Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas

Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas

by Benson Bobrick


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In this revelatory, dynamic biography, one of our finest historians, Benson Bobrick, profiles George H. Thomas, arguing that he was the greatest and most successful general of the Civil War. Because Thomas didn't live to write his memoirs, his reputation has been largely shaped by others, most notably Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, two generals with whom Thomas served and who, Bobrick says, diminished his successes in their favor in their own memoirs.

Born in Virginia, Thomas survived Nat Turner's rebellion as a boy, then studied at West Point, where Sherman was a classmate. Thomas distinguished himself in the Mexican War and then returned to West Point as an instructor. When the Civil War broke out, Thomas remained loyal to the Union, unlike fellow Virginia-born officer Robert E. Lee (among others). He compiled an outstanding record as an officer in battles at Mill Springs, Perryville, and Stones River. At the Battle of Chickamauga, Thomas, at the time a corps commander, held the center of the Union line under a ferocious assault, then rallied the troops on Horseshoe Ridge to prevent a Confederate rout of the Union army. His extraordinary performance there earned him the nickname "The Rock of Chickamauga."

Promoted to command of the Army of the Cumberland, he led his army in a stunning Union victory at the Battle of Chattanooga. Thomas supported Sherman on his march through Georgia in the spring of 1864, winning an important victory at the Battle of Peachtree Creek. As Sherman continued on his March to the Sea, Thomas returned to Tennessee and in the battle of Nashville destroyed the army of Confederate General John Bell Hood. It was one of the most decisivevictories of the war, and Thomas won it even as Grant was on his way to remove Thomas from his command. (When Grant discovered the magnitude of Thomas's victory, he quickly changed his mind.) Thomas died of a stroke in 1870 while still on active duty. In the entire Civil War, he never lost a battle or a movement.

Throughout his career, Thomas was methodical and careful, and always prepared. Unlike Grant at Shiloh, he was never surprised by an enemy. Unlike Sherman, he never panicked in battle but always remained calm and focused. He was derided by both men as "Slow Trot Thomas," but as Bobrick shows in this brilliant biography, he was quick to analyze every situation and always knew what to do and when to do it. He was not colorful like Grant and Sherman, but he was widely admired by his peers, and some, such as Grant's favorite cavalry commander, General James H. Wilson, thought Thomas the peer of any general in either army. He was the only Union commander to destroy two Confederate armies in the field.

Although historians of the Civil War have always regarded Thomas highly, he has never captured the public imagination, perhaps because he has lacked an outstanding biographer — until now. This informed, judicious, and lucid biography at last gives Thomas his due.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743290265
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 02/09/2010
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 737,227
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Benson Bobrick earned his doctorate from Columbia University and is the author of several critically acclaimed works, including Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired and Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution. In 2002 he received the Literature Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He and his wife, Hilary, live in Vermont.

Read an Excerpt

8. Chattanooga

Thomas, reported Charles Dana, was now the idol of the men, for he was "the man who saved them, and indeed saved us all. For my own part, I confess I share their feeling. I know no other man whose composition and character are so much like those of Washington; he is at once an elegant gentleman and a heroic soldier." By contrast, his fellow corps commanders were subjected to scorn. In the fog of war it is not easy to say whether the conduct of McCook and Crittenden had been remiss. But the impression was that it was. Secretary of War Stanton suspended both from command and ordered them to Indianapolis, Indiana, to be tried as military felons, which seemed to augur another political trial.

Until September 24, Federal troops had held the summit of Lookout Mountain, which was the key to all operations around Chattanooga. It dominated the entire scene of towering mountains and deep valleys, the tortuously winding Tennessee River, the tributary streams emptying into it, the railroads from south and west and the wagon roads. But as he hunkered down in Chattanooga and tried to prepare for its defense, Rosecrans yielded the summit (over the protests of Garfield, Granger, and others) as well as Missionary Ridge. He also gave up two Tennessee River ferries important to the Federal line of supply.

Bragg posted his army around the town, occupied all points yielded, placed his left flank along the mountain heights, held the railroads going south and even the main routes north. Altogether, his lines extended from Lookout Mountain across Chattanooga Valley to Missionary Ridge, and along its base and summit to the Tennessee River. This left the Union army but one road, some sixty miles in length, over the mountains to Bridgeport for supplies. Even unchallenged, this road was inadequate. But it was harassed by raids, shelled off and on, awash with mud, and obstructed by hundreds of dead mules and horses who had perished hauling supplies. Bragg knew that if he could hold the river and the shorter roads to Bridgeport the surrender of the Union army was only a matter of time.

In its idyllic, natural setting, Chattanooga had once been a beautiful town. But war had turned it into a bleak, sad-looking, and semi-deserted place. Houses had been ransacked for food and clothing; its lawns and shrubbery eaten by mules; its trees felled and fences dismantled for fuel and defense works, its fields and gardens filled with tents. Just behind the town rows of crude army huts dotted the hills, and the plain in front was furrowed with riflepits. As log and earthenware breastworks and redoubts went up, the whole perimeter was fortified.

In the Federal army, rations were drastically reduced, malnutrition set in, and the men were said to be so debilitated they could hardly stand at their posts. The search for food occupied their waking hours. They followed forage wagons and picked up the grain that leaked out. They probed in the mud where the mules were fed and picked out grains of corn. Some quarreled over camp scraps and offal. The animals were almost without forage, and their very bones seemed to rattle within their drawn hides. Instead of the usual feed, they were sustained on tender cane cut from the riverbed. Over the next few weeks, thousands of draft animals would die of starvation and toil as they struggled to haul the provisions needed by the army to survive.

Through their field glasses the Rebels could watch almost every movement the Federals made. The latter in turn, wrote one colonel, "could...trace the intrenched lines" of the Rebels, "and note the location of their field batteries and big guns. Nearly every evening the signal torches on Lookout Mountain and on Mission Ridge were flashing messages to each other over our heads and across the valley. Our signal officers soon picked up their code....Occasionally a big gun on Lookout Mountain would open out in a flash like the full moon and then we suddenly became interested in locating the fall of the shell."

Few occasions arose for levity under such dire conditions. But one morning, when Thomas and Garfield were inspecting the perimeter defenses, they heard someone shouting, "Hello, mister! you! I want to speak with you." On looking around, Thomas discovered that he was the "mister" wanted, and that the person who had hailed him was a rough backwoods soldier from East Tennessee. He stopped, and the man approached him and began, "Mister, I want to get a furlough."

"On what grounds, my man?"

"I want to go home and see my wife."

"How long since you saw your wife?"

"Ever since I enlisted -- nigh on to three months."

"Three months!" exclaimed Thomas, good-naturedly. "Why, my good man, I haven't seen my wife for three years."

The East Tennesseean stopped whittling the stick he had in his hand and stared.

"Waall, you see," he said at length, with a sheepish smile, "me and my wife ain't that kind."

Rosecrans expected Bragg to try to take Chattanooga by assault, and as the Rebel shelling drew near feared a battle day and night. No attack came, and after several days, thanks to "the Herculean labors" of the army -- as managed, according to Dana, mainly by Thomas -- the Union defenses were made so formidable that "it was certain that [the town] could only be taken by a regular siege....The strength of our forces was about forty-five thousand effective men, and we had ten days' full rations on hand. Chattanooga could hold out, but it was apparent that no offensive operations were possible until reinforcements came." These were on their way -- four divisions under Sherman from Vicksburg, two corps under Hooker from Virginia -- but would take time to arrive.

