Lincoln's Mistaken Neglect of General George H. Thomas


Mr. Bobrick s the author, most recently, of Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas.

Lincoln's deep humanity, innate wisdom, and determined leadership during our nation's most trying time, ensure his marmoreal greatness against all detractors, when his virtues as a statesman are assessed. As a war leader, however, he remains a figure of uncertain stature and the subject of sharp debate. As with any nationally revered and beloved icon, there are always attempts to gloss over his imperfections. Yet the best way to honor history is to tell the whole truth about it, even if we have to acknowledge inconvenient truths. To fully appreciate Lincoln's importance, we ought to be candid about his mistakes.

Lincoln was a man of great capacity and showed it in almost every area to which he turned his mind. But he had no personal military experience beyond a few weeks of campaigning in 1832 in the Blackhawk War. He had opposed the Mexican War as a war of aggression, and when someone once asked him if he remembered anything about the War of 1812, which took place when he was a child, he said, "I had been fishing one day and caught a little fish, which I was taking home. I met a soldier in the road, and, having always been told at home that we must be good to soldiers, I gave him my fish." So he had no real knowledge of war when the Civil War began.

Some of his blunders were completely understandable. In picking generals, he was sometimes flying blind. Unlike Jefferson Davis, an accomplished soldier and former Secretary of War, he had no personal knowledge of the officer corps. Once the war began, he kept changing his commanders. With disarming candor, he once said that picking a good general was "like putting one's hand in a sack to get one eel from a dozen snakes." As a leader, he also, on occasion, let political considerations skew his judgement. Although opposed to "states' rights" doctrine in its dogmatic form, he was overmuch moved at times by state pride. After Fort Donelson fell, he said, as he signed papers promoting U.S. Grant, "If Southerners think that man for man they are better than our Illinois men, or Western men generally, they will discover themselves in a grievous mistake."

Grant, in fact, was favored over others who had shown more skill. Early in the war, General George H. Thomas of Virginia (who won the first great Union victory at Mill Springs, Kentucky) was not promoted as promptly as normal protocol required--in part, it seems, because Lincoln didn't want a Southern-born general to get credit for reviving the honor of Northern arms. Nine months later, when Thomas ought to have been given command of an army in the West, Lincoln exclaimed: "Let the Virginian wait." Yet the greatness of Thomas kept thrusting itself to the fore--at Stones River, Tennessee (which Lincoln said saved the nation); and then at Chickamauga, Georgia, when Thomas made the greatest stand against an enemy since the ancient Greek stand at Thermopylae. After Chickamauga, Lincoln began to understand how great Thomas was. In awe, he said that it was doubtful the "heroism and skill" Thomas had showed that day had "ever been surpassed in the world."

When it came time in 1864 to pick a new general to head the Army of the Potomac (and, in effect, the Union armies overall), Thomas was considered. But partly for political reasons, Lincoln chose Grant. Given the reckless carnage that followed, that might have been a mistake. Lincoln's friend and counselor, Alexander K. McClure (who admired Grant) wrote afterwards: "No general was better equipped for the supreme command of all our armies" than Thomas who "would have taken Richmond with Grant's army and saved tens of thousands of gallant men from untimely death."

Finally, in December 1864, after Sherman marched through Georgia to the sea and took Savannah (leaving Thomas to confront the Confederate army of the West), Lincoln told Sherman that his success could not be detached from the battle of Nashville, where Thomas, in the most decisive battle of the war, destroyed the Confederate army.

Thomas ought to be a household name. Not only did he win the battle of Chattanooga (which Jefferson Davis said was the key to the outcome of the struggle) for Grant, but even did the heavy lifting for Sherman on his Atlanta campaign. The late, great Civil War historian Bruce Catton wrote late in his life that he was haunted by the feeling that Thomas was, in truth, the greatest general of them all and that Civil War history would one day have to be "upgraded" to give him his rightful place.

So let us celebrate Lincoln. In doing so, let us say that his appreciation of Thomas was a laudable thing. Let us also acknowledge that his belated appreciation of Thomas was a significant factor in the conduct of the war.

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Bob Redman - 11/21/2009

I imagine that at that moment Thomas felt safer from the circling politician sharks if he stayed under Buell, even though he may have already lost confidence in Buell, as Einolf suggests. Later, when the same situation came up with Rosecrans after Chickamauga, Thomas did seize the moment, I think because he knew that Grant was on his way and would mess up the battle completely without supervision.

Bob Redman - 11/21/2009

Sorry, the review by Anonymous isn't here, but on the Simon and Schuster website.

Bob Redman - 11/19/2009

Brooks Simpson's Grant book has, after 10 years, 41 reviews on Amazon, one of them bogus. Bobrick's book on Thomas, after less than one year, already has 39 reviews on Amazon. Methinks the market is speaking.

Bob Redman - 11/16/2009

My reviews of Bobrick's book "Master of War" (5 stars), Einolf's "Virginian for the Union" (3 stars), and Broadwater's "General George H. Thomas" (4 stars) are now on Amazon. The review of Bobrick's book is already here, however, posted by Anonymous. I didn't do it, but I thank Anonymous anyway.
Bob Redman
Army of the Cumberland and George Thomas Source

Bob Redman - 11/15/2009

Sorry, forgot Simpson's first name. Rail away Brooks. By the way, he and I have crossed poisoned pens before.

