In an era of glory seekers, George H. Thomas put steadfast devotion to duty, perseverance, methodical professionalism, courage, and loyalty above all else. His Virginia birth cost him the rapid promotion to independent command he deserved even as his absolute devotion to the Union cost him his relationship with his Southern family. Deliberate in manner, partly by his nature and partly because of a back injury sustained before the war, his West Point cavalry students nicknamed him “Slow Trot Thomas,” which underscored his methodical approach to combat. This was sometimes confused with uncertainty and delay, even by superiors, such as U. S. Grant, who should have known better. Possessed of a solid tactical and strategic grasp, he was sure and determined in both attack and defense. Unflappable and fearless, his refusal to yield at Chickamauga saved the Union army from disaster there and earned him a far more laudatory sobriquet: the “Rock of Chickamauga.” Ezra J. Warner, long deemed an authority on Civil War biography, judged his combat performance unsurpassed “by any subordinate commander in this nation’s history.”

Just before dawn on August 22, 1831, Nat Turner, fiery lay preacher and slave, led what slaveholding Southerners termed a “servile insurrection,” a fierce rampage that resulted in sixty murders and sent waves of terror throughout the South. It started at the home of Turner’s master, Joseph Travis, in Southampton County, Virginia, as Turner and his cohorts killed every white member of the Travis household. Fanning out into the county, they killed every white person who happened to cross their path. As they swept through the region, more slaves joined in a campaign of mayhem that lasted until the next morning. Among those who fled before Turner and his fellow slaves were fifteen-year-old George Henry Thomas, his sisters, and their widowed mother, all of whom cowered in the woods until the danger had passed.

When the Civil War began in April 1861, the majority of U.S. Army officers were Southerners, most of whom summarily resigned their commissions to join the Confederate forces. If any son of the South would have been assumed to count himself among this number, it was George Thomas, raised on a plantation and nearly the victim of a slave rebellion. For his family, the matter of allegiance was never in question. As with Robert E. Lee and so many others, Virginia, not the United States, was their “country,” and they were shocked when Major George Thomas, U.S. Army, turned down Virginia governor John Letcher’s offer on March 12, 1861, of a post as chief of ordnance in the Virginia Provisional Army. When Southern states had begun to secede in 1860, Thomas was at first ambivalent about his loyalty, but when war actually came, however, Thomas’s Northern-born wife explained that “whichever way he turned the matter over in his mind, his oath of allegiance to his government always came uppermost.”

Once Thomas fully realized his commitment to his oath, he was a rock—that word would come to characterize him—and one of the most tenacious and effective combat leaders in the war. The price he paid was terrible. His family disowned him during the war and refused to reconcile with him after it.


He was born the fifth of nine children at Newsom’s Depot, Southampton County, Virginia, just five miles from the North Carolina line. His father, John, was a prosperous and ambitious planter, who worked alongside his three male children and twenty-four slaves to farm his 685 acres. When George was just thirteen, John Thomas died in a farm accident, leaving his large family in straitened circumstances. Despite this and the terror of Nat Turner’s Rebellion, it was said that young George knowingly broke Virginia law by teaching his family’s slaves to read (some historians dismiss this as a legend unfounded in fact).

George Thomas had never intended to follow in his father’s footsteps as a planter. Educated at a local academy, he went to work in the law office of his Uncle James Rochelle. In the end, however, like Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Joseph Hooker, young men of good families with limited funds, George Thomas found both a means of present sustenance and future career in the United States Military Academy at West Point. In 1836 Congressman John Y. Mason secured his appointment to the Class of 1840. When a grateful Thomas made a special trip to Washington to thank the congressman, he was met by a stern warning: “If you should fail to graduate, I never want to see your face again.” It seems that every other young man from Southampton County Mason had appointed to the academy had failed miserably.

The congressman’s ultimatum would prove to be but the first of many do-or-die military assignments George Thomas would accept.

At twenty when he enrolled, Thomas was sufficiently mature in age and manner to merit the nickname “Old Tom,” and he cultivated friendships with classmates William T. Sherman, Philip Sheridan, William Rosecrans, Don Carlos Buell, Joseph Hooker, and U. S. Grant as well as future Confederate officers Daniel Harvey Hill, Braxton Bragg, and William Hardee. Far from letting Congressman Mason down, he earned a promotion to cadet officer in his second year and performed well enough to come in twelfth in a class of forty-two when he graduated in 1840. This respectable showing was not sufficiently stellar to get him into the engineers—reserved for the very highest achievers—but it did secure him a second lieutenant’s commission in Company D, 3rd U.S. Artillery.


His first posting was to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, late in 1840 during the Second Seminole War. The mission of the 3rd U.S. Artillery was the same as that of the other army units assigned to Florida: hunt down and round up recalcitrant Seminoles and Creeks and set them marching west to Indian Territory pursuant to the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Since cannon were of no use in this mission carried out in tangled, swampy terrain, Second Lieutenant Thomas led infantry patrols, doing so with sufficient success to merit a brevet promotion to first lieutenant on November 6, 1841.

In 1842, he was transferred to New Orleans, and by 1845 served at Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor and Fort McHenry in Baltimore. As war with Mexico began to look inevitable, the 3rd U.S. Artillery was ordered to Texas in June 1845. Thomas was in command of gun crews at the Battles of Fort Brown (May 3–9, 1846), Resaca de la Palma (May 9, 1846), Monterrey (September 21–24, 1846), and Buena Vista (February 22–23, 1847). General Zachary Taylor himself praised “the services of the light artillery” at Buena Vista, and Brigadier General John E. Wool singled out Thomas, without whom “we would not have maintained our position a single hour.” The commander of Thomas’s battery described his “coolness and firmness,” calling “Lieutenant Thomas . . . an accurate and scientific artillerist.” Coolness, firmness, “scientific” accuracy, all these were qualities Thomas would display in one Civil War battle after another. But his heroism at Monterrey was even more predictive of his later combat style. In this urban battlefield, he positioned a cannon in a narrow alley to blast a Mexican barricade. Before long, snipers began picking off his gun crew, whereupon Thomas was ordered to withdraw. He lingered long enough, however, to get off another shot, which repulsed a Mexican infantry charge. Then, instead of abandoning the gun, he and his surviving crew members pulled it out of the alley. Captain Braxton Bragg, with whom Thomas served in Mexico and against whom he would fight in the Civil War, wrote that “no officer of the army has been so long in the field without relief” and characterized his service as “arduous, faithful, and brilliant.” Courage and sheer endurance under fire: These were the fighting hallmarks of George Henry Thomas.


Breveted in Mexico from first lieutenant to captain and from captain to major, he was reassigned in 1849 to duty in Florida. Bragg recommended Thomas for a post as an artillery instructor at West Point, but it was filled by another officer senior to him. When that officer died in 1851, the position became his, and Thomas was additionally assigned as an instructor in cavalry. At the time, Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, a fellow Virginian, was the academy superintendent, and the two developed a close professional relationship and personal friendship. Among Thomas’s star pupils in cavalry were J. E. B. Stuart and the superintendent’s nephew Fitzhugh Lee, both of whom would become celebrated Confederate cavalry commanders.

While teaching at West Point, Thomas married Frances Lucretia Kellogg, of Troy, New York (November 17, 1852), and was gratified by promotion to regular army captain on December 24, 1853, which carried with it a sorely needed bump in pay.

In the spring of 1854, Thomas left West Point to rejoin his artillery regiment, which was transferred to California. Captain Thomas was put in charge of transporting two companies to San Francisco via ship to the Isthmus of Panama, overland across the stifling and disease-ridden isthmus, then, via another ship, to San Francisco, from which the units embarked on an overland march to Fort Yuma, California, across the Colorado River from Yuma, Arizona.

In 1855, Franklin Pierce’s secretary of war, the future Confederate president Jefferson Davis, formed the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. Historians have long speculated that Davis, believing that civil war was imminent, purposely staffed the new regiment with top-notch officers who were also strongly identified with the South, hoping to create, in effect, a ready-made elite unit for a projected Southern army. Braxton Bragg personally recommended the promotion of Thomas to major and his assignment to the new unit. Presumably, he based his recommendation both on Thomas’s impressive military record and on his identity as an old-line Virginian. Thomas was the third-ranking officer in the regiment, which was commanded by Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, with Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee as his second in command. Two years later, in October 1857, with Johnston and Lee performing other duties, Major Thomas became acting commander of the regiment and continued as such for two and a half years.

The 2nd was stationed in Texas, where clashes with local Indians were frequent. At Clear Fork, on the Brazos River, Major Thomas was wounded by a Comanche arrow in a skirmish on August 26, 1860. The arrow passed through the fleshy part of his chin and lodged in his chest. He responded by pulling itout himself and then summoning the surgeon, who made a hasty field dressing, after which the major resumed his place at the head of the patrol.

Although he had been in the thick of battle in Mexico and would again be so during the Civil War, the arrow shot was the only combat wound Thomas ever received. However, in November 1860, during a leave of absence in which he journeyed back to Virginia to see his family, he suffered a freak accident at Lynchburg, when he fell from a train-station platform. He injured his back so severely that he thought he would have to close his military career; he recovered but was doomed to suffer from nearly debilitating back pain for the rest of his life.

His injury was not his only concern on this trip. As the nation hurtled toward dissolution, he agonized over reconciling his loyalty to the U.S. Army and the government it served with his Virginia birth and the sentiments of his Virginia family. He must have known that this could be the last time he would visit his siblings. After staying with them, he boarded a northbound train, intending to visit his wife’s family in Troy. He made it a point, however, to stop over in Washington, so that he could inform General-in-Chief Winfield Scott that Major General David E. Twiggs, in command of the Department of Texas, was a secessionist whose allegiance to the U.S. Army could not be relied upon. Clearly, Thomas was preparing to choose the Union over the Confederacy.


Despite the information he gave Scott, many in the U.S. government and the army doubted Thomas’s loyalty. It is true that as late as January 18, 1861, three months before Fort Sumter, Thomas applied for the post of superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), yet he also turned down Governor Letcher’s offer in March to become ordnance chief of the Virginia Provisional Army. When Virginia seceded on April 17, 1861, days after the fall of Fort Sumter, Thomas made his absolute decision to fight for the Union. With ritual solemnity, his sisters turned his portrait to the wall and burned every letter he had ever written to them. His West Point cavalry pupil J. E. B. Stuart was equally unsparing in his condemnation, writing to his wife on June 18 that he “would like to hang, hang him as a traitor to his native state.”

Of the thirty-six officers of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, nineteen, including Johnston, Lee, and Hardee—resigned their commissions to join the Confederate army, a circumstance that catapulted Thomas through a rapid series of promotions, to regular army lieutenant colonel on April 25 (replacing Lee) and colonel on May 3 (replacing Johnston) and to brigadier general of volunteers on August 17.


Even before he was officially promoted to brigadier general, Thomas led a brigade under Major General Robert Patterson in the Shenandoah Valley during the First Bull Run Campaign but was immediately thereafter transferred to the Western Theater. In Kentucky, he reported to Major General Robert Anderson, who assigned him to train the raw recruits who had answered President Lincoln’s call for short-term volunteers. Soon after this, on December 2, 1861, he was assigned independent command of a group of five understrength brigades consolidated as the First Division of Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio.

On January 19, 1862, Thomas led four brigades—4,400 men—of the First Division in its first battle, against 5,900 Confederates led by George B. Crittenden at Mill Springs, Kentucky. Thomas achieved a quick victory with few casualties (39 killed, 207 wounded), which blunted the Confederate threat from east Tennessee and sent a thrill of elation through a Union public whose morale had been sorely tested by Bull Run and the other defeats that followed. It was the first significant Union victory of the war.

