George H. Thomas Gets What’s Coming to Him — A Review of Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2011, All Rights Reserved

George H. Thomas gets what’s coming to him. A thorough but readable new biography, that is! Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas by Benson Bobrick is worth a look for anyone who wants to know more about Gen. George Henry Thomas. “The Rock of Chickamauga” was one of the greatest Union commanders of the Civil War, but has too long been lost in the shadows cast by U.S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Phil Sheridan.

George H. Thomas

Bobrick is clearly an admirer of Thomas, and it shows. From the outset, he notes Thomas’ consistent record of battlefield leadership, most notably at Mill Springs, Corinth, Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Nashville. Even when the generals under whom he served lost battles, “Pap” Thomas proved his steadfast courage and absolute reliability. Of all his peers in the pantheon of leaders in blue, Bobrick notes, “Thomas was the only Union general to destroy two Confederate armies, and the only one…to save two Union armies from annihilation by his personal valor and skill.”

Although Thomas was in some ways a stolid and unflashy figure, the author humanizes him. Born and raised in rural Southampton County, Virginia, Thomas at age fifteen helped save his family from Nat Turner’s 1831 slave uprising. Five years later he was appointed by a fellow Southerner, President Andrew Jackson, to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he befriended Sherman, Oliver O. Howard, and William S. Rosecrans. Early on, he showed the good judgment, attention to detail, and the innate intelligence that would serve him well in his Army career. He was brevetted three times in seven years, including during the Mexican War.

Fortunately for the nation as secession fever swept the South, Thomas proved immune. According to a friend, Thomas “denounced the idea [of secession] and denied the necessity of dividing the country or destroying the government.” He wrote to his wife Frances, “Whichever way I turned the matter over in my mind, my oath of allegiance to my Government always came uppermost.” (Would that Lee, Jackson, Longstreet & Co. had decided likewise!) Thomas nevertheless had to repeatedly prove his loyalty to the Union in the early days of the Civil War, swearing no less than three oaths in the span of ten days. Perhaps understanding the suspicions of his superiors, Thomas didn’t seem to mind. He told a fellow officer, “If they want me to take the oath before each meal I am ready to comply.” In years to come, Thomas was compared repeatedly by his contemporaries (including Sherman, Howard, James Garfield, and William Rosecrans) to another military Virginian of impeccable standing who placed loyalty to the United States over that of his home state: George Washington.

Once at the front, Thomas’ star began its steady rise. Bobrick praises Thomas’ inspirational effect on his troops, tactical skill, mastery of logistics, care in preparing for battle, and – different from far too many of his peers – his utter unwillingness to throw his men’s lives away in foolish or hasty attacks. But the author does not stop there, also highlighting Thomas’ personal courage, knowledge of military law, modesty, patience, religious faith, and even his kindness to animals. (A goose and a “sleek cat” were among his headquarters menagerie by the end of the war.) His leadership and his record of getting results drew the attention of Lincoln and his advisors. Three days after Thomas saved the day at Chickamauga, the president wrote, “It is doubtful whether his heroism and skill…has ever been surpassed in the world.” Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, and Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase also became admirers.

A “practical” and not an idealistic abolitionist, Bobrick writes, Thomas became one of the top advocates for the use of U.S. Colored Troops, unlike Sherman. When a captured Confederate officer turned up his nose at his USCT guards, saying, “I’d rather die than be taken into custody by nigger troops,” Thomas snapped, “Well, then, you’d better get ready to die, because these are the best men I’ve got!” Bobrick squarely addresses and dismisses the hoary criticism of Thomas for being too slow, quoting Bruce Catton (“There was nothing slow about Thomas”) and grudging praise on that point by Confederate generals including Stephen D. Lee and D.H. Maury. John Bell Hood met Thomas in 1866, just two years after Thomas had smashed his army at Nashville, and said to a friend afterwards, “Thomas is a grand man; he should have remained with us, where he would have been appreciated and loved.”

Why is Thomas still not given his proper and honored place in Civil War history? Bobrick unhesitatingly lays the blame at the feet of Grant and Sherman, who, he writes, did all they could to undercut him in their dispatches, correspondence, and memoirs. (Thomas never wrote his own memoirs, which surely must be a factor in his lower profile today.) Unfortunately, perhaps as a means of polishing Thomas’ laurels to an even brighter luster, I think the author goes overboard in his condemnation of Grant and Sherman. He writes that Grant, “however capable in some respects, remained small-minded, devious and (with interludes) a heavy drinker to the end,” was “next to insane,” and that his orders led to “butchery.” Sherman, although acknowledged as an early advocate for Thomas at the War Department, later becomes, in the author’s view, “neurotic,” “unhinged,” “unstable throughout his career,” and “arguably incompetent.” Bobrick is convinced that Grant and Sherman actively and persistently conspired to hurt Thomas’ career, and there is thus an unfortunate and, I think, largely unjustified air of paranoia that hangs over his discussion of the two.

Although a noteworthy flaw, this does not detract too much from the overall value of the book, which I recommend to anyone wishing to learn more about this fascinating but still underappreciated general. “Time and history will do me justice,” Thomas once said, and Master of War is one more important step along the path to proving him right.

Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas by Benson Bobrick

From the publisher: In this revelatory, dynamic biography, one of our finest historians, Benson Bobrick, profiles George H. Thomas, arguing that he was the greatest and most successful general of the Civil War. Because Thomas didn’t live to write his memoirs, his reputation has been largely shaped by others, most notably Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, two generals with whom Thomas served and who, Bobrick says, diminished his successes in their favor in their own memoirs.

Throughout his career, Thomas was methodical and careful, and always prepared. Unlike Grant at Shiloh, he was never surprised by an enemy. Unlike Sherman, he never panicked in battle but always remained calm and focused. He was derided by both men as “Slow Trot Thomas,” but as Bobrick shows in this brilliant biography, he was quick to analyze every situation and always knew what to do and when to do it. He was not colorful like Grant and Sherman, but he was widely admired by his peers, and some, such as Grant’s favorite cavalry commander, General James H. Wilson, thought Thomas the peer of any general in either army. He was the only Union commander to destroy two Confederate armies in the field.

Although historians of the Civil War have always regarded Thomas highly, he has never captured the public imagination, perhaps because he has lacked an outstanding biographer — until now. This informed, judicious, and lucid biography at last gives Thomas his due.

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