George Henry Thomas was born on January 31, 1816, at Newsom’s Depot, Virginia. His parents, John Thomas and Elizabeth Rochelle Thomas were upper-class Southern planters who owned twenty-four slaves. Thomas’s father died in a farm accident in 1829, leaving Thomas’s maternal uncle, James Rochelle, to oversee Thomas’s education. In 1831, Thomas’s family fled their farm during Nat Turner’s Revolt.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
By 1835, Thomas was preparing for a career in law, when Congressman John Y. Mason, a friend of James Rochelle, offered Thomas an appointment to the United States Military Academy. Thomas accepted and enrolled at the academy in 1836. During his first year at West Point, Thomas was a roommate of William T. Sherman, who would be his commanding officer during the latter part of the American Civil War. Thomas graduated from the academy, twelfth in his class, in 1840.
U.S. Army Officer
After graduating from West Point, officials brevetted Thomas as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army on July 1, 1840. The army deployed Thomas to Florida, where he fought in the Second Seminole War (1835 to 1842) in Florida. In 1844, officials promoted Thomas to first lieutenant. He then served with distinction in the Mexican-American War (1846 to 1848), where he received brevet promotions to captain and major for his valor. In 1851, Thomas became an instructor at the United States Military Academy, where he developed a friendship with the academy’s superintendent, Robert E. Lee. During his tenure at West Point, Thomas taught cavalry tactics to future famous cavalry commanders Philip Sheridan and J. E. B. Stuart. He also taught artillery tactics to his future Confederate adversary John Bell Hood.
On November 17, 1852, Thomas married Frances Lucretia Kellogg, the daughter of a merchant from Troy, New York. The couple had no children and remained married for the rest of Thomas’ life.
One year after his marriage, officials promoted Thomas to captain on December 24, 1853. Thomas remained at West Point until the spring of 1854 when the army transferred him to Fort Yuma, California. On May 12, 1855, officials promoted Thomas to major and reassigned him to the 2nd U.S. Cavalry where he served for five years under future Confederate Generals Albert Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee.
On August 26, 1860, a Comanche arrow passed through the flesh on Thomas’ chin before penetrating his chest during a skirmish near the Brazos River in Texas. In November, he received a one-year leave from the military. On his way home, Thomas fell from a train platform in Lynchburg, Virginia, severely injuring his back and leading him to consider leaving the military. Although Thomas remained in the service, he suffered from back pain for the rest of his life.
When the American Civil War erupted in 1861, Thomas remained in the United States Army rather than casting his lot with his home state when Virginia seceded (April 17, 1861). The decision was difficult, particularly because it caused him to become estranged from his family and friends in Virginia. He must have expected that his status as a Southerner in the Union Army might fuel suspicions about his loyalty or at least about his earnestness for waging war against the Confederacy. Despite any misgivings Thomas may have had about his final decision or any discrimination that may have affected his army career, he served gallantly throughout the war.
Only a week after Virginia seceded, Thomas received a promotion to lieutenant colonel in the regular army on April 25, 1861, replacing Robert E. Lee, who left the army to fight for the South. Little over one week later, officials promoted him to colonel and placed him in command of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry on May 3, when Albert Sidney Johnston also resigned his commission and joined the Confederate Army.
Initially, Thomas served in the Shenandoah Valley during the Manassas Campaign. On August 17, 1861, Thomas received a commission as a brigadier general in the volunteer army and was sent to Kentucky to train recruits at Camp Dick Robinson.
Army of the Ohio and Victory at the Battle of Mill Spring
Thomas received a combat position on December 2, 1861, commanding the 1st Division of the Army of the Ohio, under Major General Don Carlos Buell. On January 18, 1862, Thomas directed the first significant Union victory of the war at the Battle of Mill Springs, near Nancy, Kentucky.
Battle of Shiloh and Siege of Corinth
Thomas was present at the Battle of Shiloh when Buell’s army moved to reinforce Major General Ulysses S. Grant‘s Army of the Tennessee, but his division did not arrive until after the fighting ceased. When Major General Henry Halleck relieved Grant of his command during the aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh, he placed Thomas in charge of four divisions from Grant’s army and one division from the Army of the Ohio. Thomas successfully led this temporary force at the Union victory at the Siege of Corinth, Mississippi (April 29 to May 30, 1862).
Army of the Cumberland
When Grant returned to his command on June 10, 1862, Thomas resumed service under Buell. During the fall of 1862, officials offered Thomas an opportunity to replace Buell, with whom Union leaders in Washington had become dissatisfied. Thomas declined, choosing not to undermine a superior officer. After the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky (October 8, 1862), Major General William Rosecrans replaced Buell, and officials reorganized the department.
Rosecrans placed Thomas in command of the center wing of the Army of the Cumberland. In that position, he performed well during the Union victory at the Battle of Stones River (December 31, 1862-January 2, 1863) in Tennessee.
