THOMAS ranks among the highest as a general and is most winning as a man. But the fact that, although a Virginian, he remained true to the Union and fought against his state and family and friends gives perhaps the chief interest to the study of his character and mode of thought.
It will be advantageous to present first in the abstract all the arguments that appear to justify a military man in such a position.
First, there is the oath of allegiance. In all countries and under all governments it has always been held that the officer is bound to follow his flag, that he has accepted training and support under the constituted authorities, and that he is pledged to render obedience and to devote all his efforts and his life to carrying out the orders that come to him from his lawful superior. A man’s conscience is, of course, higher than his military duty, but the instances where the two should be separated are very rare indeed.
In the case of our Civil War there was a great deal more to the question than mere mechanical loyalty. For nearly a hundred years the Union had grown and flourished, in spite of sharp political disputes. The possibilities of future expansion and prosperity were enormous. It needed but little prophetic vision to look forward to wealth and happiness for coming generations such as the world had hardly ever seen before. But a man who knew what war was, and what armies were, and what military government was, did not need to be told that such a future would be gravely imperiled, if the Union were shattered into fragments. To a man with that knowledge, the attempt to break up the Union was stupid, fatal, intolerable folly. This was what Robert E. Lee meant when he said: ‘I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union.’ And again, ‘Secession is nothing but revolution.’ And yet again, ‘It is idle to talk of secession. Anarchy would have been established and not a government by Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and the other patriots of the Revolution.’
It was not only the future of the United States that was involved, but. the future of Democracy. Those who urged secession claimed to be defending popular government against a usurping executive. In reality nothing could show more clearly the danger of centralization to a republic than the history of the Confederacy. And the nation which was founded on state rights ended in a tragic — or comic — exhibition of building a strong central authority on state wrongs. Everyone who longed passionately for the success of free institutions must have appreciated that there could be no greater danger to such institutions than the establishment of two or a dozen confederacies watching perpetually in armed eagerness to cut each other’s throats. A striking illustration of how forcibly this was felt by outsiders appears in a speech made by Disraeli in 1864, less often quoted than are some other English utterances of that time: ‘After the conclusion of the war we will see a diferent America from that which was known to our fathers and from that even of which this generation has had so much experience. It will, I believe, be an America of diplomacy, it will be an America of rival states and of manœuvring Cabinets, of frequent turbulence and frequent wars.’ You perceive from what the good Lord, working through Thomas and others like him, delivered us.
And if this was the patriotic view of a broad-minded American, it might have been equally the view of a loyal Virginian. What, was fatal to the whole could not well be advantageous to the parts. If the preservation of the Union meant peace, freedom, and popular government for Maine, Illinois, and California, it meant the same thing for Virginia, and the destruction of the Union meant an abyss of possible disaster for Virginia also.
Writing formerly in the Atlantic, I had occasion to say that in the apparently most remote contingency of a secession of Massachusetts or of New England, I should follow my state even if the cause of such secession did not meet with my approval. I now repeat the statement without hesitating in the slightest. The love of home, the might of ancestral tradition, New England habits of thought and habits of affection are too deeply rooted in every fibre of my heart for me to take any risk of being exiled from them perpetually. But it may easily be maintained that one who followed a different course would show a broader, a more far-seeing, a more self-sacrificing patriotism, even as a New Englander.
Reasoning from analogy is always defective and often misleading, but when Southerners say, with Colonel McCabe, that Thomas turned his back on Virginia in the hour of her sorest need, I am tempted to put the matter thus. If a man sees his mother about to commit suicide in a fit of temporary insanity, which is more truly filial, to stand reverently by and watch her do it, or to do his best to restrain her, even with a certain amount of brutal violence?
So much for the line of argument that Thomas might have used. How far did he actually use it? Nobody knows. His numerous admirers are ready and eager to tell us what they thought, and what they think he ought to have thought and must have thought. But the actual reliable evidence as to his own mental processes is meagre in the extreme.
One thing we can say at starting, as positively as we can speak of any human motive. It is alleged that Thomas was governed by considerations of personal advantage and promotion. The same thing has been alleged in regard to Lee, and with just as much truth in one case as in the other. The characters of both men absolutely preclude the assignment, even the consideration, of anything so contemptible.
