US Army Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas' journey from enslaver to Union officer to civil rights defender

Christopher Justin Einolf, Associate Professor of Sociology, Northern Illinois University, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

As Southern states tear down Confederate statues and the military removes the names of Confederate generals from bases, the issue of how to remember the Civil War is increasingly prominent.

Are white Southerners condemned to think of themselves as the bad guys, the ones who were willing to destroy the Union to preserve slavery? Or are there other types of heritage in which they can take pride?

Growing up in Virginia in the 1970s, I was taught that Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were heroes who fought to defend their native state from Northern aggression.

As an adult, I read more widely about the Civil War and became fascinated with Union Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas, who grew up in Virginia but joined the Union army. I’m a sociology scholar today. But, as a student of historical sociology, I researched and wrote a biography of Thomas to understand his decision.

While most people talk of the Civil War in terms of the North versus the South, in reality the conflict was between secessionists, who favored leaving the United States, and Unionists, who wanted to keep the country together. While most Southerners favored secession, there were many Southern Unionists.

Hundreds of thousands of African American Southerners supported the Union by escaping slavery and serving in the Union army. But there were thousands of white Southerners who also supported the Union. George H. Thomas, known to history as “the Rock of Chickamauga,” is the most prominent of them.


Born in Southampton, Virginia, in 1816 to a wealthy family of enslavers, Thomas entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point when he was 20 years old and became a career military officer. He served during U.S. conflicts with Native Americans and with distinction in the Mexican-American War, which ended in 1848.

When the Civil War broke out, nearly all the Southern career officers left the U.S. Army to serve in the Confederacy. But, as his adjutant and first biographer wrote in “The Life of Major-General George H. Thomas,” Thomas viewed his oath as an army officer to defend the Constitution as more binding than his feelings of loyalty to his native state.

During the Civil War, Thomas first commanded a cavalry brigade in an attack of Virginia. He rose through the ranks to command a division, then a corps and, finally, an army.

After winning a battle at Mill Springs, Kentucky, in 1862, he served in the campaigns to capture Nashville, Chattanooga and Atlanta.


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