|Published with Permission by:
||Thomaston is about 2 miles east of Newsoms,
VA and near the N.C.
border in the Virginia tidewater region.
Leave I-95 at Emporia, VA, take US-58 east 23 miles, turn south on VA-35, then left on Grays Shop Rd. into Newsoms. From there, head east toward Franklin on General Thomas Hwy. (Hwy. 671) for 2 miles. Turn left onto Cypress Bridge Rd. (Hwy. 674), then turn left immediately onto Thomaston Rd. Thomaston is a white private home at 2837 Chickamauga Dr. and is indicated by an historical marker.
|Front view of Thomaston.
The original part where Thomas was born, is behind.
||Front view showing 300 year old oak
tree on left. An acorn was the symbol
Thomas chose for his favored XIV Corps.
|| Back view of house. When Thomas was born the
house only had 3 rooms (the part surrounded by the blue line). The other
parts were added later.
The monument in the Thomas family graveyard next to Thomaston
The 4th side is blank and therefore not shown here. The other 3 sides show the names of the Thomas parents (John and Elizabeth, né Rochelle), and 7 of the 9 children. George is buried in Troy, NY, and Benjamin is buried in Vicksburg where he lived before and after the war. According to Wilbur Thomas (General George H. Thomas, pg. 48), "John William was the eldest child; Judith Elvira, the second; Benjamin, the third; and George Henry, the subject of this work, the fourth. Unfortunately, the remaining children cannot be placed in their order of birth." His source were the Mattie R. Tyler Papers in the Southampton County Courthouse. However, since the children on the one side of the monument are arranged in order of birth, it is reasonable to assume that the stonemason had received instructions. The complete order would thus be as follows:
1. John William
2. Judith Elvira (died 1903)
3. Benjamin (1814-1876), buried in Vicksburg, Miss.
4. George Henry (born 31 July 1816, died in San Francisco 28 March 1870 , buried in Troy, NY)
6. Francis G. (Fanny, died 1902)
7. Lucy Briggs (né Thomas)
|Plaque located in front of
||Plaque on Highway 58 between Courtland
||The Rochelle house in
Courtland, home of Thomas' mother
||Interior view of the Rochelle house
with well-kept period furnishings|
|View of the Courtland County courthouse
||The courthouse as it looked when Thomas
read law there, from a painting in the Rochelle house. Nat
Turner was tried here.
||The Southampton County
Historical Society maintains a display in the
courthouse. In the case are books and publications about the county. The
portrait is of Colgate Darden, Jr. (governor of
Virginia 1942-46), who was a champion of Thomas.
|| Display case in courthouse with
According to Earasmus Darwin Keyes,
Thomas' superior at Ft. Lauderdale in 1832: "There is a moral
in the life and services of Thomas. He was strictly conscientious, he loved
Virginia, and his affections for the South were strong. He was warm also to the
According to Thomas Buell:
"When the Tennessee campaign ended, Thomas had performed the
unsurpassed masterpiece of theater command and control of the Civil War. So
modern in concept, so sweeping in scope, it would become a model for strategic
maneuver in twentieth-century warfare."2
Today, 142 years after Virginia seceded from the Union on 17 July 1861 and
then Col. George H. Thomas of Southampton County did not follow his state, but
rather his oath, he is still a controversial figure among those who remember
him. He is largely overlooked in popular presentations of the Civil War, and
utterly ignored in our nation’s middle- and high-school history textbooks. He
might get a paragraph in a college textbook. This is the case in spite of his
having been the most successful general on either side. He never lost an
engagement where he really commanded. In short, he was the rock of a lot of
places besides Chickamauga, where on 20 Sept. 1863 he rallied 25,000 Union
soldiers to hold off 60,000 Confederates long enough to permit the Union army to
make an ordered retreat, or advance according to some commentators, to the real
objective of the battle - Chattanooga. At Murfreesboro (31 Dec. 1862) his
presence at the center was absolutely decisive in staving off Bragg’s
attack,3 and nobody but Thomas could have parried Hood’s attack at
Peachtree Creek (20 Aug. 1864). This was the real battle of Atlanta, downgraded
by Sherman in his own interest4 to Hood’s “first sortie.” In
addition, Thomas was more like a hammer, and a heavy one at that, at Mill
Springs, the first major Union victory of the war (19 Jan. 1862), at Tullahoma
(22-29 June 1863) where, under Thomas, the Spencer repeating rifle was first
used on a large scale, at the decisive battle of Chattanooga (23-25 Nov.