Further, Thomas is said to have been influenced by his wife, who was a New York woman. Probably he was, though Mrs. Thomas makes the almost incomprehensible assertion that ‘never a word passed between General Thomas and myself, or any one of the family, upon the subject of his remaining loyal to the United States Government.’ I say ‘almost incomprehensible,’ because the general spent the fierce winter of 1860-1861, when everybody was talking politics, with his wife in New York. And I repeat, probably he was influenced. Who is not, by his surroundings and by those he loves? Does any one believe that Lee was not influenced by Mrs. Lee and by his friends and family? But that either of these men could be persuaded to do anything he thought wrong, by his wife or by any one else, is a mere dream of prejudice and party passion.
What actual evidence we have, however, as to Thomas’s attitude in that trying time goes practically all one way and, I think, shows beyond question that he had his hour of doubt and difficulty. The story, widely current at the South, that Thomas wrote to the Confederate authorities to know what rank would be given him if he joined them, may be rejected at once, on Thomas’s own vehement statement, and was merely a misinterpretation of documents to be considered shortly. The explicit testimony of Fitzhugh Lee that Thomas told him in New York early in 1861 that he intended to resign cannot, of course, be for one moment disputed as to intentional veracity. It is possible, however, that Lee, in his own enthusiasm, may have taken Thomas more positively than was meant. Evidence less likely to be questioned by Northerners is furnished by Keyes, who knew Thomas well before the war and regarded him with the greatest esteem and affection. Keyes attributes the general’s final decision to his wife, and adds, ‘Had he followed his own inclination, he would have joined the Confederates and fought against the North with the same ability and valor that he displayed in our cause.’
Further, there are two letters of Thomas’s which have a very interesting connection with the point, we are discussing. On January 18, 1861, he wrote to the Superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, the school in which Jackson was an instructor and which bore something like the same relation to the state that West Point bears to the nation, as follows: ‘In looking over the files of the National Intelligencer this morning, I met with your advertisement for a commandant of cadets and instructor of tactics at the institute. If not already filled, I will be under obligations if you will inform me what salary and allowances pertain to the situation, as from present appearances I feel it will soon be necessary for me to be looking up some means of support.’
It is urged by Thomas’s biographers that this letter has no political significance whatever, that the general was at that time doubtful about the effects of a severe injury recently received which he thought might disable him for further active service.
This explanation may be correct , but it must be admitted that the coincidence is singular and unfortunate. It becomes much more so when we weigh the language of another letter written on March 12, 1861. Governor Letcher, of Virginia, had caused the position of chief of ordnance of the state to be offered to Thomas, if he wished to resign from the United States service. Thomas replies: ‘I have the honor to state, after expressing my most sincere thanks for your very kind offer, that it is not my wish to leave the service of the United States as long as it is honorable for me to remain in it; and therefore as long as my native State, Virginia, remains in the Union, it is my purpose to remain in the Army unless required to perform duties alike repulsive to honor and humanity.’
Here we have almost, the identical words of Lee as to the Union, written at about the same time. ‘I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation.’ I do not see how any unprejudiced person can doubt that up to the middle of March, at any rate, Thomas was divided between his loyalty to the Union and his loyalty to Virginia. The only shred of actual evidence on the other side is Colonel Hough’s report of a conversation in which his chief declared that ‘his duty was clear from the beginning.’ But this conversation occurred long after the struggle was over, when time and bitter memories had accentuated everything, and by the phrase ‘from the beginning,’ the general may well have meant only the actual beginning of the war. To me the comment of Grant, who must have spoken from reliable hearsay, if not from personal knowledge, seems a perfectly satisfactory statement of the case. ‘When the war was coming, Thomas felt like a Virginian, and talked like one, and had all the sentiments then so prevalent about the rights of slavery and sovereign states and so on. But the more Thomas thought it over, the more he saw the crime of treason behind it all.’
