Wednesday, February 23, 2011

George Henry Thomas - Not Everyone Fought For Their State

Greeting Cosmic Americans!

For this week's edition of Western Theater Wednesdays, I wanted to talk a little about Union General George Thomas.

Oh sure - I could go to great lengths to about the "Rock of Chickamauga" in terms of military acumen...but from time to time I dare to venture off the beaten path.

I would much rather point out that this particular general, a hero of the Western Theater who nevertheless does not share the same fame as some of the other big shots in the Union army, went against the Rebel grain.

As we all know, George Thomas was a Virginian. A career officer in the United States army in 1861, Thomas thought it best to honor his oath of allegiance to the United States.  Many Virginians thought him a traitor to his state and to the southern cause - even members of his own family. A few years after the Civil War (in 1870), when an US officer came to notify Thomas's sister of his death, the officer was told "my brother died in 1861" and had the door slammed in his face. Ouch.

So, loyalty has drawbacks, I suppose. Now you might find Thomas's decision surprising. The usual story about southern officers resigning their commissions and seceding along  with their states suggests that even those who loved the Union held a greater love for their native soil. This "state over country" approach -  often presented by Confederate apologists, implies that the Union of 1860 was really a tenuous collection of localities - and that nationalism as we know it had not yet developed.

I am not so sure. And officers like Thomas, as well as Winfield Scott (another Virginian who remained loyal to the Union), illustrate that national commitment often trumped much so that some individuals could turn their backs on their communities and families.

Further, Thomas and Scott were not alone in their decision. Plenty of southerners remained loyal to the Stars and Stripes - many more than you might imagine. In fact, as historian James M. McPherson notes, scores of southern officers remained with the Union - officers like Tennessean David Farragut, who captured New Orleans, and North Carolinian John Gibbon, who commanded a division of the Army of the Potomac while three of his brothers fought for the Confederacy.

And of course it was George Henry Thomas who not only saved the Army of the Cumberland at Chickamauga but also kicked some Rebel ass and destroyed the Confederate Army of Tennessee at Nashville. I am quite sure that the citizens of the United States were pleased with Thomas's decision to stick around.




  1. I am always favorably impressed by the counter argument to the 'state over country' argument. i.e. It was the treasury of the Country [emphasis] that purchased the territory of the State. Therefore, the Confederates were stealing from the U.S. treasury when they retracted their respective states from the Union.

    I have yet to hear the re-cross on that one, maybe someone out there...?

  2. William Rufus Terrill was another Virginian who stuck with the Union. When he made that decision, legend says his mother helped get him assigned to the West, where he would not be fighting against his brother who fought for the Confederacy.

    His father supposedly disowned him due to that decision as well, yet after the war (General Terrill was killed at Perryville), rethought his feelings. (Ironically, Thomas was also at Perryville.)

    He was not as accomplished or as well-known as Thomas, but certainly experienced similar difficulties within his family due to the war.

  3. I would love to hear someone go after that one.

  4. what a great story, Richard - thanks for posting. Would you know if there exists a list of southern born Union officers?

  5. A while back I posted a bit on another category of "loyalist" - those who went with the Confederacy even though their state did not, and not for reasons of residence or marriage. I mentioned men from Kentucky and Maryland: Elzy, Steuart, Brad Johnson, Buckner, Breckenridge, Winder.

    The post got almost no reaction. No doubt it flummoxed those who fall back on the old saw "statel loyalty trumped national lyalty back then." My opinion is that with these men, and most men, the reason for staying or going was more likely based on ideology and finances than on "loyalty". Does that make me a bad guy? To some I imagine it does.

  6. Thanks. Here's a brief write-up I did of Terrill last fall.

    I do not know of any such list. That would probably be an interesting resource to put together if someone had the time (and the ability to decide if being born in a border state was the same as being "southern")

  7. What about the Confederate "Orphan Brigade?" It's an entire unit that is almost celebrated despite (because?) of their decision to oppose their state.

    I know border states were their own unique stories, but can you fight for "states rights" when you decide to oppose your own state?

  8. Forgot the link

  9. Richard, there were a lot of Marylanders who fought as units, too. But then, IIRC every Confederate state except SC had orgainized Union units. At least those units could be said to be fighting for their country if not their state. Marylanders and Kentuckians? It's especially tough not to use the "T" word with them.