Besieged now by the very army he had maneuvered out, Rosecrans was in a shaken and bewildered state. Dana observed:

He dawdled with trifles in a manner which scarcely can be imagined. With plenty of zealous and energetic officers ready to do whatever needed to be done, precious time was lost because our dazed and mazy commander could not perceive the catastrophe that was close upon nor fix his mind upon the means of preventing it. I never saw anything which seemed so lamentable and hopeless. Our animals were starving, the men had starvation before them, and the enemy was bound soon to make desperate efforts to dislodge us. Yet the commanding general devoted that part of the time which was not employed in pleasant gossip to the composition of a long report to prove that the Government was to blame for his failure....His mind scattered; there was no system in the use of his busy days and restless nights.

To Lincoln, Rosecrans seemed "stunned and confused, like a duck hit on the head."

Stanton had never liked Rosecrans, but after Chickamauga he "despised" him, and even called him "a damned coward," which was hardly true. "I saw him under fire at Stones River," remarked General Steedman, "and I know he was no coward....But he was not the man for the tremendous events with which he was associated. They were too large for him." Before long, a consensus developed that he had to be removed. On September 28, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles noted in his diary that Lincoln considered putting an "Eastern general" in his place. But Welles told Lincoln he ought to go with Thomas for he doubted there was "any one suitable for that command or the equal of Thomas, if a change was to be made." Dana pushed hard for Thomas, too, and on September 30, Stanton agreed. "The merits of General Thomas and the debt of gratitude the nation owes to his valor and skill are fully appreciated here," he wired Dana, "and I wish you to tell him so. It is not my fault that he was not in chief command months ago." Soon thereafter, on October 4, Dana went to see Thomas and read him this telegram. "He was too much affected by it to reply immediately," wrote Dana. Thomas then said he was grateful for Stanton's confidence and wanted him to know that he had long wanted an independent command -- "an army that I could myself have organized, disciplined, distributed, and combined." But, Thomas added pointedly, he did not want to take over an army where he might be "exposed to the imputation of having supplant my previous commander."

The rush of events, however, was fast overriding his qualms. Dana's dispatches had so alarmed Stanton that he journeyed west to meet Grant at Indianapolis, and together they continued on to Louisville. Meanwhile, General Steedman (whose opinion was sought in Washington as an influential "War Democrat") had also gone to Washington at Lincoln's request. En route, he met with Stanton in Louisville and they talked about the crisis at Chattanooga through the night. In Washington, Steedman's audience with Lincoln lasted for three hours. Lincoln asked him directly: "Who do you think is the fittest man to command?" "There is only one man in the army fit to command it," replied Steedman. "Who is that?" asked Lincoln. "General George H. Thomas." "He grasped me by the hand, and said: 'General Steedman, I am glad to hear you say that. I have been of that opinion for the last 90 days, but nearly all the other gentlemen here have disagreed with me. I believe you are right.'"

It is not clear why Lincoln put it that way, since the opposite was clearly true. But later that day, Lincoln issued an order that placed the departments and armies of the Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland in the Military Division of the Mississippi under Grant; sustained Burnside as head of the Army of the Ohio; allowed Grant to replace himself with Sherman as head of the Army of the Tennessee; and gave Grant the option of giving Thomas command of the Army of the Cumberland instead of Rosecrans. Dana, who had been ordered to Louisville to meet with Stanton, was stopped en route by Grant, who told him that the new command arrangements had been made. Grant knew from various shared dispatches that Rosecrans had become untenable, and that Lincoln and Stanton both thought Thomas should take his place. Grant agreed, as expected, and wired Thomas: "Hold Chattanooga at all hazards." This unnecessary exhortation was taken by the army as an insult. Thomas replied, tersely: "I will hold the town until we starve."

The order relieving Rosecrans came to him, unannounced, at four p.m. on October 19. At nine that evening he turned his army over to Thomas. Thomas reluctantly accepted the command -- not through any false modesty as to his own capacity or fitness, but for the reasons he had given Stanton through Dana on October 4. With a concern for military order, Rosecrans asked that his farewell order be announced to the army after his departure, and at eight the next morning, October 20, just one year to the day from the time he had left his army at Corinth, Mississippi, to take command of the Army of the Cumberland, he took his leave. In his order, he commended Thomas to the men as a general of "known prudence, dauntless courage, and true patriotism," to whom they could "look with confidence" to lead them to victory ahead. But they already knew that full well.

Generals usually resent those who replace them, especially when they have proved their superiority in a subordinate role. But it was clear that Thomas had not maneuvered for the post. Rather, he had been summoned. The two generals remained friends; Rosecrans told him at the time, "You need not say anything; no misunderstanding can come between us." In a later benediction Rosecrans would describe Thomas "as near to an angel as a mortal can be" -- a rather remarkable expression for an accomplished warrior to use about a peer. Yet with the changing of the guard, the army was reinspired and, recalled General W. B. Hazen, "our hopes went up with a great bound."

The first task that confronted Thomas was to feed and otherwise provision his army, and to do this he had to seize at least part of the river route. The Tennessee, sweeping north to south past Chattanooga, formed a sudden bend before flowing north again opposite the town. In so doing, it formed a peninsula with a narrow neck at a place called Brown's Ferry. For the Federals, it was essential to secure this landing and throw a pontoon bridge across the river at that point. That would greatly shorten the Union line of supply and give the Federals possession of the river from Lookout Mountain to Bridgeport on which steamers could run.

Grant, meanwhile, had set out for Chattanooga, going partway by rail. At Stevenson, he met Rosecrans, traveling west, who gave him all the information in his power. From Bridgeport, Grant proceeded by foot and horseback. The roads winding among the mountains were nearly impassable, owing to the heavy rains and freshets that poured down the mountain sides. Grant is said to have "suffered greatly during the long and tiresome ride, and to make matters worse, 'Old Jack,' his sturdy claybank horse, had slipped and fallen heavily with him, severely jamming his injured leg, just after he had crossed the Tennessee and entered the town."

Preceding Grant to Chattanooga, Colonel James H. Wilson of his staff was escorted to headquarters by Dana when he arrived early on the 23. Dana had nothing but praise for Thomas, and Wilson later recalled "I was therefore prepossessed in his favor and was ready to greet him as an able and reliable commander....[But] I was not prepared to see in him so many external evidences of greatness....Six feet tall, of Jovelike figure, impressive countenance and lofty bearing, he struck me at resembling the traditional Washington in appearance, manner and character more than any man I had ever met. I found him as calm and serene as the morning....He expressed a modest confidence in being able to make good his hold on Chattanooga and at once inspired me with faith in his steadiness and courage." Thomas having received them both "with every mark of consideration," then turned to Dana, and said (in a polite allusion to the latter's efforts to gain him his new command), "Mr. Dana, you have got me this time; there is nothing for a man to do in such case but to obey orders."