And why should any one blame him for hesitation in the matter? If he was a man, with a man’s heart, and not a mere military machine, was he not bound to hesitate? The point would not be worth the space I have given it, if it were not for the folly of Northern apologists on the one hand, who insist that their hero must always have thought as they did, and for the cruelty of Southern partisans on the other, who insinuate ignoble motives where there is no possible foundation for them. Whatever may have been Thomas’s doubts when the dispute was in a theoretical stage, the guns at Sumter settled the question for him. When he heard that echo, he wrote to his wife words which are equally significant of his decision and of his previous indecision: ‘Whichever way he turned the matter over in his mind, his oath of allegiance to his Government always came uppermost.’
A few days later than this, in the very interesting letter of Fitz-John Porter printed in the Official Records (volume 107, page 351), we see Thomas assisting to hold others to their duty; and from that time on there is no indication of the faintest wavering or regret, any more than there is with Lee who had chosen the other side after a bitter struggle of his own. Indeed, with the progress of the war Thomas’s language in regard to rebels and rebellion becomes more and more energetic, as appears in one very curious passage regarding deserters, written in April, 1864. ‘I believe many of them return to the enemy after recruiting their health and strength, because they are rebels by nature, others because of family influence, and others like the drunkard to his bottle, because they have not sufficient moral courage to resist the natural depravity of their hearts.’ In the last clause I think we see what Thomas would have felt to be the just analysis of his own psychological experience. He had found the moral courage to withstand a terrible trial.
As shown by Grant’s remark above quoted, Thomas’s attitude before the war in regard to slavery was probably that of the average moderate Southerner. He was never an extensive slaveholder. While in Texas he purchased a slave woman for actual needs of service, and rather than sell her again into the hands of strangers, he sent her home to Virginia at very considerable expense and inconvenience.
The difficulty we have met with in getting at Thomas’s state of mind during the critical months of 1861 forms an excellent introduction to the study of his character. There is the same difficulty in getting at his state of mind at any other time. He was very insistent that none of his private letters should be published after his death, and very few have been. His official correspondence is extensive; but it is singularly formal in character and tells us almost nothing about the man’s soul, except that such reserve is in itself significant, and that even trifling hints of self-revelation become valuable in such a scarcity. Thus a letter that begins ‘Dear Sherman,’ is almost start - ling in its contrast to the usual staid formulæ of subordinate respect.
Not only in letters but in everything was Thomas reserved, self-contained, self-controlled. ‘A boy of few words, but of an excellent spirit,’ was about, all the information that his biographer could gather as to his childhood. At West Point, where he was graduated in 1840, in the Indian campaigns, during the Mexican War, in which he distinguished himself greatly, and through the interval till the Civil War came, there is a similar record: quiet, faithful service, and no more said than was necessary; a strong, calm, patient, dignified soldier, ready alike for good and evil fortune. Nor did he appear differently throughout the great conflict, from his first victory at Mill Springs in January, 1862, through Shiloh and Perryville and Murfreesboro and Chickamauga and Chattanooga and Atlanta, to his last victory at Nashville, one of the most skillful and decisive battles of the war. Everywhere it was a question of deeds, not of words, of accomplishing the task set and making as little fuss about it as possible. Everywhere there was shrinking from cheap publicity and the advertising through self or others which did more for some reputations than great fighting. When asked to become a candidate for the presidency after the war, Thomas declined, giving as one reason, ‘I can never consent, voluntarily, to place myself in a position where scurrilous newspaper men and political demagogues can make free with my personal character and reputation, with impunity.’
The advantages of this splendid poise and sell-contained power in Thomas’s character will bear analysis in many ways. Let us consider the negative advantages first. For one thing, Thomas was free from over-confidence. He did not press eagerly into undertakings beyond his strength, and consequently he and his army were saved the humiliation and demoralization that come from drawing back.
Moreover, Thomas was free from the brag and bluster which disfigure the glory of so many really able soldiers. He may have felt in his heart that he could do great things, but he did not proclaim it. Indeed, on this point he erred in the direction of excessive modesty, ‘So modest was he that, his face would color with blushes when his troops cheered him,’ says one who knew him well. To be sure, his enthusiastic biographer observes, with fine discrimination, that when a modest man does break out, he does so thoroughly. A curious instance of this is a speech Thomas was forced to make after the war, in which, announcing that he was a modest man, he went on to explain his merits in refusing to take command when it was offered him to the detriment of his superior. A less modest man, with his wits more about, him, would perhaps have left, the remark to some one else.
