Nelson, Hood and Toulon

In March the Agamemnon went down the Medway to Sheerness: Hood hinted that Nelson should prepare for a cruise and then join the fleet at Gibraltar. The combination of getting to sea and a letter from Hood put Nelson in fine spirits; he told Fanny that ‘I was never in better health’. While the ship completed for sea Nelson’s personal possessions arrived on coasters from Wells. A short stretch down to the Nore in mid-April demonstrated a key feature of his command: ‘we appear to sail very fast’. Desperate to join Hood, and fearful that his orders might change, he found every delay for bad weather a terrible trial. The vigour with which he drove two French frigates and a corvette into La Hougue, while cruising off the Normandy coast, spoke volumes about his anxiety to prove himself.

Nelson was anxious to get on with the war, and found another Channel cruise with Admiral Hotham’s division between Guernsey and Land’s End doubly annoying as neutral ships reported that the French Atlantic ports were full of captured British merchant ships. Not content to do as he was told, Nelson needed to know the purpose of his orders, spending much mental effort trying to understand their rationale. This was an important lesson in command: as a result of his frustration, he himself would always take junior commanders into his confidence, ensuring they understood the broader mission so they could exercise their judgement rather than relying on orders.

The purpose of the cruise only became clear to Nelson later on: because the Channel fleet would take some time to mobilise, detachments preparing for the Mediterranean were being used to cover the western approaches before proceeding to their proper station. On 25 May Hood brought his division out to join Hotham, and took command of the fleet. The master quickly took his charges in hand, conducting tactical exercises as they waited off the Scilly Isles to cover the incoming Mediterranean convoy against a French fleet sortie. An outbound East India convoy also passed through this dangerous choke point. The next day the fleet headed for Gibraltar, and Nelson called on Hood on board his flagship, HMS Victory. He was relieved to find Hood very civil, and told Fanny ‘I dare say we shall be good friends again.’ This personal warmth was vital, since without Hood’s approval Nelson would have cut a very sorry figure. Had he joined the Channel fleet, under the austere, uncommunicative Howe, his ardour for the service may have cooled.

As the fleet passed Cape Trafalgar heading for the Mediterranean, Hood detached ships to water at the Spanish naval base of Cadiz. For the first time in a century the British were welcome – inspecting the fleet, dining on the flagship and taking in the obligatory bullfight. A week in Spain left Nelson with mixed emotions: admiration for the large, well-built Spanish three-deckers, and confidence that as Spain lacked the sailors to man them they would be worth very little in battle. The failure of the Cartagena division to form a line of battle a week later only confirmed his estimate. Nor was he pleased by the savage spectacle of the bullring. For a man who would spend the critical hours of his life amidst the bloody shambles of the quarterdeck in close-quarters battle, he was remarkably sensitive about the maltreatment of animals.

Back at sea Nelson, already picked to lead one of the three divisions of the fleet, continued to ponder the purpose that led Hood to hasten the fleet out of Gibraltar Bay, confident the French ships would remain safely tucked up in Toulon. He started to keep a sea journal, a daily record of activity with reflections on his favourite subjects: men, measures and the weather. The journal was also used to produce letters home, appropriate segments being assembled with a more personal introduction for Fanny, Clarence, Locker, Edmund, William and uncle Suckling, among others. These were usually replies to letters received; he did not have the leisure to pursue a polite correspondence.

Nelson’s active and enquiring mind was soon hard at work processing the intelligence gathered from neutrals, much of it unreliable ‘in my judgement’. Rumours that the French would fit their ships with furnaces to produce red-hot shot should, he believed, have been kept from the fleet. Ever the optimist, he hoped the blockade of Toulon and Marseilles would force the French fleet to come out. Nor did he spare his colleagues, readily adopting Hood’s opinion that the first encounter between British and French warships had been mishandled. Once off Toulon he could see the enemy: rumour had it that their flagship, Commerce de Marseilles, a vast ship of 136 guns, had impenetrable sides. Nelson shared Hood’s hope that the blockade would force a battle, and picked up many more opinions from the flagship. The fast and handy Agamemnon and her dedicated young captain were constantly on the move. Consequently Hood’s offer of a seventy-four was refused – ‘I cannot give up my officers,’ he told Fanny. As the fleet was ready for battle and the war could not last long, it was the wrong time to leave a proven ship.