Bob Redman - 11/15/2009

Visit my website, online for the last 10 years, "Army of the Cumberland and George Thomas Source." I came to the topic as unbiased and uninformed as a person can be, and was soon bowled over and repulsed by the contradictions in the most of the treatments of the battle of Chattanooga. Then it was just a matter of having another look at Grant's battles, starting with Shiloh. Or was it Cold Harbor? Anyway, every look made Thomas look better. Pretty soon I was forced to the conclusion that establishment historiography is dominated by a lot of narrow-minded people. Or was. Things are changing. New about Bobrick's book is his casting off almost all restraint in dealing with the Grant Gang. No evidence for a ruthless power-clique willing to stop at nothing and to sacrifice thousands of soldiers in its pursuit of power? Rail away, Brian.

Bob Redman - 11/15/2009

Bobrick's book is the best yet about Thomas, and it is hard to overstate the case against Grant and Sherman. I note here only that he should have refuted Sherman's canard about the "wrongly laid down" map of Missionary Ridge, and that he doesn't do justice to Hooker's efforts on the 25th. His first unit under Osterhaus reached Chattanooga Creek before Rossville at noon and crossed on the remainders of the burned bridge (Cozzens, Osterhaus) and had reached a point behind Bragg's HQ by late afternoon when Thomas' attack started. At that point, panic had spread among the defenders in the center. In fact, Thomas had waited, despite Grant's prodding, to launch his attack until he knew Hooker was around behind (from the sound of the battle). If you don't believe this, read the reports of Gen. Alexander Stewart and his subordinates who were quite impressed with Hooker's initiative (Google "Stewart's Division's reports"). Bob Redman

Albert T. Mackey - 4/19/2009

To call Prof. Simpson's work "useless" is merely vitriole that shows ignorance of his many contributions to Civil War scholarship.

Which scholars regard him as "limited?" I know of none. Please name names.

Mr. Bobrick was asked several times to tell us what was different about his book. He couldn't. If we've read the other books, why should we bother with his?

In this conversation and in reading excerpts from his book and in seeing his presentation on C-SPAN2's BookTV, I've come to the sad conclusion that Mr. Bobrick's command of the facts is lacking.

I'll eventually read his book, but so far I've seen nothing to convince me I should read it sooner rather than much later.

Tony Gunter - 4/19/2009

> Actually, the blood Simpson
> smelled in the water was his own.

Simple question, but very important question: what in your book, Mr. Bobrick, is new?

Why is this question important? Because nearly everything in the previous books mentioned by Simpson has been refuted.

The simple fact of the matter is that Bobrick could not answer the question.

Hilary Bloom - 4/14/2009

Actually, the blood Simpson smelled in the water was his own. That's why he freaked out. I agree Simpson is an unpleasant person and "a pain," but it has nothing to do with his scholarship. As other bloggers have found in trying to talk with him, he's limited. There are those who only want to know what's "new." And there are those who want to know what's true--whether it's new or old. There's a world of difference between them. Simpson belongs to the former camp. That's why his work is useless.

Tony Gunter - 4/12/2009

I would disagree that Simpson took the low road. Simpson is a pain in the ass sometimes, but he's usually correct. I think when he smells dishonesty, he's like a shark with blood in the water.

Simpson asked Bobrick quite politely albeit pointedly what about his story was new and original. Bobrick demurred and, in keeping with the piscatory references, disappeared behind a smokescreen of etiquette and non-sequitur like a squid fleeing danger.

The simple fact of the matter is that Bobrick wasted four posts and over 500 words attempting to escape the question, then cancelled his account on this site. How squid-like! Dang ... now you guys have me craving sushi.

Joseph H Kearney - 3/22/2009

With the few books written about Thomas, I would seem there is little evidence to support Mr. Keene's comments regarding Thomas' overblown image. It is obvious there is an anti-Thomas bias in his commentary.

Hilary Bloom - 3/7/2009

A most scholarly and engaging discussion. You may need to direct it to Mr. Bobrick directly, though, through his publisher, as I see he signed off this site on March 4, after giving up on Simpson, who kept taking the low road.

A few thoughts: On the whole bonnet & dress controversy, I note you quote several secondary sources. However those sources don't override the primary testimony of Colonel Pritchard who picked Davis up. Following Mr. Bobrick's lead, I went back to look at that. You must be aware that a great deal of "spin" followed Davis's capture. All things being equal, I think Pritchard, who described Davis with "a hood or bonnet" and with a shawl wrapped around him to look like a dress, is the one to trust. On the Wilson raid, you are not quite right, I fear. Thomas had discussed the idea of the raid months before and reminded Wilson that the campaign that he was about to undertake was following through on their plan. Grant's idea was more piecemeal. Bobrick talks about that a bit in his book, too, though not exhaustively. Oh, yes, I want to add that although J.F.C. Fuller often quotes the Official Records, the conclusions he draws more often accord with Grant's Memoirs and Badeau. That always raised a question about his judgment of Grant in my mind.

