George Henry Thomas was born in Southampton County on July 31, 1816, the youngest son of a wealthy, slave-owning family of planters. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, from 1836 until 1840 and finished twelfth in a class of forty-two. (His classmates included Sherman and the future Confederate general Richard S. Ewell.) Thomas would spend the rest of his life in military service.
He received a brevet promotion for distinguished service fighting the Seminole Indians in Florida in 1841 and two more for courage at the battles of Monterrey (1846) and Buena Vista (1847) during the Mexican War, making him one of the most decorated junior officers in the pre–Civil War army. After Mexico, Thomas served from 1851 until 1854 as an instructor of artillery and cavalry tactics at West Point, where he met and married Frances Lucretia Kellogg, the daughter of a New York merchant. The couple had a happy marriage, but no children. From 1854 until 1855, Thomas served at Fort Yuma, Arizona, and from 1855 until 1860 he served in Texas as a major in the 2nd Cavalry.
Thomas struggled over whether to remain in the army or to resign his commission and join Virginia and the Confederacy. Ultimately, he sided with the Union. After the war, he explained that he felt his oath as an army officer to uphold the United States Constitution and to protect the national government left him no other choice. Thomas's Virginia relatives refused to speak to him after he sided with the Union, and while he later reconciled with his brothers, his sisters remained estranged from him until his death.
During the First Manassas Campaign (1861), Thomas served as the head of cavalry for a force that invaded Virginia (now West Virginia) near Martinsburg, and he fought a brief skirmish against J. E. B. Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry. In August 1861, Thomas was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers and transferred to Kentucky, where he took charge of a camp of Union recruits south of Frankfort. On January 19, 1862, his force of slightly over 4,000 men decisively defeated a Confederate force of equal size at the Battle of Mill Springs. This victory secured eastern Kentucky for the Union and brought Thomas to national attention.
Thomas served effectively under Rosecrans as a corps commander in the Army of the Cumberland, the main Union force in Tennessee. He fought in the Battle of Stone's River, which lasted from December 31, 1862, until January 2, 1863, and the campaign that followed, which culminated in the capture of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Thomas's most important test came during the battle that followed the capture of Chattanooga, fought on September 19–20, 1863, just south of that city, in the woods and hills of northern Georgia near West Chickamauga Creek.
Thomas's corps occupied the northern flank of the Union line at Chickamauga, and
received the brunt of the Confederate attacks on the first day of the battle. Throughout
the day, Thomas skillfully maintained a defensive line and
Thomas improvised a defensive line and held off repeated attacks from a numerically superior opponent. He led several counterattacks in person, at great risk, and his stand held the Confederate army at bay until nightfall, preventing them from pursuing and destroying the rest of the Union army. Lincoln remarked that "it is doubtful whether his heroism and skill … has ever been surpassed in this world," and Thomas is known as "the Rock of Chickamauga" to this day.
Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Nashville
After Chickamauga, Thomas was promoted to command of the Army of the Cumberland. He was still subordinate to Ulysses S. Grant, however, whom Lincoln had appointed to run the war in the West and who traveled to Chattanooga to command in person. Thomas served effectively as Grant's subordinate during the Battle of Chattanooga, November 23–25, 1863, where his men spontaneously charged the Confederate lines atop Missionary Ridge and sent the Confederates into retreat. Thomas served under William T. Sherman during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign and fought in a number of engagements, including Kennesaw Mountain and Peachtree Creek, Georgia.
Thomas commanded African American troops during the Battle of Nashville, and their bravery during the battle permanently changed his views on race. He had been a racial conservative during most of the war, but he changed after Nashville and became a staunch supporter of the rights of freedmen. From 1865 to 1869 he commanded the Union forces occupying Kentucky and Tennessee, and at different times his district also included Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and West Virginia.
Reconstruction and Later Years
Thomas was assigned to command of the Department of the Pacific in 1869 and he died of a stroke in San Francisco, California, on March 28, 1870. He was the first major Union general to die after the Civil War, and his coffin was greeted by crowds throughout its transfer back to the East. Grant, then the U.S. president, and many senior government officials attended a large public funeral at Thomas's wife's church in Troy, New York. In 1879, veterans erected a monument in his memory in Washington, D.C., where it still stands at the center of Thomas Circle.
July 31, 1816 - George H. Thomas is born in Southampton County, Virginia.
May 1840 - George H. Thomas graduates from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. He is twelfth in a class of forty-two.
1841 - George H. Thomas receives a brevet promotion for distinguished service fighting the Seminole Indians in Florida.
September 19–24, 1846 - George H. Thomas participates in the Battle of Monterrey during the Mexican War and receives a brevet promotion for distinguished service.
February 23, 1847 - George H. Thomas participates in the Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican War and receives a brevet promotion for distinguished service.
November 17, 1852 - George H. Thomas marries Frances Lucretia Kellogg, the daughter of a New York merchant.
1854–1855 - George H. Thomas is posted at Fort Yuma, Arizona.
1855–1860 - George H. Thomas serves in Texas as a major in the 2nd Cavalry Regiment.
August 1861 - After fighting in the First Manassas Campaign, George H. Thomas is promoted to brigadier general of volunteers and transferred to Kentucky, where he takes charge of a camp of Union recruits south of Frankfort.
December 31, 1862–January 2, 1863 - George H. Thomas participates in the bloody and inconclusive Battle of Stone's River, Tennessee, as a corps commander in the Union Army of the Cumberland, commanded by William S. Rosecrans.
November 23–25, 1863 - George H. Thomas leads the Union Army of the Cumberland to victory at the Battle of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Ulysses S. Grant, running the war in the West, commands in person. Thomas's men secure victory with a spontaneous charge up Missionary Ridge.
December 15–16, 1864 - George H. Thomas defeats Confederates under John Bell Hood at the Battle of Nashville, leaving Tennessee in secure Union control and rendering Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia vulnerable to Union raids.
1865–1869 - George H. Thomas commands Union forces occupying Kentucky and Tennessee, and at different times his district also includes Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and West Virginia.
1869 - George H. Thomas is assigned to command the Department of the Pacific, headquartered in San Francisco, California.
March 28, 1870 - George H. Thomas dies of a stroke in San Francisco, California.
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First published: July 8, 2009 | Last modified: December 27, 2013