Master of War?

A Civil War general whose reputation recedes him.

Gen George H Thomas
General George H. Thomas.

“Time and history will do me justice,” said Major General George H. Thomas prior to his death in 1870. Unfortunately for Thomas, history hasn’t been kind, at least not to date. While fellow military commanders Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson remain household names, the Union general sometimes derided as “Old Slow Trot” has faded into obscurity, his exploits little known outside the circle of Civil War enthusiasts. 

But in the new biography “Master of War” (Simon & Schuster), historian Benson Bobrick aims to elevate Thomas’ reputation and public profile, alternately praising his achievements on the battlefield and explaining away longstanding criticisms. While the book has raised the hackles of Grant-Sherman admirers (who believe that Bobrick not only overstates Thomas’ greatness, but goes out of his way to attack Grant and Sherman), the following Failure interview makes clear that Bobrick is unequivocal. In no uncertain terms, he argues that Thomas should be remembered as “the greatest and most successful general of the Civil War.”

Why did you write “Master of War”?
Mainly because it was clear to me that Thomas has been an underappreciated and undervalued general, in part because both Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumsah Sherman diminished his successes in the interest of promoting their own careers. When I looked objectively at the battlefield record and the contribution Thomas made to the outcome of the Civil War, I thought it was he, not Grant or Sherman, who should be worshipped alongside Abraham Lincoln as one of the noblest figures of the war.

Thomas was a Virginia-born southerner and came from a slave-holding family. Why did he fight for the North?
Early on in his life he conceived a hatred for slavery. I’m not sure he was an abolitionist when the war began, but there is firsthand testimony that as a youth he taught the children of his parents’ slaves to read and write. So there was some humane, enlightened impulse in him that showed itself from the start. 

Then when the war broke out, insofar as a Constitutional argument could be made for secession, he didn’t buy into it. When the original states combined to form the United States they were almost like 13 independent countries, and in those days many people regarded their state as their country. Some of that sentiment still existed, which is one of the reasons why southerners felt it was their right to secede. 

But Thomas didn’t see it that way. He believed that the federal government was the entity that deserved his allegiance, and so he turned his back on the South and all the sophistical arguments that southerners were making on behalf of secession.

Were there any personal consequences stemming from his decision to fight for the North?
Well, his family pretty much disowned him. And he had been very friendly with many members of the South’s officer corps, including Robert E. Lee. Most of his friendships and social connections were sacrificed.

Was the North suspicious of his motives?
Oh, sure. Not only because he was a southerner, but because when the war began there was treason in virtually every department of the government. In Thomas’ case there wasn’t any foundation for suspicion. He proved that over and over again, not only in taking the oath of allegiance, but also by his conduct and the energy he gave to the war effort.

How did Lincoln regard Thomas?
In the beginning Lincoln was wary of him. And when Thomas won the first great Union victory [at Mill Springs, Kentucky], Lincoln was slow to promote him, probably because he was reluctant to reward the glory to a southerner. 

While Lincoln understood early on that Thomas was an exceptional general, he was hesitant to accord him the stature he deserved until rather late in the conflict, when he was considered for the post of head of the Army of the Potomac. Had Lincoln not given way to political considerations and appointed Thomas to that position [instead of appointing Grant to be head of all Union armies] it would have saved the tens of thousands of lives that Grant needlessly sacrificed in the last campaigns of the war. 

What exactly did Thomas accomplish during the Civil War?
In addition to his victory at Mill Springs he saved the Union army at Stones River, which prevented England and France from intervening; he also saved the army at Chickamauga; he won the Battle of Chattanooga for Grant, which Jefferson Davis regarded as the key to the war; he did the heavy lifting for Sherman on the Atlanta campaign; and he ultimately destroyed the Confederate army in the West at Nashville, which isolated Lee and doomed his army in the East. 

When you look objectively in terms of the battles that determined the war’s outcome, Thomas won it. He won it for Grant, he won it for Sherman, and he won it for Lincoln. When you look at what was actually accomplished, and by whom, there is no figure that rivals Thomas.

Why is Thomas not a household name?
In part because he died shortly after the war, and in part because of the memoirs of Grant and Sherman, which are large, impressive books that appear to have all the authority of a complete account of the conflict. But there are many passages in which they change the story of the war to their own advantage.

Another reason is that when Grant became president he appointed Sherman as General of the Army, and Sherman in turn, appointed Philip Sheridan to succeed him, and Sheridan appointed John Schofield to succeed him. They were all part of the same clique. It was sort of like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice; you can imagine what would happen if Cheney had succeeded Bush, Rumsfeld had succeeded Cheney, and Rice had succeeded Rumsfeld. You’d have this official version of events that would become the standard version for a long time. 

How did Grant and Sherman go about sullying Thomas’ reputation? 
Their main rap against him was that he was “slow”—that he was good on defense but slow to attack. They portrayed Thomas as being slow because they needed some way to cast a shadow over his ability. And they collaborated in that in backbiting correspondence, in wires to the War Department, and in letters to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Lincoln’s general-in-chief Henry Halleck. By innuendo and slander they succeeded in creating the impression that Thomas was somehow deficient. 

Have you received any criticism for your treatment of Grant and Sherman?
The Civil War community is divided into ferocious factions and the Grant-Sherman partisans would probably like to boil me alive. I’ve had Grant-Sherman devotees say that my book is full of gross errors, but they can’t name them, they just assert them in hit-and-run attacks. The Thomas partisans have fought back against that and what they have had to say about the book has been far more thoughtful and informed. Despite the fact that the Grant-Sherman legend still has the upper hand in the Civil War community, my book has fared well against it.

What impact do you hope “Master of War” has on the historical record?
It would be presumptuous of me to think that it would right a grievous wrong—just like that. I suppose if the book won the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award it would give the idea of the book much greater force. But my hope is merely that it sets in motion a re-examination of the war and that over time it changes the way Thomas is viewed, especially insofar as how he was critical to its outcome. That’s the most I can hope for and I think it has begun to do that. I’m content with having set that in motion.

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