Will these controversies never end?

It's been a pleasure to engage in this discussion with you and Mr. Bobrick. Despite your different points a view, you both clearly have a love of learning. I have appreciated that.

Time for me, in turn, to sign off and move on to other things. Good luck to you both.

Albert T. Mackey - 3/4/2009

Thank you again for your kind reply, Mr. Bobrick. My apologies for the typos in my posting.

There seems to be no dispute among modern scholars regarding what Davis was wearing when he was captured.

William C. Davis writes, "In the darkness inside the tent, he reached for his overcoat, grabbing instead Varina's dark gray raglan, or short-sleeved cloak. He barely had stepped outside when Varina rushed out and threw her black shawl over his head and shoulders. He already had spurs on his boots as he quietly walked off toward the swamp and safety, though his horse was in the opposite direction and now surrounded by Yankees. Varina, meanwhile, sent one of her servant women running after Davis with a bucket in hand, as if going for water, thus hoping the Federals would think the two walking together were innocuous enough." [William C. Davis, _Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour,_ p. 636]

Herman Hattaway and Richard Beringer wrote, "Davis and his wife had matching dark-gray raglans, rain gear, really. In his haste, Davis grabbed his wife's. Draping the raglan over his shoulders, he stepped out of the tent and calmly began walking toward the nearby woods. Varina rushed out after him and threw her own black shawl over his head and shoulders. Then she had her children's mulatto nurse grab a bucket and run toward him so it would seem they were simply going to the creek to get water." [Herman Hattaway & Richard E. Beringer, _Jefferson Davis, Confederate President,_ p. 427]

And William J. Cooper writes, "When he emerged from the tent, he was wearing a water-repellent cloak with wide, loose sleeves and a black shawl that Varina had thrown around his shoulders. She then directed her maid to grab a bucket and walk with her husband to make it appear they were going to the creek for water." [William J. Cooper, Jr., _Jefferson Davis, American,_ p. 574]

Perusing the notes for JFC Fuller's _Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship_ shows that while Fuller used Badeau occasionally, he did not in any way rely heavily on Badeau. He did rely rather heavily on the Official Records far more than anything else, and he used a wide variety of sources.

Regarding Wilson's Raid, it appears as though your description was a bit of an overreach. In his description of the planning for this raid, Ed Longacre wrote, "To aid General Canby in his movement against Mobile, Grant and the War Department proposed a number of diversionary operations, and in so doing initiated Wilson's spring campaign. While other Federal horsemen swept eastward, the Cavalry Corps, M.D.M. would move south into Alabama, to demonstrate against the Confederate-held cities of Selma and Tuscaloosa, thus distracting the enemy's attention. ... At length, Thomas made a decision which materially affected the future of the corps. He gave Wilson authority to mount an independent campaign against not only Selma and Tuscaloosa but also Montgomery, Columbus, Georgia, and other important manufacturing centers in the interior of the Confederacy. Wilson was also instructed to whip Forrest and, if possible, join Canby near Mobile and assist him in his expedition. This was all Wilson could have desired. Renown might come to him yet. Thanking Thomas profusely, he set about revamping his plans and briefing his subordinates about the change in orders." [Edward G. Longacre, _Grant's Cavalryman: The Life and Wars of General James H. Wilson,_ pp. 197-198]

In the words of another scholar, "Wilson continually pressed Thomas and wrote often to Grant's headquarters in qust of orders for the campaign. At last, on February 14, Grant wrote Thomas that the time had come to unleash Wilson with a force of about five thousand men. Grant believed Wilson's three objectives would be: 'First. To attack as much of the enemy's force as possible to insure success to Canby [in the Mobile campaign]. Second. To destroy the enemy's line of communications and military resources. Third. To dstroy or capture their forces brought into the field.' ... By late February Wilson had been toldd by General Thomas that he could take his entire mounted command into Alabama. To secure this change in orders Wilson had devised a strategem. When he felt his training program had progressed sufficiently, Thomas was invited to Gravelly Springs to review the corps. Thomas arrived still committed to Grant's concept of a limited expedition. Wilson hoped Thomas would be impressed by the horsemen and agree tot he use of the entire force. ... Thomas was impressed, and Wilson took the oportunity to convince him that a mere 'demonstration' would be a 'useless waste of strength.'" [James Pickett Jones, _Yankee Blitzkrieg: Wilson's Raid Through Alabama and Georgia,_ pp. 13-14]

Thomas, an outstanding general, recognized the need to expand Wilson's orders. But he didn't help plan the raid. The raid was originally Grant's idea, and was planned by Wilson. And it was Wilson who convinced Thomas that the raid's objectives had to be expanded.

Albert Mackey

Benson B. Bobrick - 3/4/2009

My goodness, how unself-aware can you be? Aren't you really describing yourself? These pages are splattered with your own flippant attacks on various people. I haven't taken a slap at anyone but you--and you only because your demeanor, choice of language, and general attitude are so undignified. I gave you a chance to redeem yourself a few days ago, and elevate the discussion, but you promptly slipped back into your usual mode. When you did, I called you out on it--to bring you back to your senses, if I could. However, you seem unteachable. As for the "what's new" question (that tiny little circle you seem destined to tread obsessively round and round), I gave you a good lead. In parting, I would urge you to contemplate John Milton's wise remark: "To know is not to see but taste." That's quite beyond your comprehension right now, I'm sure. But some day you may grow into what it means.

