The Rock of Chickamauga: George H. Thomas
Happy birthday to one of the great and often unsung heroes of American history, George Henry Thomas, born on this day in 1816 at Newsom’s Depot in Southampton County, Virginia. A graduate of West Point, distinguished veteran of the Mexican-American War, and an extremely well rounded soldier and instructor at the U.S. Military Academy, Thomas, like many other Southerners at the outbreak of the Civil War, had a life-changing decision to make. Many skilled military men in the South ultimately resigned their commissions in the U.S. Army to fight for their home states, and although Thomas was offered prominent commissions to serve in the Confederate army, he remained faithful to the Union. Thomas’s family disowned him for his decision to stay true to the old flag and one of his star pupil’s and fellow Virginian’s, J.E.B. Stuart, went so far as to write, “I would like to hang, hang him as a traitor to his native state.” Abandoned by people who had once been close to him, Thomas never lost the support of his Northern-born wife, who had said that “whichever way he turned the matter over in his mind, his oath of allegiance to his Government always came uppermost.”
During the war, George Thomas distinguished himself as a true master of command. Appointed a brigadier general of U.S. volunteers at the beginning of the conflict, Thomas secured the Union’s first major victory at Mill Springs, Kentucky on January 19, 1862, and he would do so much more. With promotion to major general of volunteers, Thomas continued to demonstrate his wise judgment, skills as a supreme tactician, and always proved his prowess as a fearless leader when it mattered most. In perhaps his finest hour of the war, Thomas saved Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland from destruction at the bloody Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863. Rallying broken units, organizing an effective defense, and holding off repeated Confederate assaults to allow the Federal army to escape, it was said that Thomas was “standing like a rock,” earning him the most famous of his many nicknames, the “Rock of Chickamauga.”
The "Rock of Chickamauga" by Dale Gallon. (Photo Credit: Pinterest.com)
As George Thomas biographer and admirer Benson Bobrick adds, after assuming command of the Army of the Cumberland, Thomas “routed the Confederates at Missionary Ridge in the Battle of Chattanooga,” winning that engagement for Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant, “parried John Bell Hood’s all-out attack at Peachtree Creek in the Atlanta campaign; and destroyed Hood’s army at Nashville to end the war in the West.” “What a general could do, Thomas did. No more dependable soldier for a moment of crisis existed on the North American continent,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Bruce Catton.
More than just a brilliant commander, Thomas was a man of sterling character and integrity. Beloved by the men he led during the Civil War, one of Thomas’s soldiers, Henry Van Ness Boynton, a recipient of the Medal of Honor, undoubtedly spoke for his comrades when he wrote that his commander “looked upon the lives of his soldiers as a sacred trust, not to be carelessly imperiled.” Although Grant and others pegged Thomas as too slow and overcautious, men like Boynton proclaimed, “Whenever he moved into battle, it was certain that everything had been done that prudence, deliberation, thought and cool judgment could do under surrounding circumstances to ensure success commensurate with the cost of the lives of men. And so it came to pass that when the war ended it could be truthfully written of Thomas alone that he never lost a movement or a battle.” Upon Thomas’s death in March 1870, Grant himself concluded that he was “one of the great names of our history, one of the greatest heroes of our war.”
George H. Thomas. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)
George Thomas once wrote, “Time and history will do me justice.” Today, it is the duty of every American to continue to do justice to the “Rock of Chickamauga" by honoring this great hero and recognizing the pivotal role he played in saving the Union.
American Battlefield Trust: George Thomas.
Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas by Benson Bobrick.
National Park Service: George Thomas.
Smithsonian.com: Catching Up With "Old Slow Trot."