Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Thomas, George Henry
THOMAS, George Henry, soldier, b. in Southampton county, Va., 31 July, 1816; d. in San Francisco, Cal., 28 March, 1870. He was descended, on his father's side, from Welsh ancestry, and, on his mother's, from a French Huguenot family. Not much is known of his youth. He was early distinguished for the thoroughness with which he mastered everything he undertook. His home life was pleasant and genial, and he was carefully educated in the best schools and academies of the region. At the age of nineteen he began the study of law, but the next year he received an appointment as cadet at the U. S. military academy. At the academy he rose steadily in rank, from 26th at the end of the first year to 12th at graduation. He was nicknamed, after the fashion of the place, “George Washington,” from a fancied resemblance in appearance and character to the great patriot. He was graduated and commissioned 2d lieutenant in the 3d artillery, 1 July, 1840, and entered upon duty at New York, but was soon sent to Florida to take part in the Indian war, where, in 1841, he gained a brevet for gallantry. After a short stay at various posts on the south Atlantic coast, he was, in the autumn of 1845, sent to Texas. When the Mexican war began, he accompanied the column under Gen. Zachary Taylor, distinguishing himself at Monterey, where he was brevetted captain, and at Buena Vista, 22 and 23 Feb., 1847, bore a more decisive part. The success of that battle was largely due to the artillery. “Without it,” says Gen. John E. Wool in his report, “we would not have maintained our position a single hour.” Capt. Thomas W. Sherman said: “Lieut. Thomas more than sustained the reputation he has long enjoyed as an accurate and scientific artillerist.” He was again brevetted for gallantry, thus earning three brevets in a little more than six years after entering the service. The citizens of his native county in the following July presented him with a superb sword. He remained on duty in Mexico and Texas till 1849, and was again sent to Florida. In 1851 he was detailed as instructor of artillery and cavalry at the military academy, where he remained until 1 May, 1854. Soon afterward two cavalry regiments were added to the army, and of one of them, the 2d, brevet Maj. Thomas was, on 12 May, 1855, appointed junior major. In the composition of this new regiment unusual care was taken in the selection of officers. Jefferson Davis was secretary of war, and the choice was dictated not merely by ability but also by locality. Of the fifty-one officers that served in it prior to the beginning of the civil war, thirty-one were from the south, and of these twenty-four entered the Confederate service, twelve of whom became general officers. Among these were Albert Sidney Johnston, Robert E. Lee, William J. Hardee, Earl Van Dorn, E. Kirby Smith, John B. Hood, and Fitzhugh Lee.
In the seclusion of garrison life in Texas during the exciting period from 1855 to 1861, Major Thomas watched with increasing apprehension the gradual approach of the inevitable conflict. In affection for and pride in his native state he was a Virginian of the Virginians; but he never for a moment doubted where his duty lay. Early in November, 1860, he left Texas on a long leave of absence. Before its expiration he was ordered, 11 April, 1861, to take charge of his regiment, which had been treacherously surrendered in Texas, and was now arriving in New York. He obeyed the order with alacrity and conducted the regiment to Carlisle, Pa., barracks. On his way there, he heard of the assault on Fort Sumter, and on reaching the place he renewed his oath of allegiance to the United States. On the 17th the Virginia convention adopted the ordinance of secession, and Robert E. Lee, colonel of his regiment, tendered his resignation on the 20th. Hardee, Van Dorn, Kirby Smith, and Hood had already resigned. Thomas, unmoved, continued with ardor the preparations necessary to sustain the cause of his country. At the head of a brigade he soon crossed the Potomac into Virginia, where, on 2 July, he met and put to flight an insurgent militia force of his own state, under command of Col. Thomas J. Jackson, drawn up to resist his movements. From that day till the end of the war he did not have or seek a single hour's respite from exacting labors in the field. He led the advance of Patterson's column toward Winchester prior to the battle of Bull Run, and at the close of that campaign he was appointed, 17 Aug., 1861, brigadier-general of volunteers, and assigned to duty in the Department of the Cumberland, which included Kentucky and Tennessee. He found the whole of Kentucky in a turmoil, when, on 10 Sept., he entered upon his work at Camp Dick Robinson, 100 miles south of Cincinnati. The Confederate army had occupied Columbus in spite of the formal protest of legislature and governor, and Thomas was menaced with personal violence. The camp was swarming with unorganized Kentucky regiments and crowds of refugees from east Tennessee, eager to be armed and led back to drive the enemy from their homes. For the first few months Gen. Thomas was fully occupied in instructing the raw recruits. It required infinite patience to work over these independent backwoodsmen into any semblance to soldiers. Little by little the task was accomplished, and the troops so organized became the first brigade of the Army of the Cumberland.
