Jim Lamare,71,knows. He lives in a retirement community on the circle and is an elected member of the advisory neighborhood commission where the statue of Gen. George H. Thomas sits. The statue is less than a mile from the White House. But it’s just far enough away from major attractions on the Mall that tourists not staying at a hotel on Thomas Circle may miss it. Even Washington events marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War focus on more well-known generals such as Ulysses S. Grant or James B. McPherson.
Lamare thinks more visitors should ask about that bronze soldier on horseback.
“Like all statues in D.C.,they have a story to tell if anyone wants to do the work and learn what the statue represents,” Lamare said.
Thomas’ story is slightly different from those commemorated in the 17 other Civil War Monuments in the capital. A southern slave owner who helped lead the Union to victory,Thomas left behind a civil rights legacy.
Although he was one of the top three generals of the Union Army,along with Grant and William T. Sherman,Thomas isn’t as well known,perhaps because “he’s not the one to grab the flag,jump on a horse and charge forward,” About.com Military History Expert Ken Hickman said.
“He’s not terribly flashy relative to some of his peers,” Hickman said. “He was very much a thinker,very deliberate and organized.”
Thomas was a Virginian facing a difficult decision before the Civil War: Union or Confederacy? Fellow Virginian and Army Gen. Robert E. Lee chose the Confederacy,but Thomas chose the Union.
Educated at West Point,Thomas served in the Mexican War and taught at West Point and the Virginia Military Institute. He was on leave after injuring his back when he was offered the position of chief of ordnance in the Virginia State Militia in March 1861,before Virginia seceded from the Union.
He declined,writing,“It is not my wish to leave the Service of the United States,as long as it is honorable for me to remain in it.”
A month later,the Union Army called Thomas into service. Although Thomas’ wife was from New York,which influenced his decision,his family and his homeland were in Southampton County,Va.,on the North Carolina border. His brothers and sisters refused to speak with him,and Hickman said it’s reported that they turned Thomas’ picture toward the wall and destroyed his belongings.
“A lot of these folks had been in the military over the majority of their lives such that they had a loyalty more to service than to any given location,” Hickman said.
Thomas,known as the “Rock of Chickamauga” after preventing a decisive Confederate victory in the second bloodiest battle of the war near Chattanooga,Tenn.,advocated after the war for African American rights.
Like many Southerners of the time,Thomas’ family owned slaves. When he was a teenager,his family fled during the Nat Turner rebellion when a group of slaves killed people in an uprising. This incident likely reaffirmed Thomas’ opinion of African Americans as inferior,said Christopher Einolf,the author of the award-winning biography “George Thomas: Virginian for the Union.”
Initially,Thomas was not eager to use African American soldiers in the fight against the Confederacy and assigned them lesser tasks. He changed his mind when he saw them fight bravely at the Battle of Nashville while other soldiers retreated.
“He thought,‘If they’re good soldiers,they’re real men and deserve to be citizens,” Einolf said.
“The whole story is this change of heart on race,” Einolf said.
Despite a record of public support for civil rights,it’s difficult for historians to determine why. Thomas never wrote a memoir (as Grant did) and destroyed his personal papers before his death,so there is no written record of his opinion on slavery.
“He was not one who after the war wanted to refight battles in print,” Hickman said.
Nine years after Thomas’ death in 1870 at age 53,the Society of the Army of the Cumberland erected the statue. Ohio Senator Stanley Matthews gave an address at the unveiling.
“George H. Thomas was something more and better than merely a soldier. He was a patriot,” Matthews said.
Lamare looks at that statue almost fourteen decades later and said Thomas’ life is a “microcosm” of the issues of the Civil War.
“Americans need to be reminded of our history every once in a while,” Lamare said.
Reach Reporter Kate Winkle at [email protected] or 202-326-9865. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.