During this 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Battle, it’s good to remember that the most successful Union General in the Civil War was from the South.
General George Henry Thomas was one of the most beloved military figures of his time and is all but forgotten today.
Dr. David Stinebeck, interim dean of liberal arts at Mansfield University, is working hard to change that with the novel, A Civil General, which he coauthored with his wife, Scannell Gill. Stinebeck spent seven years researching and writing the novel, making sure it was accurate in the struggles soldiers on both sides faced, the devastating battles on quiet country sides, and Thomas’ brilliant strategies which helped win the Civil War.
According to Stinebeck, Thomas, a West Point graduate and Mexican-American War veteran chose to stay with the U.S. Army for the Civil War. It left his Virginia neighbors and friends – indeed the whole South – feeling betrayed.
During the War, Thomas surpassed even Ulysses Grant in popularity with the North. Reporters embedded in the battles wrote detailed accounts, describing Thomas as a brilliant strategist who was also fair and compassionate. Today, respected historians consider Thomas the best
tactical general on either side.
Thomas used such skill and determination in the 1863 battle at Chickamauga that it prompted President Abraham Lincoln to write: “It is doubtful whether his heroism and skill exhibited last Sunday afternoon, has ever been surpassed in the world.”
“Thomas didn’t like battles that dragged out and saw more men killed and wounded,” Stinebeck said “He sought big battles that — yes, saw a lot of casualties — but were decisive and shortened the bloodshed on both sides.”
“By training his soldiers to deliver a devastating blow, whenever possible, he deeply believed that he was preserving lives on both sides,” Stinebeck explained. “Nothing made Thomas ache more than to see men unnecessarily dying on –either side.”
When Thomas died of a stroke in 1870, he received a 53-gun salute, one for each year of his life. A train bearing his casket traveled from Oakland, CA to Troy, NY, attracting crowds across the country. His funeral drew 10,000 mourners, including President Grant and his cabinet.
“George Henry Thomas in his day had the kind of respect that Colin Powell has today,” said Stinebeck who has a PhD in American Studies from Yale.
Why is he not better remembered? First, Stinebeck says, Thomas destroyed all his writings because he didn’t want his “life hawked in print for the eyes of the curious.” When Grant, Robert E. Lee, Sherman and others published their memoirs, Thomas faded into the background. Also, he and Grant didn’t get along and Grant minimized Thomas’ contributions in his writings.
“Thomas often frustrated military officials when he turned down politically motivated promotions he thought he didn’t deserve,” Stinebeck explained. ” It earned him the reputation in military and political circles as being haughty.”
Thomas is also forgotten, Stinebeck points out, because the most well-publicized battles were on the Eastern front – Gettysburg, Fredericksburg and Antietam.
The battles in the Western Theatre -Stones River, Nashville, even Chickamauga — are largely forgotten — though Chickamauga saw a huge number of casualties, second only to Gettysburg.
The novel is from the point of view of a young colonel who is also a newspaper editor from Indiana. He’s based loosely on Stinebeck’s great grandfather who fought under Thomas. The novel avoids sentimentality or aggrandizement of the subject, focusing on facts which themselves are compelling reading – freezing in the winter, lack of food, sickness, and boredom until a battle which includes lines of soldiers seven miles long. Men’s fallen bodies pile up so high that some men die standing up with nowhere to fall.
Behind them is a general who knows their names, is devoted to his wife and whose Virginia family and friends have disowned him because he chose to fight for the Union.
“He was a good man and an outstanding soldier,” Stinebeck said. “He needs to get the credit he earned. After all, without him, the North may not have won the war.”
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Dennis Miller: The Civil War’s Best Union General – Was a Southerner
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