Everyone knows that Ulysses S. Grant won the American Civil War by expending willing soldiers in a ruthless war of attrition. And Sherman’s March to the Sea broke the back of the Confederacy by taking unlimited war to the South’s breadbasket. Every other Northern general was either directed by them or eclipsed by their competence. Right?
Not so fast, says author Benson Bobrick. What about a general who carefully trained his men, husbanded his materiel, gathered intelligence, and struck hard at exactly the right place to inflict maximum damage on the Confederate armies that opposed him? What about a general who never lost a battle, and who won some of the most decisive victories in the Civil War? What about the leader who absolutely destroyed the largest Confederate force outside of Virginia, despite losing the best equipment, horses, and men to his direct superior?
What about George Thomas?
Thomas was raised across the James River from Williamsburg, went to West Point, and became a career soldier. Energetic, forceful, disciplined, and strictly adherent to the Army’s codes of conduct, he was admired by the professionals who would serve on both the Confederate and Union sides. While his official portrait shows a man with steely eyes and a resolute set to his jaw, his reputation was that of a congenial host, a patient teacher, and an unpretentious man who was always considerate to those around him. Unfortunately, he did not cultivate the political contacts that raised other men to high command, and because of his Southern birth was regarded by Northern politicians with ambivalence at best, distrust at worst.
Why do we know so little of Thomas? Bobrick makes the case that Sherman and Grant colluded to take credit for his victories for themselves, writing their biographies to show that Thomas was slow and unimaginative, practically a dullard. Until now, most Civil War historians took them at their word, dutifully conveying this characterization of Thomas to succeeding generations. Bobrick did yeoman’s labor digging into the official records and correspondence to show that Thomas was actually victorious in spite of Grant and Sherman. He castigates the two, strongly suggesting that their generalship cost many more lives and accomplished much less than they claimed.
History has often focused solely on the actions of the great, reducing lesser men and women to the status of chess pieces. Strategic planning, logistics, and policy are all the province of commanders like George Thomas, so Bobrick doesn’t spend much time on the daily lives of Thomas’ soldiers. However, he does makes it clear that Thomas equipped himself through lifelong study to earn the right to make those decisions, and that his experiences made him conscientious about using his soldiers’ lives effectively. In doing so, Bobrick revives and restores the reputation of a man whose name should be mentioned alongside those of more famous Civil War generals.
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