Here endeth my sojourn on this site.

Brooks D. Simpson - 3/4/2009

You seem to want to try to find a reason to take a personal slap at everyone with whom you disagree.

Usually blurbs are by their very nature favorable statements tweaked to arouse interest in a book. That's why publishers seek them. Show me a negative blurb. That's why I've turned down opportunities in some cases, and carefully worded them in others. I've seen people blurb books that they were later compelled to criticize in contradiction of their blurb.

But, as usual, you fail to tell us what's new about your book. That's why you would rather take another shot at me. You think it will take away attention from your failure to answer that question.

You wrote the book ... and you can't tell us what's new about it?

I'll leave you to deal with that blunt fact. I'm not going to dignify your repeated efforts to drag me down into a mudslinging fight with you.

Benson B. Bobrick - 3/4/2009

Dear Mr. Mackey,

All of your points are interesting, and I would love to reply at length. But I don't think this site is the best venue for extended discourse. If you can send a note to me care of Simon & Schuster, I'd be happy to reply. In passing, though, I think it's fair to say that Thomas and Wilson developed the cavalry movement into Alabama together, and that the telegraphic communications show Thomas helping to guide the campaign; that the garb in which Davis was captured is simply a matter of dispute (let us remember: Colonel Benjamin Pritchard of the Michigan cavalry who captured him explicitly described him as dressed in a bonnet and a dress): but either way, it is almost a distinction without a difference, since he was clearly trying to pass himself off, shawl or dress, as an old woman in disguise; and, finally, that J.F.C. Fuller's book relied rather heavily on Adam Badeau's deeply-flawed but authorized account of Grant's career. Your point about Rawle is extremely interesing. I'll dig back into that.


Benson Bobrick

Benson B. Bobrick - 3/3/2009

The imputation was yours, frankly. As for myself, I've never written a blurb I didn't mean sincerely. I wouldn't think of doing otherwise. So when you say you know "how blurbs work," it implies something other than straight shooting. That's obvious enough.

If you misspoke, I think you ought to just admit it and move on. Otherwise, it drags the conversation down.

In a final comment, I'm constrained to point out that you find yourself in the anomalous position of expatiating at length about the shortcomings of a book you haven't read. That's not a position I would like to find myself in myself. Do you not see how untenable that is?

Brooks D. Simpson - 3/3/2009

Now, now, surely you know how blurbs work. Pointing that out doesn't mean I'm accusing anyone of anything, and, frankly, I'm a little tired of you ascribing some underhanded motive whenever anyone questions you. That's not the decent thing to do.

Once more, you've asserted your book's freshness, without offering a single example of it. So I'll leave it at that.

Albert T. Mackey - 3/3/2009

Thank you for your kind reply, Mr. Bobrick.

As to Grant's control of the AoP, I will certainly agree that Grant had strategic control of the AoP, just as he had strategic control over all the Union armies. As Gordon Rhea shows in his Overland Campaign series, Meade had operational control of the AoP, as commander. Meade himself believed he was in control of the AoP at Cold Harbor, for instance: "I had immediate and entire command on the field all day." [George G. Meade to his wife, 4 Jun 1864, Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Vol 2, p. 200]

Certainly Baldy Smith reconnoitered the Browns Ferry position on the 19th and reported what he found to Thomas. But what did Thomas do with this information once he made his plans? It took Grant to move things forward. Grant was briefed on the plan on the 23rd, and less than 24 hours later he ordered it to be implemented, and that time included his performing a personal reconnaissance of the position.

I'm sorry, but your case for Thomas winning the battle for Grant looks far more like overreaching to me.

I found a preview of your book on Google Books and took a look. On page 3 you write, " ... despite Grant's interference, he uilt a cavalry force that neutralized the industrial hubs of Selma and Montgomery, Alabama; overcame the supposedly invincible Nathan Bedford Forrest; and helped to capture Jefferson Davis in Goergia with his network of spies."

Forgive me, sir, but do you not do here, in giving Thomas credit for what James H. Wilson did, what you accuse Grant and Sherman of doing to Thomas?

You further write, "In the end, it could be said of him uniquely that whereas Sherman never won a battle and Grant often battered his way to victory with overwhelming force, Thomas was the only Union general to destroy two Confederate armies ... "

Are you certain that Sherman never won a battle? Not even with Thomas under his command? :)

And your claim of Grant "battering his way to victory with overwhelming force" ignores most of the scholarship on Grant and perpetuates the "butcher" myth that was exploded so completely by JFC Fuller and others since. If Thomas destroyed two rebel armies, how is it they still existed after their battles? It was that same Army of Tennessee supposedly destroyed at Nashville, for example, that Joe Johnston led into North Carolina. Grant, on the other hand, took three Confederate armies off the table by capturing them completely.

