Brian Steel Wills speaks to the
Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia
"Warriors to the End: George Thomas and
Nathan Bedford Forrest"
Nathan Bedford Forrest"
on December 9, 2014
at the Fort McNair Officers' Club in Washington D.C.
Questions and answers follow the presentation.
A copy of the PowerPoint to his presentation is available at http://files.cwrtdc.org/WillsPP12-9-2014.pdf
About The Topic: Our December speaker, Brian Steel Wills, Ph.D. is the biographer of George Henry Thomas and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Both were Southerners. Thomas was born in Virginia and Forrest was born in Tennessee. One would side with the North and become its “Rock of Chickamauga.” The other would choose the South and become its “Wizard of the Saddle.” Wills will lead us in exploring the lives and careers of these two Civil War generals.
George Henry Thomas was born in Southampton County, Virginia in 1816 to a prosperous, slave holding family. In fact, he would grow up to own them himself. In 1836, he entered West Point and, while there, he roomed with and became friends with another future Union general, William T. Sherman. After graduation in 1840, he would enter the U.S. Army and Thomas would live and die a United States soldier. Between West Point and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, he served in various commands and fought in the Mexican War. In 1851, Thomas was assigned duty as an artillery and cavalry instructor at West Point where he became close with Robert E. Lee. He was posted in Texas with the Second U.S. Cavalry when the war began and Thomas would choose to remain with the Union. That decision has always been a subject of speculation from the moment he made it on down to today.
Thomas’ antebellum career was a distinguished one, and he was one of a very few officers with field experience in infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Despite that record and casting his lot with the Union cause, many people in the North viewed Thomas with a jaundiced eye due to his Southern birth. President Lincoln himself would have to be convinced of his value. Thomas’ choice alienated him from his family, who never spoke to him again, and his friends, who branded him “a Virginia renegade.” Thomas was a meticulous professional soldier and those deliberate ways would give rise to whispers of being slow when ordered to act. That resurrected his old, and less glorious, nickname from his days as an instructor at West Point, “Old Slow Trot.” But, Thomas always put his duty above his personal feelings and Sherman would remark to Henry Halleck in a September 1864 that “George Thomas, you know, is slow, but as true as steel.”
First Bull Run would find Thomas in the Shenandoah Valley, but shortly thereafter he would be reassigned to Kentucky and all of his subsequent assignments would keep him in the Western Theater. In 1862, as commander of a division in the Army of the Ohio under Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, he arrived at Shiloh on the second day and too late to engage in the fighting. He went on to lead the siege of Corinth. When concerns about Buell arose, Thomas was offered command of the Army of Ohio, but he refused and continued to serve as Buell’s second in the battle of Perryville and through the rest of 1862.
When Buell was replaced by Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans, Thomas commanded a wing in the renamed Army of the Cumberland and participated in the battle of Stones River, where he put in an impressive performance. However, he is best known for his stand in September 1863 at the battle of Chickamauga. That stand earned him his nom de guerre, “Rock of Chickamauga.” He would assume command of the Army of the Cumberland just before the battle at Chattanooga and his troops would be the ones to storm the Confederate line at Missionary Ridge. Thomas would join Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign in the spring of 1864 and would strike a major blow against Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood’s Confederates at the battle of Peachtree Creek.
When Hood broke away from Atlanta and Sherman began his March to the Sea, Thomas was dispatched to deal with Hood. Racing to beat Hood to Nashville, Thomas would win a victory at Franklin and at the battle of Nashville in December 1864. Thomas’ victories would essentially destroy Hood’s army. This won him a promotion to major general and a new nickname, "The Sledge of Nashville.” Nevertheless, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had become concerned about Thomas’ lack of aggression even before he was dispatched to deal with John Bell Hood in the autumn of 1864. When Thomas did not move swiftly to destroy Hood post-Nashville, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and Grant broke up his command. Thomas was left to wait for further orders. As a result, the battle of Nashville effectively ended his direct participation in the fighting.
Thomas moved into the post-war Reconstruction period as commander of the Military District of the Cumberland. President Andrew Johnson offered him a promotion to lieutenant general with a plant to make Thomas general of the armies when Grant was elected to the presidency. Thomas refused and requested a transfer to the Military District of the Pacific. He was sent to California in 1869 and he would die there in 1870, suffering a fatal stroke while responding to an attack on his career by his military rival, John Schofield. Never having written his own account of his service during the Civil War, Thomas’ legacy would fall into the hands of others who had their own agendas and reputations to secure. A deeply private man, Thomas left little behind for researchers and he seldom discussed his personal feelings or motivations in the correspondence that does remain.