In what would become something of a pattern in the war, Thomas received remarkably little credit for his achievement while four colonels under him were elevated to brigadier general. It is likely that, despite his superb performance, higher command, Lincoln included, still distrusted the Virginian. Nevertheless, he was sent with his division to Shiloh, to reinforce Grant at that nearly disastrous battle, but arrived on April 7, just as the second day’s combat had come to an end.

Although he had missed the battle, he benefited from the reorganization of the Department of the Mississippi that Henry Wager Halleck engineered to squeeze Grant (whose losses at Shiloh unnerved Halleck) out of field command. The department’s three armies were juggled and transformed into three “wings.” Seeing to it that Thomas was promoted to major general of volunteers, Halleck assigned him to command right wing, which consisted of four divisions of what had been Grant’s Army of the Tennessee plus one division from the Army of the Ohio. William T. Sherman became Thomas’s subordinate, and neither he nor Grant ever fully forgave Thomas for what they regarded as his usurpation of their rightful authority.

With Grant out of the way, Halleck assumed field command of some 120,000 men. The center was under Buell’s command, the left under that of Major General John Pope, and the right led by Thomas. Major General John McClernand commanded the reserve. Under Halleck’s sluggish leadership and hampered by the mediocrity of Buell, Pope, and McClernand, Thomas could do very little. Halleck’s massive forces arrived at Corinth only after the Confederates had withdrawn, making the occupation of this town a hollow victory. Lincoln kicked Halleck upstairs by naming him general-in-chief of the Union armies, replacing George B. McClellan, and, with his departure, Thomas was made acting commander of the Army of the Tennessee at Corinth until June 10, when Grant was restored to field command. Turning Corinth and the army over to Grant, Thomas led his First Division to link up with the Army of the Ohio under Buell, who had direct orders from Lincoln to advance against Chattanooga and Knoxville.

Buell proved to be in the Western Theater what McClellan was in the East: supremely reluctant to go on the offensive. General-in-Chief Halleck offered command of the Army of the Ohio to Thomas, who, unwilling to behave in any manner that seemed disloyal to Buell, a longtime friend and comrade-in-arms, refused the promotion. He served as Buell’s second in command at the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, on October 8, 1862, a bloody contest in which Buell was poised to annihilate Braxton Bragg’s army but was unable to coordinate the disparate units of his sixteen-thousand-man force. Thomas did not engage until mid-afternoon, by which time the critical moment had passed and Bragg was preparing to slip away. In the end, Buell garnered some credit in the popular press for driving Bragg out of Kentucky (though he had taken substantially heavier casualties than Bragg), credit he generously shared with Thomas. Halleck and Lincoln didn’t see Buell as victorious, however, and he was relieved. This time, when Thomas’s name again came up as his replacement, Lincoln countered with that of William Rosecrans. The president acknowledged that Thomas had shown himself to be aggressive—which was precisely the kind of commander he always clamored for—but he was a Virginian, and Lincoln was reluctant to replace the Virginian Buell with the Virginian Thomas. Besides, Rosecrans was Catholic, which, Lincoln believed, would be helpful in generating support for the war among Catholics, especially such immigrant groups as the Irish. Thus the president sacrificed the very military quality he had missed in McClellan and Buell—a willingness to fight—in order to achieve certain political ends.




Having declined command of the Army of the Ohio when it had been offered him the first time, Thomas was angry at being passed over the second time. This fact said much about his character and sense of justice. Buell was his senior, and so he considered it wrong—disloyal and unseemly—to take a command away from him. By the same token, Rosecrans was his junior and therefore should not have been offered the command. A forthright man, Thomas brought this up with Rosecrans and requested a transfer. Rosecrans responded by asking for Thomas’s help. Put this way, Thomas found that he could not refuse. Rosecrans offered him a range of commands. Thomas chose to lead the center corps.

When Lincoln and Halleck pressed Rosecrans to attack Bragg at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Thomas advised Rosecrans not to hurry. While Thomas was aggressive, he was also highly methodical and believed that careful preparation was an indispensable key to victory. As long as Rosecrans did not feel fully prepared to launch the offensive, Thomas advised resisting the pressure from Washington.

But if Rosecrans wasn’t ready for a fight, Bragg was. On December 31, 1862, he attacked Rosecrans’s right flank at Stones River, achieving total surprise as the Union soldiers were busy preparing breakfast. Union retreat was orderly, but relentless. At the end of the first day, Rosecrans met with his generals to decide whether to continue the fight tomorrow or withdraw now. When he asked Thomas, “General, what have you to say?” the reply was stark and calm: “Gentlemen, I know of no better place to die than right here.” The words put spine into Rosecrans, who dismissed his commanders with, “We must fight or die.”

And fight and die many did. On both sides, casualties were stunning. Of 43,400 Union troops engaged, 13,249 became casualties, killed, wounded, captured, or missing; on the Confederate side, the number was 10,266 out of 37,712: casualty rates of 30 and 27 percent respectively—the highest of any major engagement in the war. In the end, it was Bragg who retired from the field, thereby putting the victory in the Union column, though nothing, really, was decided by the horrific battle.


Because Rosecrans had achieved so little at the bloody Battle of Stones River, by the early spring of 1863, President Lincoln was making noises about relieving him. “Old Rosy” heard him and reluctantly bestirred himself to bottle up Bragg in Tennessee so as to prevent his troops from reinforcing Vicksburg, to which Grant was laying siege.

Rosecrans relied heavily on Thomas to lead a series of brilliant feints and deceptions, executed during seventeen miserable days of driving rain, which positioned his troops behind Bragg’s right flank near Tullahoma, Tennessee. On July 4, Bragg, outnumbered, withdrew from Tullahoma and fell back on Chattanooga, which is precisely where Rosecrans wanted him. However, without reinforcements, Rosecrans decided not to risk a frontal assault but instead recommenced maneuvering, with Thomas leading a stunning surprise crossing of the Tennessee River thirty miles west of Chattanooga and then marching through a series of gaps in Lookout Mountain, the long ridge south-southwest of Chattanooga, to sever the Western and Atlantic Railroad, Bragg’s supply and communications artery to Atlanta. By cutting this, Rosecrans and Thomas gave Bragg no choice other than to evacuate Chattanooga—which he did, without firing a shot.

Buoyed by his remarkable victory at Chattanooga, Rosecrans, so reluctant to start his campaign, now didn’t want to stop. Thomas counseled him to rest and consolidate his forces at Chattanooga before marching on. Instead, he kept going after Bragg, his three worn-out corps becoming separated from one another in the heavily forested mountain passes. In the meantime, Bragg halted at LaFayette, Georgia, twenty-five miles south of Chattanooga, where he took on substantial reinforcements. Thus fortified, Bragg positioned his men for a counterattack at Chickamauga Creek, Georgia, a dozen miles south of Chattanooga.

On September 18, the night before the battle, both commanders shifted and moved troops. In the dense woods, neither side knew the other’s position. Even worse, none of the commanders on either side was fully aware of the disposition of his own troops. With daybreak on September 19, Thomas ordered a reconnaissance near Lee and Gordon’s Mill, a local landmark on Chickamauga Creek. These troops, led by Brigadier General John Brannan, encountered and drove back the dismounted cavalry of Nathan Bedford Forrest. He, in turn, called on nearby Confederate infantry units for help, and with this an all-out battle exploded, with every division of the three Union corps engaged. At the end of a terribly bloody day, neither army had gained an advantage.


On the night of September 19, both sides worked feverishly to improve their positions, but while the Union men dug in, James Longstreet’s two divisions arrived to further reinforce Bragg, who, at 9:00 on Sunday morning, September 20, attacked. The Federals held their own for some two hours, but Rosecrans, befuddled by the terrain, lacked an accurate picture of how his units were deployed. By mid-morning, he decided that it was urgently necessary to plug a gap in his right flank and therefore ordered troops from what he believed was his left to plug the gap in the right. But there was no gap. Even worse, thinking he was moving troops from the left to the right, he actually moved them out of the right flank, thereby creating the very gap he had meant to close. Longstreet saw this and launched an attack at the newly opened gap, shattering two Union divisions and driving the Union right onto its left.

Rosecrans and two of his corps commanders, Thomas Leonidas Crittenden (brother of the Confederate general George B. Crittenden) and Alexander McDowell McCook, unable to rally their routed forces, believed a total collapse was inevitable and therefore joined a chaotic retreat to Chattanooga.

George Henry Thomas did not run.

Instead, he rallied units under Brigadier General Thomas John Wood and Brigadier General John Brannan, using them to block Longstreet on the south. Because Bragg had made an all-out attack, holding nothing in reserve, he was unable to exploit Longstreet’s initial breakthrough. In the meantime, Union general Gordon Granger, grasping the significance of Thomas’s bold action, violated his own orders to remain in place to protect the Union army’s flank. Instead, he rushed two brigades to reinforce Thomas, who held the field until nightfall, thereby saving the Army of the Cumberland from annihilation, even in the absence of its commanding officer. For this, he would be hailed as the “Rock of Chickamauga,” a sobriquet bestowed on him by Brigadier General James Garfield.

Thanks to Thomas, the Battle of Chickamauga became a Pyrrhic victory for Braxton Bragg. Although he had driven Rosecrans from the field, his losses exceeded those of the Union: 18,454 killed, wounded, captured, or missing versus 16,170 for the Union. Having achieved a tactical victory, Bragg could not exploit his gains to claim a strategically decisive triumph.


After Chickamauga, the Army of the Cumberland fell back on Chattanooga, whereupon Bragg deployed his forces in the surrounding mountains and laid siege, seeking to starve the Union out. The desperate situation suddenly riveted Washington’s focus on this theater of the war, and two corps were detached from George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac and sent west by rail under Joe Hooker. They were transferred from the banks of eastern Virginia’s Rappahannock River to Bridgeport, Alabama, arriving on October 2. In the meantime, William T. Sherman led part of the Union’s Army of the Tennessee east from Memphis, and Ulysses S. Grant was given command of almost all military operations west of the Alleghenies.

During this time, Lincoln and his Cabinet discussed the removal of Rosecrans as commander of the Army of the Cumberland. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles both agreed that George H. Thomas should replace him, but Lincoln at first hesitated to promote a Virginian. He delayed his decision for nearly a month, until October 19, 1863. Grant’s first telegram to the new army commander was to “hold Chattanooga at all hazards.” The Rock of Chickamauga replied: “We will hold the town till we starve.”

While Union forces prepared to break the siege of Chattanooga, Grant set up the celebrated “Cracker Line” to funnel food and other supplies to the bottled-up Army of the Cumberland. On November 23, Hooker and Sherman commenced the battle for Chattanooga, and on the afternoon of November 25, Grant ordered Thomas to lead the Army of the Cumberland forward from the city to take the Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge south of Chattanooga and east of Lookout Mountain. Grant’s intention was to apply sufficient pressure on Bragg to force him to pull back troops from Sherman’s front on Missionary Ridge; this, he hoped, would allow Sherman to break through. Grant knew the Army of the Cumberland had endured a long, debilitating siege, and he assigned to them a relatively modest mission. But precisely because they had been immobilized for so long, they performed like men who had something to prove. The Army of the Cumberland not only captured the rifle pits as assigned, they kept going, without orders from Grant or from Thomas, charging up the slope of Missionary Ridge and sweeping everything before them. Astoundingly, the soldiers of the Army of the Cumberland broke Bragg’s line exactly where it was the strongest, sending the Confederates into retreat. Gordon Granger, commanding officer of the unit that had so exceeded its orders, exclaimed to an assembly of his men, “You ought to be court-martialed, every man of you. I ordered you to take the rifle pits, and you scaled the mountain!” According to a correspondent who witnessed this exchange, Granger’s “cheeks were wet with tears as honest as the blood that reddened all the route.”