You say you didn't write the book to tear down Grant and Sherman, but you write, "Historians have been intrigued by Sherman's neurotic pesonality and Grant's rise from drunkard to Commander-in-Chief. They might be more justified if both men had mastered themselves. But neither did." You also write, "Grant, however capable in some respects, remained small-minded, devious, and (with interludes) a heavy drinker to the end." Forgive me, sir, but I have doubts that you have consulted any of the relevant scholarship at all concerning Grant. To bolster your case you quote James H. Wilson and Don Piatt, two officers who famously had a falling-out with Grant.

Another part that caught my eye is on page 20 where you make the claim that the "standard curriculum" at West Point included William Rawle's book, _A View of the Constitution of the United States._ You give a quote attributed to Lee claiming he was taught secession from Rawle's text.

This is all easily swept away. Douglas S. Freeman, in his 4-volume biography of Lee, shows that there was no way Lee was ever taught from Rawle, as it was not used when he was taught Constitutional theory.

The view of Rawle being used at West Point for anything longer than a year
was soundly refuted by Col Edgar S. Dudley in an article published in The
Century Magazine, Vol 78, No. 4, Aug 1909, pages 629-635.

From what I have seen thus far, you have a strawman caricature of Grant, and a lesser one of Sherman, to use to compare against Thomas. I don't believe this is purposeful on your part, but nevertheless, in what you wrote I don't recognize the Ulysses S. Grant that modern scholarship has unearthed.

It is way too early for scholarly reviews of the book, but the Washington Post has published a review by LTC Bob Bateman in which he says you make the claim that Jefferson Davis was captured "disguised as an old woman in a bonnet and a dress." If indeed that's what you wrote about Davis' capture, it is incorrect. Davis had a shawl thrown over his shoulders. He wasn't wearing a bonnet or a dress.

I don't mean to offend, Mr. Bobrick, but I'm confronted with a great deal that I consider fundamentally factually flawed. On the positive side, I found your writing to be very well done and while the factual errors were annoying it was mostly pleasureable to read.

Albert Mackey

Benson B. Bobrick - 3/3/2009

Well, I didn't solicit the Jeffry Wert tribute, nor do I know him personally. So it seems not quite right to suggest motives on his part other than the best. I must assume he was sincere. Wouldn't that be the decent thing to do? On the battle accounts, etc., I think you would have to read the book to know if I successfully incorporate the material to which you allude. You might also want to ask yourself candidly if some of the battle accounts in the books you mention omit important information. There are a number of well-regarded books (which may or may not be the ones you have in mind) which do. Beyond that, the argument that Grant and Sherman worked more or less in concert to discredit Thomas behind his back is not, of course, discredited by the fact that it is a familiar one. To my mind, the Record is clear that they endeavored, directly and indirectly, to limit his reputation and rank.
Finally, as to "newness," I do think my overview is new, and includes information not found in McKinney, Cleaves, or Buell. That would seem to be why readers familiar with those books still find mine compelling and fresh. We aren't going to agree on many things. I'm also sure my book is marked, as all books are, by its own shortcomings and mistakes. Yet I have hopes that over time it will hold up. Time (not you, nor I, nor any flurry of good or bad reviews) will tell.

Again, cordially,

Benson Bobrick

Brooks Simpson - 3/3/2009

I understand how blurbs are composed, having done a few myself. The question remains what is new about your biography of Thomas that has not been covered in Cleaves, McKinney, and Buell. I assume that given all the recent writing about the Civil War, including several fine books about battles and campaigns in which Thomas played a part, that your book might incorporate that work to update a rather familiar narrative offered by previous Thomas biographers, but I freely confess that in all of this heat I've seen nothing that suggests that you have anything new to say. Even the charges of a conspiracy by Grant and Sherman to deprive Thomas of his due (and the accusation that their biographers have been complicit in that endeavor) have been made before.

Benson B. Bobrick - 3/3/2009

Ok, fair question. Let's press the reset button and have a civil dialogue.

I have never claimed (God forbid!) that everything I had to say was original or new. On the contrary, I note in my acknowledgments my heavy debt to those who have written about Thomas before. But I do think many of the points I make have been left out of (or ignored in) recent books, which has skewed the story of the war. I would also like to think, of course, that my book does, at least, put between two covers a more closely reasoned, researched, well-written, and organized account of Thomas than can be found elsewhere. Not all who admire the book agree with me entirely. For example, Jeffry Wert, a Civil War historian I assume you think well of, as do I, wrote to my editor to say: "At last, Union General George Thomas has received the biography he has deserved for more than a century. Overshadowed by fellow commanders such as Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan, Thomas was one of the North's finest generals during the Civil War. In MASTER OF WAR, Benson Bobrick gives us a finely written and researched study on a soldier whose record rivals that of his more famous comrades. This book is long overdue." I don't know Jeffery Wert personally, but from his tribute (which touched me deeply) I can see that his estimate of Thomas does not, in fact, perfectly concur with mine--since, for example, I'm convinced that Thomas was the greatest general of them all. At the same time, he evidently shares my sense that Thomas has been undervalued for a long time.

Let's keep talking. I would value it.

Most cordially,

Benson Bobrick

Brooks D. Simpson - 3/3/2009

How does your description of what happened at Chattanooga differ from that offered by previous Thomas biographers? It's not as if your claims are exactly new. In short, what do you have to say that hasn't been said before?