On the other hand, a much more important illustration of the underlying truth and nobility of the general’s nature appears in another speech in which he explained the battle of Nashville, and his chief concern seemed to be to point out his great mistake in not making use of the cavalry to destroy Hood completely. You will go some distance before you find another commander busy enlarging on the things he ought to have done and did not do.
Again, Thomas’s reserve saved him from the fault, too general on both sides during the war, of speaking harshly in criticism of his superiors or his subordinates, of allowing that jealousy of others’ success, which is perhaps inseparable from human weakness, to become manifest in outward speech and action. It is rare indeed that he expresses himself with such frankness as about Schurz: ‘I do not think he is worth much from what I have seen of him, and should not regret having him go’; or in regard to an expedition of Stoneman: ‘The Stoneman raid turns out to be a humbug. . . . It seems that when twenty-five of the enemy are seen anywhere they are considered in force.’
On the other hand how admirable was the loyalty, based of course on sound judgment, which made him unwilling to be put in place of Buell on the eve of battle, and in the highest degree reluctant to succeed Rosecrans. When the latter change was first, proposed, Dana writes that Thomas refuses absolutely; ‘he could not consent to become the successor of Rosecrans, because he would not do anything to give countenance to the suspicion that he had intrigued against his commander. Besides he has as perfect confidence in the capacity and fidelity of General Rosecrans as he had in those of General Buell.’
Even when it would have been easy and natural to say something unpleasant, Thomas refrains, as in his comments on the victory at Chattanooga, won, as is usually supposed, quite contrary to Grant’s plans. ‘It will be perceived from the above report that the original plan of operations was somewhat modified to meet and take the best advantage of emergencies which necessitated material modifications of that plan. It is believed, however, that the original plan, had it been carried out, could not possibly have led to more successful results.’
If, as is sometimes asserted, Thomas was jealous of Grant, the moderation of the passage just cited is all the more noticeable. That there was a certain amount of the very human jealousy I have suggested above, is possible. How difficult it is to discriminate motives in such a case is shown by comparing General Wilson’s description of Grant’s first arrival at Chattanooga, wet, weary, and wounded, and Thomas’s reception of him, with Horace Porter’s account of the same scene. According to General Wilson, Thomas was completely out of sorts and treated Grant with inexcusable rudeness, arising, Wilson thinks, from smouldering jealousy. Porter, on the other hand, feels that the undeniable remissness on Thomas’s part arose rather from preoccupation with other cares, and he analyzes excellently the probable facts as to the relation between the two great leaders. ‘There is very little doubt that if any other two general officers in the service had been placed in the same trying circumstances there would have been an open rupture.’
So far, then, as to the negative advantages of Thomas’s reserve and selfcontrol. But the positive advantages were much greater. To begin with, he was by nature businesslike, a man of system. The story that his chief complaint of the enemy at Chickamauga, when everything was collapsing about him, was that ‘the damned scoundrels were fighting without any system,’ may be apocryphal, though I am inclined to believe it. But all the evidence shows that he loved to have things work by rule, and arranged even little matters with patient care. He was always neat as to his dress and person. He liked a completeness even approaching display about his camp service and equipage, and had formal Negro attendants and silver tableware. All Sherman’s efforts to reduce this equipment for the sake of example during the Atlanta campaign were quite unavailing, yet it does not seem to have resulted from any instinct of aristocratic superiority, but simply from an established habit. In the same way, Thomas insisted upon an elaborate administrative apparatus, and the story goes that. Sherman, after unduly stripping himself, was very glad to make use of his subordinate’s facilities in this direction.