In February 1864, Sherman took charge of three armies: the Ohio, the Tennessee, and the Army of the Cumberland, under Thomas. If he rankled at being subordinated to Sherman, his junior, Thomas did not let on, but he did frequently disagree with Sherman over basic tactics. While Thomas favored making a simultaneous flanking and frontal attack against the Confederate Army of Tennessee (now under Joseph E. Johnston, who had replaced Bragg), in an effort to finish it off once and for all, Sherman wanted to pursue that army toward Atlanta, and so the march to the outskirts of Atlanta consumed 113 days. In this advance, Thomas’s sixty thousand men of the Army of the Cumberland constituted more than half of Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign force.

En route to Atlanta, Thomas fought numerous engagements. Sherman relied on Thomas’s own staff officers to carry out logistics for the entire advance. Thomas played an especially central role in the Battle of Peachtree Creek (July 20, 1864), offering another rocklike stand, against which Lieutenant General John Bell Hood, who had replaced Johnston as commanding officer of the Army of Tennessee, battered fruitlessly, absorbing heavy casualties. Thanks to Thomas’s steadfast work at Peachtree Creek, Hood was unable to break Sherman’s siege of Atlanta.


In the fall of 1864, Grant agreed to allow Sherman to embark on his March to the Sea. Leaving a portion of his armies to garrison Atlanta, Sherman therefore turned away from Hood and advanced on Savannah, sending Thomas with thirty-five thousand men of the Army of the Cumberland west to deal with Hood.

Thomas raced the Confederate general to Nashville, Tennessee, where he would link up with other Union forces in the region. Reaching the city early in November, Thomas made preparations to stand against and defeat the combined forces of Hood and Nathan Bedford Forrest. In the meantime, the XXIII Corps of Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio found itself backed into a vulnerable position at Spring Hill, Tennessee, on November 29. Hood, however, failed to envelop Schofield, who was able to continue his withdrawal toward Thomas. Schofield took up a position at Franklin, and on November 30, Hood, frustrated and impulsive as ever, ordered an ill-advised frontal assault on Schofield. Of some 27,000 men under his command, Hood lost 6,252 killed, wounded, missing or captured, against 2,326 casualties he inflicted on Schofield. The Battle of Franklin won, Schofield continued his withdrawal to Nashville, where he linked up with Thomas. With XXIII Corps attached to it, the Army of the Cumberland now outnumbered Hood nearly two to one.

Grant and others in Union high command understood this. What they could not understand was why, with such a clear numerical advantage, Thomas delayed counterattacking Hood. What Grant perceived as delay, however, was actually a key aspect of Thomas’s tactical style. In sharp contrast with the likes of Hood, he was methodical—perhaps to a fault. As Thomas saw the situation, he was in complete control in and around Nashville. So he took the time he felt necessary to set up a decisive battle.

Back in Virginia, Grant became alarmed and feared that Thomas would allow Hood to slip away. He therefore cut an order relieving Thomas of command but had not yet transmitted it when, on December 15 and 16, Thomas finally attacked. Deploying about fifty-five thousand men against Hood’s thirty thousand, he inflicted some six thousand casualties, killed, wounded, captured, or missing, neutralizing the Confederate Army of Tennessee as a fighting force for the rest of the war and thus accomplishing Sherman’s original mission. The “Rock of Chickamauga” now became known as the “Sledge of Nashville.”


Both Secretary of War Stanton and William Tecumseh Sherman sent congratulatory telegrams to Thomas; however, Grant was still oddly dissatisfied with his performance, complaining to Sherman of “a sluggishness” in his pursuit of the defeated Hood after Nashville, which, Grant told Sherman, “satisfied me [that Thomas] would never do to conduct one of your campaigns.” Nevertheless, Stanton wired the news to Thomas that he had been promoted from major general of volunteers to major general in the regular army. Despite this, Thomas felt considerable bitterness toward Grant, whose conduct toward him he considered unwarranted and mean-spirited.

Thomas’s pursuit of Hood ended on December 29, 1864, when Hood was replaced by the very man he had earlier replaced, Joseph E. Johnston. By this point, the Army of Tennessee had been so reduced that it was no longer worth harrying, and Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland engaged in no more major battles before the force was dispersed on May 9, 1865.

In the aftermath of the war and through 1869, Thomas was assigned command of the Department of the Cumberland in Kentucky and Tennessee, with occasional additional command responsibilities in West Virginia and portions of Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. This general whose loyalty had been frequently called into question because of his Virginia roots, proved to be an enthusiastic exponent of Reconstruction, acting vigorously to provide protection to freedmen who were menaced by the abuses of white Southern officials and others, including the recently founded Ku Klux Klan.

In 1868, President Andrew Johnson, facing impeachment, sent Thomas’s name to the Senate for promotion to brevet lieutenant general. His intention, clearly, was to position Thomas to replace Grant as general-in-chief, doubtless in a bid to impede Grant’s looming presidential candidacy. Whatever personal resentment Thomas may still have harbored toward Grant, he requested that his name be withdrawn from Senate consideration. It was, he said, a matter of military loyalty, which he was unwilling to sacrifice to politics.

Having taken himself out of consideration to succeed Grant as America’s top soldier, Thomas requested and received command of the Division of the Pacific in 1869. He succumbed to a stroke early the following year, on March 28, 1870, in his headquarters at the Presidio of San Francisco. It was said that, at the time of his collapse, he had been composing a response to a critical article published by John Schofield, who had served under him in Tennessee but had always seen himself as a rival. Burial was at Oakwood Cemetery, in his wife’s hometown of Troy, New York; his body was not welcome in Virginia. None of his Virginia family came north to attend the funeral, his sisters reportedly explaining to their neighbors that “our brother George died to us in 1861.”


Lee’s Legion

Charles Lee’s description was typically hyperbolic, but it is nonetheless true that as a flamboyant boy-soldier, Henry Lee appeared every inch the beau sabreur. Dashing and gallant as he looked, however, Lee was a much more complicated figure. He earned fame as an orator and wrote a celebrated history of the Revolutionary War. He reached the pinnacle of glory by age 25, but failure, disgrace, and depression that are the stuff of great tragedy marked his subsequent life. Descended from Virginia’s illustrious line of Lees, he was born at the family estate of Leesylvania, overlooking the Potomac near the town of Dumfries, on January 29, 1756. As the scion of a clan prominent in the colony’s affairs for over a century, young Henry was bred to command. He excelled at horsemanship from an early age and a series of tutors ensured that he gained a solid grounding in the classics, as well as in fencing and handling firearms. Well-to-do southern aristocrats typically sent their sons north to be educated; accordingly, at 14 Henry matriculated to the College of New Jersey in Princeton, where his fellow students included James Madison and Aaron Burr. There he became “Harry” to his intimates and read Greek, Latin, philosophy, and history. Upon completing this curriculum, Lee planned to pursue a legal career that-again following the day’s custom-would have taken him to London for further studies and an apprenticeship when hostilities broke out between the American colonies and the mother country.

Harry’s older cousin Richard Henry Lee ranked as one of the principal movers for independence in the Continental Congress and most others among the extensive Lee “cousinry” also supported this course, so perhaps inevitably Harry adopted it too. Family connections quickly gained him a commission in a cavalry regiment commanded by one of his innumerable relatives in high places. In the summer of 1776 Captain Lee, by now grown into a blue-eyed and fair-skinned young man of slight build and medium height, began recruiting and training his own troop of light dragoons. Initially the regiment remained in Virginia on guard against a British seaborne incursion or an Indian uprising along the western frontier. By early 1777, however, the unit had joined Washington’s army in New Jersey.

Lee’s troop acted in an independent capacity-foraging, scouting, and gathering intelligence. Here Lee enrolled in the harsh school of war, or what he more grandiloquently called “the study of Mars.” Though daring, he was not reckless and he developed his trademark battlefield habit of prudent risk taking. He was a strict disciplinarian, but a miser with his men’s lives and solicitous of their welfare. They responded accordingly. While other units melted away through desertion or refusal to reenlist, almost to a man Lee’s troopers elected to stay with him when their original terms expired. Their fancy uniforms-purchased in part by their commander-were soon in tatters, but their appearance was that of a hardened, veteran corps d’elite. Along with his performance and impeccable manners, his family’s close connections with Washington made Lee one of the commander in chief’s favorite junior officers. While spared much direct combat, he participated in the 1777 Pennsylvania campaign. At Brandywine he served for the first time under Nathanael Greene, with whom in the south he would later win his greatest fame. After Philadelphia fell to the British in late September, Lee scourged enemy supply lines in two directions by assailing their eastward connections to New York City and southern communications with the Chesapeake. During one of these forays, he and Washington’s senior aide, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, experienced a near brush with death when a British patrol stumbled upon them. Both barely escaped; as Lee later wrote, “Thus did fortune smile upon these two young soldiers, already united in friendship, which ceased only with life.” And at Germantown Lee’s troop had the honor of accompanying Washington as his personal bodyguard.

The army went into its winter quarters at Valley Forge at the end of 1777. Lee understatedly commented on this ordeal that “the hardy character of the troops did not degenerate by feminine indulgences.” Meanwhile, he continued to torment the British, gathering much-needed supplies for the hungry patriots in the process. Lee’s activities so plagued the British that they spied out Lee’s bivouac, about 6 miles southeast of the main encampment at Valley Forge, and on the night of January 19, 1778, secretly launched a large mounted expedition intended to kill or capture the troublesome dragoon. The next morning’s fight at Scott’s Farm made Lee famous throughout the army and turned him into something of a national hero as well. Surprised and heavily outnumbered, Lee and a few of his men barricaded themselves in the main house. He then resorted to the type of clever ruse that characterized his combat career. After repelling several assaults, Lee encouraged his men by loudly shouting that supporting infantry were on the way to rescue them. This spooked his assailants, already chagrinned at their inability to break into the strongpoint, and they fled the scene. Washington praised Lee in an order of the day and newspapers throughout the country soon picked up-and embellished-the story.

Besides renown, more tangible results accrued from this gallant episode. Washington, who had long kept his eye on Lee, offered him the post of personal aide de camp. This prestigious billet not only promised intimacy with the great man himself, but also included a double promotion to lieutenant colonel. Nevertheless, Lee’s great ambition ran in a direction different from access to patronage and rank. In a delicately worded declination, Lee told Washington that he was “wedded to my sword” and that his object was the military reputation that could only be won in the field and not on the staff. Washington, far from being put off at Lee’s refusal, persuaded Congress to award him a major’s commission. Further, Congress augmented Lee’s troop with additional cavalry units and established it as an independent partisan force that operated at Washington’s personal direction. In endorsing this action, the commander in chief praised Lee’s “exemplary zeal, prudence and bravery” and declared “Capt. Lee’s genius particularly adapts him to a command of this nature.”

Lee’s hard-riding new outfit rapidly added to his already formidable reputation with its comprehensive intelligence collection, successful skirmishing, and slashing raids. It was during this period that he acquired the nickname “LightHorse Harry.” To his personal mortification, Lee was on detached service and missed the battle of Monmouth Court House in June 1778. Afterward he wrote his friend, Brigadier General Anthony Wayne, that “the name Monmouth reproached me to the very soul.” Little more than a year later, Lee’s cavalry furnished an invaluable service to Wayne by its thorough reconnaissance of the British outpost at Stony Point on the Hudson just below West Point. His detailed information about the works and British dispositions were instrumental to Wayne’s success in taking the place by storm in the predawn hours of July 16, 1779, with his light infantry corps.

