American Civil War: Major General George H. Thomas

George H. Thomas during the Civil War
Major General George H. Thomas.

National Archives & Records Administration

Major General George H. Thomas was a noted Union commander during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Though a Virginian by birth, Thomas elected to remain loyal to the United States at the start of the Civil War. A veteran of the Mexican-American War, he saw extensive service in the western theater and served under superiors such as Major Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. Thomas came to national prominence after his men made a heroic stand at the Battle of Chickamauga. Dubbed the "Rock of Chickamauga," he later commanded armies during the campaign to capture Atlanta and won a stunning victory at the Battle of Nashville .

Early Life

George Henry Thomas was born July 31, 1816, at Newsom's Depot, VA. Growing up on a plantation, Thomas was one of many who violated the law and taught his family's enslaved people to read. Two years after his father's death in 1829, Thomas and his mother led his siblings to safety during the rebellion by enslaved people led by Nat Turner.

Pursued by Turner's men, the Thomas family was forced to abandon their carriage and flee on foot through the woods. Racing through Mill Swamp and the bottomlands of the Nottoway River, the family found safety at the county seat of Jerusalem, VA. Shortly thereafter, Thomas became an assistant to his uncle James Rochelle, the local clerk of court, with the goal of becoming a lawyer.

West Point

After a short time, Thomas became unhappy with his legal studies and approached Representative John Y. Mason regarding an appointment to West Point. Though warned by Mason that no student from the district had ever successfully completed the academy's course of study, Thomas accepted the appointment. Arriving at age 19, Thomas shared a room with William T. Sherman.

Becoming friendly rivals, Thomas soon developed a reputation among the cadets for being deliberate and cool-headed. His class also included future Confederate commander Richard S. Ewell. Graduating 12th in his class, Thomas was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to the 3rd US Artillery.

Early Assignments

Dispatched for service in the Second Seminole War in Florida, Thomas arrived at Fort Lauderdale, FL in 1840. Initially serving as infantry, he and his men conducted routine patrols in the area. His performance in this role earned him a brevet promotion to first lieutenant on November 6, 1841.

While in Florida, Thomas' commanding officer stated, "I never knew him to be late or in a hurry. All his movements were deliberate, his self-possession was supreme, and he received and gave orders with equal serenity." Departing Florida in 1841, Thomas saw subsequent service at New Orleans, Fort Moultrie (Charleston, SC), and Fort McHenry (Baltimore, MD).

Major General George H. Thomas

  • Rank: Major General
  • Service: US Army
  • Nickname(s): Rock of Chickamauga, Old Slow Trot
  • Born: July 31, 1816 in Newsom's Deport, VA
  • Died: March 28, 1870 in San Francisco, CA
  • Parents: John and Elizabeth Thomas
  • Spouse: Frances Lucretia Kellogg
  • Conflicts: Mexican-American War, Civil War
  • Known For: Buena Vista, Mill Springs, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Nashville


With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846, Thomas served with Major General Zachary Taylor's army in northeastern Mexico. After performing admirably at the Battles of Monterrey and Buena Vista, he was brevetted to captain and then major. During the fighting, Thomas served closely with future antagonist Braxton Bragg and earned high praise from Brigadier General John E. Wool.

With the conflict's conclusion, Thomas briefly returned to Florida before receiving the post of instructor of artillery at West Point in 1851. Impressing West Point's superintendent, Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, Thomas was also given the duties of cavalry instructor.

Major General George H. Thomas in US Army uniform astride a black horse.
Major General George H. Thomas. Library of Congress

Back to West Point

In this role, Thomas earned the lasting nickname "Old Slow Trot" due to his constant restraining of the cadets from galloping the academy's elderly horses. The year after arriving, he married Frances Kellogg, the cousin of a cadet from Troy, NY. During his time at West Point, Thomas instructed Confederate horsemen J.E.B. Stuart and Fitzhugh Lee as well as voted against reinstating future subordinate John Schofield after his dismissal from West Point.

Appointed a major in the 2nd US Cavalry in 1855, Thomas was assigned to the Southwest. Serving under Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston and Lee, Thomas combated the Native Americans for the remainder of the decade. On August 26, 1860, he narrowly avoided death when an arrow glanced off his chin and hit his chest. Pulling the arrow out, Thomas had the wound dressed and returned to action. Though painful, it was to be the only wound that he would sustain throughout his long career.

The Civil War

Returning home on leave, Thomas requested a year-long leave of absence in November 1860. He suffered further when he badly injured his back during a fall from a train platform in Lynchburg, VA. As he recovered, Thomas became concerned as states began leaving the Union after the election of Abraham Lincoln. Turning down Governor John Letcher's offer to become Virginia's chief of ordnance, Thomas stated that he wished to remain loyal to the United States as long as it was honorable for him to do so.