Wilson and Dana then called on General W. F. "Baldy" Smith (the army's chief engineer and a veteran of Antietam and Gettysburg) and General J. M. Brannan, the army's chief of artillery. "Those distinguished officers," wrote Wilson, "at once declared that under the sane and steady guidance of Thomas the danger of further disaster had not only disappeared but that order and confidence had already been established throughout the ranks. Our next duty was to ride the lines, visit the advance posts, and confer with the actual commanders of the troops. Everywhere we found short rations, little forage, and plenty of hungry soldiers and starving animals. And yet every vestige of discontentment had disappeared. Everybody seemed cheerful and hopeful. Officers and men alike had regained resolution and courage." Indeed, Thomas, in consultation with Smith, had already begun to elaborate a plan for shortening "the cracker line" (as the supply line was called) by some fifty miles.

If Union morale had been raised under Thomas, Confederate morale under Bragg had begun to sink. His army lacked confidence in him. To begin with, few gains had come under his command. He had given ground at Perryville and Stones River (both of which he might have won); and in some respects his victory at Chickamauga had been Pyrrhic, thanks to the mighty resistance Thomas had put up. Confederate general D. H. Hill, who commanded one of Bragg's corps, would later say that "after Chickamauga the élan of the Southern soldier was never seen again. He fought stoutly to the last, but after Chickamauga with the sullenness of despair and without enthusiasm or hope." Bragg also quarreled constantly with his general staff and seemed almost to hate his own men. Confederate general Edward Porter Alexander remembered an emblematic scene soon after he arrived at Chattanooga and rode out with his staff to inspect the lines:

We came upon one of Bragg's infantry divisions forming three sides of a hollow square. Some one asked what it meant, & I answered that, according to rumor, Bragg shot a man every day, & that this three sided formation seemed to indicate that this was his hour. And, sure enough, as we rode up, an adjutant came forward & read the proceedings of a court martial, only a few days before, upon a man who had deserted from one of our Tennessee regiments & had been just captured in a Federal regiment. And then the poor wretch, who had been standing near, in charge of a guard, was led out to the side of a newly dug grave, in a wheat stubble field, & placed in front of a firing party which stood, it seemed to me, thirty yards away. Their aim, however, was true enough, for, at their fire, he sank limp as a rag -- a sergeant walked up, & gave a final shot as a coup de grace, & the burial detail came forward with their shovels, & the business was quickly over.

On the evening of October 23, as the rain fell in torrents through the gloom, Grant and his escort reached Chattanooga and went at once to see Thomas, though they were wet, hungry, and covered with mud. They entered a large room in which a log fire was burning, but when Dana and Wilson arrived soon after, they found the atmosphere chill. "Grant," recalled Wilson, "was sitting on one side of the fire over a puddle of water that had run out of his clothes; Thomas, glum and silent, was sitting on the other, while [General John] Rawlins [Grant's chief of staff] and the rest were scattered about." Grant had evidently just told Thomas that his independent command was not to be as independent as he thought.

To appreciate the chagrin Thomas felt, one need only remember that Stanton had just recently assured him (through Dana) that he had long since earned an independent command. Thomas had reluctantly agreed to take charge of the army. Now he was confronted with the unpleasant fact that everything he might do was to be subject to Grant's direction and approval, and placed under his prejudiced eye. Almost everyone seems to have been aware that Grant resented Thomas -- this was a "known prejudice," one officer remarked -- while Thomas, in turn, distrusted Grant's military judgment and skill. "The situation was embarrassing," wrote Wilson, "but Dana and I took it in almost at a glance, and after a moment's conference with Rawlins...I broke in with the remark: 'General Thomas, General Grant is wet, hungry, and in pain; his wagons and camp equipage are far behind; can you not find quarters and some dry clothes for him, and direct your officers to provide the party with supper?'" That "broke the spell" and Thomas moved at once in the most hospitable manner to furnish rooms, dry clothes, and supper for his guests. "Conversation began, and it was not long till a glow of warmth and cheerfulness prevailed...Before the evening closed the casual observer would not have suspected that there had been the slightest lack of cordiality in the reception which had been accorded to the weary general and his staff."

Yet the incident deepened the rift between the two men. Wilson and Dana often discussed it afterward and agreed it had something to do with the fact that "Thomas's services and connections with the old army had been more creditable than Grant's," and "his rank higher," but was more deeply rooted in the Shiloh campaign, "where Grant," wrote Wilson, "nominally second in command, was really in disfavor, while Thomas, who belonged to another army, had been put in command of nearly all of Grant's troops." Indeed, Grant had arrived at Chattanooga with his old wound of a grudge still festering. Despite the renewed high spirits and élan that Dana and Wilson had both found under Thomas, Grant insisted on depicting his troops as abject, timid, and demoralized. This gave him the excuse he was looking for to assign Sherman, and Sherman's own troops, the major role in the upcoming battle for the town. Notably enough, the very night he arrived he wired Stanton: "Please approve order placing Genl Sherman in command of Dept. & army of the Tennessee with Hd. Qrs. in the field." As one officer put it, "He had scarcely begun to exercise the authority conferred upon him by his new command when his mind turned to securing advancement for Sherman."

But the broad competence of Thomas at once made itself plain. He gained Grant's approval for his plan to secure the river below Lookout Mountain to Bridgeport and sent General George T. Palmer and two brigades down the river's north bank to cooperate with General Joseph Hooker, who was to advance from Bridgeport and enter Lookout Valley while Palmer held the roads. On the night of the 27, one brigade and three batteries moved overland toward Brown's Ferry, while 1,300 men under General W. B. Hazen in flatboats manned with oars quietly drifted downstream as a slight mist veiled the full moon. Uniting opposite the ferry, all hands crossed a pontoon bridge and rushed the Rebel pickets on the opposite shore. The Federals hastily entrenched on a hill and repelled a countercharge. After artillery was brought over, the position was made secure. Meanwhile, Hooker seized another key crossing (Kelley's Ferry) at the foot of the rapids, and began marching into Lookout Valley unopposed.

Communication with Bridgeport was now secured by two routes -- one, overland, by way of the little village of Wauhatchie and Brown's Ferry; the other, by river, to Kelley's Ferry, and from there by an eight-mile wagon road along the river's north bank. Prior to this time Chattanooga had been practically invested and could not have held out another week. Grant, who never gave Thomas any more credit than he had to, and often denied him the credit he deserved, acknowledged in a wire to Halleck: "Thomas's plan for securing the river and the south side road hence to Bridgeport, has proved eminently successful." Thomas gave the credit to Smith. Either way, instead of looking down from secure heights upon a prize which was sure to fall into his hands, Bragg found himself confronted by an enemy whose growing strength would soon exceed his own. Two steamboats were now able to run up and down part of the river and an immense wagon train advanced with tens of thousands of rations between the two ferries over the land route. "We can easily subsist ourselves now, and will soon be in good condition," Thomas joyfully announced in a wire to Halleck on October 31.