The Rock of Chickamauga
Commanding the 14th Corps of the Army of the Cumberland at the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia (September 19-20, 1863), Thomas earned the nickname “Rock of Chickamauga” for leading a defensive stand that enabled Rosecrans’ army to retreat and prevent the Union defeat from becoming a Confederate rout.
Army of the Cumberland Commander at Chattanooga
Following the Rebel victory at Chickamauga, Confederate General Braxton Bragg laid siege to Rosecrans’ army, which had retreated to Chattanooga, Tennessee. On September 29, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered Major General Ulysses S. Grant and 20,000 soldiers to leave Vicksburg, Mississippi to help lift the siege in Chattanooga. Grant quickly relieved Rosecrans of his command. On October 27, 1863, officials promoted Thomas to brigadier general of the regular army. The next day, they placed him in command of the Department of the Cumberland. When Grant broke out of Chattanooga, Thomas’ forces led an assault on Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863, that drove Bragg’s army out of Tennessee and into northern Georgia.
Following the breakout from Chattanooga, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln promoted Grant to lieutenant general and named him as General-in-Chief of the Armies. Grant departed for the Eastern Theater, leaving his Thomas’ former West Point roommate, Major General William T. Sherman, in charge of the Western Theater. Thomas continued to serve as commander of the Army of the Cumberland throughout Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign (May 7-September 2, 1864).
When Confederate General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee evacuated Atlanta on September 1, 1864, Sherman’s soldiers took possession of the city the next day. Sherman pursued Hood for about a month as Hood raided Sherman’s supply lines back to Chattanooga. By November, Sherman convinced Grant to allow him to embark on his March to the Sea. By then, Hood had changed objectives, launching an offensive back into Tennessee, hoping to draw Sherman out of the Deep South. Sherman did not take the bait. Instead, he ordered Thomas to Nashville, Tennessee to defend against Hood, while Sherman set out to “make Georgia howl.”
Thomas sent about half of his troops directly to Nashville to prepare for Hood’s invasion. The other half, commanded by Major General John M. Schofield, engaged Hood’s army throughout November at the battles of Columbia, Spring Hill, and Franklin. Schofield inflicted a major defeat upon the Rebels at Franklin (November 30, 1864) before slipping off to join Thomas at Nashville.
Despite being outnumbered nearly two to one after Schofield and Thomas merged forces, Hood continued his offensive. He believed he could defeat the combined Union armies if he could get Thomas to leave his formidable defenses in Nashville and attack the Confederate army.
Hood’s army advanced to the outskirts of Nashville on December 2, and it began building defensive fortifications. Thomas had little alternative than to oblige Hood. Thomas’s superiors in Washington feared Hood might choose to bypass Nashville and launch an invasion of the North if Thomas did not act quickly.
Grant was especially assertive about urging Thomas to confront Hood. Thomas, however, seemed to be in no rush to press the issue. Instead, he spent two weeks preparing his troops for battle and waiting for opportune weather. Exasperated, Grant ordered Major General John A. Logan to Nashville on December 13, directing him to assume command of Thomas’ forces if Thomas had not attacked Hood by the time of his arrival.
Logan arrived in Louisville, Kentucky on December 15, the day Thomas finally acted. When Thomas advanced against Hood’s defenses, he crushed the Rebels during the Battle of Nashville (December 15-16, 1864), sending the Army of Tennessee reeling back toward Alabama and virtually ending the last major campaign west of the Appalachian Mountains. The War Department rewarded Thomas for the victory at Nashville by promoting him to major general in the regular army, effective December 15, 1864. He also received the “Thanks of Congress” in March 1865.
During the Battle of Nashville, Thomas used two brigades of United States Colored Troops to assault Hood’s right flank. The bravery that those troops showed during battle permanently altered Thomas’s racial views.
After the war, Thomas commanded the Military Division of the Tennessee, which included Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida (Mississippi was added later added). During Reconstruction, he used his position to protect freedmen, promote racial tolerance, and combat the Ku Klux Klan.
In 1867, Thomas declined President Andrew Johnson’s offer to promote him to the rank of lieutenant general because he refused to get involved in Johnson’s politically motivated scheme to thwart Ulysses S. Grant’s presidential aspirations. A year later, the Tennessee State Convention nominated Thomas for President of the United States, but Thomas declined the nomination, still eschewing the political arena.
On June 15, 1869, the army reassigned Thomas to command the Department of the Pacific and he moved to San Francisco, California. Less than a year later, Thomas died of a stroke on May 28, 1870, making him the first prominent Union general to die after the Civil War.
Some of Thomas’ Virginia family members (including his sisters) refused to attend his funeral in Troy, New York, still harboring resentment over his choice to fight for the Union. Thomas was buried at the Kellogg Family Burial Ground, in Oakwood Cemetery, Troy, New York.