Most possibly, you have not heard about the life and deeds of General George Henry Thomas. But you might have read his nickname somewhere. And that is a powerful one if ever there was, being “The Rock of Chickamauga”.
Thomas was some kind of hero, then, or he surely would not had earned such a sobriquet. And we have notice of many a general who has been elevated to the heroic category, so what is the problem with Thomas? If you are not interested in the American Civil War you may well not heard about him in your life, while you are to know some other general’s name even if you are not familiar to their times or circumstances. That is because, as almost in any other aspect of History, there are always secondary actors forgotten by the majority of us. Even such a hero( for some; categorising someone as a hero is always tricky, at the least) or at least a military genius as Bonaparte depended strongly on his Marechals, and he had to thank Louis Nicholas Davout, perhaps the best of them, for the victory at Jena-Auerstadt which stands as one of the most resounding in Napoleon’s career. So, why is this hero hidden from our eyes?
There are some characteristics in Thomas that make him not a fancy-full hero. He tried to keep away from politics; in fact he went as far as to reject his promotion to the rank of lieutenant-general because he had a hint that it was going to be a step to take him to the position of General in Chief. Had he had the desire of meddling in the political environment of the Reconstruction period, as, for instance, Grant was eager to do, he surely had accepted the offering. He kept protecting freedmen from white abuses and even protected African-American population from the Ku-Klux-Klan after the war was over, in contrast with many a Union officer who thought it was not worthy spilling white blood for them. Even, on the contrary that many top brass along History, he had no desire for posterity: he even destroyed his private papers saying he did not want “his life hawked in print for the eyes of the curious”[http://www.flickr.com/photos/bootbearwdc/215402201/]. We must consider this in the view of the somewhat amazing profusion of memoirs published after the war by its main (or not so) characters. In addition, Thomas decided to remain loyal to his country as a whole and not to his place of birth, what in a Civil War always requires a very strong sense of duty and some deep-rooted determination.
But, above all, what surfaces from a close view of Thomas’ life is ethics, not always freely available on the military. His well-earned nickname came from a rearguard action in a battle badly fought, worse managed by the Commander of the army, and thus lost . But a defeat could rapidly turn to a complete rout, and that kind of thing is known to have changed the course of many a war…General Thomas, the suspected pro-southerner on the eve of the war, the man called “Slow trot” by his very own cadets, made a choice. He decided, having received orders to retreat, better to keep his corps’s position in order to secure the orderly retreat of the whole army, gathering scattered units on Horseshoe Ridge, and thus probably saving the future of the Army of the Cumberland as an operative unit. That was a truly ethical choice, at the moment, considering he had his Commander’s order to get back, but pondering that, in doing so, he was merely trading his safety and that of his men for the life of too many others.
That is, I think, the kind of choice one expects from heroes. Yes, a hero must do heroic things, like winning and defeating enemies. But a real hero makes the difficult choice in the darkest hour, and keeps on doing it against all circumstances, despite glory, covers in the magazines, or posterity claims. In doing what he did at Chickamauga, Thomas showed he was made of the blood of heroes. In what he did after the war, he showed that a hero is sometimes silent, discreet, and diligent to the task entrusted, regardless of the seeming importance of it. While many others fought a war and then forget the whys, as victors, Thomas kept on fighting to assure some of the achievements that had such a toll for his fellow countrymen: end of slavery, democracy, independence of the institutions. In the meantime, most of his countrymen were going in the opposite direction, consenting on segregation, tampering with Presidential elections and forgetting to protect the weak and the poor.
It is tough to be a hero. To be an ethical hero, more so coming from the military, is an outstanding achievement, even if all you did was your work, with dedication, loyalty and a non compromising attitude towards what must be done. Now, obviously, there is no grand Thomas Memorial, no epic tombstone, even no great memories except for those familiar with the American Civil War. I guess, wherever he might be, General George Henry Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga, must be very pleased with that.