Cruising off Toulon, Nelson realised that Provence wanted a separate republic from Paris, but had no interest in restoring the monarchy, and that as Marseilles and Toulon were desperately short of food they might be handed over to the fleet. This might bring him home for the winter. Clearly in Hood’s confidence, Nelson told his father:

In the winter we are to reduce Ville France and Nice for the King of Sardinia, and drive the French from Corsica. It seems no use to send a great fleet here without troops to act with them.

Three days later, on 23 August, Hood signed a convention at Toulon that placed the fortress, fleet, town and arsenal in British hands in trust for a restored monarchy. Hood displayed remarkable political courage in seizing the opportunity, although his declaration was at variance with the views of the government, which was not committed to work for any specific regime in France. The example was not lost on Nelson, who would take more than one high-risk political decision in pursuit of strategic aims. Hood had taken twenty-two sail of the line, a fortress and a major arsenal from the enemy – by a stroke of the pen.

The government had considered a range of Mediterranean options, including attacking Toulon to destroy the French fleet, and securing Corsica as a fleet base. When Hood occupied Toulon in late August some in London saw it as a potentially war-winning stroke, opening the prospect of a counter-revolution. Yet the ministers had not anticipated this opening, and had no spare troops to exploit the opportunity, while Austria showed no interest in the project. After landing the troops on board the fleet as marines, Hood had to rely on Spain, Naples and Sardinia for most of his troops: Spain limited her involvement to a thousand men, yet still restricted Hood’s freedom of action, anxious that the French fleet should not pass to the British or be destroyed. Although Hood worked well with the Spanish Admiral Gravina, he found the pessimistic British Generals O’Hara and Dundas a trial, and relied on his own officers for many key posts ashore.

On 25 August Nelson was sent to Turin and Naples to inform the British ministers. Along the way he fell in with HMS Tartar, and learned that Hood needed troops as a republican army was approaching Toulon, fresh from the sack of Marseilles. Nelson’s charm, determination and professionalism helped him to obtain Neapolitan troops under the recent alliance: with Sir William Hamilton’s support, he secured four thousand men before Hood’s official request reached Naples. Royal flattery compensated him for missing the entry of the fleet into Toulon, and the chance of a role ashore.

Nelson was soon off again, however, to deal with a French frigate off Sardinia. The frigate was nowhere to be found, and he returned to Toulon on 5 October, to find the anchorage under fire, and more significantly, that;

The Lord is very much pleased with my conduct about the troops at Naples, which I undertook without any authority whatever from him, and they arrived at Toulon before his requisition reached Naples.

Little wonder: two thousand Neapolitan troops reached Toulon on 27 September, and another two thousand followed on 5 October, timely reinforcements as the republicans were already firing on the town. Only now did Nelson feel himself fully restored to the light of Hood’s favour; he relished the opportunity to follow an officer of great ability and decisive character, declaring that ‘Was any accident to happen to [Hood], I am sure no person in our fleet could supply his place.’ It is not clear whether he included himself among those lesser mortals: perhaps while Hood remained in command he chose not to reflect on the subject.

Hood recognised the abilities of his zealous subordinate, detaching him to Cagliari by way of Corsica to join Commodore Linzee. However, Nelson’s concerns were more personal. Other officers had become public figures by capturing enemy vessels of equal or greater force, earning knighthoods, prize money and promotion for their followers. He had yet to fire a gun in anger. On 22 October, he had a chance to join the heroes, encountering three French frigates, a corvette and a brig off the coast of Sardinia at 2 a.m. The Agamemnon was short-handed, having left many men ashore at Toulon, and alone, having lost contact with an accompanying frigate. Moreover, the officers on the Agamemnon believed that one of the French vessels was a battleship. Once it was light enough to ascertain that they were enemy ships, however, Nelson pursued the nearest, the Melpomene, and engaged her for four hours, leaving her badly damaged. But just as he closed for the kill the wind failed. He concluded that it would be unwise to continue the action – though revealingly, he asked his officers whether they approved this decision, demonstrating that he was still honing his leadership, fighting methods and command style. The officers agreed to repair the damaged rigging in case the French chose to resume the action. Agamemnon had lost only one man killed and six wounded, while her opponent was shattered. Nelson’s sea journal quoted a famous passage from Addison’s Spectator of 1711, concerning death, resignation and the comfort he took from the support of God. This simple faith was the bedrock of his world, giving meaning to his actions and a conviction that if God was on his side the enemy would not prevail.