Lee’s own coup de main and his most famous exploit in the northern theater occurred the next month. By this time, the war there had settled into a stalemate with the main British force of 10,000 or so occupying New York City and outlying points, and Washington’s army arrayed in an arc above it, anchored on West Point and the surrounding Hudson highlands. Washington, while guarding the line of the Hudson and hoping ultimately to drive the British out of Manhattan, eagerly sought low-cost ways to strike the enemy. Wayne’s assault on Stony Point was one such limited operation. Washington’s desires and Lee’s ambition to emulate Wayne’s success combined to set the stage for another surprise blow against an isolated British outpost.

Lee had minutely surveiled Paulus Hook, New Jersey-site of present-day Jersey City-a narrow, sandy spit of land projecting into the Hudson directly opposite Manhattan, about a mile and a half away. Approximately 200 redcoats, Hessians, and Loyalists manned the site, which was well protected by natural obstacles that included a salt marsh and a creek. Additionally, the British had constructed a tidal moat, a wall, and several redoubts. Lee recommended this place as a raid target. Although at first concerned that an attack there might be too dangerous, Washington eventually acceded to Lee’s proposal and reinforced him with several companies of Virginia and Maryland infantry.

Lee’s plan had to account for complex time-distance factors as well as light and tide data. On the morning of August 18, 1779, he assembled 400 men, including dismounted elements of his partisan cavalry, at Paramus, New Jersey, some 22 miles north of the objective. He intended to march this force so as to reach Paulus Hook under cover of darkness, assault before high tide-which would make the surrounding waterways well-nigh unfordable for both his assault and withdrawal-and make his getaway before first light at 4:00 a. m. Boats would be waiting 2 miles to the west of the objective at Bergen to ferry the retiring raiders across the Hackensack River, helping shield them from pursuers on the return march north. Unsurprisingly to anyone who has practiced or studied the art of war, friction imposed itself as the operation unspooled. A wrong turn in the dark caused the column to get lost en route, costing valuable hours while exhausting and frustrating the troops. Further, just as the patriots were occupying their assault position 500 yards from the objective, Lee discovered that a company of his Virginia infantry had somehow straggled and gotten separated from the force. It was now well after high tide and dangerously close to dawn. Lee sent a subaltern forward to see if the creek and moat were at all passable. When answered in the affirmative, Lee gave the word to advance.

The men slogged forward with unprimed muskets to avoid alarming the garrison by the premature discharge of a weapon. In the event, wading through the moat’s chest-deep water fouled everyone’s powder, so that the bayonet became by necessity the tool of choice for the work at hand. The Americans gained complete surprise and were upon the enemy before they could mount much of a defense. Dozens of stunned redcoats surrendered; Lee ultimately made off with 158 prisoners. He had intended to burn the barracks and other buildings, but discarded this plan when he learned that soldiers’ families and other camp followers occupied them. Approaching dawn, signs of enemy activity across the river in Manhattan, and unyielding resistance from a platoon of Hessians in one of the redoubts compelled Lee to give the withdrawal signal after less than half an hour on the objective. All went smoothly until Lee reached the Hackensack River and the fortunes of battle played their final trick. The expected boats were no where in sight; since the operation was so far behind schedule, the officer responsible for the craft assumed that it had been cancelled. Lee’s men thus had to retrace their long, original route north with all the attendant dangers of enemy pursuit. Indeed, at mid-morning they skirmished with a redcoat patrol, but fortunately had reunited with the previously lost Virginians, whose dry powder enabled them to drive off the enemy. Tired, but justly elated, Lee’s raiders reentered friendly lines having suffered only a handful of casualties in return for pulling off a brilliant feat of arms.

Lee’s immediate included hearty congratulations from Washington, Greene, and Knox among others-and a court-martial. Lee’s success attracted envy as well as admiration within the army and his privileged position as a favorite of the commanding general, as well as his perceived arrogance, earned him further enmity from some quarters. Shortly after Paulus Hook, Wayne had warned him, “be well guarded my friend … there are not a few, who would not feel much pain on a small Disaster happening to either you or me.” This underlying resentment impelled a handful of officers to demand a court-martial to determine whether Lee had exceeded his authority at Paulus Hook by improperly superseding others on the expedition who were senior to him by date of rank. Other charges included that he had behaved inappropriately by not burning the barracks and by retreating too precipitately. Washington had no choice but to sanction the proceeding. Lee was, by turns, bemused and outraged as the mill of military justice ground on. Eventually, a board presided over by none other than General Wayne found him innocent on all counts, specifically noting that while several other officers involved were senior to Lee, Washington had personally entrusted him with the overall command. Congress, which had figuratively held its breath until the verdict was in, then bestowed a special gold medal upon Lee, one of just eight it awarded to Continental Army officers during the war and the only one given to an officer below the rank of general.

Through another long year Lee continued to act as Washington’s eyes and ears in the no man’s land between New York and the Hudson highlands. In addition to traditional cavalry patrolling, Lee also operated an espionage network for the commander in chief, running agents in and out of British lines. The most spectacular covert operation occurred immediately after Benedict Arnold’s treason in September 1780. Resembling something out an eighteenth-century spy thriller, at Washington’s order Lee sent a handpicked volunteer-a noncommissioned officer pretending to be a deserter-over to the British with the mission of getting close enough to the recently defected Arnold to kidnap and bring him back to the American side. Although the plan miscarried due to bad luck-the sergeant, however, eventually made it safely back to American lines, albeit empty handed- it illustrates the sort of derring-do that Lee loved and excelled at.

In November 1780 Lee received a promotion to lieutenant colonel and three infantry companies reinforced his cavalry. This mixed unit became known as Lee’s Legion. Its commander personally designed their fancy uniforms of dark green tunics and white breeches, topped by plumed helmets. Meanwhile, Nathanael Greene had been chosen by Washington to recover patriot fortunes in the southern department and he desperately required high-quality Continental troops to assist him. Washington could not spare many men, but he did send him Lee’s mobile and hard-hitting new command. Lee reported to Greene at Cheraw, South Carolina on January 13, 1781, with 280 troopers and was almost immediately dispatched farther south to bolster Francis Marion’s partisans. After some misadventures in locating the peripatetic Swamp Fox’s lair, Lee tracked him down and the two raided the British garrison at Georgetown. Lee later recalled that the operation “although conceived with ingenuity, and executed with precision, was too refined and complicated for success.” Nevertheless, it served as a dress rehearsal for future triumphant collaborations between the two leaders. As Marion appreciatively wrote to Greene, “Col. Lee’s Interprizing Genius promises much.” For the instant, however, Daniel Morgan’s stunning triumph over the British at Cowpens had stirred Lord Cornwallis, the royal commander in the south, to vow the American army’s destruction and Lee was ordered back to join Greene.

Lee caught up to him at Guilford Court House, North Carolina, on February 7. Cornwallis was only 25 miles away and Greene considered making a stand, but his subordinates, including Lee, dissuaded him. Instead, Greene decided to make for the Dan River and cross into Virginia to refit his tattered army. He gave command of the all-important rearguard to Colonel Otho Williams, whose assignment was to delay Cornwallis long enough to permit the American main body to escape. The key element in Williams’s 700-man task force was Lee’s Legion. Williams and Lee accomplished their mission initially by luring the British toward fords on the upper Dan when, in fact, Greene intended to cross by ferry farther downstream. Initially duped, Cornwallis discovered this stratagem on February 13, changed course, and was soon nipping at the rearguard’s heels. That morning Lee engaged one of Tarleton’s detachments in a vicious scrimmage that left 18 enemy dragoons dead. This clash also revealed the rage of which Lee was capable. His 14-year-old bugler-“a beardless, unarmed youth, who had vainly implored quarter”-had been ridden down and hacked to death by the British contrary to all humane practice. Lee prepared to hang a captured captain on the spot in retaliation and would have but for Williams’s intervention.

February 13 was a long, hard day for both armies. Late that afternoon, Lee and his men, thinking they had safely distanced themselves from the enemy, finally stopped for breakfast. “Criminal improvidence!” remarked Lee in his memoirs. “A soldier is always in danger, when his conviction of security leads him to dispense with the most vigilant precautions.” The remorseless Tarleton unexpectedly interrupted the meal and the chase resumed. Moving at a killing pace over muddy, rutted trails in freezing weather, the British covered the final 40 miles in the last 24 hours of their pursuit. But the Americans traversed this same distance in 16 hours, thus winning the “race to the Dan.” Greene and the main body passed the river late on the 13th. The rearguard crossed the next evening. Fittingly, Lee himself took the last boat over.

As Cornwallis fell back toward Hillsborough, North Carolina, in an effort to attract Loyalists to the crown’s standard, Greene decided to assume the offensive. As a prelude, on February 18 he sent Lee’s Legion, reinforced with two companies of Maryland Continental infantry, back into North Carolina to join forces with Andrew Pickens’s militia. Their instructions were to harass enemy foraging parties and discourage the general Loyalist uprising that Cornwallis hoped to inspire. A week later fortune handed them a prime opportunity to achieve this. Getting wind that 300 Loyalists under the command of Colonel John Pyle were headed to join Tarleton at Hillsborough, Lee hatched a typically ingenious scheme. He and his legion-whose uniforms closely resembled those of Tarleton’s men- impersonated the British dragoon and his outfit. Meeting up at a ford on the Haw River, Pyle and his Loyalist recruits were completely taken in by the deception. Lee was in the process of shaking hands with Pyle and about to offer him the alternatives of surrendering, disbanding, or joining the patriot side when firing broke out between Pickens’s militia and the tail of Pyle’s column. Lee’s Legion, aided by the militia, violently turned upon the startled Loyalists, killing nearly 100, scattering the rest, and effectively ending any chance of royalist sympathizers in the area rallying to Cornwallis.


The Battle of Eutaw Springs was on September 8, 1781. The Patriot general was Greene and the British general was Stewart. The Patriots attacked and were successful, but the British counter attacked and won the battle. Although, the Patriots did capture some British officers! This war was the end of the Southern campaign for the British.

The Battle of Eutaw Springs on 8 September 1781

Greene reentered North Carolina with the army’s main force on February 23. For the next 3 weeks he and Cornwallis maneuvered for advantage while seeking to bring each other to battle. Greene had reconstituted Colonel Williams’s light corps-which had served so brilliantly covering the retrograde to Virginia-to act now as the American advance guard. Once more Lee led the van of this force and engaged in almost continual activity, including victorious skirmishes against Tarleton on March 2 and again on March 6. By March 14, Greene had established himself at the position from which he desired to fight, Guilford Court House. Cornwallis, a dozen miles to the southwest, decided to accommodate him. Early that morning he began his approach toward the Americans at Guilford with Tarleton, as usual, spearheading the British advance.

Lee commanded Greene’s screening force. His pickets detected the enemy’s lead elements around 7:00 a. m., 7 miles in front of the main American line. Lee selected an ideal piece of ground-a narrow lane bounded by high fences on both sides-and ambushed Tarleton’s dragoons, sending them into pell-mell retreat. Lee in turn pursued until he encountered Tarleton’s accompanying infantry. In the ensuing melee, Lee was temporarily unhorsed and his opposite number slightly wounded. Having succeeded in providing warning to Greene and delaying the enemy-inflicting about 30 casualties in return for minimal losses-Lee pulled back and took up his position on the extreme left of the American first defensive line, one of three Greene had established on the wooded slope leading up to the court house.

Shortly after noon, preceded by a brief cannonade, the British attacked. The North Carolina militia, who comprised the bulk of the American first rank, discharged a ragged volley, then fled in the face of the oncoming redcoats. Lee, who invariably found militia wanting-though in this case Greene had authorized them to withdraw after engaging-recorded that “these unhappy men, … throwing away arms, knapsacks, and even canteens, … rushed like a torrent headlong through the woods.” Lee’s Legion and some Virginia riflemen held their position on the American left and poured a deadly enfilade fire into the enemy’s scarlet ranks. Another group of Continentals did the same from the American right. The British dealt with these flank threats by diverting their first echelon regiments against them. The Americans on the right gave ground grudgingly and retired to link up with the patriot second line. Lee’s force and the Virginians, however, found themselves hard-pressed by the combined assault of a British Guards battalion and a Hessian regiment. A vicious, separate battle involving these forces developed to the south and east of the court house. By the time Lee was able to break contact and move uphill to the main position, Greene had already ordered a general retreat after a day of carnage.

