Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging: George Henry Thomas

Despite what neo-Confederates say about Southerners standing up for their region, not all Southerners committed treason in defense of slavery.

Take the example of George Henry Thomas. As Ernest B. Furguson argues in a recent issue of Smithsonian Magazine, Thomas has been unjustly forgotten by history because he was a Southerner who fought for the Union.

It's not as if Thomas had no connection to slavery. In fact, when he was fifteen he was nearly killed during the 1831 Nat Turner Rebellion in Virginia. The most violent slave insurrection in the history of the United States, Turner's forces killed 55 whites before facing slaughter from local militias. His family owned slaves and broke the law in order to teach some of them to read.

When he turned 20, like many Southern gentlemen, Thomas entered West Point. Thomas' early military career consisted of subduing the Seminoles in Florida and then heading west to fight in the Mexican War. He served well, rising in rank throughout the conflict. In 1851, he became artillery instructor at West Point. Although he spent as much time as possible at home in Virginia, he never forgot that he served the United States government. In 1860, when Virginia was moving toward secession, Governor John Letcher offered Thomas a high level post. Thomas replied, "It is not my wish to leave the service of the United States as long as it is honorable for me to remain in it, and therefore as long as my native State Virginia remains in the Union it is my purpose to remain in the Army, unless required to perform duties alike repulsive to honor and humanity."

Thomas did not believe that ending slavery was a duty repulsive to honor and humanity. In fact, Thomas became an important military strategist for the Union, fighting at major battles throughout the conflict and rising in rank as well. He helped hold Chattanooga for the Union in 1863, was given command of the Army of the Cumberland, and survived a siege in that city. Thomas gladly accepted black soldiers into his armies and believed that the Army was a good transition from slavery to freedom for them.

Thomas never reached the highest ranks of the military, in part because, as a Southerner, he lacked the patronage in high positions that people like Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman enjoyed. By late 1864, Thomas was back in Tennessee, fighting Confederate forces threatening to retake Nashville. Grant, who evidently never much cared for Thomas, wanted to fire him because he had not engaged the Confederates. But while the message was on the way to get rid of him, Thomas attacked on December 15 and crushed the Confederates under General Hood. This fight was a complete annihilation of Hood's forces, which military historians have argued was the only time this happened during the war.

After the war, Thomas was generous to his vanquished Southern brothers but also vociferously opposed the Ku Klux Klan. He also declined when Andrew Johnson wanted to promote Thomas to full general, correctly seeing that this was a political move intended to stop Grant from become president. He didn't live long anyway, suffering a stroke in 1870 and dying at the age of 53.

What's really important here is that Thomas, like Winfield Scott and other Southerners, did not commit treason. Many Southerners made the right choice and fought for the Union. Don't let the neo-Confederates tell you otherwise. Robert E. Lee and others faced a tough decision and they made the wrong choice. They decided to secede in defense of slavery rather than fight for the nation which they had taken an oath.

There is a 1986 biography of Thomas which I have not read, entitled, Rock of Chickamauga: The Life of General George H. Thomas, by Freeman Cleves. Other than that, I know of no other publications on Thomas except for this article from which this information is derived. Frankly, I had never heard of the man until Rob sent this article to me, for which I thank him.