A CIVIL GENERAL
The woods are crashing. We sit on our horses as still as we can. If the branches cut by the minnie balls fall on us, they do less damage if we do not move, and they are falling everywhere.
But it is the noise not the branches that we notice. It is deafening. To make ourselves heard, even from two feet away, we shout at the top of our lungs. General Thomas never turned his head when he spoke in battle, and he spoke so deliberately that too much time--and noise--passed between words. What did he want us to do, Generals Baird and Brannan, and I?
We never expected this battle now. We knew there was going to be a fight soon. We were in Georgia after all, and the Rebs would not put up with that very long. But none of our scouts had alerted us to Confederates on the left. Worse yet, Old Pap did not have all of his troops to fight with. All he had were my cavalry and those two divisions. Maybe eight thousand men against who knows how many Rebs in the woods ahead.
A cannonball comes flying out of the woods in front of us, not fifty feet away. My horse rears and I start to topple off. I see the general as I go down. He moves his head six inches as the ball flies by, powdering on a rock another fifty feet behind us. He seems twice as large as I am, a perfect target with his barrel chest and regal bearing. But I am the one who falls.
I clamber back up, embarrassed in the midst of the fighting that a cavalry officer can fall off his own horse. The general has not even noticed, yet he seems to pause before speaking again until I am back in the saddle, sitting motionless next to him.
I hear him this time: “Go get Reynolds on the right!”
I wheel away.
This was Chickamauga, a little town in northern Georgia, just south of Tennessee. Whatever fame General Thomas got in his remarkable career, it was usually linked with Chickamauga, a battle he did not even win. But this was just the start of Chickamauga, not the last day when he held a line no other general could have held, while his commanding officer had already given up and ridden away.
This was the first day, the day that will always be clearest in my memory of him.
I get to Reynolds on the right, though I do not know how--dead reckoning, I suppose. Like the rest of our troops, he is spread out, not together. The battle has begun by accident, too soon, and no one is ready. It must be six or seven miles from one end of our army to another. But that does not scare the enemy at all since we are so thin up and down the line, so easily overwhelmed. All day long my cavalry dash to plug one hole after another, and Forrest’s seem to be doing the same thing on the other side of the Chickamauga. Maybe they are not ready either. All I know is, it is chaos. Our men come into the fight as they arrive on the field, one regiment after another. First Baird and Brannan with me, then we are driven back and Palmer comes in, but his right gets turned. Van Cleve arrives to support Palmer and is thrown back, but Reynolds, after I go for him, reinforces and then is overpowered himself. Davis, Wood, Sheridan, Negley all rush in when they get there, and the fight is even as the sun starts to go down.
Thomas is steady on his horse the whole time. His young aides, Kellogg and Willard, sweat in their saddles as the battle rages in front of them. The day is long and dusty, the sun fierce in the sky. Men and animals are suffering from thirst, and the soldiers who have marched all day to get here have only one meal before sundown.
Then, when the general tries to move Baird’s and my men back to higher ground for the next day’s fight, the Rebels hit again. Confederate artillery fills the woods with shells that make the twilight skies seem like a firmament of exploding stars.
When it is over, we are almost where we began. It is eerie. Everyone is shivering in the cold autumn weather. Most of their blankets have been tossed away in the battle. The wounded and lost fill the hollows, huddling together.
At the height of that first day at Chickamauga, frightened horses run in every direction, and the dead and wounded cover the riverbanks. The dead bodies are piled upon each other to make room for columns heading to the front. And Chickamauga Creek is red with blood. I have never seen anything like it, and the battle at Stone River was bad.
That day, of all days, he did not win or even control the fighting--it had a mind of its own, and a crazy one at that. He lost thousands of men to wounds and death on September 19th, 1863. It was not his finest hour, that had come a day later, or at Missionary Ridge in November, or Nashville the next year.
That first day, when he sent Croxton at the very beginning to capture an isolated cavalry brigade only to discover five or six brigades that our scouts had missed, and Croxton came back to the general and said, “General, I would have brought them in if I had known which one you wanted,” Thomas just smiled and said nothing. He did not even seem disappointed. It was as if his mind was moving forward to the next task, the next maneuver. And Croxton, like the rest of us, knew how the general would react, that he would not throw a fit or criticize our failures. Croxton merely turned back to the front, to resume his work.
And there is another story about Thomas and General Sheridan at the end of that first day. They were sitting on a fence rail watching their exhausted men return to camp. Thomas seemed spent and said little or nothing about the day, one of the wildest of the war. When Sheridan made a move to return to his troops, Thomas suddenly offered him some brandy from a flask in his saddlebags. The orderly brought the flask and Thomas took very little, giving the rest to Sheridan--a man, by the way, who later curried favor with Sherman and Grant at Thomas’ expense. Sheridan paused again, but Thomas still said nothing about the fight. And Sheridan rode off in silence. Then, a few minutes later, in my own presence, General Thomas took the hand of a passing private and thanked him for his valor and steady courage. The soldier’s response was remarkable, especially compared to Sheridan’s silence a half hour earlier: “George Henry Thomas has taken this hand! As good a man as ever was! I will knock down any mean man that offers to take it hereafter!”
We knew we were in the company of a great general--but it was more than that. We loved him, those of us who fought and died for him. If we fell off our horses, he would wait for us, patiently, to get up; or to return like Croxton; or to pass by like the private. He never lost sight of us for a minute.
He was the most successful general in the war, more than Grant and Lee and Sherman. But he is being forgotten--an injustice I must try to correct, twenty years after his death.
His life itself was unjust. His family in Virginia disowned him when he chose to fight for the North; his superiors distrusted him, and delayed his promotions; and he died defending himself against the scurrilous attacks of a fellow general.
I was a newspaperman before and after the war, so I knew the public followed his exploits and trusted him with their sons. He was revered for his victories, and for his determination to lose fewer men than the other side.
But his truest public recognition came only in death, when President Grant and his cabinet and a hundred and forty carriages of dignitaries met the train bringing his body from San Francisco to Troy, New York and accompanied the casket to the cemetery. No one from his family was there. But ten thousand other Americans were.
Perhaps he saw in us, his men, the expression of what he most wanted, to his own detriment. Some of the promotions he was offered he turned down. He refused to curry favor with politicians and generals higher up the ladder. His victories were tempered by the horrors of war. He always seemed alone. But before Chickamauga he took me into his confidence and I came to understand him. And that understanding changed my life.