Brooks D. Simpson - 3/3/2009

Ms. Bloom apparently overlooked Stanton's message of 12/2 in which he indicated Lincoln's anxiety about Thomas's "disposition ... to lay in fortifications for an indefinite period 'until Wilson gets equipments." This looks like the McClellan & Rosecrans strategy of do nothing and let the rebels raid the country." Halleck's message of 12/8 said simply that Grant would have to take responsibility for the action Grant had previously mentioned -- that Thomas "ought to be ordered" to turn his command over to Schofield -- for "no one here, so far as I am informed, wishes Genl Thomas' removal." Whether "here" means the War Department or Washington is not specified.

Ms. Bloom appears to be unaware that at the same time Grant was trying to find out from Thomas what Thomas was doing, he was issuing orders to Meade for an operation, finalizing the initial Fort Fisher campaign, and working on what to do next with Sherman. All that information is readily available. Is she arguing that Mr. Bobrick has overlooked this?

It appears Ms. Bloom should be upset at Secretary Stanton for his description of Thomas's activity or lack thereof. Her anger is misplaced.

I gather that name-calling is the best Ms. Bloom can do in light of these facts. Interesting that she was the one who claimed to be bothered by the level of the conversation. Nor has Ms. Bloom answered the key question: what's new about Bobrick's book? What does he say that hasn't been said before? Given that she has no problem replying concerning other matters, her silence on this point is telling, and no amount of name-calling will remedy that.

Benson B. Bobrick - 3/2/2009

P.S. W.F. Smith, of course (not W.H., who was another cup of tea).

Benson B. Bobrick - 3/2/2009

Dear Mr. Mackey,

A few comments. For better or worse, I did dash off that Op-Ed in a very short time, which is why it was so compressed. And the one point of confusion that resulted was therefore my fault. I accept responsibility for it. But certainly you'll not dispute that Grant's appointment as Lieutenant-General "in effect" gave him direction of the AOP. Meade did his bidding. I'm sure you'll agree with that. Second, the plan to open the cracker line was conceived by Thomas and W.H. Smith before Grant arrived. Grant (to his credit, and I give him credit for it in my book) actually gave the credit for opening it to Thomas. Thomas gave it to Smith. Third, in my book you'll see that at the Battle of Chattanooga, Thomas (with Smith's help) got Grant to reverse a foolish order to attack the Ridge before Sherman arrived or there was artillery enough in position to support the assault. That's one contribution to the battle Thomas made. He saved his army from Grant's destructive haste. Second, it was Thomas who encouraged Hooker to take Lookout Mountain if he could. So Thomas contributed there. Third, it was Thomas who moved his forces forward in the center to capture intervening heights before the charge up Missionary Ridge. Grant gave the original order to take Orchard Knob, but then wanted the men withdrawn after it was seized. Thomas objected to that, and was supported by Grant's chief of staff, John Rawlins. Finally, yes, Thomas did not order the men up Missionary Ridge after they took the rifle pits at its base (nor, in my book, do I even suggest that he did), but there was widespread feeling in the ranks of his troops that they were going to do it for him. He inspired them. So in all these tangible and intangible ways, yes, Thomas won the battle of Chattanooga for Grant by doing everything right when Grant's own battle plan (designed to give the glory to Sherman) went wrong.

Finally, I did not write the book to tear down Grant and Sherman but to right a grievous wrong. The problem is, Grant and Sherman took credit for some of Thomas's achievements by trying to marginalize his role. They are therefore bound to shrink somewhat in proportion to Thomas as his stature grows.

So I hope you will read my book, which is detailed and closely argued. If you find any provable mistakes in it, I will be happy to correct them. I'm also happy to correspond with you in a respectful way on all substantive points.

I mean that sincerely.

Hilary Bloom - 3/2/2009

Not true. Grant backed down (temporarily) when when Halleck indicated no one at the War Department wanted Thomas removed. Thomas was busy trying to organize for battle. He answered Grant responsibly, and in a timely fashion. But he also had other things to do. Grant had time on his hands. All this is in Bobrick's book. Simpson ought to read it before making things up. He's really starting to make a fool of himself. To speak of Thomas's "inactivity" (when the Record documents his relentless activity leading up to the battle) is well-nigh grotesque.

Albert T. Mackey - 3/1/2009

"I was merely trying to pack a great deal of information into a brief Op-Ed."

I'm sorry, Mr. Bobrick, but that doesn't mesh with what you wrote in your article: "When it came time in 1864 to pick a new general to head the Army of the Potomac (and, in effect, the Union armies overall), Thomas was considered. But partly for political reasons, Lincoln chose Grant."

That statement very clearly states that Grant was chosen to be the commander of the AoP, and, as commander of the AoP he would, "in effect," command the Union armies overall.

This statement is wrong on two levels. First, as Prof. Simpson pointed out, Grant was not made the commander of the AoP--Meade retained command. Second, the commander of the AoP would not "in effect" lead the Union armies overall.

I've not read your book, sir, but this article does not give me confidence in it. I have to assume that in writing the article you had plenty of notice to draft your article, revise it, and check any facts of which you were not certain.