Our speaker’s other subject, Nathan Bedford Forrest, is regarded as one of the most exciting, colorful, and controversial figures of the Civil War. He was a renowned cavalryman who perfected a ruthless hit-and-run style of guerrilla warfare. Forrest terrified Union soldiers and earned the begrudging respect of William T. Sherman, who described him as "that Devil, Forrest . . . the most remarkable man our Civil War produced on either side."
Nathan Bedford Forrest was born in Chapel Hill, Tennessee where, at the age of sixteen, he became responsible for his family following the death of his father. With only six months of formal education, Forrest rose from semi-subsistence farmer to planter. He gained substantial property and wealth, mostly from the slave trade. When Tennessee seceded, Forrest enlisted as a private in the Tennessee Cavalry but shortly afterward, Tennessee’s governor authorized him to raise a regiment of mounted troops. Mostly at his own expense, Forrest recruited and equipped his command, and they experienced their first major combat in December 1861 in Kentucky. There Forrest demonstrated the common sense tactics and close-hand fighting that would characterize his military career.
He established his reputation for boldness in 1862 when he led his men out of Fort Donelson rather than surrender. He went on to fight at Shiloh and won promotion to brigadier general after a daring raid against the Union outpost at Murfreesboro in July 1862. Forrest would spend the war raiding and destroying Union supplies, hindering their communications capabilities, and disabling miles of railroad track and trestlework to cripple Union supply lines. Forrest’s efforts were so successful that they stymied Grant’s initial operations against Vicksburg and, in 1863, halted Union raids in northern Alabama. He ended 1863 with Gen. Braxton Bragg’s army and participated in the Confederate win at Chickamauga. In the aftermath, he futilely urged Bragg to pursue the beaten Federals and would then bitterly denounce Bragg and seek a transfer when Bragg refused to do it.
Forrest went on to independent command in Mississippi and received promotion to major general in December 1863. In early 1864, he concentrated his efforts on raids against Federal communications and supply lines in Tennessee. In April, his capture of Fort Pillow resulted in the wanton killing of its Union troops by his command; 64 percent of the dead were U.S. Colored Troops. This led it to being labeled the "Fort Pillow Massacre,” which would plague Forrest for the remainder of his life.
Forrest continued to harass Union forces in Mississippi, and led a raid on Memphis that resulted in another Union retreat. He spent the early autumn of 1864 raiding in northern Alabama and Middle Tennessee until he joined General John Bell Hood in the disastrous Tennessee campaign of November and December. Forrest's rearguard action during Hood’s retreat from Nashville unquestionably spared the remains of the Army of Tennessee from total annihilation. Returning to Mississippi, Forrest was promoted to lieutenant general in February 1865 and given command of the cavalry in the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana. As the war drew to a close, he failed to prevent the capture of Selma, and he finally surrendered his command at Gainesville, Alabama, in May 1865.
After the war, Forrest struggled to regain his financial status via several business ventures, but he was never able to duplicate his pre-war financial success. Though he expressed a desire to remain out of the limelight, Forrest was soon the first Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan. In the 1870s, his health started to fail and he died in Memphis on October 29, 1877. His reputation during and after the war did not suffer as Thomas’ did. Instead, Forrest is regarded as one of the greatest cavalry generals of the Civil War and a commander who understood that "War means fighting and fighting means killing."
Join us as our speaker, Brian Steel Wills, delves into the lives and legacies of these two fascinating commanders--both Southerners, but one went North and the other South and on to very different historical legacies.
About Our Speaker: Brian Steel Wills, Ph.D. is the Director of the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era and Professor of History at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia. He also spent a long tenure at the University of Virginia's College at Wise.
He is the author of numerous works relating to the American Civil War, including a new volume - The River Was Dyed with Blood: Nathan Bedford Forrest and Fort Pillow. His other titles include: A Battle From the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest which was reprinted as: The Confederacy's Greatest Cavalryman: Nathan Bedford Forrest. This work was chosen as both a History Book Club selection and a Book of the Month Club selection.
Dr. Wills also authored, The War in Southeastern Virginia, released in October, 2001, and No Ordinary College: A History of The University of Virginia's College at Wise, (2004), both by the University Press of Virginia. Gone with the Glory: The Civil War in Cinema appeared in 2006. An updated edition of the James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., Civil War Sites in Virginia (Virginia, 2011) arrived just in time for the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. In 2012 and 2013, Brian authored George Henry Thomas: As True as Steel and Confederate General William Dorsey Pender: The Hope of Glory.
In 2000, Dr. Wills received the Outstanding Faculty Award from the Commonwealth of Virginia, one of eleven recipients from all faculty members at public and private institutions across the state. He was named Kenneth Asbury Professor of History, and won both the Teaching award and the Research and Publication award from UVA-Wise
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