George Henry Thomas ~ As True as Steel
By Brian Steel Wills
(Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 2012), 585 pages.
“’George Thomas, you know, is slow, but as true as steel.’ –William T. Sherman before the battle of Atlanta, Georgia, 1864” —
So begins the Introduction to Brian Wills’ biography of General Thomas. It is also the definitive, if succinct, description of General Thomas, as Wills goes on to illuminate so well in the following 471 pages of text, which are accompanied by two short appendices, an ample Notes section, and a comprehensive Index.
This is a sympathetic biography. Wills’ purpose is to describe the General – what made him tick, how he thought, how he carried himself, and so forth, and to improve his place in history. He accomplishes this through Thomas’s own words, remembrances, and self-assessments, along with those of family, contemporaries, and other historians. He develops the values and traits that underpinned Thomas’ professional development: attention to detail, broad interests (environment, science, and politics) and a serious, professional approach to duty tempered with an underlying humor that would occasionally shine through. He depicts Thomas’ firmness, loyalty, and willingness to stand up for himself and his beliefs. He shows how Thomas paid attention to orders, was practical and paternalistic, and would weigh costs and benefits before action. And he shows how Thomas, ever the professional, liked campaigning and life in the field.
From graduation from West Point in 1840 through 1860, Thomas’ was a modestly eventful military career with service and posts typical of the period – Florida, the Mexican War (seeing some combat under General Taylor) and frontier duty in Texas (wounded by a Comanche arrow near Camp Cooper, Texan in August 1860), intermixed with various administrative assignments elsewhere including a stint at West Point. All in all, not very dramatic except for his action at Buena Vista on February 23, 1848. (His battery commander, Captain Braxton Bragg, singled him out for praise in his report, “Lieut. Thomas more than sustained the reputation he has long enjoyed in his regiment as an accurate and scientific artillerist”. Ironically, recalling the action in later years General Thomas said of himself, “I saved my section of Bragg’s battery at Buena Vista by being a bit slow.” Shades of things to come.)
General Thomas was a Virginian, but first and foremost an officer in the US Army. When it came to deciding whether to stay with the North or go South, Thomas Jackson let God show the way, J.E.B. Stuart let Virginia show the way, and George H. Thomas let his oath of service show the way. Service to the nation overrode all else. He did not hesitate to stay with the US Army.
Some consider Thomas to be one of the top Union generals of the war – certainly in the top five. His reputation would be even higher had he not been dogged by a reputation for slowness. Not a reticence to fight, but rather something more of a plodding and not particularly aggressive general. He was undefeated on Civil War battlefields, but this slowness worked against him in the eyes of Generals Halleck, Grant, and Sherman, and Secretary of War Stanton. Otherwise, he might have been given more assignments – combat commands and campaigns – where his tactical and operational prowess would have lofted him to greater historical recognition. Greater aggressiveness would have worked for him, increasing his opportunities; as it turned out, his slowness worked against him.
Being Southern caused a lingering suspicion among his Union commanders, but it was his reputation for being slow that plagued him throughout the war. A central focus of the book is his relationships with those controlling his career – General Halleck and Secretary of War Stanton, and most particularly General Grant. While not his enemy, General Grant comes across as something of an antagonist, borne of a clash of battlefield sagacity. Tactically competent, operationally Thomas was virtually the opposite of Grant. Where Grant was aggressive and dogged; Thomas was methodical and set piece. Where Grant saw battlefield opportunity, Thomas saw risk. Where Grant grasped the enemy at every turn, Thomas moved more cautiously. Sherman thought like Grant and, therefore, was in favor – in partnership, in fact. Thomas didn’t, and therefore wasn’t.
Wills provides sound descriptions and analyses of operations supported by comprehensive research. Take, for example, the Battle of Mill Springs (January 19, 1862). Not well known, this was Thomas’ first significant battle – a victory, albeit somewhat incomplete. Wills’ discussion spans several pages, including the lead-in to the battle and its aftermath, with descriptions and views by a variety of sources – all in all a somber, thorough, and well-rounded analysis. This technique is repeated throughout. (His maps, by the way, are numerous and adequate to the narrative, but could better depict battlefield topography and meteorological conditions.)
Wills follows Thomas in detail through the whole of the war, showing how his professionalism and studied mannerisms (his concern for appearances) competed with and channeled his ambition and reach for senior positions of command. He provided credible leadership in Kentucky in 1861 and at Shiloh and Corinth in 1862. His performance at Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge in 1863 brought him fame and recognition, but it was Sherman who was selected to lead the campaign for Atlanta in 1864. He performed decisively in that campaign as well, but Sherman was again selected to lead the key strategic drive through Georgia to the sea. Given the crucial mission of opposing Hood’s counter-advance into Tennessee, Thomas blunted his drive at Franklin and then smashed him in front of Nashville. These gained him even more fame and recognition (including promotion to Regular Army Major General), but a slow follow-up after Nashville effectively sidelined him from remaining combat operations and from prominence in subsequent memoirs and histories of the war.
Reading Wills’ account, particularly of the operations in Tennessee in 1863 and 1864, it is easy to conclude that General Thomas was not treated fairly. The criticisms and proddings from afar to pursue and destroy Hood’s defeated Army of the Tennessee by Grant, Stanton and even President Lincoln in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Nashville are a case in point. Still, even in a biography as favorable as this one, you can see how Thomas’ deliberate and methodical approach to performance of duties and the planning and execution of combat operations were too mundane for the more vigorous and daring Union officers under whom and with whom he served. It was, after all, they that set the tone for – that wrote, so to speak – the “official” history of the war. Whether history has so far been unkind to General Thomas will continue to be argued, but Wills has provided a solid attempt to rehabilitate his reputation and his standing in Civil War history.
It’s a good biography, a good history, a good read, and certainly worth your time, whether new to the subject or a seasoned student of the war. Heartily recommended.