On November 3, Bragg tried to create a diversion in the face of the forces assembling against him and, at the suggestion of Jefferson Davis, sent Longstreet toward Knoxville with a corps and eighty guns. At Knoxville, Ambrose Burnside had 25,000 troops on hand for his own defense, but was unnerved by Bragg's maneuver. He appealed to Washington for help, and the War Department, unnerved in turn by his pleadings, pressed Grant to do something on his behalf. Grant accordingly came up with a plan for Thomas to attack Bragg's right on Missionary Ridge. This was supposed to serve as a counterdiversion to force Bragg to call Longstreet back.

It was a reckless plan. Bragg was strongly entrenched, and such an assault could not be mounted without adequate artillery support. At the time, the Federals lacked the artillery horses they needed to haul the guns. Burnside's situation was also not as urgent as Grant thought. Based on disinformation, including rumors fed to him by a deserter, Grant became convinced that Burnside was about to be overrun. So on November 7, Grant sent Thomas a peremptory order to hurl his whole army against the Ridge's northern end. "The movement should not be made one moment later than tomorrow morning," said Grant. "You having been over this country, and having a better opportunity of studying it than myself, the details are left to you."

Thomas read this order in silence. Then he sent for General Smith and told him it "meant disaster" for his army given Bragg's entrenched position on the heights. As matters stood, Bragg could mass his whole force against him, whereas if they waited for Sherman to come up they would have another wing in the attack. In the meantime, he told Smith they had to somehow "get the order countermanded." Smith implicitly agreed and suggested to Thomas they go up and look over the ground together so they could present Grant with empirical evidence as to why the untimely plan was wrong. Accordingly, they went up to the northern end of the Ridge "as far as the mouth of Chickamauga Creek...From there," recalled Smith, "we made a scrutiny of the ground and the position of the right of the enemy on the ridge, as marked by their works and smokes, and it was evident that Gen-eral Thomas, with his command, could not turn the right of Bragg's army without uncovering Chattanooga," i.e., exposing it to assault. "We then returned, and I went to the head-quarters of General Grant, and reported the result of the reconnaisance, and told him in my judgment, it was absolutely necessary to wait for the arrival of Sherman's army." Grant acquiesced. It can hardly be doubted that Thomas was right to resist Grant's order. General Smith would later note that Sherman with six well-equipped divisions failed eighteen days later to carry the enemy right on the Ridge "at a time when Thomas with four divisions stood threatening Bragg's center and Hooker with nearly three divisions was driving in Bragg's left."

Yet in his memoirs, Grant seized on the incident as proof that Thomas lacked the initiative to be the great offensive general Sherman was: "On the 7th, before Longstreet could possibly have reached Knoxville, I ordered Thomas peremptorily to attack the enemy's right, so as to force the return of the troops that had gone up the valley. I directed him to take mules, officers' horses, or animals wherever he could get them, to move the necessary artillery. But he persisted in the declaration that he could not move a single piece of artillery, and could not see how he could possibly comply with the order." This statement, which omitted the true circumstances under which the order was reversed, also contradicted another he had made just a few paragraphs before: "We had not at Chattanooga animals to pull a single piece of artillery, much less a supply train."

Grant's story, however, was reinforced by Adam Badeau, a journalist who joined Grant's staff as military secretary and in effect became his official historian and publicist. Badeau wrote in his authorized Military History of U.S. Grant: "Thomas announced that he had no horses to move his artillery, and declared himself entirely and absolutely unable to move until Sherman should arrive to cooperate....Nevertheless, Thomas's delay was a great disappointment. A prompt movement on the part of that commander would undoubtedly have had the effect to recall Longstreet." In yet another twist to the tale, one early biography of Grant turned the truth on its head. There we read that Grant's "idea was to attack Missionary Ridge without delay, and of this plan he informed Burnside, telling him to hold Knoxville to the last extremity, but sober second thought, suggested by that calm prudence which is one of his best characteristics, prompted him to await the arrival of Sherman and his army, and thus by skill and carefulness to leave little to chance." In other words, the prudent delay insisted on by Thomas and condemned by Grant as timid became exemplary of the "calm prudence" that was one of the "best characteristics" Grant possessed.

Meanwhile, Sherman's Army of the Tennessee had left Vicksburg on steamers on September 27, reached Memphis October 2, but had since been delayed by heavy rains and by Halleck's order to repair the railroad as it advanced. Grant appealed to Halleck to let Sherman hurry on, but Sherman delayed his own army further "by a singular blunder" (as Dana put it in a dispatch to Stanton) according to which he sent his large wagon trains ahead of his artillery and troops. On November 14, Sherman himself finally arrived ahead of his army, conferred with Grant and Thomas, and rode out to examine the enemy's lines. Grant decided on a three-pronged attack -- Sherman to advance with his divisions on the left; Hooker on the right with his two corps; Thomas, in the center with his army, against Missionary Ridge. Sherman studied the terrain, folded up his glass, and confidently exclaimed, "I can do it!" It remained for him to get his army into place by November 21, the date set by Grant for the movement to begin.

Not incidentally, when Bragg's headquarters on the crest of Missionary Ridge was pointed out, Sherman later told Garfield that Thomas lost his cool and swore, "Damn him, I'll be even with him yet." It may be doubted. Like most, if not all, of Sherman's contrived anecdotes about Thomas, the unfriendly point of it was to suggest that Thomas was "not as imperturbable" (Sherman's words) as many thought.

Despite his declaration "I can do it!" Sherman failed to get his columns to their designated place on time. Meanwhile, Grant wrongly thought Bragg might be in retreat. On the 20th, he had received a note from Bragg which read, in part: "As there may still be some noncombatants in Chattanooga, I deem it proper to notify you that prudence would dictate their early withdrawal." The object of the note, which implied an imminent attack, was to keep the Union army in their lines. Grant, however, misconstrued it completely. Howard recalled that he "smiled as he read the message, and said: 'It means that Bragg is intending to run away.'" Two days later, Grant was confirmed in his opinion by the report of an enemy deserter who was picked up near the town. Early on the morning of the 23rd, Thomas was ordered to advance some troops to ascertain if the report was true.

Two strongholds or strategic positions stood between Chattanooga and the base of Missionary Ridge. One, midway, was an earthwork called Fort Wood, which formed part of the Federal system of defenses. Between that and the rifle pits (at the base of the Ridge) was a prominent double hill called Orchard Knob. Bragg occupied this eminence as an outpost, Thomas organized an advance from the center of the Union line that called for five divisions -- a force strong enough to save the advance from disaster if a general engagement ensued. "The field of operation was one well fitted for a display," recalled one officer. "The wide plain extending from the Tennessee to Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge formed an amphitheater that offered a fair view to not only the Confederates leaning on their guns and looking down upon our camps and lines of fortifications, but to our own army occupying various elevations from the plain."