It was the same with discipline. Thomas was always approachable, always kindly, but he wanted no time spent without a purpose, and even in accomplishing a purpose wanted methods to be brief and direct. This thoroughly businesslike element of his character is shown by nothing better than by the change which is said to have taken place in the army when Thomas succeeded Rosecrans. Rosecrans was brilliant but erratic, full of clever schemes, but without settled grasp on either men or movements. Under his control, or lack of control, administration had become utterly haphazard and unsystematic. With Thomas’s appointment everything was altered. As Dana wrote, in his vivid fashion, ‘order prevails instead of chaos.’
It was Thomas’s habit, before starting on any important movement, to see that all pending matters of business were attended to, all papers properly arranged, his own signature affixed to every document that required it. Even matters of comparatively slight importance were not overlooked. Thus, on the morning of December 15, 1804, when he was riding through Nashville to begin the battle which he knew was the great and long-delayed crisis of his life, he stopped his whole staff in the street to give direction that fourteen bushels of coal should be sent to Mr. Harris, his neighbor. ‘I was out of coal and borrowed this number of bushels from him the other day.’ Has not such an anecdote the real ring of Plutarch? is it not as fine as Socrates’s last payment of the cock to Æsculapius?
This thoroughness of method shows in all Thomas’s military activity. ‘The fate of a battle may depend on a buckle,’ he once said to an officer whose harness broke. He wanted to know where he was going, what he was going with, what material he had with him and against him. He provided for all possible contingencies of accident. ‘There is always a remedy for any failure of a part of Thomas’s plans, or for the delinquencies of subordinates.’ He left nothing to others that he could do himself. ‘On a march or a campaign, he saw every part of his army every day. . . . If, when he was at the rear, the sounds indicated contact with the enemy, he passed on to the very front, where he often dismounted and walked to the outer skirmish line to reconnoitre.’
The extreme of this methodical care is displayed in his curious remark to Dana: ‘I should have long since liked to have an independent command, but what I should have desired would have been the command of an army that I could myself have organized, distributed, disciplined, and combined.’ It is a striking piece of irony that when Sherman left him in chief command to confront Hood, he should have had the exact opposite of this, an unorganized, incoherent, scattered, chaotic army, which he had to make before he used it. He did make it, shape it, put it together, before he would stir one step. Then he struck the most finished, telling, perfect blow that was struck on either side during the war.
And the natural result of this splendid thoroughness was a universal reliability. Everybody, from the commander-in-chief to the camp-followers, trusted Thomas. When he telegraphed to Grant from Chattanooga, ‘We will hold the town till we starve,’ everybody knew there was no bluster about it, everybody knew the town would be held. In this connection perhaps the grandeur and force of his character made themselves more felt at Chickamauga than even at Nashville; and the soldiers’ pet name, ‘ Rock of Chickamauga,’ implies solidity and stability more than any other qualities. When everything is marching steadily to victory according to a preconceived plan, you may know the power that is behind, but you do not feel it directly and vividly. But when things go wrong, when strong men are breaking blindly, when disaster seems sweeping on beyond check or stay, then to lean back against one magnificent will, of itself sufficient to change fate, that indeed gives you a sense of what human personality can be.
It is in moments like these that a physique such as Thomas’s, with all it expresses of the soul, is most imposing. He was tall, broad, solidly built, with firm, square shoulders and a fullbearded face as firm and square as the shoulders were. Some say that the expression was stern, some say kind and gentle. Probably it could be either according to circumstances; and I delight in Garfield’s comment on the eyes: ‘cold gray to his enemies, but warm blue to his friends.’ Equally enthusiastic is Howard’s denial of the charge of coldness and severity. ‘To me General Thomas’s features never seemed cold. His smile of welcome was pleasant and most cordial. His words and acts drew toward him my whole heart, particularly when I went into battle under him.’ And this is the impression that I get most of Thomas as a battle-leader, one of immense comfort. Others may have been more showy, even more inspiring. To fight under Thomas was like having a wall at your back or a great battery to cover you.
Naturally, characteristics so strongly marked as the reserve, and poise, and self-control we have been analyzing in Thomas carry some defects with them. Strongly marked characteristics always do. His love of system and the regular way of doing things did sometimes degenerate into a defect. This shows in little foibles of no moment except for what they indicate. Thus Thomas was walking one day with Sherman and they came across a soldier parching corn from the fields. Thomas commended him, but cautioned him not to waste any. As they passed on, Sherman heard the fellow mutter, ‘There he goes, there goes the old man, economizing as usual,’ And Sherman’s characteristic comment is, ‘ economizing with corn which cost only the labor of gathering and roasting.’