On April 12, the day that the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter, he informed his family in Virginia that he intended to remain in federal service. Promptly disowning him, they turned his portrait to face the wall and refused to forward his belongings. Labeling Thomas a turncoat, some Southern commanders, such as Stuart threatened to hang him as a traitor if he was captured.

Though he remained loyal, Thomas was hampered by his Virginia roots for the duration of the war as some in the North did not fully trust him and he lacked political backing in Washington. Quickly promoted to lieutenant colonel and then colonel in May 1861, he led a brigade in the Shenandoah Valley and won a minor victory over troops led by Brigadier General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.

Major General George H. Thomas in a US Army uniform astride a white horse.
Major General George H. Thomas. Library of Congress

Building a Reputation

In August, with officers like Sherman vouching for him, Thomas was promoted to brigadier general. Posted to the Western Theater, he provided the Union with one its first victories in January 1862, when he defeated Confederate troops under Major General George Crittenden at the Battle of Mill Springs in eastern Kentucky. As his command was part of Major General Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio, Thomas was among those who marched to Major General Ulysses S. Grant's aid during the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862.

Promoted to major general on April 25, Thomas was given command of the Right Wing of Major General Henry Halleck's army. The bulk of this command was made of up of men from Grant's Army of the Tennessee. Grant, who had been removed from field command by Halleck, was angered by this and resented Thomas' position. While Thomas led this formation during the Siege of Corinth, he rejoined Buell's army in June when Grant returned to active service. That fall, when Confederate General Braxton Bragg invaded Kentucky, the Union leadership offered Thomas command of the Army of the Ohio as it felt Buell was too cautious.

Supporting Buell, Thomas refused this offer and served as his second-in-command at the Battle of Perryville that October. Though Buell compelled Bragg to retreat, his slow pursuit cost him his job and Major General William Rosecrans was given command on October 24. Serving under Rosecrans, Thomas led the center of the newly named Army of the Cumberland at the Battle of Stones River on December 31-January 2. Holding the Union line against Bragg's attacks, he prevented a Confederate victory.

The Rock of Chickamauga

Later that year, Thomas' XIV Corps played a key role in Rosecrans' Tullahoma Campaign which saw Union troops maneuver Bragg's army out of central Tennessee. The campaign culminated with the Battle of Chickamauga that September. Attacking Rosecrans' army, Bragg was able to shatter the Union lines.

Forming his corps on Horseshoe Ridge and Snodgrass Hill, Thomas mounted a stubborn defense as the rest of the army retreated. Finally retiring after nightfall, the action earned Thomas the nickname "The Rock of Chickamauga." Retreating to Chattanooga, Rosecrans' army was effectively besieged by the Confederates.

Though he did not have good personal relations with Thomas, Grant, now in command of the Western Theater, relieved Rosecrans and gave the Army of the Cumberland to the Virginian. Tasked with holding the city, Thomas did so until Grant arrived with additional troops. Together, the two commanders began driving Bragg back during the Battle of Chattanooga, November 23-25, which culminated with Thomas' men capturing Missionary Ridge.

Studio portrait of Major General George H. Thomas, seated looking left, in a US Army uniform.
Major General George H. Thomas. Library of Congress

Atlanta and Nashville

With his promotion to Union general-in-chief in the spring of 1864, Grant designated Sherman to lead the armies in the West with orders to capture Atlanta. Remaining in command of the Army of the Cumberland, Thomas' troops were one of three armies overseen by Sherman. Fighting a number of battles through the summer, Sherman succeeded in taking the city on September 2.

As Sherman prepared for his March to the Sea, Thomas and his men were sent back to Nashville to prevent Confederate General John B. Hood from attacking Union supply lines. Moving with a smaller number of men, Thomas raced to beat Hood to Nashville where Union reinforcements were heading. En route, a detachment of Thomas' force defeated Hood at the Battle of Franklin on November 30.

Concentrating at Nashville, Thomas hesitated to organize his army, obtain mounts for his cavalry, and wait for ice to melt. Believing Thomas was being too cautious, Grant threatened to relieve him and dispatched Major General John Logan to take command. On December 15, Thomas attacked Hood and won a stunning victory. The victory marked one of the few times during the war that an enemy army was effectively destroyed.

Later Life

Following the war, Thomas held various military posts across the South. President Andrew Johnson offered him the rank of lieutenant general to be Grant's successor, but Thomas declined as he wished to avoid the politics of Washington. Taking command of the Division of the Pacific in 1869, he died at the Presidio of a stroke on March 28, 1870.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General George H. Thomas." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General George H. Thomas. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General George H. Thomas." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).