The statue of General George Henry Thomas stands at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and 14th Street, Northwest. Thomas was a General in the United States Army during the Civil War, a conflict in which he became known as the “Rock of Chickamauga." Thomas was the overall Union commander during Battle of Mill Springs and the Battle of Nashville. Both were victories, but his contributions during the battle of Chickamauga best demonstrated his leadership and mastery of logistics.
Backstory and Context
General Thomas’s biography is bittersweet. While he became a very successful General, he was estranged from his Southampton, Virginia family for choosing to fight for the Union; and he was kept at an arms-length distance by his two military rivals: Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. Although a successful General, he was one of the least recognized figures of the Civil war. George Henry Thomas was born in 1816 and raised in Southampton County, Virginia as the middle of one of nine children and the youngest of three boys. The family had a plantation, and was of the planter class, but they were not especially wealthy when George was born. By 1829, the Thomas family had 685 acres and 24 slaves. When George was 15, he and his family climbed into a carriage and faced along into the words to escape the rebellion of renegade slave leader Nat Turner. Before the 1831 insurrection was over, 55 whites were killed. The rebellion stirred up deep fears across the South and swept aside talk of emancipation. There are no family letters or records to explain the impact the rebellion had on George.
After working for an uncle as a deputy clerk, and studying law, at the age of 20, George received his Congressman’s appointment to West Point. He graduated 12th in his class of 42 members, behind William Tecumseh Sherman who was 6th. His first military assignment was in Florida in the infantry to participate in the Seminole War Andrew Jackson has started. George earned a reputation as very deliberative and self-assured.
Thomas’s antebellum war experience was solid. In the Mexican War, George served as an artillery lieutenant under General Zachary Taylor, in 1846 and won an honorary promotion to captain for his conduct in the pitched battle of Monterrey. He then earned three quick promotions (without commensurate pay) to major because of the way he handled his guns at Buena Vista, when Taylor defeated Mexican General Santa Anna. His hometown in Southampton County, Virginia presented him a magnificent sword engraved with the names of his battles.
In 1851, he was assigned to be an artillery instructor at West Point. His cadets and fellow officers would be major figures in the Civil War: Sherman, J.S.B. Stuart, John Schofield, William Rosecrans, Braxton Bragg, John Bell Hood, and the Superintendent of the academy, Lt. Col, Robert E. lee. While at West Point he married his bride- Frances Kellogg from upstate New York. He remained at West Point until 1854, and was promoted to captain there.
From 1854 to 1860 he served both in Mexico and Texas in the artillery and then in the cavalry. During this time, Thomas continued his close ties with Robert E. Lee, the second-in-command of the regiment. In 1860, with the cavalry in Texas, Thomas was wounded when a Comanche warrior shot an arrow which passed through the flesh near his chin. He pulled it out and continued to lead the expedition. On his way home to Virginia, he fell from a train platform and injured his back, which caused him pain for the rest of his life.
When the Civil War broke out, most of the officers in the 2nd U.S. Calvary’s southern-born officers resigned, as they were torn between loyalty to their states and loyalty to their country. Thomas chose to remain with the United States. As a result, his family turned against him and never spoke to him again, and various Confederate officers and Virginias called him a traitor to his native state. Thomas stayed in the Union.
Thomas is best known for his roles in the Western Theater of the Civil War. When the war began, Thomas was sent west to Kentucky as a brigadier general and was placed in charge of Camp Dick Robinson, training new recruits. Thomas acquitted himself well during the first years of the war. He was present at the second day of the Battle of Shiloh, and promoted to major general in 1862 of the Right Wing of the Army of the Ohio. He then returned to the Army of Tennessee and resumed service under General Rosecrans under the Army of the Cumberland. Thomas performed well at the Battle of Stones River, holding the center of the retreating Union line and preventing a victory by The Confederate Bragg. He was in charge of the most important part of maneuvering forces from Decherd to Chattanooga, during the Tullahoma Campaign (July 1863) and the crossing of the Tennessee River. At the battle of Chickamauga, on September 19, 1853, now commanding the XIV Corps, he held a desperate position against Bragg’s onslaught while the Union line on his right collapsed. When Rosecrans ordered the Army to retreat, Thomas rallied broken and scattered units on Horseshoe Ridge to prevent a significant Union defeat from becoming a hopeless rout. Thomas stayed behind to ensure the Army’s safety. Despite the fact that the battle was one of the bloodiest of the war, Thomas succeeded in preventing Bragg from crushing the Union Army. In the aftermath of that battle, Thomas became a national hero. His leadership and preparations repeatedly frustrated the South from achieving a decisive victory. It was one of the greatest displays of leadership during the entire war. President Garfield told Rosecrans that Thomas was “standing like a rock” and thereafter Thomas was known by the nickname “The Rock of Chickamauga”.
Again, at the Battle of Franklin, on November 30, 1864, a large part of Thomas’s force under the command of Major General John M Schofield dealt the Confederate General Hood a strong defeat and held him in check long enough to cover the concentration of Union forces in Nashville. At Nashville, Thomas had to organize forces drawn from all parts of the West including young troops, and quartermaster employees. He declined to attack until his army was ready and the ice on the ground had melted. Other Union Generals grew impatient with his delay. On December 15, 1864, in the Battle of Nashville, Thomas attacked and effectively destroyed Hood’s command in two days of fighting. He was appointed a Major General and received the Thanks of Congress. The rebel army under General Hood was driven from Tennessee.