Book focuses on Southampton County native’s role in Civil War

Published 10:59 am Wednesday, March 21, 2012


SUFFOLK—George Henry Thomas is not generally well thought of in Western Tidewater.

The Southampton County native fought for the Union during the Civil War. Some would see such an action as treacherous, but Suffolk native and Civil War historian Brian Wills says it was just a sense of duty.

“He was not against the South, but if the South stood up against the Union, that was where they parted company,” Wills said.

Wills was in town earlier this month promoting his latest book, “George Henry Thomas: As True as Steel,” which was released last week. It is available online.

Wills is the director of the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at Kennesaw State University, where he also is a history professor. He acknowledges that some folks in the area still don’t quite take a liking to Gen. Thomas.

“Even though the years have passed, he’s still not looked on with entire favor,” Wills said.

Before the war began, Thomas had graduated from West Point Military Academy and begun working his way up the ranks. Choosing to side with the North was a simple matter of believing in the oath he took, Wills said.

“He got to the point where a decision had to be made,” Wills said. “I think he was very much devoted to the state of Virginia. He was not anti-South.”

It also didn’t hurt that Thomas’ wife was a native New Yorker, Wills added. Though Thomas and his wife maintained until their deaths that she had no influence on his decision, it’s impossible to know whether that’s entirely accurate, he said.

Though now regarded as one of the top five generals of the war, Thomas was not highly thought of even by President Abraham Lincoln. The president once said, “Let the Virginian wait” in reference to Thomas.

“Lincoln and others had strong reservations,” Wills said.

Known as “The Rock of Chickamauga” for his steadfastness in a battle that went badly for the Union, Thomas mainly fought in the western theater, west of the Appalachian Mountains.

But perhaps Thomas’ greatest feat was at Nashville, where he tarried so long in attacking the Confederate army that he was nearly removed from command twice.

For four weeks, Thomas didn’t attack. Officials were on their way to remove him from command when they received the news he finally did.

The result — he nearly wiped out two entire armies and earned another nickname, “The Sledge of Nashville.”

“I do think Thomas deserves to be given his recognition,” Wills said.

He added that it can be fun to play “what-if” history — in this case, wondering what would have happened if Thomas fought for the Confederacy.

But Wills’ book doesn’t do too much of that. Instead, it is an analysis of Thomas’ record that reads like a novel, Wills said.

The book is available at online book retailers such as Amazon.