Arriving at Cagliari, Nelson found Linzee far from helpful, and a belated pursuit proved fruitless: the enemy had, as Nelson guessed, run into a Corsican harbour. The squadron then headed for Tunis, where a French battleship and frigate lay, protected by the neutrality of the port. Nelson ran the Agamemnon between the two French ships, prepared for a fight and resigned his life to God. Linzee’s instructions were to persuade the Dey to allow the ships to be taken, but the Dey was too clever for Linzee, who cautiously sent back to Toulon for further orders. Nelson thought it would be best to take the French ships, pay the Dey a suitable bribe to salve his wounded pride and have done with the business. He instinctively preferred action, and was convinced that ‘the people of England will never blame an officer for taking a French line of battle ship’. This was the course for personal glory, but it was hardly worth annoying a useful neutral in order to seize the last French battleship in republican hands.

After a fruitless cruise along the North African coast Nelson received orders from Hood to take the frigate Lowestoffe under his command to look out for the frigates he had engaged the previous month around Corsica and on the adjacent Italian coast. They were a threat to British trade and allied interests, but he found them anchored close under the batteries at San Fiorenzo. Nelson was buoyed up by this further mark of Hood’s confidence and the Very handsome letter’ that accompanied it. However, far away from Toulon, he had completely misread the state of the war. With an optimism that reflected Hood’s opinions, he told Locker that the naval conflict was over, Toulon was in no danger and that even if it had to be evacuated the fleet and arsenal could be destroyed. December would prove the error of this judgement.

Arriving at Leghorn on 22 December, Nelson heard about the evacuation of Toulon, of Hood’s heroic conduct, the knavish behaviour of the Spanish, and the horrors of the republican entrance into the city. These events did not feature in his sea journal, so the letters sent to Edmund, Fanny and Clarence were fresh compositions. Although Hood’s autocratic leadership style and adversarial approach to inter-service cooperation had created difficulties at Toulon, Nelson was correct in his judgement that no one else could have carried out the task. Hood had the experience, prestige and confidence to take on such a vast politico-military mission. He kept the Republican armies at bay until mid-December with a polyglot mixture of British, Spanish, Neapolitan, Sardinian and French troops, backed by naval gunfire and sustained by his optimism. Caught between the potential for an early and decisive blow through Toulon, and the pressing but limited objectives of securing Mediterranean trade, alliances and influence, Hood waited for the troops that would secure Toulon, and used the time to spread his fleet. On 16 December Civil Commissioner Sir Gilbert Elliot heard that two British regiments were coming, causing the gloom that had descended over the beleaguered fortress to lift. Within twenty-four hours the key position at Fort Mulgrave had fallen to a French assault, forcing Hood to order the city evacuated. He had little more than a third of his fleet at Toulon when the crisis came. Little wonder the evacuation was unsatisfactory.

British Mediterranean policy collapsed because the major players –Britain, Austria and Spain – had divergent, often irreconcilable aims, while the minor powers were ineffective in the new conditions of mass mobilisation and total war. France, operating under new rules, and on home soil, could raise far more men than the ancien regime allies, and was prepared to use them with a speed and ruthlessness that smashed the ill-coordinated multi-national forces and overwhelmed the arthritic and disjointed command system of the allies. At Toulon numbers and ruthless political leadership had driven the allies out. France’s fast-moving mass armies and her young generals such as Napoleon Bonaparte, pressed on by the financial needs of the Republic and the frailty of the anti-French coalition, had deprived Britain of a mainland resting place for her fleet.

Nelson, like Hood, was quick to make the best of the situation, declaring that the cost of occupation would have ruined the country. Hood withdrew the fleet to Hieres Bay, with three French battleships and smaller craft, to wait on developments. Though disappointed on the mainland, he continued to seek a secure base: the best option was the rebellious, newly French island of Corsica, which was under inspection before Toulon fell. The island would dominate the 1794 campaign.



Jefferson Davis judged him the Confederacy’s greatest general before the emergence of Robert E. Lee. Ulysses S. Grant believed him overrated. Through the years, Johnston’s reputation has seesawed, so that it is at least safe to say he is the single most controversial major Confederate commander to emerge from the Civil War.

Much of the controversy can be attributed to the unfinished nature of his career. He died in the middle of his one great battle, but that he died attempting what others would have considered impossible, mounting a bold offensive amid the collapse of an entire theater of war, hints at greatness. On the other hand, his willingness to entrust the execution of his bold and daring plans to others suggests a fatally flawed style of command.

