By many accounts George Henry Thomas was one of the greatest military minds in American history. So why isn’t his name mentioned in the same breath as Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, George McArthur or George Patton? Thomas graduated in the same West Point class as William Tecumseh Sherman, and commanded over some triumphant victories that bested his former classmate. But even during the Civil War, politics determined who advanced in the ranks, and Thomas had one handicap that he couldn’t change: he was a Southerner fighting for the Union.
As a professional soldier, George Henry Thomas’ loyalty was with the U.S. Army that he served so faithfully. But the decision to turn down a position in the Confederate army was an agonizing one, according to his wife Frances Kellogg Thomas, who was a staunch Unionist, which may have further influenced her husband’s decision.
Bred and born in Virginia, Thomas’ family narrowly survived the Nat Turner uprising in Southampton County. Thomas was 15. He would soon become a lifelong soldier, entering West Point when he was not yet 20. Upon graduating, he first became acquainted with war under Andrew Jackson in battles against the Seminole Indians.
In fact, Thomas served on the field under three future presidents, Jackson, Zachary Taylor in the Mexican-American War and Grant; and his contemporaries included future president James Garfield. Thomas was himself considered for the presidency long after the Civil War, but he quashed any consideration early on, not wanting the job. Such factors have colluded to keep his name obscure in the country’s history.
But renewed interest in old battles of the Civil War leading up to the current sesquicentennial have caused writers and historians to reexamine Thomas’ contributions to the epic fight and his sacrifices on the battlefield and in his personal life. When Thomas decided to fight for the Union, he was disowned by his family for the remainder of his life and labeled a traitor by the rest of the South.
The decision to fight on the side of the North may also have prevented advancement is his career. Thomas eventually became a major general for the Union, but even Lincoln was leery of making a commander out of a Southerner who had served under Lee before the war, according to author Ernest B. Furguson.
Smithsonian Magazine calls Thomas “The Forgotten General,” even though he is credited with many of the great Union victories in the Civil War. In one of the first notable Northern successes in the strife, then-brigadier general Thomas and his outnumbered men claimed victory in Kentucky when they drove Confederates across the Cumberland River and back into Tennessee.
Leading a group of General William Rosecrans’ men, he did the same at Stones River and Missionary Ridge during the Tullahoma campaign in Tennessee, battles that some historians call a turning point for the war.