Second, you make the claim that Thomas won the battle of Chattanooga for Grant. That claim would appear to fly in the face of what Thomas said. When Grant asked who ordered the charge up Missionary Ridge, Thomas denied it was him. And since Thomas didn't lead Hooker's men up Lookout Mountain, how is it that Thomas won the battle for Grant? Grant opened the cracker line and Grant turned morale around in the city.

Perhaps I'm the last person to give advice on writing, since I have no books to my credit, but it doesn't appear to me that trying to raise Thomas' stature by lowering Grant's is the way to write history. Thomas was an outstanding officer and leader, but in giving him his due we should take care not to give him more than his due.

Albert Mackey

Will Henry Keene - 3/1/2009

I think the opposite of what Ms. Bloom writes. I feel that it is high time scholars engaged in a real discussion of Thomas's overblown image.

Brooks D. Simpson - 3/1/2009

BTW, I'd love evidence of the "conspiracy" against Thomas as practiced by biographers of Grant and Sherman. Where do these people meet? :)

Brooks D. Simpson - 3/1/2009

Interesting that this contributor repeats the same old story ... but somehow never gets around to telling us what's new about Bobrick's biography.



Now we see the relationship between Bobrick's tale and the Furgurson article in the Smithsonian. Tell me how either of these offer a different story than that offered by Cleaves, Buell, or McKinney. How many more books do we have to have that claim that this story has never been told before, and that's it's all part of a "cover up" or an attempt to "censor" history?

The typical approach of the Thomas apologist is to allege some sort of conspiracy against their hero. I never see any proof of that conspiracy. But that never stops the accusations. As for an attempt to suppress Thomas's contribution, the authors listed above suggest that if there's been an attempt at anything, it's an attempt to set up a straw man in order to make one's case for the perfect Thomas ... and sell books.

That's what this is all about.

Brooks D. Simpson - 3/1/2009

It seems that Ms. Bloom is unable to offer a real defense of Mr. Bobrick's original contribution to the Thomas story. It's simply a rehash of previous books. That she overlooks this is curious. But then perhaps she's the one with petty bias. I can see where she's coming from.

Brooks D. Simpson - 3/1/2009

Actually, Halleck told Grant that Lincoln and others were growing anxious about Thomas's inactivity, but when Grant pressed, Halleck backed down.

Thomas would only keep Grant updated about circumstances when Grant prodded him.

But I'm sure we'll hear that's another effort to censor history.

Brooks D. Simpson - 3/1/2009

I can understand why Mr. Bobrick would like to dismmiss my comment as "snide" rather than demonstrate whether he has anything knew to say about Thomas. He doesn't. Instead, he raises the old canard that other people are out to cover up the history of the war. Sure.

That's typical Thomas-worshipper claptrap.

R.R. Hamilton - 2/18/2009

"He was also a man who drew 10,000 adoring people to his funeral, yet today he's largely forgotten. It took me over fifty years to even become aware of his name. Why?

Simple: He was a Southerner fighting for Northerners. The Northerners disdained him for his origin and the Southerners for his choice.

When have you ever seen a movie of George Washington where he has a Southern accent?

Todd H Norris - 2/16/2009

Thanks for posting, Mr. Bobrick. George Thomas has been a recent discovery of mine, and I’ve taken quite a liking to him. For the past few months I've read everything I can find out about him on the internet and elsewhere (Buell's The Warrior Generals and Cleaves's Rock of Chickamauga, two laudatory books, I admit). Your book should be arriving any day now, and I'm very much looking forward to reading what you have to say.

But I don't get this apologist stuff. From what I've read there seems to be substantial evidence to support a claim that Thomas's legacy was purposefully squashed to direct the glory to Grant, Sherman, and others. I’d like to read the facts for myself. Since when does forming and opinion based on research make you an apologist? Doesn’t a disdainful, prejudiced dismissal of an opinion make that person just as much an apologist, if not moreso? If everything that could ever be said about Thomas has already been written and rebutted long ago, as implied by the Thomas basher in his post, then when can we see the end of the new books on Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman? Seems to me it’s a better argument against apologist writing. Talk about your overexposure.

I think the Thomas story is fascinating and needs to be heard. For me, the facts speak for themselves. What I do know is this: Thomas was beloved and admired by his men as a general and as a man (as demonstrated by the Army of the Cumberland at reunions as long as there were survivors); he was an unparalleled heat of battle commander and innovative strategist (Chickamauga, use of cavalry as offense at Nashville, numerous battle plans suggested but seldom followed; the ones implemented worked); he was a stickler for being prepared (see Nashville; but he’s too slow!?! Right – then why were his men so valued, constantly in the thick of battle, and demanded by Sherman – the XIV Corps - to be with him on his March to the Sea?); he valued his men's lives and trained them to be the best soldier possible (Camp Dick Robinson); he led by example and was courageous in battle (Chickamauga et al); he never lost a battle which he fully commanded, and he was the only Union leader to run the enemy off the battlefield in total defeat, and he did it twice (Mill Springs and Nashville). He was also a man who drew 10,000 adoring people to his funeral, yet today he's largely forgotten. It took me over fifty years to even become aware of his name. Why? I think the half dozen attempts over the last 100+ years to answer that question have not exhausted the discussion. So I welcome your book.

