George Thomas was the Greatest Battlefield Commander of the American Civil War

George Thomas was the Greatest Battlefield Commander of the American Civil War


There’s a saying in the business community, “No one ever was fired for choosing IBM.”. This apothegm is quite true. Those who undertake important tasks are under close and extensive scrutiny, and their audience are very sure about how these tasks are best carried out. These public judgments are based upon what has happened in the past and what is generally accepted. There are sometimes new, unconventional, unproven approaches, clearly and demonstrably better than what has been done before, that are neglected because no one dares take them up. When the leader of some important endeavor takes the usual, established steps and fails, the failure is met with a shrug of resignation but if he tries something strange and unorthodox and it doesn’t work, that failure is met with indignation and vituperation. Because of this reaction, managers and directors often do what is least likely to bring them trouble and grief rather than what is most likely to succeed. The fear that if some new strategy miscarries, they will suffer blame and punishment often keeps them to the old ways sanctioned by tradition. These old ways are often, and perhaps usually, those of caution and prudence but not always.

During the first half of the American Civil war, the northern armies had an unfortunate history of generals who’d been dilatory in their operations and prone to offer excuses and delays when urged to go forth against the enemy. A Union commander who moved slowly was presumed to be timid, uncertain, and reluctant to come to grips with his dashing southern adversaries. Northern frustration and impatience was understandable and to some extent justified by the sluggishness of some of their generals, and Lincoln himself was not altogether untouched by its effects. Northern commanders who ordered ill-considered assaults, who hurled their men against inexpugnable positions, were often seen as showing a laudable boldness. The Union public had a general and largely correct apprehension that they far exceeded the Confederacy in population and resources and that attrition will work to their advantage. George Brinton McLellan, twice the Commander of the Army of the Potomac, the one general with whom they were most familiar was, for reasons of temperament and inclination, unwilling to avail himself of an overwhelming preponderance of strength to close with and destroy the enemy. His faults led the northern government and citizenry alike to seek his opposite, a swift and savage fighter who will crush the frail Confederacy and bring the boys home.


George Thomas did not match that ideal. The one and only southerner to hold high command in the Union army, he was always slow and methodical in his movements. His southern origins and his close ties to many of the Confederate commanders were certain to arouse some suspicion, and the deliberate pace of his operations confirmed to some that he hesitated because his loyalties lay with the south and he was doing everything he could to arrest the onslaught against his homeland. Others, without impugning his motives or his patriotism, simply considered him yet another example of a cautious, logy Union general, best to be replaced by someone younger, more active, and more daring.

Born and raised in Virginia, George entered the United States Military Academy at West Point where he shared a room with William Tecumseh Sherman, and after graduation fought in the Mexican American War. After the war, he served in South Florida, before returning to West Point as a cavalry and artillery instructor. The cadets under his instruction, wanting to show off, galloped their mounts nearly everywhere and exhausted them needlessly and cruelly. He put an end to these wasteful shows of bravado, teaching his cadets to conserve their horses’ strength for when it would really be needed, and earning himself the nickname ‘Old Slow Trot’. Robert E. Lee was the superintendent of West Point during Thomas’ tenure, and both men were later assigned to the elite Second Cavalry Regiment. The appointees to this regiment were personally selected by the Secretary of War Jefferson Davis from among the best soldiers in the United States Army, mounted on the finest horses and furnished the newest equipment the army could provide. The men Davis happened to select were almost always southerners and some in the government and the army itself feared that they were being groomed to become the military leaders of a newly born and hostile southern nation.

These suspicions were prescient, and when the great split did come, Lee and almost all the southern officers chose the Confederacy while Thomas chose to remain faithful to the Union. Although he’d taken a girl hailing from upstate New York as a wife, he always resented any implication that uxorious attachment rather than a solemn sense of duty was the reason for his remaining with the Union. Whatever his reasons, his allegiance remained and, promoted to brigadier-general, he fought and won the first major Union victory of the war at Mill Springs, Kentucky.  But it was as a corps commander under William Rosecrans that he made his greatest contribution.