Again, it is said that Thomas hated new clothes, and when his promotions began to come faster than he could wear out his uniforms, he was always one uniform behind. Of similar triviality yet significance is the story that when he was put into a good bed in a Louisville hotel, he could not sleep, but sent for his camp cot in the middle of the night.
More important in this line is his criticism of the Sanitary and Christian commissions. With all their usefulness, they were something of a nuisance from the point of view of system, and Thomas complains, ‘They have caused much trouble and could be easily dispensed with for the good of the service, as their duties are legitimately those of, and should be performed by, the medical department.’
Most illuminating of all for Thomas’s mental constitution is his attitude toward rank, promotion, and official dignity. Advancement was slow in coming to him at first, partly perhaps because of his Southern antecedents, partly also because of his quiet discharge of duty without talk or political effort. When others were placed over him, he made no protest of ambition or desert, and was disposed to bear slights which merely touched his personal worth with dignified indifference. But the minute he felt that the regular order of procedure was interfered with, he was ready to object. Thus, when he is put under Mitchell, in 1861, he writes, ‘Justice to myself requires that I ask to be relieved from duty with these troops, since the Secretary has thought it necessary to supersede me in command, without, as I conceive, any just cause for so doing.'
At a later date he is subordinated to Rosecrans and protests in the same spirit. ‘Although I do not claim for myself any superior ability, yet feeling conscious that no reason exists for over-slaughing me by placing me under my junior, I feel deeply mortified and aggrieved at the action taken in the matter.’
This, I think, shows clearly the instinct of system, tending to harden into a red-tape habit. We can all imagine how differently Sherman would have written under similar circumstances, perhaps as follows: I don’t care a jot whether the man is my senior or my junior. The one question is, can he do the work better than I? To speak frankly, I don’t think he can.
Another curious case is Thomas’s insistence on being transferred to the Pacific Department after the war. His biographer admits that he did not wish to go there, but was merely unwilling to see his rank degraded by having Schofield given the higher appointment.
Thomas’s methodical temper is sometimes asserted to have given rise to a defect even more serious, that of excessive deliberateness, not to say slowness, in action. This much debated question is too purely military for a civilian to settle, but some discussion of it is necessary.
Perhaps the most severe criticism of Thomas comes from his own subordinate, Schofield, in connection with the Nashville campaign. Summed up very briefly and stripped of politeness Schofield’s charges are that Thomas should have concentrated and fought Hood earlier; that Schofield himself really won Nashville at Franklin; that when Nashville was fought it was Schofield’s advice that made the victory complete; that, on the second day of the battle Thomas’s leadership was quite inadequate; and that Thomas’s reports cannot have been written by himself, because he would have been incapable of omitting to give credit for his subordinate’s achievements, —a civil way of insinuating that Thomas suppressed the truth. All this would be indeed overwhelming, if exact.
Milder critics insist that Thomas was slow at Nashville, notably Grant, both at the time and afterwards, repealing to Young the old story of the general’s nickname of ‘ Slow-Trot Thomas,’ acquired at West Point. But Grant rarely let Thomas’s name be mentioned without some innuendo. Neither did Sherman, who, though often praising his subordinate’s steadiness, complains of the difficulty of keeping him moving. ‘A fresh furrow in a ploughed field will stop the whole column and all begin to intrench.’
Cox, who knew Thomas well and admired him greatly and who has none of Schofield’s obvious personal irritation, is inclined to agree with the latter that the general might have met and defeated Hood more promptly. And Colonel T. L. Livermore, after his minute and careful analysis of Thomas’s whole career, inclines to the belief that in almost every one of his battles he might have accomplished more than he did, this being particularly the case in regard to Chickamauga. Colonel Livermore, however, admits that Thomas’s greatness deserves all admiration, and that no one would question it if it were not for the fact that his biographers try to exalt him by depreciating everybody else. This they certainly do, with more ardor than discernment.