Gen. Robert Anderson was soon relieved from duty on account of failing health, and, after a short interregnum, Gen. Don Carlos Buell was placed in command of the department. Under his orders, Gen. Thomas continued his preparations for a movement in east Tennessee. Early in January, 1862, he placed the head of his column at Somerset, fifty miles south of Camp Dick Robinson, and on the night of the 18th encamped at Logan's Cross-Roads, ten miles from the enemy's position, with seven regiments of infantry, one squadron of cavalry, and two batteries. At early dawn the next morning he was attacked by a force consisting of nine regiments of infantry, two squadrons and two companies of cavalry, and two batteries. After a stout resistance Gen. Thomas succeeded in placing one of his regiments on the flank of the enemy's line, when a charge was ordered, and the whole Confederate force was driven in confusion from the field, with the loss of its leader, Gen. Felix K. Zollicoffer. Pursuit was continued till dark, when the enemy's works were reached. During the night that followed, most of the Confederate army escaped across the river, leaving guns, small-arms, and other spoils. This contest, which is known as the battle of Mill Springs, was the first real victory for the National cause since the disaster at Bull Run, six months before. The loss was 39 killed and 207 wounded on the National side, against 125 Confederates killed and 309 wounded. Immediately afterward the whole army entered upon the movements that culminated in the battle of Shiloh and the expulsion of the Confederate armies from the entire region between the Cumberland mountains and the Mississippi, Gen. Thomas shared in all these operations. On 25 April, 1862, he was made major-general, and was assigned to the command of Gen. Grant's army, the latter being made second in general command under Halleck, and thus virtually retired from active command for the time being. Soon after the occupation of Corinth, Gen. Thomas returned to his old command, and with it went through the exhausting campaign by which, at the end of September, Gen. Buell's whole army, save the isolated garrison at Nashville, was concentrated at Louisville, prepared to give battle to Gen. Bragg, who had audaciously led his army from Chattanooga to the Ohio river. At Louisville, on 29 Sept., the command of the National army was offered to Gen. Thomas, but he declined it. On 30 Oct. Gen. Buell was superseded by Gen. William S. Rosecrans, and Gen. Thomas was placed in command of five divisions, forming the centre of the army. On 31 Dec., 1862, the contending forces, under Rosecrans and Bragg, met in bloody conflict on the banks of Stone river, near Murfreesboro, Tenn. By an impetuous and overwhelming charge of the enemy at dawn, the whole right wing of the National army was swept back three miles, and its very existence was imperilled. But the centre, under Thomas, firmly held its ground and repelled every assault till nightfall. The contest was renewed on 2 Jan., 1863, when, by a bold and fiery attack of a part of Thomas's force on the enemy's right, the Confederate position was endangered, and Bragg, in the night of the 3d, retreated. The National army lay nearly motionless until June, when it entered on that series of brilliant flanking movements which, without any serious conflict, drove the enemy from Tennessee and compelled the abandonment of Chattanooga on 8 Sept. The terrible battle of Chickamauga followed, when, on 19 and 20 Sept., the Confederate army, re-enforced by Longstreet's corps from Virginia and some troops from Mississippi, put forth almost superhuman efforts to overwhelm the National forces in detail, and thus secure, once more, the prize of Chattanooga, the gateway to the heart of the Confederacy. Again, as at Stone river, the right was swept away, carrying with it the commander of the army and two corps commanders. Gen. Thomas was thus left with but little more than six out of thirteen divisions to maintain his ground against five corps flushed with seeming victory and eager with the hope of making him an easy prey. From noon till night the battle raged. Every assault of the enemy had been repelled, the National troops were full of confidence and ardor, and the final assault of the day was made by a National brigade following up with the bayonet a retreating Confederate division. In the night, by orders of the army commander, Gen. Thomas fell back to Rossville, five miles, and there awaited all the next day the expected attack; but the enemy was in no condition to make it. For the only time in its history, the Army of the Cumberland left the enemy to bury its dead. Gen. Daniel H. Hill, commanding a Confederate corps in that battle, who had served in both eastern and western armies, said: “It seems to me the élan of the southern soldier was never seen after Chickamauga. That barren victory sealed the fate of the southern Confederacy.”