Rosecrans was capable but eccentric, a Catholic when the rest of the nation was predominantly and violently Protestant, and he was all too aware that most found his faith exceptionable. Soldiers never get enough sleep and it’s more precious to them than anything, but Rosecrans was so keen to uphold his faith and fond of theology that he kept his officers up nearly through the night as he expounded the finer points of his Catholicism. As commendable as his long hours and hard work were, on the field he was excitable, sometimes becoming so agitated that his orders became nearly unintelligible. These lapses in communication led to disaster at Chickamauga. Rosecrans directed one unit in the center of his line to shift over in support of another regiment but the intent of the message was unclear and to follow its literal meaning would open a hole in the center. The officer leading this unit had been earlier excoriated for not obeying an order and in his pique, he decided to carry out this one to the letter. Conscious that what he was about to do was to have tremendous consequences, he made a great display of reading the order aloud to his fellow officers for evidentiary purposes in any court martial to come. Immune from legal retribution, he moved his regiment and the Confederate attack now roaring in met nothing but air. The attacking Confederates were initially perplexed that they encountered no resistance but coming to see that they weren’t lost but had cut the Union army in half by no effort of their own, they tore through the gap. The northern army routed, the southerners strove to encircle, trap, and destroy it, but Thomas with his corps took up a strong position on Horseshoe Ridge, and fighting off attack after attack by the entire Confederate Army, covered the retreat and saved the army.

The Army of the Cumberland had escaped, but it had done so only by running, and it was now in Chattanooga, besieged on all sides. The unfortunate Rosecrans had been replaced by the team of Ulysses Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. The problems besetting them were myriad and complex, but having the larger, stronger force there was no convoluted solution needed, and they simply began hitting things until something dislodged. As part of these attacks, the Army of the Cumberland was sent to capture rifle pits at the bottom of Missionary Ridge. Having captured their objective, they found that they were under galling fire from the top of the ridge, and the only safe place being the slope itself, they began to ascend. The steep angle made it nearly impossible for the Confederate rifles or artillery to reach them and they reached the top and drove off the enemy in what seemed an impossible and miraculous victory.

The victor in the first major Union victory of the war, Thomas was also author of the last. Yet before winning the Battle of Nashville, he was nearly relieved of his command because he refused to set out until he was ready. The roads in Middle Tennessee were in fact impassible but the authorities in Washington couldn’t know this for certain and having contracted a habit of exasperation with listless, recalcitrant generals, they reacted precipitately. The War Department sent another to take his place but the slowness of nineteenth century communications gave the Virginian the respite he needed to crush the Confederate army facing him and justify the methodical preparations that had preceded and guaranteed his victory.

It is possible to forego the long baggage trains, magazines, depots, and other impedimenta that come with an established line of supply and choose to forage for food and fodder instead, living off the country for everything. An army so liberated moves so quickly and freely that it seems ridiculous to make war in any other manner. The generals not bold enough to do so and rely on obsolete methods are clearly too timid, conventional, and unimaginative to make this tactical leap. Thomas’ roommate at West Point, William Sherman, had his army live off the land during his famous March to the Sea, and it was the practice of Napoleon’s Grand Armee during its dazzling victories in central Europe. It is possible for an entire army to live off the land, but only in the most fertile of territories and the nearest of distances. What may do for Germany, Georgia, and South Carolina with their fine roads, clement weather, and rich farms will not do on the steppes of Russia or the deserts of Egypt. When the expedient of living of the land does fail, it fails utterly and catastrophically. Invaders can fall upon the farms along the march, steal their food and lead off their livestock, leave the inhabitants to starve but if they’re defeated and repulsed, forced to turn back and return the way they came, things will be much different. The farmers they left behind are now partisans who will follow them, hunt them, torture and kill them if them fall out or are separated from the main body however briefly. An enemy may also be desperate enough to burn their houses and crops, slaughter their cattle and sheep, poison their wells, leaving nothing for the invaders. Napoleon’s troops in Egypt killed themselves for thirst, and nearly the entire massive invasion force he brought into Russia perished there.

The Duke of Wellington ultimately defeated Napoleon by the outdated methods of established lines of supply, reliance on defensive fortifications, and fighting in line. The use of skirmishers probing ahead and disrupting, with columns of poorly trained zealots following and smashing through the traditional armies of the monarchies, worked only for a brief period. The traditional armies adapted to the new conditions and the new tactics. George Thomas was likewise traditional in his tactics, as well as slow and methodical in his movements, but he is vindicated by the results. He never ordered his men into a failed assault that should have never been attempted and ended only in slaughter, like Grant at Cold Harbor or Sherman at Kennesaw Mountain. He is the only Civil War commander on either side who won major battles and suffered far few casualties than he inflicted while doing so: Mill Springs 246 – 529, Nashville 3,061 – 6000. These lopsided victories and the performance of his corps at Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge place him ahead of Ulysses Grant, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and anyone else.

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