Historians have echoed Lee’s eloquent verdict on the battle, “The name of victory was the sole enjoyment of the conqueror, substance belonging to the vanquished.” Although Cornwallis might claim a tactical success, operationally he was compelled to withdraw to Wilmington, on the North Carolina coast. Subsequently, he abandoned the Carolinas and made his fateful move into Virginia and, ultimately, Yorktown. Meanwhile, acting at least in part on Lee’s advice, Greene chose not to pursue Cornwallis, but rather to drive south and liberate South Carolina and Georgia. While Greene advanced with the bulk of the army on the British position at Camden, he once again detached Lee to operate with Marion against the scattered enemy outposts in the surrounding area. Reflecting back on the army’s mood as it prepared to embark on this phase of the campaign, Lee wrote that despite fatigue and privation “we were content; we were more than content-we were happy” with “The improved condition of the South, effected by our efforts” and “anticipations of the future.”

Lee and the Swamp Fox linked up in early April, and made Fort Watson, on the Santee River 60 miles northwest of Charleston, their first objective. The post consisted of a small stockade built upon an ancient Indian burial mound and surrounded by various man-made obstacles. The enemy inside the walls refused entreaties to surrender and countered an attempt to cut off their water supply by sinking a well. “Baffled in their expectation, and destitute both of artillery and intrenching tools, Marion and Lee despaired of success.” At this juncture, a South Carolina militiaman named Maham proposed the expedient of building a tower from which riflemen could pick off the defenders with impunity. The two American leaders readily assented and under Maham’s direction, the structure was ready by dawn of April 23. By midday, helpless under a withering fire, the enemy capitulated.

Dispatching their prisoners back toward Greene, who was approaching Camden, Lee and Marion next focused their attention on a 500-man Loyalist force that had recently occupied itself vainly combing the marshes in the lower part of the state seeking the Swamp Fox. To aid Greene, the two Americans sought to keep this element from joining the main British army. They succeeded, although these activities caused them to miss the battle of Hobkirk’s Hill, just outside of Camden, on April 25. There the British claimed another bloody tactical triumph over Greene, although, similar to Guilford Court House, the only recourse for the victors following the battle was retreat. For their part, Lee and Marion resumed the war of posts by initiating a siege of Fort Motte, a strategic point at the junction of the Congaree and Wateree Rivers. A sense of urgency soon impelled the patriots, for rumors had the retreating British army headed straight for the fort. Lee and Marion had to take the place quickly or withdraw. The widow Motte’s stately mansion was the key to the enemy position and Lee’s fertile brain hit upon the idea of burning them out by setting the house ablaze with fire arrows. Lee gravely explained the necessity for this action to Mrs. Motte, who had been evicted from her home by the enemy. The patriotic lady gratified and surprised him not only by cheerfully assenting, but by pressing him to employ a bow and quiver of arrows she produced from her household belongings. One of Marion’s men served as the designated archer and by the afternoon of May 12 Lee’s inspiration produced a British surrender.

Greene appeared on the scene later that day and gave new orders. He would proceed west to command the siege of the British upcountry stronghold at Ninety Six. Marion would slice southeast to capture Georgetown. And he directed Lee to take Fort Granby, in the center of the state near the site of modern-day Columbia. General Thomas Sumter’s partisans were in the immediate vicinity, although the Gamecock himself was 30 miles farther south besieging another enemy garrison at Orangeburg. Lee arrived at Fort Granby on May 14 and wasted little time. Although the defending Loyalists had temporarily defied Sumter, they showed little inclination to fight Lee, who showed he meant business early the next day by shelling the fort with a 6-pound field gun and deploying the fierce infantry of his legion. The enemy commander offered to surrender on the condition that he and his men might retain the considerable plunder they had taken from the surrounding country and receive safe passage to Charleston, where as prisoners of war they could await exchange. Still concerned that the main British army retiring from Camden might intervene, Lee granted those terms. He subsequently received some criticism for this leniency and Sumter was furious that a prize he felt was rightfully his had been taken by another.

There was little time for recriminations, however. On the evening of the same day upon which Fort Granby had surrendered, Greene ordered Lee west to join Pickens in assailing the British stronghold at Augusta, Georgia. To maintain a rapid pace, Lee’s Legion employed techniques they often used-infantry mounted double behind dragoons, as well as infantrymen and cavalrymen alternating on horseback and foot. As he approached Augusta, Lee learned about a large quantity of enemy supplies stored at Fort Galphin, one of his majesty’s Indian trading posts, 12 miles south of Augusta. Taking his fittest troops and leaving the others to rest, Lee rode for this tempting target on the sultry morning of May 21. Displaying his genius for the clever ruse de guerre, he had some Georgia and South Carolina militia demonstrate outside the fort, which had the desired effect of stirring its occupants to quit the stockade to give futile chase. Lee’s Legion then rushed into the unguarded fort from the opposite direction and claimed the spoils-food, weapons and ammunition, clothing and medicine-all badly wanting on the American side. Lee then retired, having lost but one man-to heatstroke-and resumed his march to Augusta.

The patriots confronted two major British positions there. The larger one was Fort Cornwallis, within the town itself. A satellite post, Fort Grierson, covered it about half a mile to the west. Reaching patriot lines on May 23, Lee enjoyed a brief reunion with Pickens, whom he had not seen since their joint operations in North Carolina 2 months earlier. They developed a plan to storm Fort Grierson and deployed their men to attack it from three sides. During the fight, Lee repelled an attempted British sortie from Fort Cornwallis that sought to come to their comrades’ aid. Overwhelmed, 80 or so of the hard-pressed defenders tried a breakout to Fort Cornwallis, but were swiftly cut down. Half were killed, the rest wounded and captured. Tensions ran high between American patriots and Loyalists; it was only with great difficulty that Lee and Pickens restrained the Georgia militia from slaughtering all their captives. As it was, several were murdered, including the enemy commandant, Colonel Grierson. Of the repeated atrocities in this internecine struggle in the south, an appalled Lee observed that “It often sunk into barbarity.”

Lee and Pickens now turned their considerable energies upon Fort Cornwallis, ably defended by a resourceful opponent, Colonel Thomas Brown, and a combined force of approximately 600 Loyalists and Creek Indians. The Americans dug approach trenches and fought off repeated sallies by the enemy, intent on stopping their work. At Lee’s suggestion, the patriots also put up a “Maham Tower,” which promised to bring matters to a speedy resolution as had been the case at Fort Watson. Brown furiously countered-first with artillery fire, then with desperate bayonet assaults. When none of this availed, he resorted to subterfuge, sending a pretend “deserter” over to the Americans with orders to burn the tower. He also tried to lure the attackers into a mined house. These gambits failed too; in the case of the fake deserter, Lee was initially taken in, but then his own trickster’s instincts took hold and he ordered the man kept under close arrest. On June 5, after contentious negotiations, Brown surrendered the fort. Lee personally took charge of his prisoners to prevent a repeat of the earlier atrocities and hurried off to Ninety Six to join Greene.

Ninety Six was the sole remaining British-held post in South Carolina’s interior. It was a formidable objective-a village surrounded by a palisade with a strong bastion at one end known as the Star Redoubt. This redoubt connected via a covered trench to a small stockade-Fort Holmes-at the opposite end. In addition, the usual ditches and an abatis augmented the works. Some 550 Loyalists-many of them long-serving veterans nearly as skilled as regulars-manned the defenses. Greene opened the siege on May 22 by committing several tactical errors. The most significant was focusing his approach on the daunting Star Redoubt instead of the far weaker Fort Holmes, which also guarded the enemy’s water supply. In fact, in his memoirs Lee bluntly stated that the failure immediately to cut off the garrison’s access to water “lost us Ninety-Six.” Lee arrived on the morning of June 8, perceived the problem, and convinced Greene to let him commence sapping against the vital point. On the 11th Greene learned from Sumter that a British relief expedition under Lord Rawdon was en route from Charleston. He detached all his cavalry, including Lee’s dragoons, to the Gamecock with the intent of thwarting this effort.

In the event, the British rescue party sidestepped Sumter and with their arrival imminent, Greene faced three options: turn and face Rawdon, lift the siege and retreat, or attempt to storm Ninety Six before Rawdon arrived. Greene felt he had insufficient force for the first and profound distaste for the second. So at noon on June 18, he launched a two-pronged attack. On the American right, Lee’s Legion infantry, reinforced with Delaware Continentals, quickly seized Fort Holmes. On the left, a vicious fight took place at the Star Redoubt between its doughty defenders, and a combined force of Maryland and Virginia Continentals. The patriots contested the position gamely, but ultimately were beaten back. Lee’s foothold at Fort Holmes meant nothing now. That evening he withdrew his men as Greene ordered a general retreat. During the month-long siege, the patriots lost nearly 200 men killed or wounded; enemy casualties numbered about half that many. The British evacuated the post shortly after the relief column arrived. Greene and Rawdon then spent the ensuing weeks circling each other like wary beasts, but no major engagement resulted and Greene retired to the High Hills of the Santee to rest his army in mid-July.

There was little repose for Lee and his legion, however. While establishing his new base, Greene acceded to Sumter’s desire to strike a British outpost at Moncks Corner, about 30 miles above Charleston, and placed Lee’s Legion at his disposal. Under the pressure of the patriot advance, the redcoat regiment in the vicinity chose to withdraw. On the afternoon of July 17 Lee mauled the enemy rear guard while his van skirmished with the British main force, which ensconced itself in a formidable position at a plantation near Quinby Bridge, only a dozen miles outside Charleston. Marion, also part of Sumter’s force, came up shortly afterward and he agreed with Lee that it would not pay to assault an enemy so well established. Sumter believed otherwise and ordered up an attack that the British easily defeated. The beaten patriots rode off into the night, their numerous dead lying across the pommels of their saddles, to be deposited in a common grave at dawn. The legion had been spared this carnage, but Lee broke away from Sumter in disgust at his squandering of lives in a forlorn effort and returned to the hills above the Santee to join the rest of the army.

By early September, Greene felt strong enough to resume the offensive and began a march down the Santee toward the principal British army in South Carolina, which now concentrated around Eutaw Springs. Moving by easy stages, and drawing various militia and partisan units to his hard core of Continentals, Greene’s force swelled to approximately 2,200 men, who on the morning of September 8 remained undetected by a like number of the enemy, encamped just 7 miles away. Lee’s Legion comprised a portion of the patriot advance guard that surprised a British foraging party around 8:00 a. m. and precipitated the day’s battle. The Americans deployed from two columns in line of march to two ranks, with militia in front and Continentals backstopping them. Lee positioned his mixed cavalry and infantry on the American right flank. The Carolina militia, particularly those under Marion and Pickens fought admirably, but eventually faltered. Lee held firm on the right against the advance of a British regiment and Greene fed in his Continentals to restore the American line. Momentum swung to the Americans; Lee’s infantry along with the advancing patriot regulars drove in the British left. Fighting was hand-to-hand; Lee recorded that “such was the obstinacy with which the contest was maintained, that a number of soldiers fell transfixed by each other’s bayonet.” The British right, however, refused to yield, and their commander took advantage of their staunchness to begin reorganizing the rest of his command.