The three saddest words in the English language, it is often said, are “might have been.” As with all momentous events of great consequence, the Civil War is filled with might-have-beens, especially with regard to the outcome of the war for the South. Two Confederate commanders have long endured as subjects of intense might-have-been speculation: Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Albert Sidney Johnston.

Some years after the war, Robert E. Lee himself reportedly voiced his belief that if he “had had Jackson at Gettysburg,” he would “have won the battle, and a complete victory there would have resulted in the establishment of Southern independence.” Jefferson Davis was even more emphatic about what the loss of A. S. Johnston meant. “It was,” he said, “the turning point of our fate; for we had no other hand to take up his work in the West.”

Yet there is a very important difference between Jackson and Johnston. When he fell at Chancellorsville, Stonewall Jackson had proven the potency of his genius, while Johnston, struggling to cover the vast Western Theater with an undermanned, under-equipped army, had just begun to reveal his powers. Davis, as well as many who served under Johnston, were convinced of his sovereign value to the cause, but Ulysses S. Grant, whom Johnston targeted for destruction at Shiloh, wrote in his Personal Memoirs of 1885: “I do not question the personal courage of General Johnston, or his ability, but . . . as a general he was over-estimated.”

Concerning Albert Sidney Johnston at least three facts are beyond dispute. He was assigned a vast and critical mission: to hold for the South the Mississippi Valley and beyond. He died with this mission unfulfilled. And, after his death, his reputation became one of the great speculative controversies of the war.


Albert Sidney Johnston was the son of Kentucky’s ragged frontier. When he was born on February 2, 1803, the Mason County village of Washington had yet to evolve into even a hardscrabble farming community. It was as yet a wilderness cluster of cabins huddling around a stockade fort raised to defend against the Shawnee and other hostiles determined to resist the incursion of white settlement. Men fed their families not with the produce of the earth, but with game on paw, wing, and hoof. It was a place that demanded wit, muscle, courage, will, and a talent for getting by on very little. This made it the ideal environment for breeding the leader of a hard-pressed army of rebellion.

Of course, Albert Sidney’s parents had no intention of raising a family of rebels. John Johnston was a skilled physician, whose own father had distinguished himself fighting in the American Revolution. The doctor was a New Englander by birth, hailing from Salisbury, Connecticut, and was among the many who saw in the West a way of twining his family’s future with the future of the nation. He quickly became prominent in Washington, Kentucky, developing a large practice and earning a seat on the local governing body, the board of trustees.

In this hard place, it proved beyond his medical ability to save his first wife, who succumbed to sickness in 1793. He remarried the following year, to another transplanted New Englander, Abigail Harris, who bore him four children before the birth of her last, Albert Sidney. But it was a hard place, and in the boy’s third year of life, his mother died.

Without a mother, it was his father and his oldest sister who raised him up, kept him safe, and saw to it that he received an education well above the frontier standard. While he attended private school through the college preparatory stage, he was also encouraged to indulge an intensely competitive love of riding and hunting, as well as athletic contests with local boys. He grew into a strapping young man of over six feet in height and was the object of admiration throughout the district. John Johnston sent him off to Transylvania College in Lexington, hoping that he would follow in his footsteps and become a physician. There he met fellow student Jefferson Davis, and there he also grew restless in the study of medicine and asked his father to help him obtain an appointment to West Point.

He enrolled in 1822 (Davis would follow two years later) and earned a reputation for satisfactory if not exceptional academic performance. Far more outstanding was his soldierly bearing, the warmth of the friendships he formed, and the sense he created among the other cadets that he was a natural and irresistible leader. He possessed, as if inborn, what soldiers call “command presence,” and while a few others overtook him academically (he would graduate eighth in the forty-one-cadet Class of 1826), it was he who was selected as adjutant in his fourth year, the highest honor a cadet can attain.


Even before he had entered West Point, Johnston excelled at mathematics, and this, coupled with his high class standing, should have propelled him into an assignment in the artillery, second only to the Corps of Engineers in attracting the top academy graduates. But he chose the infantry instead, believing this branch would give him wider scope as a tactician—another of his classroom passions—and, even more important, would offer greater opportunity for higher and more rapid advancement. So strong was this belief that he even turned down an invitation to join Winfield Scott’s personal staff.