1864)5 where he managed the battle behind Grant's back and saved
Grant's career, and at Nashville (15-16 Dec. 1864) where he was both hammer and
anvil.6 To learn more about these battles go to my Battles and Reports page. He achieved
these successes by dint of decades of hard work and study. While other officers
out on the frontier gambled, drank, tried to grow potatoes, and messed with the
cash box, Thomas conducted botanical, zoological, and topographical studies and
composed a first dictionary of the language of the Yuma Indians. While sitting
on court martial boards he became an expert in military law. From the smallest
skirmish with Indians to the battle of Buena Vista he drew his conclusions about
the principles of engagement. During the Civil War he embraced the latest
technologies while applying timeless military principles – train your men well
and take care of them, do your best to make your opponent attack you, by all
means know more than your opponent, and pierce the center only after at least
one of the flanks has been turned. He also gave a good example to his men by
never taking a single day of leave during the entire war, and by sharing their
dangers. He introduced battlefield procedures which today are part of standard
military doctrine. While still training cavalry troops in Carlisle, PA, before
the first battle of Bull Run, he wrote a memorandum to Winfield Scott outlining
his strategy for winning the war – Cut the Confederacy in two by driving through
East Tennessee on Chattanooga.7 It took him 2 ½ years along a
different route, but when nobody else could or would do it, he did it himself.
As it turned out, this was the strategy which broke the stalemate in Virginia.
Perhaps most significantly, wherever he commanded, even at the battle of
Nashville, the rate of casualties was relatively low - on both sides. His
object was not to annihilate an enemy, but rather to disorganize an opponent. To
learn more about his accomplishments, go to my Salient Facts page.
His record earned him little credit from some Union generals like Grant who feared Thomas as a rival for top command, and toward the end of the war Grant, not one of whose battles bears close inspection,8 began a campaign to diminish Thomas’ reputation which he pursued as long as he lived. After he died, Grant’s biographers continued in this vein and shaped the historiography of the Civil War with the results described above. It is true that Thomas' uncommon ability was recognized and appreciated by many people in high places in and outside of Washington during the war, but nevertheless his promotions came slowly. One reason for this was his lack of a state political machine to watch over his fortunes. He'd left that behind when he opted for the Union. But let us be charitable toward the politicians. Commissions to high rank were scarce, and the horde aspiring thereto was huge. In their mostly undocumented back-room discussions they may well have said, "Let the Virginian wait. He will do his duty and get the job done anyway."
If you follow the currents of the internecine political battles fought on both sides, Grant’s behavior was predictable and even understandable. Every war tosses up desperate adventurers. The concomitant rejection of Thomas by most Southerners, and by some Southern students of the Civil War even today, is equally understandable, but the reasons for it are perhaps more complex. The obvious assertion that Thomas betrayed his “country”, i.e. the State of Virginia, falls short when we consider that other prominent Virginians like Gen. Winfield Scott and Admiral David Farragut also opted for the Union, without becoming the objects of the denigration or even vilification to which Thomas was subjected. While Scott's stout unionism was a comfort to Northerners, and Farragut's war contributions were stellar, someone else in their position would have done much the same thing. What really rankled the Southerners in Thomas' case was the fact that he was irreplaceable.9
Today much of the heated discussion of the past has been replaced with a
calmer assessment of Thomas, but at the very center of this assessment, Thomas’
home area – Southampton County – there is still a strong ambivalence toward its
most prominent native son. This ambivalence can be explained by several factors,
perhaps the first of which was the ambivalence of Southampton County itself to
the whole question of secession. In fact, according to a local resident, in the
vote (among property owners of course) to ratify secession, Southampton County
split in half. The half of the county in which Thomas grew up was decidedly
against secession, so Thomas wasn’t really acting against the sentiments of many
of his neighbors.
There were no typical plantations in this part of Virginia because its widespread swamps precluded large-scale agriculture. For example, the Thomas family holding at around 500 acres and 15 slaves was one of the larger units in the county. Therefore the interest of many Southampton County residents diverged from that of most members of Virginia's ruling political class.
There is also reason to believe that he acted less against the sentiments of his family than is commonly asserted:
1) After the war Thomas demonstrably maintained amicable relations with his brother Benjamin, and there is no proof that there had ever been a rupture. When some lost-cause members of the new Tennessee legislature proposed to sell a portrait of Thomas hanging in the state capitol building, Benjamin tried to buy it.10 In 1869, before leaving from Nashville for his final duty station in California, Thomas sent a former slave (whom he had acquired for his wife when stationed in Texas before the war, left at Thomaston during the war, and brought to Nashville at the end of the war), along with her family, to Benjamin’s care in Vicksburg where he lived at the time.11
2) The stories about Judith and Fanny, the last surviving sisters, according to which they kept George’s portrait turned to the wall, considered him to have died when he abandoned Virginia, and so forth, are probably exaggerated. Dr. W.D. Barham, Judith’s physician, reported that the sisters were mortified by such rumors, and that they felt more sorrowful than angered at their brother’s decision. According to the physician, the sisters also sent acorns from the enormous oak tree (see photo above) in front of their house in order to be planted around Thomas’ equestrian statue at Thomas Circle in Washington, DC.12
The county as a whole, or even the South, might have rejected the idea of secession if a person named Nat Turner hadn’t burned the question of slavery into the people’s minds when he began his insurrection on 21 Aug. 1831, during which he and the band of other disaffected slaves he had gathered up killed 55 whites – men, women, and children. Claiming to have received divine inspiration, he began his campaign, the largest one of its kind in U.S. history, within just a few miles of the Thomas family farm. Some slaves joined Turner, others fought against him. Thomas’ mother led her family to safety in Courtland and was helped to do so by some of her own slaves, according to local tradition. Thomas was 15 years old at the time, and as he later reflected on his experience fleeing along Cypress Bridge Road through Mill Swamp, he came to a different conclusion than did many of his countrymen. This terrifying episode was implanted so forcefully into the collective memories of the people of that area, that even today it is a standard topic of discussion and memorialized in road signs (Blackhead Signpost Road, Greenhead Road, etc.).13
Fear is a poison which can exercise its force on a body politic for decades and even centuries after the original cause of that fear has been overcome or even forgotten. Since most people tend to overestimate their own “freedom of choice” and to discount the long-term effects of such determining influences, they find themselves in quandary when asked by a disinterested observer about what really motivates them to take certain stances in political and social disputes.
