1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Thomas, George Henry
|←Thomas, George||1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 26
Thomas, George Henry
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THOMAS, GEORGE HENRY (1816-1870), American general, was born in Southampton county, Virginia, on the 31st of July 1816. Graduating from West Point in 1840, he served as an artillery subaltern in the war against the Seminole Indians in Florida (1841), and in the Mexican War at the battles of Fort Brown, Resaca de la Palma, Monterey and Buena Vista, receiving three brevets for distinguished gallantry in action. From 1851 to 1854 he was an instructor at West Point. In 1855 he was appointed by Jefferson Davis, then secretary of war, a major of the 2nd Cavalry. His regimental superiors were A. S. Johnston, R. E. Lee and Hardee. All three resigned at the outbreak of the Civil War and Thomas was long in doubt as to his duty. He finally decided to adhere to the United States. He was promoted in rapid succession to be lieutenant-colonel and colonel in the regular army, and brigadier-general of volunteers. In command of an independent force in eastern Kentucky, on the 19th of January 1862, he attacked the Confederate General Zollicoffer at Mill Springs, and completely routed him, gaining by vigorous attack and relentless pursuit the first important Union victory in the West. He served under Buell and was offered, but refused, the chief command in the anxious days before the battle of Perryville. Under Rosecrans he was engaged at Stone River and was in charge of the most important part of the manœuvring from Decherd to Chattanooga. At the battle of Chickamauga (q.v.) on the 19th of September 1863 he achieved great distinction, his firmness on that disastrous field, where he gained the name of “The Rock of Chickamauga,” being all that saved a terrible defeat from becoming a hopeless rout. He succeeded Rosecrans in command of the Army of the Cumberland shortly before the great victory of Chattanooga (q.v.), in which Thomas and his army played a most conspicuous part, his divisions under Sheridan, Wood and Baird carrying Missionary Ridge in superb style. In Sherman's advance through Georgia in the spring of 1864, the Army of the Cumberland numbered over 60,000 men present for duty. Thomas handled these with great skill in all the engagements and flanking movements from Chattanooga to Atlanta. When J. B. Hood broke away from Atlanta in the autumn of 1864, menaced Sherman's long line of communications and endeavoured to force Sherman to follow him, Sherman determined to abandon his communications and march to the sea, leaving to Thomas the difficult task of dealing with Hood. Thomas hastened back with a comparatively small force, racing with Hood to reach Nashville, where he was to receive reinforcements. At the battle of Franklin on the 30th of November 1864, a large part of Thomas's force, under command of Schofield, checked Hood long enough to cover the concentration at Nashville (q.v.). Here Thomas had to organize his force, which was drawn from all parts of the West and included many young troops and even quartermaster's employés. He declined to attack until his army was ready and the ice which covered the ground had melted sufficiently to enable his men to move. The whole of the North, and even General Grant himself, were impatient of the delay. General Logan was sent with an order to supersede Thomas, and soon afterwards Grant left the Army of the Potomac to take command in person. Before either arrived Thomas made his attack (December 15th-16th, 1864) and inflicted on Hood the most crushing defeat sustained in the open field by any army on either side in the whole war. Hood's army was completely ruined and never again appeared on the field. For this brilliant victory Thomas was made a major-general in the regular army and received the thanks of Congress. After the termination of the Civil War he commanded military departments in Kentucky and Tennessee until 1869, when he was ordered to command the division of the Pacific with headquarters at San Francisco. He died there of apoplexy, while writing an answer to an article criticizing his military career, on the 28th of March 1870.
Thomas was beloved by his soldiers, for whom he always had a fatherly solicitude. He was a man of solid rather than brilliant attainments; he remained in the army all his life, and never had any ambitions outside of it; the nickname of “Slow Trot Thomas” given him by the cadets at West Point characterized him physically and mentally; his mind acted deliberately, and his temperament was somewhat sluggish; but his judgment was accurate, his knowledge of his profession was complete in every detail, and when he had finally grasped a problem, and the time arrived for action, he struck his blow with extraordinary vigour and rapidity. The only two battles in which he was in chief command — Mill Springs and Nashville, one at the beginning and the other near the end of the war — were signal victories, without defect and above criticism. His service during the intervening three years of almost incessant conflict and manœuvring was marked by loyal obedience to his superiors, skilful command of his subordinates, and successful accomplishment of every task entrusted to him.