Having made his decision, he was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Infantry. To his chagrin, for the next eight years he did not budge from his initial commissioned rank. Such was the nature of the diminutive U.S. Army at peace.

Johnston served in New York for a time before being transferred to Jefferson Barracks at St. Louis, Missouri. He soon met Henrietta Preston, a Louisville belle and the daughter of William Preston, veteran of the American Revolution and prominent in Louisville society and politics; his son, also named William, would become a general in the Confederate forces. The couple married on January 20, 1829, which must have brought some relief to the monotony of garrison life, but it was not until the outbreak of the Black Hawk War in 1832 that a genuine career breakthrough seemed to be in the offing.

Assigned as chief of staff, aide-de-camp, and assistant adjutant general to Brevet Brigadier General Henry Atkinson, commander of a regiment sent to put down Black Hawk’s “uprising,” Johnston yearned for combat. As the general and the regiment prepared for transportation by steamboat up the Mississippi, the young staff officer gained valuable hands-on experience in support and logistics. The trip itself, however, was uneventful, and neither Johnston nor the rest of the regiment would participate in active combat. They arrived at the confluence of the Bad Axe and Mississippi Rivers in time to observe elements of the U.S. Army and local militia massacre members of Black Hawk’s “British Band” who sought nothing more than to surrender. For Johnston, it was a disheartening, disturbing, and depressing maiden battle.


Discouraged with army life, deeply in debt, seeing no realistic hope for promotion, and learning that his wife had fallen ill with consumption, Johnston resigned his commission in 1834 to return to Kentucky and look after her. It proved to be a prolonged death watch. Henrietta Preston succumbed to her disease in 1836. Their son, William Preston Johnston, would come of age in time to serve as a colonel in the Confederate Army.

To the widower, debt ridden and devoid of prospects, life looked bleak. He sought escape in revolutionary Texas, enlisting later in the year as a private in the Texas army. The Texas Revolution had been won with Santa Anna’s defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, but the Mexican government repudiated the treaty signed under duress and made noises about its intention to reconquer the Lone Star Republic. Within a month of his arrival in Texas, Johnston was embraced by President Sam Houston, who jumped him in rank from private to major and appointed him his personal aide-de-camp. On August 5, 1836, he was promoted to colonel and named adjutant general of the Republic of Texas Army, and on January 31, 1837, Houston named him the army’s senior brigadier general, with overall command of the entire force.

The promotion vaulted Johnston over Brigadier General Felix Huston, who accused him of attempting to “ruin his reputation” by accepting the appointment. Honor and duty were uppermost in Johnston’s hierarchy of values, but he did not believe in fighting duels to defend the former, yet, in this case, he believed that the latter—duty—dictated that he accept the challenge. Failing to do so, he feared, would sacrifice credibility with his troops and, with it, his authority to command. The two men met with pistols on the “field of honor” at dawn on February 7, 1837. Accounts vary as to precisely what happened. According to some, Johnston refused to fire on Huston, who, having no such scruples himself, aimed, shot, and hit Johnston in the right hip. Others insist that both men fired repeatedly, exchanging as many as four shots without any finding its mark. On the fifth shot, Johnston was hit in the right hip (some accounts describe it as the pelvis), the round apparently passing through and through without striking bone. It is unclear whether Johnston recovered sufficiently and in time to assume active command as senior brigadier general, but on December 22, 1838, the second president of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau B. Lamar, appointed him secretary of war.

The appointment thrilled Johnston. It looked certain that Mexico was about to make good on its threat to invade Texas with the object of reclaiming it, and some five thousand Mexican troops had assembled on the border at Matamoros and Saltillo. After leading a campaign against hostile Indians in northern Texas in 1839, Johnston organized the border defenses. But early in 1840, the Mexican government recalled its troops from the border, and President Lamar indicated his unwillingness to further press any Texas grievance against Mexico. Frustrated, bored, and seeing as little opportunity in the Texas army as he had had in the U.S. Army, Johnston resigned as secretary of war in February 1840 and was back in Kentucky by May.

U.S.-MEXICAN WAR, 1846–1848

Johnston had managed to put together a small amount of money during his time in Texas, which he now used to finance a Kentucky land speculation scheme. It quickly blew up in his face, and, once again, he found himself heavily burdened by debt. His cares were somewhat relieved by a budding romance with Eliza Griffin, the twenty-three-year-old cousin of his late wife, “a dazzling beauty of the Spanish type,” according to a friend of Johnston’s, and an accomplished singer and painter. They married in October 1843.