The troops employed for the attack were under the immediate command of Gordon Granger. His division commanders included Philip Sheridan, W. B. Hazen, and Thomas Wood. Just before one o'clock the men moved out of their entrenchments, and remained in line for three-quarters of an hour in full view. Grant, Thomas, and other officers, including Dana, stood upon the ramparts of Fort Wood to observe the attack. "The spectacle," wrote Dana, "was one of singular magnificence....Usually in a battle one sees only a little corner of what is going on, the movements near where you happen to be; but in the battle of Chattanooga we had the whole scene before us. At last, everything being ready, Granger gave the order to advance, and three brigades of men pushed out simultaneously. The troops advanced rapidly, with all the precision of a review." As the firing began, they swept away the pickets to their front and overran the works on Orchard Knob with such sudden force that they were taken "almost before the Confederates realized they had been attacked." Thomas, seeing the Union flag on Orchard Knob and the adjoining hills, signaled Wood: "You have gained too much to withdraw; hold your position, and I will support you." Immediately he sent two more divisions forward -- one to the right, the other to the left. Even as he moved to solidify the gain, Grant ordered the men withdrawn. That made no sense to anyone, including Grant's chief of staff. He told Grant, "It will not do for them to come back," and (wrote Howard) Grant reluctantly agreed. At 3 p.m., Grant notified Halleck that the troops belonging to Thomas had "attacked the enemy's left" (in fact, they had attacked the enemy right), carried the first line of rifle pits, "running over the knoll one thousand two hundred yards in front of Wood's fort and low ridge to the right of it, taking about two hundred prisoners besides killed and wounded. Our loss small. The troops moved under fire with all the precision of veterans on parade. Thomas's troops will entrench themselves and hold their position until daylight, when Sherman will join the attack from the mouth of South Chickamauga; and a decisive battle will be fought."

Grant was clearly amazed at the cool gallantry of the troops he had so recently maligned. He had not expected, or even wanted, Thomas to gain and hold ground. His plan was for Thomas to make a junction with Sherman after Sherman had made his own successful wing attack. In his official report, however, Grant portrayed the movement as part of his original plan: "Thomas having done on the 23rd with his troops in Chattanooga Valley what was intended for the 24th, bettered and strengthened his advanced positions during the day." As Donn Piatt later wrote, "We see the first divergence from the truth that widened as it went." The junction with Sherman according to the plan explained to Halleck in a telegram of November 23 was now in fact impossible. Thomas would have had to keep most of his troops massed in Chattanooga Valley to the left. Instead, they were massed toward the center. Events were shaping themselves in accord with the better plan of battle Thomas had worked out. Everything, in fact, that subsequently happened indicates that in order to avoid failure and a useless loss of life, Thomas "managed" the great battle of Chattanooga, as one writer put it, "behind Grant's back." Perhaps he thought he had to. He did not have a high opinion of Grant's generalship. And his worst fears had already been confirmed by the first, reckless order he had received to attack Missionary Ridge. Thomas loved his army, and was loved and trusted by his men. As he had told Halleck, he was going to do the right thing by them no matter what "stick" or fool was placed over his head. He was never insubordinate; but he knew exactly what he was doing when others did not. That gave him a covert power that ultimately assured victory for the Union and spared countless lives.

That night there was a lunar eclipse. Among the Federals, some saw it as an omen of Bragg's defeat "because he was perched on the mountain top, nearest the moon." In a more obvious way, the darkness worked against him by helping to cover the progress of Sherman's troops, who were at last struggling to get into position east of the town. Yet Bragg was not idle. Awakening to the fact that the Union left overlapped his right and so endangered his supply lines, he transferred a division from the northern slope of Lookout Mountain to his extreme right on the Ridge. That gave Hooker a chance to fight one of the most celebrated actions of the war. Grant had ordered Hooker to make a demonstration against the summit of Lookout Mountain as a diversion. Hooker asked permission from Thomas to take the summit if he could. Thomas (by his 12:30 p.m. dispatch of November 24) gave his consent.

On the morning of the 24th, as a dense fog settled on the valley, Hooker crossed Lookout Creek and began his ascent. For some time, no one in the valley could see clearly how the battle was going, as the guns of both sides reverberated through the hills. Hooker's men worked their perilous way up, over boulders and jutting cliffs, clutching bushes and the branches of trees to steady their footing, as the Confederates retreated from ledge to ledge. "Up and up they went into the clouds," wrote one eyewitness, "which were settling down upon the lofty summit, until they were lost from sight, and their comrades watching anxiously in the Chattanooga valley could hear only the booming of cannon and the rattle of musketry far overhead, and catch glimpses of fire flashing from moment to moment through the dark clouds." This went on till the fog deepened into night. Then the noise died down. The Union army in the valley slept in doubt. At dawn, "cheers from sixty thousand throats went up" as the Stars-and-Stripes were seen waving from a point on the mountain known as "Pulpit Rock."

Hooker's victory, known afterward as "the Battle Above the Clouds," thrilled the nation, and wild eulogies were composed in his praise. Hooker himself was greatly heartened, for it somewhat redeemed his reputation, which had been tarnished at Chancellorsville. Grant, however, was so unhappy that he later claimed "there was no such battle, and no action worthy to be called a battle," on Lookout that day. He did not mean that literally, of course. He meant that it was vastly overblown. But even that was not so, at least by its consequence. As a bold action, it had forced Bragg to shorten his line and helped set up the tremendous victory that ensued.

Once Lookout Mountain was in his hands, Hooker marched into the valley of the Chattanooga River, worked furiously to repair the bridge across it, which the Rebels had destroyed, and, without waiting for the flooring, got a regiment across on the stringers, as soon as they were laid. Then he moved by Rossville Gap up to the crest of Missionary Ridge. Grant's battle plan was fast going awry. Sherman was three days behind schedule; Hooker (with encouragement from Thomas) had taken Lookout Mountain; Thomas had taken Orchard Knob in the advance toward Missionary Ridge.

Sherman was having a hard time of it. He had his troops north of the river concealed behind the hills, ready to attempt to cross the Tennessee to attack the east head of the Ridge on the east. The ridge appeared to be continuous, at least along the crest, but it proved otherwise. His maps were wrong. Instead of climbing directly up the slopes, he discovered himself faced by a series of fortified hills that masked the ridge itself. Each jagged knoll "had to be approached and taken like an isolated bastion." He hustled his troops through a storm of canister to take the first two, only to encounter a ravine he didn't know was there. That left him some distance short of a railroad tunnel he was supposed to occupy that day. With dusk coming on, it was too late to get his army down and up the far side. In the meantime, he had pretty much given away the Federal plan. On the heights he saw Rebels preparing for an energetic defense. Bragg, now realizing that the main attack would fall on his right, had shifted two divisions from Lookout Mountain, and began to fortify the knob north of Tunnel Hill. Flattened out and disillusioned, Sherman entrenched behind the ravine and asked to be reinforced. Two divisions were sent at once from Thomas's command.

Grant had looked eagerly to see Sherman accomplish on Bragg's right what Hooker had done on Bragg's left. When he discovered that Sherman had been repulsed with heavy loss, he reset the coordinated Union attack for the morning of the 25th. So far, everyone but Sherman had done their part. "The simple fact is," wrote General James H. Wilson, Sherman "was not the man" for the task he had been assigned. This was the situation when the unexpected transpired. The forces in the center under Thomas on Orchard Knob had till then been held in place. Thinking to draw Rebel troops away from the forces Sherman faced, Grant called on Thomas to make another demonstration and take the rifle pits connected by log and stone breastworks along the base of Missionary Ridge. On the 25th, the same four divisions that had secured Orchard Knob were ordered to advance.

In his memoirs, Grant would fault Thomas for not having made the charge sooner: "I had watched for the attack of General Thomas early in the day," Grant tells us.

