Saturday, 26 September 2015

Sometimes it's the less well known who are the most interesting

George H. Thomas isn’t exactly a name to conjure with. And yet, sometimes, the obscure figures from history can inspire as much admiration as the celebrities.

Thomas had a lot in common with a much more well known military character, Robert E. Lee. Both men won good reputations for themselves during the Mexican-American War. Later Thomas was posted to the US Military Academy at West Point, where he served under Lee. Most important of all, though, both men were Virginians. “the Old Dominion” was the wealthiest and most populous of the British American colonies, which produced some of the most significant figures of the Revolutionary War, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. After independence, it was the leading State, producing four of the first five presidents.

George Thomas: overshadowed by more famous men
In 1861, the United States were torn apart by Civil War. Again, Lee and Thomas had similar attitudes: neither liked slavery, both deplored session. But there the similarity ended.

Lee made a decision which leaves me appalled even today. Despite his views about slavery and recession, Lee announced that he couldn’t “draw his sword” against Virginia. So when his State joined the Secession, he resigned from the army of the United States and went on, as is well known, to become the outstanding general of the Confederacy.

Thomas, on the other hand, took a decision which strikes me as far more comprehensible and, above all admirable. He went with his conscience rather than his roots, and stayed with the Union.

Although in the end he had a distinguished Civil War record with the Union, it wasn’t a straightforward process. His first major achievement was at a serious Union defeat: at the battle of Chickamauga, Thomas was serving under General Rosecrans whose army broke and fled – with the exception of Thomas’s division which stood firm and prevented a defeat turning into a rout.

The achievement won him the nickname “Rock of Chickamauga”. it also gave him command of the army in which he was serving, when Rosecrans was relieved.

It was in that role that he faced the last great counter-attack by the Confederacy in the War, in the Battle of Nashville. And the confederates weren’t the only adversaries he faced. Ulysses Grant had by then become commanding general of the Union armies. He may have had some doubts about Thomas’s loyalties, but he was above all concerned by his slowness in tackling the army threatening Nashville. He wasn’t alone: Abraham Lincoln, who’d been disappointed by a whole string of dilatory, slow, timid generals who failed to tackle Lee when they could win, and lost when he took them on. Would Thomas be simply another such?

He was nothing of the kind. At first, he was waiting for his cavalry to be fully ready. And then – it was December – ice storms turned the country impossible. Thomas waited for the thaw and almost waited too long: the general Grant had sent with orders to relieve him if Thomas had still not initiated action, was already on his way, and Grant himself not far behind him, when Thomas decided to engage the Confederates.

The result was one of the great battles of the War, and one of the most decisive victories: the army against him was badly mauled and so disorganised that it  it never operated as a fighting unit again. Despite the pressure from Washington, Thomas had a major success to his credit.

After the war he commanded a large area of southern territory, based around Tennessee, and used the authority this gave him to act on behalf of black freed slaves who were suffering at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan or simply of racist judges. Later on, Andrew Johnson, who took over as President after Lincoln’s assassination, fell out with many of the men who’d been closely associated with the murdered statesman, including Grant. He asked Thomas whether he would replace him as commanding general, but Thomas refused on the grounds that he wasn’t interested in playing political games.

He ended up appointed to command in California, where he died sadly young, at 53. But the saddest thing of all? None of his relatives attended his funeral. They couldn’t forgive him for having turned against Virginia.

Like I said. The more obscure characters from history can sometimes be the most intriguing.

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