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George Thomas: Virginian for the Union (Campaigns and Commanders Series, Vol. 13)

by Christopher J. Einolf, University of Oklahoma Press.

Although he was successful and highly respected throughout much of his life, Union General George Thomas was eclipsed in death by heroes such as Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, and he has subsequently been largely overlooked in the annals of the Civil War. Historian Christopher J. Einolf does his best to rectify this imbalance in his new book George Thomas: Virginian for the Union, which, though not filled with surprises, certainly does its subject justice and should rekindle awareness of Thomas’ legacy.

George Thomas is a cradle-to-grave biography of the most conspicuous soldier from a Southern state to remain loyal to the Union during the war. The military aspect of his long and varied life constitutes the majority of the biography, beginning with his studies at West Point, then his decades in the Army—first fighting the Seminoles in Florida, then in the Mexican and Civil Wars—and finally serving as a military regional commander during Reconstruction and later on the Pacific Coast. He served in the artillery, cavalry and infantry branches of the Army, and was recognized for both his strategic and logistical skill.

This is not another typical soldier’s biography dominated by military af – fairs, however. The book’s theme is its subject’s character, the effects of which shaped not only Thomas’ fighting skills but also his relations with people as well as his career as an Army officer, his strong Unionism and rejection of rebellion and his feelings about blacks and slavery.

As Einolf, a visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University of Richmond, states in his introduction: “I am trying to correct a long-standing imbalance in Civil War historical writing, which has emphasized purely military history at the expense of the political and social issues that surrounded the fighting….George H. Thomas’s story allows us to see how choice, social context, and contingency interact in the life of an individual.”

Despite Thomas’ atypical Southern Unionism, his transformation from Southern slaveholder to antislavery radical and his seemingly impressive military career, his life story is neither interesting nor particularly inspiring. Thomas was often described by contemporaries as modest and restrained, slow and passive. Unfortunately so is his biography. At many parts of the book, one wonders exactly why Thomas’ life seems worth examining in the first place. Aside from the battles of Chickamauga and Nashville, Thomas’ Civil War career was—just as he was—modest and somewhat dull. His misguided and egregious sense of honor and duty made him a taciturn man and resulted in his rejecting promotions—and thereby derailed his military career. It also made him a slow and conservative leader.

Einolf does an admirable job of analyzing Thomas’ career, especially considering what he had to work with. His source materials are impressive, but, unfortunately for Einolf, he had practically nothing about Thomas’ personal life to use. Thomas did not write a memoir like so many other generals did; he ordered destroyed all his private papers after his death; and his family members refused to talk about him, some because of his well-known desire for privacy, and some because as Southerners they had basically disowned him due to his perceived treachery to the South. That Einolf was able to make the book this readable is a worthy accomplishment.

In the end, George Thomas: Virginian for the Union is a good book, but it isn’t great. It cannot overcome the dullness of its subject and get readers deeply invested in Thomas’ life. Perhaps Einolf should have placed his final chapter, “Thomas in Historical Memory,” at the front of the book— and perhaps it should be read first—to ensure that readers care about Thomas as a historical subject and better understand the author’s reasons for admiring the general and wanting to share his life with the reading public.


Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.