Sheridan's and Wood's divisions had been lying under arms from early morning, ready to move the moment the signal was given. I now directed Thomas to order the charge at once. I watched to see the effect and became impatient at last, that there was no indication of any charge being made. The center of the line which was to make the charge was near where Thomas and I stood, but concealed from view by an intervening point. Turning to Thomas to inquire what caused the delay, I was surprised to see Thomas J. Wood, one of the division commanders, who was to make the charge, standing talking to him. I spoke to General Wood, asking why he did not charge as ordered an hour before. He replied very promptly that this was the first he had heard of it, but that he had been ready all day at a moment's notice; I told him to make the charge at once.

No one was ever found who heard Grant give Thomas that first order -- even though both men were surrounded by a numerous staff. When Grant did tell Thomas to send his men forward, Thomas did so promptly, as all who witnessed the order and his response report. When the order came, wrote Howard, "the patient Thomas had been ready all day." The day before, Grant had given Thomas a general order for a morning advance, but this was only to take place in conjunction with Sherman's attack. The order read in part: "General Sherman carried Missionary Ridge as far as the tunnel with only slight skirmishing [this was wishful thinking and not true]. His right now rests at the tunnel and on top of the hill; his left at Chickamauga Creek. I have instructed General Sherman to advance as soon as it is light in the morning, and your attack, which will be simultaneous, will be in cooperation." In keeping with Grant's order, Thomas had waited for Sherman to move. Grant, too, waited all morning, and into the afternoon. He was not waiting for Thomas, but for Sherman. But Sherman could not move. He had, in fact, not carried the ridge to the tunnel (how could Grant not know this?), as Grant claimed. Grant was now in a fix. His unconscionable delay, designed to facilitate glory for Sherman, his comrade-in-arms, had reached a point where it threatened Sherman's survival and the success of the whole battle plan. Finally, Grant's chief of staff, Rawlins, confronted him and demanded that he not wait any longer. At about 3 p.m. he finally ordered the center to attack.

Sherman and Grant had both maligned the Army of the Cumberland as a demoralized and defeated force. Grant had even described it as "fixed and immovable" in a dispatch to Halleck on the 21st. For weeks, the Cumberland troops had chafed under such calumny, and out of their resentment was born a resolve. With banners waving and drums beating, the men moved out and formed in lines as if on parade. General Hazen recalled afterward that even cooks and clerks and quartermasters "found guns in some way" and joined the combat troops in their array. The day was beautifully clear and cool. Along the brow of Missionary Ridge the Rebels crowded to the front as officers rushed to their guns. For twenty minutes "there was the stillness of a cemetery," followed by a brief artillery duel between the guns on Orchard Knob and Missionary Ridge. At 3:40 p.m. a battery of six Union guns fired -- the signal for the entire line to advance. Before the fifth gun had sounded the men were out of their own trenches, wheeling and marching as if on parade. Before them, the crest of Missionary Ridge rose 400 feet. Its terrain was so broken and rugged that Bragg had said "a single cordon of skirmishers could hold it against the whole Federal Army." The three divisions of Union troops facing the ridge occupied a line two miles long. Forty-two big guns pointed straight at them, while across an open space of some 600 yards lay the Rebel works. Under the circumstances, wrote one historian, "the charge of the light brigade at Balaclava seemed no more desperate than the advance of the 4th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland against Missionary Ridge."

In the rifle pits and breastworks, the Rebels "waited in grim silence" as "the long line came on with gleaming bayonets." On Orchard Knob, Grant and Thomas, each with his own staff, "soon lost sight of the combatants because of the smoke that rolled in and over" the action. Suddenly, the rifle pits were silent, and as the smoke lifted, there could be seen along the steep sides of the Ridge, from end to end, Rebels desperately clawing their way up. Right on their heels in pursuit surged the entire Union line. Once in the rifle pits, they were supposed to wait for further instructions. But to a man they understood the folly of that and continued on. As one eyewitness put it, "The situation offered them the opportunity to stand still and die, to go forward without orders, to stop the destructive fire to which they were exposed, or to retreat on the same condition to avoid it. The men in the ranks and their immediate commanders chose to go forward," and in so doing executed the most spectacular assault of the war.

Halfway up, there was a pause. The heavy guns of the Rebels could not be lowered enough to hit their targets; the Federal guns on Fort Wood dared not continue their shelling at the risk of hitting their own men. One Union officer afterward recalled: I never felt so lonesome in my life." Then on up the men went, smashing through felled trees, halting but a moment to reform. One soldier remembered:

Those defending the heights became more and more desperate as our men approached the top....They thrust cartridges into guns by handsfull, they lighted the fuses of shells and rolled them down, they seized huge stones and threw them, after another the regimental flags were borne over the parapet and the ridge was ours. The finest the Southern army was there, the ramrods half-way down the guns when captured. These were whirled around and fired in the direction of the flying foe....What yells and cheers broke from the panting, weary but triumphant ranks. They threw their haversacks in the air until it was a cloud of black spots; officers and men mingled indiscriminately in their joy.

"Who gave that order?" demanded Grant, turning to Thomas. "I know of no one giving such orders," he replied. Grant glared at Granger. "Did you order them up?" "No," said Granger, "they are going without orders. When those fellows get started, all hell can't stop them." "Well, it will be investigated," said Grant. But as he spoke, the men mounted to the summit, leaped into Bragg's entrenchments, piercing his lines in the center, doubling them to the right and left. Along the line of the ridge, at six different points, the troops belonging to Thomas could be seen pouring over the enemy breastworks and planting their flags.

Grant's fury at Thomas ("Who gave that order?") for allowing his men to go up instead of stopping at the rifle pits was next to insane. Just as Thomas had signaled his men on Orchard Knob -- "You have gained too much to withdraw; hold your position, and I will support you" -- so having gained the rifle pits, it made no sense not to go up. In those pits they were sitting ducks for Confederate fire. Their own common sense and initiative shamed Grant's reckless blindness to their lives. Wrote one officer, "Twenty minutes of that exposure was sufficient to annihilate the entire force. Grant said subsequently, with that charming indifference to fact so peculiar to him, that he expected the men to reform in the captured rifle-pits and await further movement until ordered. A most appropriate place that to reform and await orders. We know well that the forward dash was safer than a retreat." At least in the gullies, huge rocks, and trees of the slope, there was some shelter from Rebel fire.

The assault up the ridge may not have been ordered by explicit command, and begun "by an uncontrollable impulse." But, as one officer noted, the men had also been trained to execute any enterprise, however hazardous, "under a general of heroic mould." That confidence was born of a well-earned trust. For Thomas had never let them down. Indeed, "even while the shouts of victory were still filling the air," wrote one, "the shrill whistle of the first steamboat, loaded with supplies, coming up the reopened river, told the story of future plenty, after the long starvation; and added another proof, if one were needed, to the willing minds of his enthusiastic soldiers, that their commander could feed as well as fight them. It was the final test alike of his greatness in battle and his providence in their care."