The couple struggled, living mostly on Eliza’s funds, with Johnston growing increasingly desperate until, once again, war offered a way out. When Mexican forces attacked Zachary Taylor’s army on the Texas border in April 1846, Johnston’s first thought was to renew his commission in the Army of the Republic of Texas. Discovering that it had been voided with the annexation of Texas to the United States, he sought a new commission in the regular U.S. Army. Unable to obtain this, he secured a commission as colonel of the 1st Texas Rifle Volunteers, which were subsequently attached to Taylor’s forces.

He assumed command in time to see action in the Battle of Monterrey (September 21–24, 1846), but the six-month enlistments of his short-term volunteers were set to expire just before then. Although he persuaded a handful of his men to remain and fight under him, he was essentially a colonel without a command. At the last minute, he wrangled an appointment as inspector general of volunteers and, in this capacity, saw action at Monterrey and at Buena Vista (February 22–23, 1847). At Monterrey, he distinguished himself in spectacular fashion. Without a command of his own, save for the handful of volunteers who had chosen to fight by his side, Johnston was free to employ himself on the field wherever he saw fit. Noting that an Ohio regiment was in danger of being routed by Mexican lancers, Johnston rallied many of the retreating men, who had taken refuge in a corn-field. Re-forming them into an effective line of fire, he personally led a counterattack against the pursuing lancers, driving them back. Joseph Hooker, a captain in the war with Mexico and destined to be a Union general, gave Johnston credit for saving “our division . . . from a cruel slaughter. . . . The coolness and magnificent presence . . . displayed . . . left an impression on my mind that I have never forgotten.” Jefferson Davis, commanding the Mississippi Rifles at Monterrey, praised Johnston’s “quick perception and decision” and called them the characteristics of “military genius.”


THE UTAH (MORMON) WAR, 1857–1858

Despite his brilliance at Monterrey and, later, at Buena Vista, Johnston was not commissioned in the regular army, and he left Mexico when his term of service in the volunteers expired. He settled with his wife in Brazoria County, Texas, on a plantation he called China Grove, which he struggled to coax into profitable productivity. Once again, however, penury and despair encroached, so that when his former commanding officer, Zachary Taylor, having been elected president of the United States in November 1848, offered him a regular U.S. Army commission as a major in December 1849, he took it. He took it, even though the position—paymaster—was hardly one he relished. His assignment was to service the far-flung military outposts on the Indian frontier of Texas. It was dangerous work, and it was grueling. During each of the five years he held the post of paymaster, he traveled more than four thousand miles, transporting, accounting for, and distributing pay.

In 1855, Jefferson Davis, serving as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, arranged for Johnston to be named commanding colonel of the newly authorized 2nd U.S. Cavalry with Robert E. Lee as his second in command. Indeed, for this elite regiment, Davis cherry-picked Southern officers he believed would break with the U.S. Army in the event of a civil war. In effect, Davis was laying the foundation on which an army of rebellion might be quickly raised.

In 1856, Johnston was also named commanding officer of the Department of Texas, and the following year he was tasked with leading a contingent of 2,500 troops from Texas to suppress a Mormon uprising in Utah after the so-called Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which Mormon zealots had killed 123 non-Mormon settlers. Against all expectation, Johnston proved to be a model of restraint in dealing with the Mormons and, without further bloodshed, was instrumental in establishing, pursuant to President James Buchanan’s orders, a non-Mormon government that restored federal authority in the territory. In recognition of his service, he received a brevet promotion to brigadier general late in 1857. Some even believed his display of diplomacy warranted something more, and his name was bandied about as a possible nominee for president on the Democratic ticket for 1860. Protesting that others were “more capable and more fit” for the office, he put a quick end to the talk.


Johnston commanded the Department of Utah from 1858 to 1860, returned briefly to Kentucky, and then, on December 21, 1860, sailed to California to assume his new command as head of the Department of the Pacific. As war clouds gathered, he sorted out his loyalties. Opposed to secession, he was nevertheless a believer in the rightness of slavery, and he decided that any attempt to end the “peculiar institution” by federal force constituted tyranny and invasion. Still, when Southern sympathizers called on him at his San Francisco headquarters to ask for his cooperation in capturing strategic facilities if and when war erupted, Johnston replied that he intended to “defend the property of the United States with every resource at my command, and with the last drop of blood in my body.” Similarly, when Governor John Downey of California questioned him about his intentions, Johnston replied that he had “spent the greater part of his life” in service to his country and “while I hold her commission I shall serve her honorably and faithfully. I shall protect her public property, and not a cartridge or percussion-cap shall pass to any enemy while I am here as her representative.”