On the point of generalship I think we may conclude that, while perhaps Thomas had not the headlong aggressiveness of Sherman and Sheridan, of Jackson and Stuart, he had gilts so great, so successful, and so fruitful,— gifts not only of steadiness and farreaching preparation, but also of broad conception and strategic intelligence, — that to find fault with him is an ungracious and a thankless task.
So far we have considered Thomas as a man of reserved power, of poise and self-control, and there is a general impression that he was cold and impassible, of a statuesque temperament, little subject to human passion and infirmity. Careful study shows that this is less true than might be supposed. The human passions were there, however watchfully governed.
Take ambition. Few men seem to have been freer from its subtle influence. Thomas declined advancement when it seemed to him unjust to others, declined to be put in Buell’s place, declined to be put in Rosecrans’s, declined to let Johnson set him up as lieutenant-general to interfere with Grant. He declined a nomination for the presidency because he felt himself not fitted for it. Nor did the more solid fruits of ambition tempt him. After the war he was offered a handsome house, but declined it. A large sum of money was raised for him. He declined it, though he was poor, and desired it to be expended for the relief of disabled soldiers.
Yet in one of the few letters that have come to us from his early days, there is a real human cry. ‘This will be the only opportunity I shall have of distinguishing myself, and not to be able to avail myself of it is too bad.’ And there is something equally human about a disclaimer of ambition in later days. ‘I have exhibited at least sufficient energy to show that if I had been intrusted with the command at that time I might have conducted it successfully. . . . I went to my duty without a murmur, as I am neither ambitious nor have any political aspirations.’ Now, don’t you think perhaps he was a little ambitious, after all?
Again, take temper. Thomas had plenty of it under his outward calm. His vexatious biographers declare that, although no church member, he was devoutly religious, and used and allowed no profanity. I have no question as to the religion, but I have quoted some profanity above which Sounds genuine — and good — to me, and there is more elsewhere. Also, there is evidence of magnificent temper. It is said that at West Point the young cadet threatened to throw a would-be hazer out of the window; but this may have been not temper, but policy. Later instances are indisputable. When an officer of his staff misappropriated a horse, the general overwhelmed him with a torrent of reproach, drew his sword, ripped off the officer’s shoulder-straps, and forced him to dismount and lead the horse a long distance to its owner. On another occasion a teamster was beating his mules over the head when the commander fell upon him with such a tumult of invective that the fellow fled to the woods and disappeared.
But the most interesting evidence as to Thomas’s temper is his own confession in the admirable letter he wrote declining to be considered a candidate for the presidency. He gives a list of his disqualifications and places prominently among them, ‘I have not the necessary control over my temper’; adding this really delightful piece of self-analysis; ‘My habits of life, established by a military training of over twenty-five years, are such as to make it repugnant to my self-respect to have to induce people to do their duty by persuasive measures. If there is anything that enrages me more than another, it is to see an obstinate and self-willed man opposing what is right, morally and legally, simply because under the law he cannot be compelled to do what is right.’
Perhaps he would not have made a good president of the United States, since that individual must be subjected to visions of the above nature at rather frequent intervals.
Thomas was human in other aspects, also. He took a real human joy in lighting and victory. When the arrival of A. J. Smith assured success at Nashville, Thomas took Smith in his arms and hugged him. How pretty is the story Shanks tells of the general’s eagerness in reporting Chickamauga to Rosecrans. ‘Whenever I touched their flanks, they broke, general, they broke.’ Then, catching Shanks’s eye fixed upon him, ‘as if ashamed of his enthusiasm, the blood mounted to his cheeks and he blushed like a woman.’ Sherman says that when Atlanta was taken, ‘The news seemed to Thomas almost too good to be true. He snapped his fingers, and almost danced.’ The image of Thomas dancing for joy is of a peculiar gayety. Yet I have seen just such men do just such things.