Lee, who had been forward with his infantry, thought he saw an opportunity to win the day by unleashing his cavalry to complete the destruction of the still reeling British left. But when he called for his dragoons, he discovered to his astonishment and dismay that they had already been committed against-and defeated by-the British right. Whether Greene or some other officer made this decision is unknown, but Lee believed that “To this unfortunate … order, may be ascribed the turn in this day’s battle.” Instead, the British counterattacked and broke the American assault. Greene, seeing that his forces could do no more, gave the order to pull back. The British, happy to see them off, retired to Charleston. Greene sent Lee and Marion to give chase the next day, but those two astute leaders soon thought it wise to pull back to rejoin Greene and the main army for a return to the Santee hills.

Eutaw Springs was the last major battle Greene fought in the deep south and for all intents and purposes marked the close of Lee’s combat career as well. In October, Greene sent him to carry dispatches to Washington on the Virginia peninsula. There he witnessed Cornwallis’s epochal surrender at Yorktown, of which he gave a vivid account in his memoirs. He returned to South Carolina in November and participated in a pair of abortive operations against the British outside of Charleston in December. For some time he had been out of sorts, probably from a combination of physical, mental, and emotional fatigue engendered by nearly 5 years of almost unbroken and arduous campaigning. Additionally, his ambition and ego always attracted jealousy and he gave himself over to feelings that his contributions were not fully appreciated-despite this and similar encomiums from Greene, “I am more indebted to this officer than to any other for the advantages gained over the enemy in the operations of [the] last Campaign.” Too, he recognized that opportunities to win further battlefield glory were unlikely. For all these reasons, as well as a desire to marry a cousin, Matilda Lee, whom he had long courted, he left the army in February 1782.

Lee settled down to what he charmingly described in the final sentence of his memoirs as “the innocent and pleasing occupations of peace.” He served in Congress and as Virginia’s governor, where he established a reputation for stirring oratory. It was Lee who eulogized Washington with the immortal line “First in war-first in peace-and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Like a number of regular revolutionary officers-Hamilton and John Marshall come to mind- who attributed the army’s persistent suffering to an ineffectual Congress, Lee supported the new Constitution and a relatively powerful national government. When outraged citizens in western Pennsylvania violently protested a federal excise tax in 1794, President Washington appointed Lee to command the forces that helped bloodlessly quell the so-called Whiskey Rebellion. Lee’s pronounced Federalist leanings, however, including his advocacy of a strong professional military, put him increasingly out of step with political trends in the 1790s- both in the nation at large and especially in Virginia, bastion of Jeffersonian Republicanism.

Ernest J. King

Ernest J. King was sixty-two years old when Stark yanked him off the General Board, an old-folks home for senior admirals. When he assigned King command of the Patrol Force, a small fleet guarding America’s Atlantic coastline, the news rustled gossip grapevines at officers’ clubs from Newport to San Francisco. King, the rumor mill decreed, had been washed up. He was a good fighting admiral, but he had three strikes against him: he was combative with his fellow officers, he drank too much, and he was a carrier admiral.

A descendant of lowland Scots, King hailed from a middle-class family in Lorain, Ohio. He attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and when the Spanish-American War broke out during his first cadet year, he finagled a sea assignment. He returned from his first cruise with a tattooed dagger on his right arm, an anchor on his left, and a bellicosity worthy of a bosun’s mate. Gliding over deck and bridge in his tailored Brooks Brothers uniform, he argued with superiors, wielded naval regulations like a boarding cutlass, and accepted nothing short of perfection from his men.

A voracious reader, King studied the campaigns of Napoleon, Jackson, and Grant as intently as he studied Nelson, Mahan, and Fisher. He penned thoughtful articles on shipboard organization, commanded a high-profile submarine salvage operation, and worked his way up the Navy’s slippery ladder, through destroyers, cruisers, and submarines.

In the 1920s, when other officers looked at naval aviation as if the Wright brothers had suggested putting bicycles on ships, King embraced the air service. He commanded the carrier Lexington for two years and did a stint with the Bureau of Aeronautics at Main Navy, the naval headquarters on Constitution Avenue. In Washington, two blocks from an obscure Army colonel named George Marshall, King learned the inner mysteries of the Navy’s bureaucratic machinery, Congress, and the unpredictable mustang called Washington politics.

King once told a friend, “You ought to be suspicious of anyone who won’t take a drink or doesn’t like women.” Ernie King was guilty of neither sin, and he earned a reputation as a man who played as hard as he worked. “He was the damnedest party man in the place,” said one officer who saw him splice the main brace at club bars on many a weekend. “Ernie was the first guy there on Saturdays. . . . He joined the club because actually he was a great guy with the ladies and with liquor both.”

An agile dancer and conversationalist, he could be both solicitous and forward to the fairer sex. At dinner parties attractive women sat next to the “garter snatcher” at their own risk, for King’s hands might spend as much time under the table as above.* His marriage to Mattie Egerton, a once-comely Baltimore socialite, had worn thin after producing six daughters and a son, and King’s affairs in port and abroad were a matter of enthusiastic Navy scuttlebutt.

King cared nothing for what people thought of him, and early in his career he decided he was not tough enough to be a great admiral. Determined to excise this career flaw, he drove his men with a fervor that would have done credit to Captain Bligh. He bullied colleagues and harangued subordinates. Aboard the carrier Lexington, rumor had it that the admiral’s right hand was more sunburned than his left, the result of shaking his fist at pilots through the open bridge window. “There are two kinds of naval officers,” he once told a friend, “good guys and S.O.B.s, and the quicker you learn to be a S.O.B. the better off you will be!”

When war broke out in Europe in 1939, King’s career had been stranded in the horse latitudes. His last really interesting assignment was Fleet Problem XIX in 1938, a war game in which he launched a surprise carrier attack on Pearl Harbor, to what the umpires said was devastating effect.

Since then, he had been passed over for the Navy’s top job, chief of naval operations, in favor of his old friend Admiral Stark. Some of King’s friends blamed his stalled career on his drinking and petulance, while others saw the backroom hand of the “gun club,” as the battleship admirals were known. Whatever the reason, the General Board, King’s current assignment, was the Navy’s traditional last stop before the glue factory.

But his fortunes began looking up in the fall of 1940, when Admiral Stark called him into his office to discuss the Patrol Force. It was a small collection of ships, hardly worthy of the term “fleet.” Most of the capital ships—carriers, battlewagons, and cruisers—were assigned to the Pacific and Asiatic squadrons. And the Patrol Force job would not entitle King to a promotion. He had worn the three stars of a vice admiral two years earlier, on a temporary basis, when he commanded the Aircraft Battle Force. He was back to two stars now, and as commander of the Patrol Force, he would remain a two-star rear admiral.

It didn’t matter, for King was elated. The Patrol Force would get him out to sea, and out of the hell of being washed ashore. By the grace of God and Betty Stark, King was getting a chance to end his career aboard a warship’s bridge. He snapped up the job and shipped out for what he knew would be his last big assignment.

When his two-star pennant snapped over the ancient battleship Texas in December 1940, King lost no time showing his men who was boss. He told one subordinate, “I don’t care how good they are, unless they get a kick in the ass every six weeks, they’ll slack off.” He whipped his squadron into shape, ordered wartime blackouts and drilled, drilled, drilled them until general quarters was running at a pace that would have made Lord Nelson smile.

But looking over the hardworking Texans, he decided their appearance was not quite right. King harbored a fetish for naval uniforms, and in his mind he often tinkered with the Navy’s look. Now, as squadron commander, he was in a position to remake his men’s uniforms in his image. He issued a general order prescribing a new uniform for the Patrol Force: a thin white jacket atop heavy blue pants.

Of all the military services, the Navy is the most set in its ways. To the surprise of few besides King, the Texans loathed their new slops. “It’s too hot in the legs, where you want to be cool, and too cool above, where you want to be warm,” complained one intrepid watch officer.

“Well,” said the bemused admiral, “it shows who can prescribe the uniform.”

Though Ernie King generally didn’t give a damn what his men thought of him, after a few weeks of grumbling he reinstated the old look. But before long his sartorial obsession got the better of him. Concluding that Navy whites stood out against the ship’s gray structures, he decided to camouflage his men by dyeing their uniforms light brown. Every man, King decreed, would have one set of his whites soaked in coffee, which he ordered brewed up in enormous cauldrons under the tearful eyes of the ship’s galley cooks.

“At the first morning quarters after the completion of the task,” recalled one officer, “the Texas crew had uniforms ranging in color from ecru to chocolate brown.” Painfully aware that the Texans would be the laughingstock of the fleet once they reached the next port, King quietly dropped his experiment, and said not a word about it again.

A few months into King’s sea command, his code clerks received a signal from the Navy Department that caught the admiral’s eye: The varied and dispersed naval forces of the United States would be consolidated into three separate groups.

The Navy works in mysterious ways, but it was not difficult for King to sniff out what was going on behind closed hatches. The incumbent commander-in-chief, U.S. Fleet, Admiral James Richardson, had butted heads with Roosevelt over the president’s decision to move the bulk of the surface fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor. In no mood to hear the admiral’s carping, FDR fired Richardson and reorganized the fleet into three components, each designed to deal with a different problem: the Atlantic Fleet, for defense of the sea-lanes to Britain; the Pacific Fleet, to defend America’s western frontiers; and the Asiatic Fleet, to contain the Japanese in China.

While King mulled over who his Atlantic Fleet boss might be, he received a letter from Rear Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Navy’s personnel head. King, Nimitz said, was being promoted. What’s more, the president had decided to give him a fourth star as soon as another full admiral sailed into mandatory retirement, probably during the summer of 1941. Nimitz’s letter left no question who would run the Atlantic Fleet; its new commander would be Vice Admiral Ernest King.

King was thrilled. The job would put him on the front lines of an important war—a war still undeclared, but one where he could make a real difference.

A congratulatory letter from Secretary Knox followed Nimitz’s cable. It was Knox’s wish, he said, “to maintain the closest possible relationship. . . . I am still a great deal of a novice in this Navy business, and I am depending upon you men to help me along in my education.”

As King saw it, Knox’s letter summed up exactly where the two men fit into the Navy’s picture. And he would never let Knox forget it.


In his Personal Memoirs of 1885, Ulysses S. Grant gave what may be the most comprehensive concise evaluation of Winfield Scott Hancock. He stands, Grant wrote, as “the most conspicuous figure of all the general officers who did not exercise a separate [that is, army-level] command. He commanded a corps longer than any other one, and his name was never mentioned as having committed in battle a blunder for which he was responsible. He was a man of very conspicuous personal appearance. . . . His genial disposition made him friends, and his personal courage and his presence with his command in the thickest of the fight won for him the confidence of troops serving under him. No matter how hard the fight, the 2d corps always felt that their commander was looking after them.”

Hancock always fought under the command of others, and no field officer was more universally admired than he, who emerged from the Civil War as perhaps the model soldier-general. He is deservedly most celebrated for the leading role he took at Gettysburg, where his command decisions and personal presence on days one and two made Union victory possible, and his sacrifices on day three ensured the defeat of Lee.

On February 14, 1824, Elizabeth Hoxworth Hancock of Montgomery Square, Pennsylvania, gave birth to identical twin boys. One was given the name Hilary Baker and the other Winfield Scott. That a boy should be named for family relations, in the case of Hilary Baker, was hardly unusual, but to name his twin brother not after relatives but a soldier—a hero of the War of 1812 who was just entering mid-career by 1824—was rare in early nineteenth-century America. Most Americans had an innate dislike of standing armies and professional military men (the quartering of troops had played a big part in triggering the American Revolution). What is more, the Hancocks were hardly a military family. Father Benjamin was a schoolteacher who studied law and would soon become a lawyer, while Mother Elizabeth worked as a milliner. It was, therefore, almost as if, in naming their son, the Hancocks had inadvertently predicted his destiny. From childhood, he would exhibit an early fascination with things military, and, as an adult, he would prove to be a kind of natural and instinctive soldier and leader of soldiers. In the U.S.-Mexican War, his first experience of battle, he would even serve directly under his namesake. And in the Civil War, he would earn the romantic warrior sobriquet of “Hancock the Superb.”