Following this great battle. Gen. Thomas on 19 Oct. was placed in command of the Army of the Cumberland. Its affairs were in a most critical condition. All communication with its base of supplies was cut off, an almost impassable river was in its rear, from the heights of Lookout mountain and Mission ridge the enemy looked down on the beleaguered force, slowly starving in its stronghold. Immediate measures were taken for its relief, and from every quarter troops were hurried toward Chattanooga, both to open communications and to re-enforce the army for active operations. Two corps from the Potomac and two from Mississippi were speedily forwarded, and all were placed under command of Gen. Grant. To his almost despairing message to Gen. Thomas to hold the place, came the cheering reply, “We will hold the town till we starve.” Thomas had then in store six days' supply for 50,000 men. Preparations were at last completed, and on 23 Nov. the forces from Mississippi, aided by a division from Thomas, attacked the northern end of Mission ridge, and gained some ground. On the 24th Lookout mountain was captured by the forces from the Potomac, strengthened by two of Thomas's brigades. On the 25th, under Thomas's leadership, the Army of the Cumberland, released from its long imprisonment, stormed and carried the three lines of rifle-pits at the base, midway, and on the summit of Mission ridge, and drove the Confederate army, in utter rout, from the fortified position it had held so confidently for two months. As the jubilant National troops reached the summit of the ridge, the whistle of the first steamboat, loaded with supplies, told that the siege was indeed ended.
In the spring of 1864 Gen. Thomas entered upon the Atlanta campaign, at the head of 65,000 veterans, being two thirds of the grand army commanded by Gen. Sherman. He occupied the centre of the line. From Chattanooga to Atlanta it was an almost continuous battle of a hundred days. The relative amount of work done by each of the three armies is indicated by the losses. The Army of the Cumberland lost, in killed and wounded, 32 per cent., the Army of the Tennessee 26 per cent., the Army of the Ohio 16 per cent. On 1 Sept., at Jonesboro', the 14th army corps of Thomas's army made a successful assault, completely driving from the field the enemy's right, and on the 2d the 20th corps, also of Thomas's command, entered Atlanta, and the campaign was ended.
When Gen. Hood placed his whole force across the railroad north of Atlanta, and, turning his cavalry loose in Tennessee, threatened to cut off supplies from Sherman's army, Gen. Thomas was sent to Nashville, while Gen. Sherman prepared for his march to the sea. At the end of October the 4th and 23d corps were sent to Tennessee, with instructions to Gen. Thomas to use them in guarding the line of the river during Sherman's absence. It was supposed that Hood would follow Sherman's army through Georgia, but it was soon found that the entire force that had confronted Sherman on his way to Atlanta was now threatening Thomas. All the available troops were concentrated, and Hood's advance was resisted to the utmost. After a series of escapes from desperate hazards, a part of the two National corps under Gen. John M. Schofield, on the afternoon of 30 Nov., 1864, at Franklin, Tenn., signally defeated the repeated assaults of Hood's army, inflicting upon it irreparable losses, including six generals killed and a large number wounded. That night the National force retired to Nashville, where it was re-enforced by a corps from Missouri and a division from Chattanooga. Hood boldly advanced to the vicinity and fortified himself. Nearly all Thomas's mounted force had accompanied Sherman, leaving all the remaining cavalry to be remounted. The troops from Missouri and Chattanooga were destitute of transportation. Thus in midwinter, at 200 miles from the main base of supplies, and in the presence of a bold and active enemy, he had thrust upon him a task that at any time was almost overwhelming. Some called him “slow,” yet, within two weeks from the day when his unsupplied and dismounted army reached Nashville, it was ready to take the field. But Gen. Grant at City Point grew so impatient over what he considered needless delay, that he issued an order dismissing Gen. Thomas from command, and directing him to report to one of the corps commanders. After a fuller explanation of the causes of the delay, this unexampled order was suspended, but Gen. Grant himself set out for the scene of operations. A terrible storm of sleet and rain, freezing as it fell, came up on 9 Dec., rendering all movement impossible. On the 14th a thaw began. On the 10th and 16th, in exact accordance with the detailed order of battle, the confident troops of Gen. Thomas, who had never lost faith in their leader, by skilful and energetic movements, completely overthrew the last organized Confederate army in the southwest. A feeble remnant, despoiled of guns and transportation, came together some weeks later at Tupelo, Miss., nearly 250 miles distant. As an army it never again took the field.
