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Rock Of Chickamauga

July 2024
4min read

The man who succeeded Rosecrans, of course, was General George H. Thomas, who saved the day at Chickamauga and was known as “The Rock” forever after; a man whose fame was immeasurably enhanced by the very defeat which put Rosecrans’ own fame under an enduring cloud. Yet if Thomas won national acclaim for what he did at Chickamauga, he remains another general who, almost unaccountably, was somehow deprived of the full measure of recognition he might have had. His record contains no blots, yet he was obscured by others: the towering reputations of men like Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan put just a little shadow on him.

Perhaps one trouble with Thomas was that he had no important backing. He came from Virginia, and his state had seceded; he stayed with the Union, but when the war began, his state had no important representatives in Washington to push his cause. His merits spoke for themselves, but nobody else bothered to speak for them; at one point, when his name was up for promotion, Lincoln is supposed to have remarked, “Let the Virginian wait.”

Thomas waited, and what he waited for never quite came … until long after his death, which may have been a little too late. Anyway, he is now the subject of a genuinely first-rate study in Francis F. McKinney’s Education in Violence , a book which is unreservedly recommended to anyone who wants to know more about one of the nation’s greatest soldiers.

It appears from this, and from all the rest of the record, that Thomas got his reputation on the wrong basis. He was supposed to be the immovable man, the soldier who was indomitable and who stolidly dug in his heels and refused to be moved, and at places like Chickamauga he earned that reputation beyond question. When Rosecrans was driven back to Chattanooga, it was Thomas who stayed, formed a new line out of broken remnants of beaten men, held the line in spite of everything, and reduced the battle from an overwhelming disaster to a mere setback. Yet he was not primarily a defensive fighter. On the contrary he was aggressive and mobile, and he struck some of the most devastating offensive blows in all the war; and the legend that portrays him simply as a man who could hold the line when things went badly is a pronounced bit of miscasting.

It was Thomas who first cracked the Confederate line in Kentucky, unhinging its right wing in the Battle of Mill Springs early in 1862. It was Thomas who provided the essential stiffening for the Army of the Cumberland at Stones River and at Chickamauga; it was Thomas who managed to combine a care for details—provision of proper training, adequate uniforming and equipping, due attention to logistics—with the capacity for swift movement once the details had been taken care of. Twice in all the war a Federal army was able to look upon a Confederate army driven from the field in complete rout after a shattering Federal offensive; each time—at Chattanooga, and at Nashville—the fortunate and victorious army was commanded by Thomas.

Thomas shared one thing with Rosecrans: he was never quite able to hit it off with General Grant. In Rosecrans’ case the trouble is fairly easy to see, but with Thomas it is more obscure. Somehow the two men just did not see eye to eye. Grant obviously respected Thomas’ ability more than he respected Rosecrans’, but the end result was about the same: when he became general in chief, Grant never had the confidence in Thomas which he had in men like Sherman, McPherson, and Sheridan, and as a result Thomas missed the full measure of credit which he had earned.

Education in Violence: The Life of George H. Thomas and the History of the Army of the Cumberland, by Francis F. McKinney. Wayne State University Press. 530 pp. $9.50.

So Thomas’ case is not quite like that of Rosecrans. Rosecrans did well but had one bad day which tarnished his fame. Thomas never had a bad day. With Rosecrans, one has the feeling: This man could have been the best of them all, except for that one mishap. With Thomas, one gets the haunting feeling: Perhaps this man actually was the best of them all, but it took his country the better part of a century to realize it.

Thomas was perhaps the one top-ranking Federal officer who knew just what to do with his cavalry. Even Sheridan did not come up to him there. Thomas, incidentally, was a trained cavalryman himself, and he saw cavalry in much the same ultramodern, nontraditional way as Confederate Bedford Forrest saw it—as a striking force which used horses simply because the horses gave men greater mobility but which did its fighting on foot. In the final months of the war Thomas put together (at the cost of an unending struggle with the War Department) a cavalry corps under young James H. Wilson which carried repeating rifles and could move through the South irresistibly, a force wholly outside of the tradition of Jeb Stuart and John Hunt Morgan: mechanized infantry, in substance, able to move faster than anyone else and also able to hit harder, one which ignored “brilliant” raids and struck at the enemy’s main forces with devastating power.

All of this, perhaps, is matter for the student of military history. But Thomas gets out of military history, simply because he was a good deal more than merely a military technician. He was one of the gifted few who understood what the war was about, understood what the North had to do to win it, and went ahead and put his ideas into practice. And it was quite a while before this fact was generally recognized.

Perhaps Chickamauga did part of the damage. At Chickamauga Thomas fought as good a defensive battle as any man ever fought, and he was “the Rock of Chickamauga” forever after, immovable, imperturbable, and indomitable. Grant is supposed to have remarked once that Thomas was “too slow to move and too brave to run away.” If Grant said that, he was wrong. There was nothing slow about Thomas. He liked to make sure that everything was ready before he moved, but when he did move, somebody had to get out of the way.

Mr. McKinney has written a very good book indeed, and it is essential reading for anyone who wants a full understanding of the human instruments with which the Federal government fought and won the Civil War. Thomas was one of the best of the lot. Yet he does remain a man who did not, in his lifetime at least, quite reach the summit of popular approval. Perhaps this is one case where the general verdict of history needs to be upgraded.

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