A few years after the Hancock twins were born, the family moved from Montgomery Square, outside of Lansdale, to Norristown, where Benjamin Hancock began practicing law. He also became increasingly prominent in local Democratic politics and served with great devotion as a deacon in the Baptist church. The twins were educated at Norristown Academy until a public school opened up in town late in the 1830s. As boys, they were inseparable, yet identical only in physical appearance. While Hilary was quiet and well-behaved, the boisterous Winfield often got into trouble of the boys-will-be-boys variety. His conduct, however, was not so naughty as to disqualify him from the dose of higher education his school grades merited, and his rapidly developing interest in the military—he organized a military company among his classmates—prompted his father to call in a political favor from the local congressman, Joseph Fornance.

In 1840, Fornance obliged Benjamin by nominating Winfield to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Already tall—he was six-foot-two in an era when five-foot-seven was average for a man—handsome, and soldierly in appearance, Winfield Scott Hancock was also a genial and popular cadet. His academic performance was, however, on the lower end of average. Graduating eighteenth in the twenty-five-cadet Class of 1844, he was automatically sent to the infantry and commissioned in the 6th Regiment, assigned to serve in Indian Territory.


For the next two years, little happened in the Red River Valley, Hancock’s corner of Indian Territory, and he saw nothing of combat before he was sent back east to recruiting duty in Cincinnati, Ohio, and across the river in Kentucky. While he was there, the U.S.-Mexican War began in Texas and California, prompting Hancock to request his immediate return to the 6th Regiment, which was stationed in the thick of the developing action. The problem was that the good-looking and genial Hancock had proved to be a talented recruiter, not only signing up more than his quota of men, but also knowing which men to reject. He was just too good at his job, and the army wanted him to continue in it as long as possible. Orders to rejoin his regiment did not come until May 31, 1847.

To Second Lieutenant Hancock’s vast relief, there was still plenty of war to be fought when he rejoined the 6th at Puebla, Mexico, as it served in the invading army led by his namesake, Major General Winfield Scott.

From Puebla, the army advanced to Contreras, which became Winfield Scott Hancock’s maiden battle on August 19 and 20, 1847. By the afternoon of August 20, the battle had moved to Churubusco. Here Hancock suffered his first wound—a shallow musket ball penetration below the knee—yet he not only kept fighting, but took over command of his company after its commander was felled by a more grievous wound. Hancock’s gallantry and initiative at Churubusco earned him a brevet to first lieutenant, and in both Contreras and Churubusco, he served alongside three officers who would become notable Confederate generals, James Longstreet, George Pickett, and Lewis Armistead—a man with whom Hancock also developed a close personal friendship.

The wound Hancock sustained at Churubusco became infected and resulted in a fever. Despite this, he fought at Molino del Rey (September 8, 1847) but was laid up during the culminating battle of the war, Chapultepec (September 12–13), and the subsequent occupation of Mexico City. That these momentous events should have passed him by was a source of lifelong regret.


Hancock and his regiment remained in Mexico until after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in February 1848. Having earned a reputation as an able administrator while he served as a recruiter, Hancock was next assigned to a number of quartermaster and adjutant postings, including at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, and St. Louis, Missouri. In this city, he met Almira Russell, whom he married on January 24, 1850. “Allie” was universally admired by Hancock’s fellow officers for her beauty, charm, and kindness, and when he was promoted to captain in 1855 and transferred to Fort Myers, Florida, she and their five-year-old son accompanied him—she the only woman on this primitive post. Although the sporadic fighting of the Third Seminole War was under way, quartermaster Hancock saw no combat.

He was transferred again, this time to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1856, during the height of the “Bleeding Kansas” guerrilla violence between proslavery and antislavery factions. Hancock saw relatively little of the bloodshed, however, before he was tasked with helping to prepare an expedition to Utah Territory to put down the so-called Mormon Rebellion, an antigovernment uprising, which included the Mountain Meadows massacre of September 11, 1857, in which the Mormon Militia and their Paiute Indian allies killed more than 120 non-Mormon California-bound settlers. By the time Hancock and the 6th Infantry arrived, however, the conflict was over, and Hancock was told that he was being sent to a new posting with the 6th in Benicia, California.

Obtaining a leave of absence, he traveled back east to fetch his wife, who had given birth to a second child, a daughter, before he left for Utah. For the first time in their lives together, Allie was reluctant to follow her husband, but she was gently counseled by none other than Colonel Robert E. Lee, who persuaded her that an army officer needed his wife and family to be with him, if at all possible. Thus the family made the arduous journey to California together. At Benicia, in the San Francisco Bay area, they were presented with orders to travel even farther, down to Los Angeles, some four hundred miles to the south. Here they remained, Captain Hancock serving as assistant quartermaster under future Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston, and here Hancock formed his close friendship with Armistead.

When news of the outbreak of the Civil War reached Los Angeles in the spring of 1861, Johnston, Armistead, and the other Southern officers who had decided to resign their commissions and join the Confederate cause gathered at the Hancock home for a farewell party. Almira Hancock later recalled that Major Armistead was “crushed . . . tears . . . streaming down his face.” He laid his hands upon her husband’s shoulders, she wrote, and looked him “steadily in the eyes.” “Hancock,” he said, “good-bye. You can never know what this has cost me.”

Armistead then turned to Allie and placed in her hands a small satchel filled with keepsakes to be sent to his family if he should be killed. There was also a little prayer book, which he said was for her and her husband. On its flyleaf he had inscribed: “Trust in God and fear nothing.” Before he left that evening, Armistead also offered Hancock his major’s uniform, but the captain could not bring himself to accept it.


Like his Southern comrades, Winfield Scott Hancock was also determined to leave California—in his case, however, to serve with the Union. Since the end of the war with Mexico, he had been studying the campaigns of history’s “great captains,” from Julius Caesar to Napoleon Bonaparte, and he hoped that he would not only receive a speedy transfer back east, but would also exchange his administrative duties for a combat assignment.

He was sent to Washington but was instantly loaded down with quartermaster work for the Union army, which, by the late summer of 1861, was rapidly expanding. George B. McClellan, however, soon picked out Hancock’s name from a list of officers. He remembered him from West Point as well as from the Mexican war, and he recognized him as a courageous, intelligent, and skilled officer. Thanks to McClellan, Hancock was, on September 23, 1861, jumped from captain to brigadier general (and thus would not have had use for the major’s uniform he had declined to accept from Armistead) and assigned to command an infantry brigade in a division under Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith in McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.

McClellan soon realized that he had every reason to be pleased with his choice of Hancock. The man was a thoroughgoing military officer, who prized military discipline but also understood men and how to motivate them on a human level. In contrast to most of his regular army colleagues, he enjoyed working with volunteers, whom he did not regard as necessarily inferior to regular army troops. Treated with respect and confidence, these citizen soldiers gave Hancock their very best in return.


Thanks to General McClellan’s dilatory approach to campaigning, the Confederates were able to withdraw from their positions at Yorktown, Virginia, before the Army of the Potomac closed in on them during the Peninsula Campaign. A division under Joseph Hooker opened the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5 by attacking an earthen fortification known as Fort Magruder. He was repulsed, however, and Confederate general James Longstreet followed up the repulse with a counterattack on the Union left. A Union division under Brigadier General Philip Kearny arrived in time to blunt the counterattack and stabilize the Union position as Hancock led his brigade in a spectacular encircling movement against the Confederate left flank, forcing the enemy to abandon two key redoubts, which Hancock’s men occupied.

McClellan both recognized and appreciated what Hancock had done and even telegraphed Washington to report that “Hancock was superb today,” thereby giving birth to the sobriquet he would carry with him through the rest of the war, “Hancock the Superb.” Yet, being McClellan, he declined to exploit the counterattack. Instead of following up on what Hancock had gained, McClellan released the pressure, allowing the Confederates, now on the defensive, to withdraw intact.


A subordinate commander, Winfield Hancock was perpetually at the mercy of those above him, and his tactical achievement at Williamsburg came to nothing strategically as McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign shriveled on the vine. McClellan was ordered to withdraw north to link up his Army of the Potomac with John Pope’s newly formed Army of Virginia, and because McClellan moved slowly, Pope and his army were left cut off and vulnerable to Robert E. Lee at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862).

With Pope’s failure, President Lincoln reluctantly recalled McClellan to top field command, and when Lee invaded Maryland in September 1862, Hancock found himself deep in the blood of Antietam. After 1st Division, II Corps commander Major General Israel B. Richardson fell mortally wounded, Hancock assumed divisional command, making a magnificent entrance, galloping at top speed, staff in train, between the division’s troops and the enemy, parallel to the Sunken Road that had been transformed by desperate battle into “Bloody Lane.” Deliberate exposure to enemy fire was and would always be part and parcel of the Hancock style of command.

The men of the division were impressed and inspired. As Hancock’s adjutant Francis Walker later wrote, “An hour after Hancock rode down the line at Antietam to take up the sword that had fallen from Richardson’s dying hand, every officer in his place and every man in his ranks was aware, before the sun went down, that he belonged to Hancock’s division.”

It was a magnificent display of what modern officers call “command presence,” and yet Hancock did not fully exploit it. He had his men in the palm of his hand and might have led them in highly effective counterattacks against the Confederates, who were by this time thoroughly exhausted. Instead, he clung to and carried out the orders McClellan had given him, which were to do no more than hold his position. He did what he had been told. Bold as Hancock was, an even bolder combat leader would have given his commander more than he had asked for and, in so doing, might have transformed a narrow Union victory into a decisive triumph.


Hancock with his division commanders at Cold Harbor, Virginia, 1864. Standing from left to right: Francis C. Barlow, David B. Birney, and John Gibbon. Hancock is seated.


What Hancock did achieve at Bloody Lane was sufficient to get him a promotion to major general of volunteers on November 29, 1862. By this time, however, President Lincoln had once again relieved McClellan (if Hancock had exceeded his orders from McClellan, he might have saved his commanding officer’s job), and Hancock was leading his newly acquired division in an Army of the Potomac commanded by Ambrose Burnside.

Like most of the officers and men of the Army of the Potomac, Hancock was not happy about McClellan’s removal. Unlike many of them, however, he was determined to give the new commander his full loyalty. He believed, he said, that “we are serving no one man: we are serving our country.”

But his determination to serve his country by demonstrating loyalty to the new commander was soon sorely tested. Learning of Burnside’s plan to make a frontal assault against thoroughly entrenched Confederate positions, including artillery, on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, Hancock could not stop himself from protesting its suicidal foolishness. Hearing of this, Burnside summoned Hancock to remind him of his obligation to execute without complaint whatever orders his commanding general might give. Hancock agreed but pointed out that the proposed objective was extraordinarily difficult. Burnside nevertheless stood firm on his plan, and when Hancock received his orders to attack at eight o’clock on the morning of December 13, 1862, he followed his orders.

Between his division’s starting position and the stone wall at the foot of Marye’s Heights were some 1,700 feet of flat, open, exposed plain, all thoroughly raked by fire from Confederate artillery and muskets dug in on the high ground. To advance across this expanse was to walk into death itself. But Hancock led his men across. A Confederate bullet sliced through his coat and grazed his abdomen. Had he walked a split second faster, he would have been dead. As it was, the wound did not stop him. Hancock shuttled back and forth across the exposed plain, through the ceaseless storm of musket and cannon fire, always urging his men forward.

His exertions were sufficient to drive the soldiers of his division closer to the stone wall than any other Union troops that terrible day. But, like the rest, Hancock’s men were forced to break off and retreat.