As to the sense of humor, some maintain that Thomas had it not. Everybody has it, if you can find it. According to Horace Porter, the general took great delight in the jokes of a vaudeville entertainment with which the officers whiled away camp tediousness. One story told by Keyes, though homely, is so accordant with Thomas’s methodical and mathematical temperament. that I cannot omit it. Keyes was looking for a certain officer who was a great chewer and spitter, and as he sat at his desk, spat in winter into the fireplace, in summer out of the window. ‘Now,’ said Thomas, ‘you may come in the window and follow up the line of tobacco juice on the floor, or you may descend the chimney and trace from that, and at the intersection of the two lines you will discover B.’ Something in the anecdote seems to show something in the man.
If there is doubt about Thomas’s humor, there is none whatever about his sensibility. It was, indeed, limited in character. He was a soldier and little else, and I find no trace in him of responsiveness to literature or art or even the beauty of nature. Though an industrious reader, his reading was confined to his profession and related subjects. But as a man and a soldier his feelings were of the keenest. The most striking testimony to this is the contemporary observation of Quartermaster Donaldson, writing to his superior Meigs, of a conversation held with the general in January, 1865. ‘ He feels very sore at the rumored intention to relieve him, and the major-generalcy does not cicatrize the wound. You know Thomas is morbidly sensitive, and it cuts him to the heart to think that, it was contemplated to remove him. He does not blame the Secretary, for he said Mr. Stanton was a fair and just man.’
The last sentence is as nobly characteristic as the preceding one. But the sensitiveness was there, and shows repeatedly under the stoical calm, as in the remark just before Nashville: ‘Wilson, they treat me at Washington and at Grant’s headquarters as though I were a boy’; and in the retort to Stanton, when they met after the war was over and the secretary declared that he had always trusted the general: ‘Mr. Stanton, I am sorry to hear you make this statement. I have not been treated as if you had confidence in me.’ Also, the general showed a very human susceptibility in his resentment of the criticism of Schofield.
And as Thomas was sensitive, so he was kindly and tender, though his grave manner sometimes bred the contrary opinion. Sherman even declares that he was too kind for discipline, and that at his headquarters everybody was allowed to do as he liked. This is Sherman’s exaggeration, but Thomas was kind to officers and men: kind, considerate, approachable. The consideration showed in things slight, but eminently significant. For instance, it is said that on the march, if the general was riding hastily to the front, he would take his staff through swamps and thickets and leave the highway to the trudging soldiers. So, after the war, he was equally thoughtful of his old followers and of the enemy. And the proof of this is not only that his followers adored ‘Old Pap,’ but that in spite of excellent grounds for animosity Southerners usually speak of him with more admiration and respect than of almost any other Northern commander.
Nor, in speaking of Thomas’s kindness, should we omit one most important feature of it, his tender regard for animals. Maltreatment of them roused him to fierce indignation, and horses, mules, dogs, cats, and even fowls, looked upon him as their peculiar friend and protector.
I wish I could say something about the general’s more intimate personal relations. But he would have nothing published bearing upon them and it is right, that his reticence should be respected, although I feel sure that the more closely we studied him, the more we should love him. Oddly enough, purely personal material does not often get into the Official Records, yet with Thomas, most secretive of men, we have one of the few documents that seem to speak directly from one heart to another. Among the formal correspondence bearing upon the battle of Nashville we find the following brief dispatch, — hitherto overlooked by the general’s industrious biographers. ‘Mrs. F. L. Thomas, New York Hotel, New York: We have whipped the enemy, taken many prisoners and considerable artillery.’ These are bare and simple words. But when I think who wrote them, who read them, and all they meant, they bring tears to my eyes, at any rate.
So now we understand that this highsouled gentleman, for all his dignity and all his serenity, was neither cold nor stolid, and we are better prepared to understand the startling significance of his brief remark to one who was very close to him: ‘Colonel, I have taken a great deal of pains to educate myself not to feel.’
Truly, a royal and heroic figure and one for all America to be proud of. Is it not indeed an immortal glory for Virginia to have produced the noblest soldier of the Revolution and the noblest that fought on each side in the Civil War? Some day I hope to see her erect a worthy monument to one of the greatest of her sons. But, as she grows every year richer, more prosperous, more fortunate, more loyal in the Union for which he helped to save her, she herself, whether she wills it or not, will more and more become his noblest monument.