Thomas rode up to the top of the hill. "I fell among some of my old soldiers, who always took liberties with me -- who commenced talking and giving their views of the victory," he related. "When I attempted to compliment them for the gallant manner in which they made the assault, one man [as gaunt as a trained runner] very coolly replied: 'Why, General, we know that you have been training us for this race for the last three weeks.'" Though Grant held himself aloof from the general elation, it touched almost every other pen. "It was reserved by Providence to Thomas and his army, already four times depleted," wrote General Howard, "to storm heights more difficult than those of Gettysburg, and to capture batteries and intrenchments harder to reach than those of Vicksburg." In his dispatch to the War Department, Dana declared the assault "one of the greatest miracles in military awful as a visible interposition of God."

Grant's whole plan had been designed around a successful assault by Sherman near the tunnel on the northern end of Missionary Ridge. Neither Hooker's action, which swept Lookout Mountain, nor the storming of the ridge was in the plan. But in Grant's report on the 25th he tells us that the Rebel troops had massed to their right in "desperation to defeat or resist the progress of Sherman," who had not been making progress, and thereby "weaken[ed] their center on Missionary Ridge." That, Grant tells us, "determined me to order the advance at once. Thomas was accordingly directed to move forward his troops constituting our center...with a double line of skirmishers thrown out, followed in easy supporting distance by the whole force, and carry the rifle-pits at the foot of Missionary Ridge, and, when carried, to reform his lines with a view of carrying the top of the ridge."

Adam Badeau, in his Military History of U.S. Grant, expounded the same fiction: "The Rebel center, as Grant had foreseen, was weakened to save the right; and then the whole mass of the Army of the Cumberland was precipitated on the weakened point; the center was pierced, the heights carried, and the battle of Chattanooga won." Sherman's version aligned with Grant's. In his Memoirs, he wrote: "The object of General Hooker's and my attacks on the extreme flanks of Bragg's position was to disturb him to such an extent that he would naturally detach from his center as against us so that Thomas's army could break through his center. The whole plan succeeded admirably, but it was not until after dark that I learned the complete success of the center, and received General Grant's orders to pursue on the north side of Chickamauga Creek." An independent investigation made afterward, however, by General James Wilson revealed that this was not so -- that Bragg had drawn men not from his center (on the ridge) but his left. Confederate General Edward Porter Alexander (Bragg's chief of artillery on the ridge, who would have known) also insisted no such movements from the center were made.

Night put an end to the fighting, but the victory was near-complete. That part of Bragg's army facing the troops under Thomas had fled in a rout; that part of Bragg's army (on his right) facing Sherman retreated slowly and in order after nightfall, falling back with guns, flags, and matériel. The capture of 6,000 Rebel prisoners, several pieces of artillery, and many thousand stands of small arms was "an irreparable loss to the Confederacy," wrote Confederate general John Gordon. "In its exhausted condition these could not be replaced by new levies and new guns." By twelve o'clock all the Rebel positions around Chattanooga had been abandoned, and Bragg's disheartened army withdrew through Ringgold, Georgia, to Dalton in the greatest and most complete defeat up to that time in the war. Hooker, having rebuilt the bridge over Chattanooga Creek, pursued Bragg's army as far as Ringgold for two days. Yet Grant in his memoirs blamed Hooker for letting part of Bragg's army escape.

The fault was more with Grant. Though wont to call Thomas "slow," he had shown the very lack of initiative he was swift to decry. As William McFeely, Grant's celebrated biographer, put it: "The enemy fled, but Grant, as at Shiloh, did not move in pursuit. It was a great victory, but it had not been accomplished according to Grant's design. Sherman's Army of the Tennessee had not won the fierce battle, and Grant never forgave Thomas for the fact that the men of his Army of the Cumberland, whom Grant held in some contempt, had carried the day. The Union had won...but the total destruction of Bragg's army was not accomplished....The splendid victory was not, finally, a complete success."

The Lincoln administration, however, portrayed the battle as perfectly fought, for its own political prestige, and Grant as the commanding genius of the fight. In that spirit, Congress praised him in a joint resolution and arranged for a gold medal to be struck in his honor "in the name of the people of the United States."

In histories of the war (as well as biographies of Grant) the course of the battle is still often portrayed as having gone as Grant planned. Grant presented it that way in his memoirs, but numerous contemporary accounts, as well as the official record, including telegrams, show that to be false.

In his own report to the War Department, Thomas remarked with exquisite tact: "It will be seen...that the original plan of operations was somewhat modified....It is believed, however, that the original plan, had it been carried out, could not possibly have led to more successful results." Or as General Henry V. Boynton put it bluntly, "Every successful feature of the three days' battle about Chattanooga was his and not another's. Every modification of the plan of battle was his and every portion of the plan which succeeded was modified."

The successful assault on the Ridge possibly saved Burnside, too. According to Edward Porter Alexander, Longstreet had been poised to renew his attack when Burnside, "playing for time," sent in a flag of truce. "Everything was ready, & six hours might have made Burnside a prisoner. The game was worth playing for." But then Bragg suffered his calamitous defeat. Grant afterward sent Sherman, Howard, and Granger to Knoxville, racing eighty-five miles or more on separate roads. When Sherman arrived, he found Burnside safely entrenched and (though reportedly facing starvation) well fixed for supplies. Longstreet had retired to the hills. Grant proposed that Sherman chase him into South Carolina, but Sherman replied: "A stern chase is a long one," and that was that.

By the winter of 1863, the war had seemed to go on for so long, with so much carnage, that there was an impersonal largeness to it that recalled the martial epics of the Romans and Greeks. One officer, writing in his diary from Chattanooga, on Christmas Day 1863, caught something of that spirit when he wrote:

Today we picked up on the battlefield of Chickamauga the skull of a man who had been shot in the head. It was smooth, white and glossy. A little over three months ago this skull was full of life, hope and ambition. He who carried it into battle had, doubtless, mother, sisters, friends, whose happiness was to some extent dependent upon him. They mourn for him now, unless, possibly, they hope still to hear that he is safe and well. Vain hope. Sun, rain, and crows have united in the work of stripping the flesh from his bones, and while the greater part of these lay whitening where they fell, the skull has been rolling about the field, the sport and plaything of the winds. This is war.

That winter, while Grant and Sherman maneuvered for power through their patrons in the War Department and the halls of Congress, Thomas was encamped under the shadows of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. One day Howard rode over from his headquarters in Lookout Valley to Chattanooga to see him and asked him why he did not take a brief leave before the spring campaign commenced. "Oh," he said, "I cannot leave; something is sure to get out of order if I go away from my command. It was always so, even when I commanded a post. I had to stick by and attend to everything, or else affairs went wrong." Yet with Thomas there was never wasted time. While he wintered at Chattanooga, he conceived of the idea of a national cemetery for veterans laid out on the slopes of Orchard Knob. It was in this way that the system of military cemeteries was begun that became a popular source of national pride. "The general who loved his men so heartily when alive," wrote one officer, "had a religious and patriotic respect for their remains when called to their interment. They had given their courage, endurance and lives to their country, and it was fitting and seemly that their last resting places should be monuments to their sacrifice." He was not about to disgrace their memory either by perpetuating in burial the divisions of the war. When asked if the men were to be buried by state of origin, he said: "No, no, no. Mix them up. Mix them up. I'm tired of states' rights."

