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George Henry Thomas: As True as Steel by Brian Steel Wills (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 4, December 2013
pp. 548-549 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0080

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Students of the Civil War know that at the Battle of Chickamauga, Gen. George Thomas proved to be the right man at the right place. With Rebel forces on the verge of routing the Army of the Cumberland, Thomas coolly orchestrated a remarkable holding action that saved the Union army from destruction. In his latest military biography, Brian Steel Wills demonstrates that Thomas’s praiseworthy conduct at Chickamauga exemplified the general’s entire approach to life—bringing order to chaotic situations. As the book’s subtitle suggests, Thomas, a Virginian who cast his lot with the Union, was resolute, dependable, and in battle, he not only withstood enemy blows, but delivered painful ones of his own.

Given that Thomas was a career Army officer, Wills devotes most of his study to the general’s military exploits, with particular attention to matters of leadership. Beginning with his matriculation at West Point (Class of 1840), Thomas developed a tremendous capacity for organization. “As a professional soldier,” the author asserts, “he lived under the rule that if one failed to prepare one should be prepared to fail, and he did not countenance failure”—hence Thomas’s deserved reputation for careful planning and attention to detail, which served him well in the pandemonium of combat (471). Wills points out that the general’s extraordinary calm so evident at Chickamauga actually exhibited itself on several earlier occasions. For instance, at the Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican War, then First Lieutenant Thomas handled his artillery section with noticeable aplomb in the face of a seemingly overwhelming Mexican cavalry charge. Much later, at the Battle of Stones River in December 1862, Thomas essentially performed a dress rehearsal of his heroics at Chickamauga by successfully shoring up the Union line against a powerful Confederate attack. As Wills makes plain, Thomas found the idea of retreat so hateful that he simply refused to consider it an option.

Wills insists, however, that Thomas was not merely a gifted defensive warrior; he was just as able on the offense. The famous example here is the general’s masterful performance at Nashville in December 1864, when he virtually obliterated his Confederate adversary with a near flawless series of feint-and-punch maneuvers. Wills contends that this was actually typical of Thomas’s fighting style. Earlier in the war, at the obscure, yet important Battle of Mill Springs (January 1862), Thomas meted out on a smaller scale a similar thrashing of Rebel forces in eastern Kentucky, driving them from the state. Wills notes that his subject was often criticized for his “slowness”—sometimes mockingly by William T. Sherman, as during the Atlanta campaign, or more intolerantly by Ulysses S. Grant prior to Nashville—but in the end Thomas validated the aphorism that meticulous preparation, followed by vigorous execution, produces battlefield success.

Beyond his coverage of Thomas the soldier, Wills examines Thomas the man. Conceding that Thomas possessed a reclusive personality, Wills explains that the image of a gruff, stubborn, and overly serious individual is inaccurate. Instead, Thomas was a fair man with a curious mind who could be outright jolly under certain circumstances. He was also a man willing to defy his southern heritage. He viewed secession with disdain, choosing to remain loyal to the Union rather than disgrace himself through treason. Wills further describes Thomas’s complicated attitude toward African Americans. Although the son of a planter, Thomas privately disliked slavery, particularly the dissolution of black families for profit. During the war, he came to respect the fighting qualities of African American soldiers, and during Reconstruction he believed that former slaves deserved their rights as free citizens. Wills also rounds out his description of Thomas’s military career during Reconstruction, particularly his duties in Tennessee. Here, the author goes to rather excessive lengths in making the case that Thomas was apolitical and interested mostly in keeping the peace. As Wills’s own narrative reveals, however, Thomas’s acts of law enforcement invariably benefited the fledgling Republican Party and its black constituency. This seems more than mere coincidence; Thomas wanted Reconstruction to work and so leaned toward the Radicals’ cause.

Wills has written a thorough and engaging biography of an important...

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