Author, professor Brian Steel Wills speaks on Gen. George Thomas, the "Sledge of Nashville"
BONPS Program Director Mac Mellor, left, and speaker Brian Steel Wills, who shows his acclaimed biography of Nathan Bedford Forrest

Gen. George Henry Thomas, the victorious Union commander at the Battle of Nashville, was a native Virginian and career soldier who felt honor-bound to stay loyal to the Union when the Civil War began.

In 1860, Thomas supported the unsuccessful Presidential candidacy of Tennessean John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party. He was offered the position as Chief of Ordnance for the state of Virginia but he turned it down.

Because he fought for the Union, his family disowned him, “turned his picture to the wall,” and there was no reconciliation after the war.

Prior to the Battle of Nashville, Gen. U.S. Grant had nearly relieved Thomas of command because he was “too slow” in attacking Hood's army.

After the battle, despite Thomas’ valuable military leadership at Mill Springs, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Atlanta, and Nashville, Grant virtually dissolved Thomas’ command, scattering his troops throughout the Western Theater.

Solidity and dependability were Thomas’ chief attributes, according to fellow Virginian Brian Steel Wills, who is working on a biography of “The Sledge of Nashville.”

Wills, a professor of history at the University of Virginia at Clinch Valley, is also a tour guide and biographer of Nathan Bedford Forrest. He spoke to the Battle of Nashville Preservation Society on Thurs., June 17 at Belmont Mansion.

Wills considers Thomas to be one of the best generals of the Civil War, if not the best, ranking above even Grant and Sherman.

Thomas was a graduate of West Point (ranking 12th in the 1840 class of 42) and fought in the Seminole and Mexican wars.

Being a Virginian, his loyalty to the Union was often questioned. President Lincoln had his doubts, at least until Thomas’ West Point roommate, William T. Sherman, vouched for him.

Thomas was honest to a fault and did not participate in army politics. He was much at self promotion.

During the 1862 Kentucky campaign, the command of the Dept. of the Ohio was offered to Thomas, but he turned it down because he thought it unfair to replace his commander, Gen. Don Carlos Buell, in the middle of a campaign.

Later, Thomas was “mortified” when he was overlooked and Buell was replaced by Gen. William S. Rosecrans, an officer of junior rank. Nevertheless he carried on as the loyal soldier that he was.

At Murfreesboro, his men held the center and prevented a rout of Rosecrans’ army. Asked after the first day if the beleaguered army should retreat, he replied, “I can think of no better place to die.” Days later, it was the Confederates who retreated.

At Chickamauga, a great Confederate victory, Thomas prevented a complete disaster and commanded an orderly retreat, earning the name “Rock of Chickamauga.”

At Missionary Ridge, his men stormed and carried the heights, stealing the honors from Grant’s favorite, Sherman. But, again, Thomas refused to take much of the credit.

Wills noted that writing a biography of Thomas is not an easy task in that his wife, a native Northerner, destroyed all of his papers upon his death in 1870. He is buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, NY, his wife’s home.

The next BONPS program will be Thurs., Sept. 16, 2004, when historian Anne Bailey will speak on the tragedy of Gen. John Bell Hood.


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