his men won and the public knew they had done so with a commander who minimized casualties as much as possible.
What’s your opinion? Post your thoughts in the Comments box below.