With time, however, some people slowly begin to question the accepted certainties of the past. For example, recently a Southhampton County resident, touching on the insurrection without any prompting from me, said, “Nat Turner was a fanatic. But considering that he was a slave, it’s hard to hold it against him.” Nobody was more aware of the enormity of what he had done than Turner himself. The trackless Great Dismal Swamp beckoned a mere 30 miles away, but after the carnage he hid near home for 70 days, and then gave himself up to trial and gallows. Under the frustration of a lifetime of not being taken seriously he had snapped and set in motion a process which snuffed out the lives of 55 people who were also trapped in that unfortunately contrived social system, along with the lives of the insurrectionists and of other blacks simply found off their farms at the wrong time. Cursed be the lot of the slave, and well as that of the master.
For whatever reason, since the end of the Civl War, a debate about Thomas has been carried out among the residents of Southampton County. He has had his local champions, such as Colgate Darden, Jr., governor of Virginia 1942-46 (see portrait above). Plaques have been erected and dedicated with public ceremony, a road has been named after him (General Thomas Highway). Money has been collected in order to refurbish Thomas’ gravesite in Troy, NY. Efforts were even made to have his body brought back to Virginia for reburial. Occasionally a tourbus finds its way to Thomaston. On the other hand, Thomas’ ceremonial sword, given to him by Southampton County notables in recognition of his performances in Florida and in the Mexican War, remains in a Richmond museum. Another of his swords (some ordinary duty sword or the Mill Springs sword?) remains locked up in a vault in Franklin, no portrait of Thomas hangs in a public place,14 no center devoted to his study has been established, no school has been named after him, and no statue of him stares out over the Nottaway River from the park beside the courthouse.
In his Memoirs Sherman predicted that large numbers of Southerners would someday be making pilgrimages to Virginia to honor Thomas’ memory. That has not taken place, at least not to the extent he perhaps envisioned, but it can be argued that something more subtle has taken place. In a speech given 14 years after the war Gen. Irvin McDowell said:
"Is it not, indeed, an immortal glory for Virginia to have produced the noblest soldier of the Revolution and the noblest that fought for the North in the Civil War, as well as the noblest that fought for the South? I hope some day 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 proudest monument."15
Toward the end of the war Grant asked Thomas about the best route for one of his armies to take through Virginia. Although the most direct way would have been through Southampton County, Thomas recommended another. After the war Thomas arranged that the army should deliver supplies to the county, and took no credit for the act. The man who protected Southhampton Country from afar, said this about the conduct of Union soldiers when in enemy territory:
"We must remember that this is a civil war, fought to preserve the Union that is based on brotherly love and patriotic belief in the one nation. It is bad enough for us to demand that love of a restored Union at the point of the bayonet, but we can justify ourselves by claiming what we do is from a sense of duty. The thing becomes horribly grotesque, however, when from ugly feeling we visit on helpless old men, women, and children the horrors of a barbarous war. We must be as considerate and kind as possible, or we will find that in destroying the rebels we have destroyed the Union."16From this exposition it should already be clear that Thomas deserves more consideration than he gets from most Virginians and many Southhampton County residents. But there are still other considerations.
17. Piatt, pg. 502.
16. "General George H. Thomas, the Indomitable Warrior," 1963. pg.
309. Many observers shared this opinion. From many I cite this statement by gen.
Edward Alexander, Longstreet's chief of artillery: "Had our cause succeeded,
divergent interests must soon have further separated the States into groups, and
this continent would have been given over to divided nationalities, each weak
and unable to command foreign credit" ("Military Memoirs of a
18. Wilbur Thomas, pg. 604; Richard O'Connor, "Thomas, Rock of
Chickamauga," 1948, pg. 195, and others.
Writings from and about Southampton County:
Bessie Thomas Shands, “General George H. Thomas,” Southampton Historical Society Bulletin, No.4, 1980
Dan Balfour, “Franklin & Southampton in the Civil War,” 2002, ISBN 1561901504
Dan Balfour, “A sketch of the Life of General George H. Thomas,” Southampton Historical Society Bulletin, No. 5, March 1983
Daniel W. Crofts, “Old Southampton – Politics and Society in a Virginia City,” 1992, ISBN 08139138353
Berryville, VA is located off I-81 just east of Winchester in northern Virginia. Thanks are owed to the Civil War Society of Berryville for making this gesture to bring Thomas home.