The Rock of Chickamauga

By Matt Slattery
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the Fall of 2000.

In the winning of battles no other commander in the Civil War, North or South, equaled the slow-moving, keen-minded Virginian, George H Thomas.

George H. Thomas

In January 1862 he won the first battle in the West at Mill Springs. In December 1864 he won the last battle in the Western Theater at Nashville–the only battle of the war in which the defeated army was totally broken up, never to again assemble. In the three-year interval he served under (and as the right hand man to) General Buell at Perrysburg, General Rosecrans at Stones River, General Grant at Chattanooga, General Sherman on the Atlanta Campaign–all Union victories in which Thomas played a major role.

Only once in the war did he suffer defeat, but his courageous and skillful action in it earned him a sobriquet for the rest of his career and in the history books: The Rock of Chickamauga. In October 1863 the Union army was strung out in a north to south five mile line on the west side of Chickamauga Creek, opposed by a slightly larger army under Gen. Braxton Bragg. Seeking to find a weakness, the Confederates attacked through the heavy undergrowth all the first day without success. Thomas’ divisions held the left (northern-most) wing which was the critical position; if it should crack, the entire Union army would be cut off from its base in Chattanooga. He was opposed by divisions under Gen. (and bishop) Leonidas Polk. Thomas’ men did not crack.

On the second day, the bloody carnage was resumed. The positions remained unchanged until around noon when the inexplicable and disastrous order came to Gen. Wood from Rosecrans to pull his division out of line. Longstreet’s men poured through this gap, the blue divisions on either side crumpled, and in short order the entire right (southern) wing was in disorganized retreat, fleeing along with Rosecrans and his staff for Chattanooga.

Sixty percent of the army was out of action. Thomas saw what had happened and what must be done. He ordered his divisions to fall back a short distance to higher ground. He faced two of them south and reordered his artillery. He called up Gen. Granger’s reserve corps and absorbed through the lines numbers of broken regiments from the ongoing catastrophe. The entire Confederate army tried for the rest of the day to break up this patched-up force and failed. When night came the troops quietly withdrew and marched in good order back to Chattanooga. Gen. Grant, in overall command in the west, ordered Thomas to take over from the discredited Rosecrans. In another month Thomas’ divisions would charge up Missionary Ridge and change the character of the war in the west.

The Battle of Chickamauga as depicted in Harpers Weekly, October 1863

What was there in this man to make him so successful, to make his soldiers so respect him, to compel his commanding generals to so rely on him? We cannot in this brief piece spell this out as it should be. (And it is lamentable that with the surfeit of Civil War books published in recent years the latest biography of Thomas dates to the 1960’s.) A few brief anecdotes must suffice.

Thomas was methodical and he was always prepared for battle. Perrysville was fought during a severe drought. Water was scarce as the armies came together on the night before the battle. Thomas marched his men six miles to where men and horses had adequate water and then aroused them at 3 AM to get back to the battlefield. His men were able to perform that day as no others in either army.

On the first day of the Battle of Stones River the Confederates crumpled the Union line and put it in a precarious position. At the evening staff meeting various generals consulted on how they might detach and retreat. Thomas’ opinion was sought. “This army don’t retreat” he rumbled. Then what can be done? “Tomorrow the rebels will hit our left flank. Right now move every piece of artillery to the left.” It was done, the next day’s attack was broken up, and Bragg was forced to retreat.

At Nashville, Thomas flatly refused to attack Hood until the horses promised for his cavalry were on hand. His delay so infuriated General Grant that he sent one of his corps commanders west to relieve Thomas. But the horses arrived and by the time Grant’s man got to Nashville the battle was on and the Southerners suffered the most overwhelming defeat of the war.