“Out of the fifty-seven hundred men I carried into action,” he wrote the next day, “I have this morning in line but fourteen hundred and fifty.”

As Second Bull Run had cost Pope his command and Antietam had spelled the end for McClellan, so Fredericksburg brought the relief of Ambrose Burnside and his replacement by Joseph Hooker. Hooker’s plan was to return to Fredericksburg, attack far more intelligently and with greater numbers, and in this way break through to advance at long last against Richmond.

The plan, Hancock believed, was sound, yet he had overheard Hooker declare to another general the day before the fight that “God almighty could not prevent me from winning a victory tomorrow.” And that made Hancock doubt. “Success,” this son of a Baptist deacon wrote, “cannot come to us through such profanity.”

Profane and blustering as he was, Hooker had a good plan and outnumbered Lee by two to one. His problem was that he lost his nerve in the execution, and instead of pushing Lee out of Fredericksburg, he relinquished the initiative by waiting for him at Chancellorsville.

Hancock’s chief contribution to the disastrous battle that resulted was to use his division with great skill and courage to cover the withdrawal of the Army of the Potomac. In the course of carrying out this operation, he was wounded by shell fragments, his injuries adding to the heavy sense of depression this latest defeat had loaded upon him. “I have had the blues ever since I returned from the campaign,” he admitted in a letter to Allie.


Hancock endured his “blues.” But for some commanders, it was beyond endurance. After Chancellorsville, Major General Darius Crouch, commanding officer of II Corps, requested to be relieved of command. On May 22, command of II Corps was awarded to Winfield Scott Hancock.

He established an immediate rapport with these veterans who, like the rest of the Army of the Potomac, had fought hard, deserved triumph, and yet suffered nothing but wounds, deaths, and heartbreak. As when he commanded a brigade and then a division, corps commander Hancock took steps to make himself personally known to his officers and men and to get to know them with the same degree of intimacy. Captains and lieutenants were amazed that the commanding general singled them out, saluted, and addressed them by name.

As Lee’s victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run emboldened him to invade Maryland, so his victory at Chancellorsville propelled him to invade Pennsylvania. George Meade, newly appointed to replace Hooker as commanding general of the Army of the Potomac, led his troops to intercept Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Contact between the two forces came at a crossroads town called Gettysburg, and the first day of battle, July 1, 1863, began badly for the Union. Major General John Reynolds, a good friend of Hancock’s and universally respected—many believed he, not Meade, should have been placed at the head of the Army of the Potomac—had control in the field. On his arrival at the front, the army cheered, only to fall into stunned silence when Reynolds was killed a few moments after his arrival.

Hearing the news, Meade summoned Hancock. He told him that he needed a replacement for Reynolds, a man who would take control and restore the situation until the bulk of the army arrived at Gettysburg. Hancock responded by reminding Meade that Major General O. O. Howard was senior to him and next in line for the command. But Meade knew what he wanted. He replied to Hancock that he understood but had made his choice.

By a stroke of death and decision, Winfield Scott Hancock assumed effective command of the entire left wing of the Army of the Potomac, consisting of his own II Corps plus I, III, and XI Corps. When Howard disputed Hancock’s authority, Hancock quickly asserted himself and set about organizing the critical Union defenses on Cemetery Hill. The Confederates, who at this point outnumbered the Union forces at Gettysburg, were relentlessly driving I and XI Corps back through the streets of Gettysburg. That, Hancock decided, was acceptable. But the high ground at Cemetery Hill had to be held at all costs. Lose the high ground, and the battle would be lost. Acting on the authority Meade had given him to withdraw the forces holding the town proper, Hancock ordered I and XI Corps to fall back on Cemetery Hill, to take a stand there, and to fight it out there.

Thus when Meade arrived after midnight to assume direct command, the contour of the Battle of Gettysburg had already been determined—by Hancock. The morning of July 2 found Hancock’s II Corps occupying Cemetery Ridge, in the center of the Union line. Lee attacked both ends of the line. Union III Corps, on the left, absorbed a terrific blow dealt by Lieutenant General James Longstreet. To meet this assault, Hancock sent his own 1st Division, commanded by Brigadier General John C. Caldwell, to reinforce III Corps in a place called the Wheatfield. At the same time, Confederate Lieutenant General A. P. Hill led his corps against Hancock at the Union center. With extraordinary agility, Hancock shuttled and rushed units to each critical point as they developed. Looking to save the army, he sacrificed the 1st Minnesota Regiment by sending it to attack an entire brigade—representing about four times more men than were in the regiment—a suicide mission (the Minnesotans took 87 percent casualties, killed, wounded, or missing) that nevertheless bought Hancock the time he needed to re-form the Union line.

Throughout the second day, Hancock often personally led reinforcing units as needed. He seemed to be everywhere, and when III Corps commander Daniel Sickles was wounded, Meade added III Corps to Hancock’s command. Now directly controlling all of the Union line from Cemetery Hill to Little Round Top, Hancock kept the defense both strong and flexible, so that, by the end of July 2, the Battle of Gettysburg had yet to be decided.

July 3 found Hancock still holding his center position on Cemetery Ridge. His II Corps absorbed the main impact of Pickett’s Charge—the twelve-thousand-man frontal assault Lee desperately hoped would dislodge the Union from the high ground. It had been preceded by a horrific artillery bombardment, most of it concentrated against Union II Corps. During the pounding, Hancock rode back and forth along his lines to keep his troops in place. “General,” one subordinate officer protested, “the corps commander ought not to risk his life that way.” Hancock replied: “There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count.”


In the end, Pickett’s Charge proved both futile and tragic. Among its casualties was Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead, who led a brigade in Pickett’s division. Severely wounded in the charge, he would die two days later.

Hancock learned of his friend’s wounding as he himself lay painfully injured. On July 3, a Confederate bullet had ricocheted off the pommel of his saddle. The bullet tore into his inner right thigh, pushing through wood splinters and one bent nail from the shattered pommel.

“My eyes were upon Hancock’s striking figure,” a Lieutenant George Benedict recalled, “when he uttered an exclamation, and I saw that he was reeling in his saddle. General Stannard bent over him as we laid him on the ground, a ragged hole an inch or more in diameter, from which blood was pouring profusely, was disclosed in the upper part of his thigh.” Aides applied a tourniquet, and Hancock, quite conscious, pulled out the nail himself. “They must be hard up for ammunition,” he commented, “when they throw such shot as that.” Hancock asked his aides to prop him where he lay on Cemetery Hill so that he could continue to direct the battle.

In the meantime, Captain Henry H. Bingham, one of his staff, brought the news of Armistead’s wound and reported that it was mortal. He conveyed to Hancock a message from his friend. “Tell General Hancock for me,” Armistead had said, “that I have done him and done all an injustice which I shall regret or repent the longest day I live.” Bingham then handed to Hancock Armistead’s spurs, pocketbook, watch and chain, and a personal seal, explaining that the Confederate general had wanted him to have these.

Hancock allowed himself to be evacuated only after he was certain the Battle of Gettysburg had been won. Armistead would die within two days. Hancock would recover slowly but never completely. Meade had entrusted most of the conduct of the battle to him. Only when Hancock urged a full counterattack after Pickett’s Charge had been repulsed did Meade overrule him. It was a serious error on Meade’s part, since it allowed Lee to begin his withdrawal, his Army of Northern Virginia badly beaten but still intact, back into Virginia. “My God,” President Lincoln would moan after he’d heard that Meade had allowed Lee to slip away, “is that all?”


Hancock convalesced at his father’s house in Norristown, returning to limited duty as a recruiting officer during the winter of 1863–1864, then resuming field command of II Corps in the spring, in time to march in Grant’s Overland Campaign.

Although those who knew Hancock reported that his wound and long convalescence had diminished his former passion and energy, his corps performed extraordinarily well at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8–21, 1864), achieving a breakthrough at the so-called Bloody Angle in the assault on the Mule Shoe salient. The Confederates’ vaunted Stonewall Brigade was splintered, most of those who weren’t killed becoming prisoners. Indeed, II Corps captured some three thousand men in Richard Ewell’s corps.

II Corps was next committed to Grant’s ill-conceived assault at Cold Harbor (June 3, 1864), where it absorbed the brunt of the slaughter, losing more than 3,500 men, killed, wounded, or captured. Already battered in its long service with the Army of the Potomac, II Corps would never be restored to its full strength after Cold Harbor.


Hancock had known the awful bitterness of being the victim of his commanders’ blunders, from McClellan, to Pope, to Burnside, to Hooker, and now even Grant at Cold Harbor. After Cold Harbor, Grant did what he had done after the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. Though defeated, he sidestepped Lee and the Army of Virginia and, instead of retreating, advanced, forcing Lee to stretch his deteriorating lines yet thinner. As the Army of the Potomac trudged across the James River, Hancock’s II Corps was positioned to make an assault against Petersburg, which was weakly defended because Lee, assuming Grant intended to attack Richmond, had shifted troops from the Petersburg front to the Confederate capital. Had Hancock struck and struck hard, the war would surely have ended much sooner than it did. Instead, he deferred to XVIII Corps commander “Baldy” Smith, who wanted to delay action until all of the men were consolidated in position and rested. Had Hancock been less depleted by the lingering effects of his Gettysburg wound and the carnage of Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor, he might have acted in spite of Smith’s counsel. But he did not, and by the time Grant and the bulk of the Army of the Potomac arrived at the Petersburg front, Lee had reinforced it, and the opposing armies settled in for a siege that would last until early spring of the next year.

During the long siege, Hancock led his corps in the two battles of Deep Bottom (July 27–29 and August 14–20, 1864), both feints toward Richmond intended to draw Confederate forces away from Petersburg so that Grant might effect a breakthrough. The Confederate defenders prevailed in both encounters, however. Nevertheless, Hancock’s accumulated record of achievement was recognized by his promotion to brigadier general in the regular army on August 12, 1864.

After the Second Battle of Deep Bottom, Hancock led II Corps south of Petersburg to destroy the tracks of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad in an ongoing effort to ensure that the city was totally cut off. Hancock committed a rare blunder, leaving his position exposed at Reams’s Station, where Confederate generals Henry Heth and A. P. Hill attacked on August 25, inflicting on the roughly nine thouand II Corps men engaged 2,747 casualties, including 2,046 captured or missing. Confederate casualties in this lopsided battle were light, 814 killed, wounded, or missing out of eight to ten thousand engaged. Hancock blamed himself for having deployed his men in a faulty manner, but he was far more appalled by their performance under fire. They crumbled, broke, and ran—despite his own efforts to rally them, which included, as usual, deliberately exposing himself in the teeth of enemy fire.

The truth he was forced to face was stunning. His beloved corps had at last been broken. In November, when his Gettysburg wound, never having fully healed, partially reopened, the debilitated and depressed Hancock resigned field command.


Hancock was assigned to command the garrison at Washington, D.C., and to create and command a ceremonial First Veterans Corps. On March 13, 1865, he was promoted to brevet major general in the regular army in somewhat belated recognition of his heroism at Spotsylvania.

His new duties were comparatively light, but, following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent trial and conviction of John Wilkes Booth’s conspirators, Hancock was charged with carrying out the group execution—by hanging on July 7, 1865—of Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt. Hancock believed that Surratt’s sentence was a gross miscarriage of justice, and he was so hopeful that it would be commuted at the last minute that he stationed a relay of couriers between the gallows at Fort McNair and the White House. To the judge who presided over the trial and pronounced the death sentence on Mrs. Surratt, Hancock remarked that he had “been in many a battle and [had] seen death, and shell and grapeshot, and, by God, I’d sooner be there ten thousand times over than to give the order this day for the execution of that poor woman.” He paused, then continued: “But I am a soldier, sworn to obey, and obey I must.”