What Gen. Thomas accomplished in this campaign, and with what means, cannot be better told than in the words of his despatch to Gen. Halleck on 21 Dec.: “I fought the battles of the 15th and 16th with the troops but partially equipped; and notwithstanding the inclemency of the weather and the partial equipment, have been enabled to drive the enemy beyond Duck river, crossing two streams with my troops without the aid of pontoons, and with but little transportation to bring up supplies of provisions and ammunition. . . . Too much must not be expected of troops that have to be reorganized, especially when they have the task of destroying a force, in a winter campaign, which was enabled to make an obstinate resistance to twice its numbers in spring and summer.” Following this great victory came the operations of the cavalry as organized by Gen. Thomas in Alabama and Georgia, resulting in the taking of Selma and the capture of Jefferson Davis. But the battle of Nashville was substantially the end of the rebellion in that quarter. For it he received the appointment of major-general in the U. S. army, accompanied by the assurance of the secretary of war that “no commander has more justly earned promotion by devoted, disinterested, and valuable services to his country.” He also received the thanks of congress and of the legislature of Tennessee, together with a gold medal presented to him by the latter body on the first anniversary of the battle.
With the close of the war, Gen. Thomas bent all his energies to the restoration of peace and order throughout his command. In May, 1869, he was placed in command of the military division of the Pacific, and held it until his death. Though he had seen more continuous, varied, and active service than any officer of his age and rank in the army, Gen. Thomas was emphatically a lover of peace. His whole nature and disposition were orderly, gentle, and kindly. He abhorred war, not merely because of its cruelty, but also because of the turmoil and disorder it occasioned. Though a lover of home life, he never was allowed to remain long in one place, the average length of time that he was stationed at any one post being less than five months. He enjoyed the calm and peaceful life of nature, loving trees and flowers and the open air. His range of reading was not very wide, but he was well acquainted with natural science, was a good geologist, expert in woodcraft, and well versed in botany. The museums of the Smithsonian institution contain rare and curious specimens contributed by him. In his own profession he was thoroughly trained in all departments, so that, when he was placed in command of a corps, he had had personal experience of every arm of the service. When the war ended he was the only general officer of high rank and distinction (except Sheridan and Hancock) who had served uninterruptedly in the army. He had carefully studied military and international law, and especially the constitution of the United States, and was a thorough believer in the ideas on which the government was based. No man was ever more scrupulous to subordinate the military to the civil power. The general of the army, his classmate and life-long friend, in announcing his death, said: “The very impersonation of honesty, integrity, and honor, he will stand to posterity as the beau-idéal of the soldier and gentleman. Though he leaves no child to bear his name, the old Army of the Cumberland, numbered by tens of thousands, called him father, and will weep for him in tears of manly grief.” He was buried with all the honors of his rank at Troy, N. Y., on 8 April, 1870. A fine equestrian statue, in bronze, by J. Q. A. Ward, erected by the soldiers of his old army, perpetuates his appearance and features in the capital of the country. (See illustration.) His biography has been written by Thomas B. Van Home (New York, 1882). See also John W. De Peyster's “Sketch of G. H. Thomas” (1870) and James A. Garfield's “Oration before the Society of the Army of the Cumberland,” 25 Nov., 1870 (Cincinnati, 1871).