And like the Thomas basher, I also have formed an opinion. It's been said you often have only one opportunity to make your mark. Sometimes you never get a second chance. For whatever reason (integrity, protocol, appearances, loyalty, all the above), Thomas lost his one chance for lasting fame when he refused to take over for Buell when the command was offered to him. Buell even urged him to take over, and I understand 20 of Thomas's officers pleaded their case to Washington for such a change, but Thomas refused. The Thomas bashers would say this proves he didn't have the right stuff; he didn't seize the day, and history duly records it. And that well may be, but it doesn’t diminish the man or his accomplishments, nor does he deserve to be forgotten for reasons out of his control.

If he had heeded the call the moment the command was offered, I am convinced history would have been drastically different. Thomas would have marched to the sounds of battle at Perryville when Buell couldn't hear, Rosecrans would never have been in charge to direct the blunders at Chickamauga because Lincoln would have had no reason to say "let the Virginian wait" after Thomas refused the first offer, leaving it open to Rosecrans. Instead of destroying railroads like Sherman, Thomas would have been about destroying armies. The plan at Snake Creek Gap outside Atlanta would have been engineered and implemented, shortening the war and saving thousands of lives and needless destruction of property. How can I make such a bold assumption? When in total charge, Thomas never failed. Never. It’s as simple as that.

Unfortunately for history and those thousands who might have lived, Thomas never got his second chance to be the kind of leader history could not deny.

Hilary Bloom - 2/16/2009

Fascinating article. Substantive, solid, long-overdue. Brooks Simpson's juvenile outburst lowers the level of discourse. That's a real shame. It's high time scholars engaged in a real discussion of Thomas's undervalued contribution to the war. You can see where Simpson is coming from even before he utters a word, when he titles his comment, "Another Thomas Apologist," as if Thomas was somehow unworthy of our reverence and respect. I'd call that petty bias rather than scholarship. What I really liked about the article was the balance of it: its praise for Lincoln and Thomas both, with a clear-eyed look at Lincoln's short-sightedness early on. The shot at Grant, though, is probably justified. Everyone knows, as Lincoln's great Secretary of the Navy put it, that Grant was reckless with his men. Thomas never was. Would Thomas have beaten Lee? I don't know. But McClure's startling observation, which Bobrick quotes, namely, that Thomas would have done better than Grant, at much less of a human cost, jives with what many believed then, and since.

Benson B. Bobrick - 2/16/2009

Re: My Op-Ed. Yes, it's true George Meade remained in charge of the Army of the Potomac, though Grant had the option of replacing him. And of course Grant controlled Meade's army completely. That was the main point. I was merely trying to pack a great deal of information into a brief Op-Ed. As for Brooks Simpson's snide comment, it lacks the dignity one would hope for in a forum for discussion like this. The far more thoughtful comment by another, noting that Lincoln slowed the order from Grant aimed at relieving Thomas before the Battle of Nashville, is true, and I praise Lincoln for it in my book. However, it was Major T. Eckert of the War Telegraph Department that held on to the order "on his own responsibility" and so kept it from going through. Lincoln and Stanton were both grateful to him for it afterwards. But Lincoln, albeit reluctantly, had been prepared to let the wire be sent. So I say to Brooks Simpson and others who seek to censor the true story of the war, that history is best served when we tell the whole truth about it, in a free, honest, and open debate.

Michael Green - 2/16/2009

I noticed the same error that Professor Simpson mentioned. I also would add that it was Grant who wanted to relieve Thomas of command before Nashville, and Lincoln who slowed him down.

Speaking of slow, that was Grant's complaint about Thomas, who did indeed want everything perfect before he would attack. That makes me ask something to which we can find no answer: did that bring to mind someone like McClellan, and therefore hurt Thomas, fairly or unfairly?

Michael Green - 2/16/2009

I would respectfully disagree with the previous commenter and say that historians, experts on the military, etc., have not so much underrated Thomas as paid him less attention than the more prominent and glamorous generals.

I also would add that a native Kentuckian was commander-in-chief. But, like the naval officers (not only Farragut) who stayed with the Union rather than going with their home state, he considered himself not a southerner but an American, and that is in itself related to one of the key explanations for the war's coming and who fought it.

Brooks D. Simpson - 2/15/2009

...another Thomas apologist, and this one's ill-informed. When I see an author claim that Ulysses S. Grant was placed in command of the Army of the Potomac when in fact he was made lieutenant general in command of the armies of the United States, I know we are in for something less than a treat.

Bad books are a dime a dozen, although publishers often charge more.

R.R. Hamilton - 2/14/2009

I would not say that Thomas is underrated so much as Grant and Sherman are overrated.

But I wanted to point out that Southerners served the Union cause at critical junctures: It was a Kentuckian, Maj. Anderson, who decided to occupy Fort Sumter after South Carolina seceded. Another Kentuckian, Col. Buford, was the cavalry commander who selected the battlefield at Gettysburg. And Adm. Farragut, of "Damn the Torpedoes, Full Steam Ahead!" fame at Mobile Bay, was from Tennessee.