The Battle of Nashville, concluded 150 years ago today, also ended, for all intents and purposes, any significant opposition to the Union cause in the Western theater of operations. Within a week, William Tecumseh Sherman would finish his legendary “March to the Sea” in Savannah, and by the following spring Robert E. Lee would be surrendering at Appomattox.
I wrote about this decisive battle five years ago, so I direct your attention to this prior post about this campaign. But I find that there’s still more to be said about the victorious general at Nashville, George H. Thomas.
In a way, this bust of the general, which I photographed while visiting Grant’s Tomb last spring, is symptomatic of the fate of this neglected Union commander in the Civil War. Had he chosen to cast his lot with his native Virginia, you would undoubtedly see beautifully preserved equestrian statues all over the South erected in his memory, as friend and fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee has at Washington and Lee University and on Monument Avenue in Richmond.
Instead, Thomas languishes largely as an afterthought in the North. Sure, there is an equestrian statue—some say, the finest—in Washington, D.C., erected in his memory, in 1879. But the thousands of daily motorists in Thomas Circle are too busy to think about the hero commemorated by sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward.
Aside from that, what do you have? In Grant’s Tomb, this bust, one of five in the dark crypt surrounding the sarcophagi of Ulysses S. Grant and wife Julia carved by two artists employed by the New Deal's Works Progress Administration, Jeno Juszko and William Mues. These figures were the commander in chief’s key lieutenants in the war: Thomas, Sherman, Philip H. Sheridan, James B. McPherson, and Edward Ord. Over the years, the federal government has been so unmindful of the man who helped make sure that there even remained a federal government that they had to be shamed into preserving his tomb. Why should subsidiary figures such as Thomas deserve better?
In Thomas’ case, because he risked even more than his life to save the Union: he put on the line his posthumous reputation. In its zeal for the Lost Cause, the postwar South honored men far less able than this Virginian, all because they could not forgive him. Even his sisters broke off ties with him, from the outbreak of the war and even until his death in 1870.
Thomas was treated even more shabbily in the North. While acknowledging the stubborn courage that gave him the nickname “The Rock of Chickamauga,” Grant and Sherman left him with an undeserved reputation as strictly a superior defensive commander. In fact, as Ernest B. Furgurson related in a March 2007 article for Smithsonian Magazine, Thomas was a master of logistics and organization.
From the American Revolution to the War on Terror, American soldiers have paid the price for vainglorious commanders who squandered their men’s blood too easily. Thomas was a conspicuous exception. As the sesquicentennial remembrance of the Civil War winds down, the accomplishments of this intelligent, loyal and brave general should be celebrated far more often.