Copyright © 2009 by Benson Bobrick

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Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
romantic-cowboy More than 1 year ago
Finally a worthwhile study of a general who has been overlooked by history for so long. Lee, Grant and Sherman get the attention usually but here is a general worth getting to know more about. Others got the benefit of his success and usually the overall credit.
Newmans2001 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I am in agreement with the other two reviews at this time. For me there was much added information on Thomas that I was interested in and happy to read. That Thomas was underrated and under appreciated is a case well worth pursuit, but this book was in need of more support information, was an soft oversell on Thomas, and the intent to blame Grant and Sherman as the source of all of the problems Thomas had actually detracts from his case for Thomas. The next step is a more balanced book evaluating his worth.
dhughes on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was disappointed that there wasn't much new infromation in the book. Most of the details are taken from past published books. His defense of Thomas as the best Union General is admirable, however he could have exemplified how Thomas built an affective fighting force from the hand me downs that Sherman passed off to him. The accusations that both Sherman and Grant were jealous of Thomas' successes and worked towards down playing his accomplishments should have been better proven. .
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very informative from an information point of view but I found the author's need to build up Thomas by cutting down Grant and Sherman tedious at best.
Lamplighter331 More than 1 year ago
This is an obviously biased account that lacks serious academic study. The author spends more time tearing down Grant, Sherman and Lincoln than really calling out what Thomas brought to the war. Thomas is my favorite Civil War leader, but this book does him no justice. According to this book, Thomas has no flaws while EVERY other Union leader was a dolt. To hear the author tell it, Grant and Sherman had no successes and basically muddled through, being carried by events instead of shaping them. This book is obvious propaganda and does NOTHING to advance Thomas to the modern audience. I am very disappointed by this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
redmanrt More than 1 year ago
Of the modern treatments of Thomas, this is the most favorable, and even more direct in its exposure of the Grant Gang than McKinney's pioneering book of 1961. I have some minor observations. --- I wish Bobrick had noted that Sherman's map of Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga was NOT defective. On the contrary, well before the battle Gen. "Baldy" Smith, Thomas' chief engineer, had produced an excellent topographical map and distributed it to at least Grant and Sheridan who included it in their subsequent battle reports. Sherman did not include any map in his report. He wrote that he did, but it's not in the Official Records. In short, he lied about his "wrongly laid down" map in order to explain his miserable performance on 24 and 25 November 1863 at the northern end of the ridge. Get this - On the 24th he crossed the Tennessee early in the morning, stopped to fortify the crossing, left an entire division behind to defend it, and set off at 10 AM for Missionary Ridge. He covered 3 miles in 6 hours against no opposition and then stopped on the first rise 1 mile short of Tunnel Hill (the objective in his orders) to entrench because he had misread the terrain. Then, on the 25th he could have outflanked Cleburne (who had moved in during the night to occupy the hill), and bagged Bragg's army, but instead chose to launch a series of wasteful frontal attacks. And this man was put in charge of the drive to Atlanta! Rest assured that he botched there too many a battle but was repeatedly rescued by Thomas, for which Sherman never forgave him. --- Another detail: Bobrick doesn't do justice to Hooker's efforts on the 25th. His first unit under Osterhaus reached Chattanooga Creek before Rossville at noon and crossed on the remainders of the burned bridge (Osterhaus, Cozzens) and had reached a point close behind Bragg's HQ by late afternoon when Thomas' attack started. By then, panic had spread among the defenders. In fact, Thomas had waited, despite Grant's prodding, to launch his attack until he knew (from the sound of the battle, deafening compared with the silence at Sherman's end) that Bragg's left was collapsing. Grant could hear the noise too, which explains his "foolish" (Cozzens) orders on Orchard Knob. Read the reports of the Confederate Gen. Alexander Stewart and his subordinates who were impressed with Hooker's initiative (Google "Stewart's Division's reports"). --- Finally, all of the authors dealing with Thomas speculate about his motives for occasionally refusing promotion. None of them consider the possibility that Thomas had good practical reasons. He was from the South and had no state machine to back him, and he knew that if he moved up before his reputation was solid enough, he risked losing his beloved troops to some political appointee, as almost happened at the beginning in Kentucky and did happen after the fall of Atlanta. He was busy creating the modern army and swallowed many a humiliation in that pursuit. There is no such thing as a humble person. After Shiloh he himself wrote, as Bobrick noted: "I am not as modest as I have been represented to be." --- Thanks to Bobrick for this best effort yet to rehabilitate Thomas' memory. The next edition will be out already early next year and should become the standard for years to come.
HistorybuffMD More than 1 year ago
Benson Bpbrick's book Master of War is the life story of a largely under appreciated commander in the Civil War. General George Thomas, a Virginian by birth, remained loyal to the Union when most of his contemporaries went south. The author describes Thomas a model soldier in almost all respects: courage, knowledge, personnel skills, and judgement -- perhaps slightly overstated. Throughout the war General Thomas served in the western theater along with better known commanders such as Grant and Sherman. A professional in all respects Thomas eschewed publicity or self promotion and consequently was eclipsed by the former. Of all the engagements in which he was present he never was defeated. An example was his title "The Rock of Chickamauga" earned for his saving of the Union Army of the Tennessee outside Chattanooga in 1863. Later near the end of the war he destroyed the Confederate army of General Hood at Nashville.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's nice to see General Thomas finally getting the credit he deserves.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
JBW29NC More than 1 year ago
I am sympathetic to and in complete agreement with the author's premise that George H. Thomas was truly one of the most outstanding generals (north or south) in the War Between the States and that he was treated shamefully by superiors most particularly U. S. Grant who always tried to put his favorites Sherman, Sheridan, positions of prominence while ignoring their weaknesses. However, I believe the author in building his case is either extremely careless of facts or seems to attempt to mold perceived facts to fit his contentions. To cite four examples: Pg 62, PGT Beauregard is identified as ".recently, if briefly, Lee's successor as superintendent of West Point.." "On March 31, 1855, Lee ceased to be Superintendent at West Point." pg 161 Robert E. Lee a Biography by Emory M. Thomas Beauregard assume the office of Superintendent January 23, 1861. pg 45 P.T.G Beauregard Napoleon in Gray by Harry Williams A gap of 6 years hardly qualifies one as a successor in the generally accepted sense of next in order. In speaking of George McClellan on page 105 he states ". had excelled as Winfield Scott's engineer-in-chief in the Mexican War, returned to West Point to teach..." Please consult Stephen W. Sears's outstanding biography of McClellan, George McClellan The Young Napoleon pg 24 ". Yet his accomplishments were those of a very junior officer, far removed from any real command or planning responsibility.: Concerning his time "teaching" at West Point pg 28-29 ".., fifteen months of garrison duty at West Point.."; ",,, his only classroom work was with the Company on Engineer Soldiers (not cadets)." Concerning the Battle of Shiloh; pg 110 ".a Quaker Meeting House know as Shiloh Church.." Shiloh was a Methodist Meeting House (Shiloh: Bloody April by Wiley Sword pg.30) " .a log Methodist church by name of Shiloh.." (Shiloh by Larry J. Daniel pg 70)