In the end, it was General-in-Chief Winfield Scott who made the first move to sever Johnston from the army. Although he believed Johnston was an honorable man, he knew which way his cultural and political allegiances leaned, and he sent Brigadier General Edwin Sumner to relieve Johnston as commander of the Department of the Pacific, ordering him to leave California and to report to Washington. Instead of following that order, however, Johnston resigned his commission shortly after news reached him that Texas had seceded from the Union on February 1, 1861. He moved to Los Angeles and took up residence with some relatives. Remaining there until May, when the War Department officially accepted his resignation, Johnston fled likely arrest by local Union officials, enlisted as a private in the pro-Confederate Los Angeles Mounted Rifles, and rode with them to Texas and the Confederate Territory of Arizona, which he reached on July 4, 1861. From here, he set out on the long journey east to Richmond, Virginia, arriving about September 1, 1861.

Welcoming Johnston to the capital, President Davis informed him that he had been named one of the first five full generals in the Provisional Army of the Confederacy and held rank second only to Samuel Cooper. His assignment, Davis told him, was to command Military Department Number 2—the Western Department—which encompassed Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and western Mississippi.

The daunting mission that faced him was to raise, organize, and command the Army of Mississippi, which was charged with the defense of Confederate territory stretching from the Mississippi River to Kentucky and the Allegheny Mountains. To do this, he was allotted no more than twenty thousand troops, about half of whom lacked weapons, save for whatever rifles and shotguns they might themselves own. As one of his aides put it, Johnston “had no army.” After pressing President Davis for support, he received reinforcements led by Braxton Bragg, but the total number of troops available to Johnston never exceeded fifty thousand. When he asked for more, Davis instructed an aide to reply that nothing could be done for him and that he had to “rely on his own resources.”

As if a shortage of manpower and equipment were not a sufficient handicap to performing what was, in fact, a hopeless mission, Johnston was instructed not to openly violate Kentucky’s avowed neutrality. This meant that all-important river defenses had to be placed within Tennessee, so that the two key forts, Henry (on the Tennessee River) and Donelson (on the Cumberland) were far from ideally sited. Vulnerable, the forts were lost in February 1862—Fort Henry on the 6th and Fort Donelson on the 16th. Although Johnston had had little choice about placement of the forts and was also compelled to build them hastily, he was showered with blame for their fall and for the consequences of their fall—the withdrawal of Confederate forces from Kentucky and middle Tennessee, and the loss of Nashville to Union occupation on February 25.

To demands from the press and some politicians that he fire Johnston, Jefferson Davis replied, “If he is not a general, we had better give up the war, for we have no generals.” For his part, Johnston accepted the blame for the reversals in the West, writing to the president that the “test of merit in my profession with the people is success. It is a hard rule, but I think it is right.”

Shiloh Campaign (1862)


Johnston accepted blame for the fall of the river forts, but he refused to concede that his theater had been lost. His plan was to rapidly consolidate as much of his forces from around the theater as he possibly could, to accomplish this before the enemy could consolidate his own, and to make a surprise attack on whatever portion of the Union forces presented itself as vulnerable. At this point he was joined by P. G. T. Beauregard, with whom he concentrated his forces at Corinth, Mississippi. Ascertaining that Grant was camped at Pittsburg Landing on the west bank of the Tennessee River near a place called Shiloh, Johnston resolved to mount a massive surprise attack before Grant’s Army of the Tennessee could be joined by Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio.

It was a bold, even brilliant idea, and its prospects for success were multiplied by Grant’s unsuspecting assumption that Johnston’s forces were in no shape to launch an offensive. If the very idea of the attack at Shiloh vindicates Jefferson Davis’s lofty appraisal of Johnston, the manner in which Johnston executed it reveals his greatest flaw as a commander. It was a failing he shared with no less a figure than Robert E. Lee. Like Lee, Johnston saw his role as strategic, and he accordingly left the tactical execution of his strategy to his subordinates. Like Lee, he avoided issuing direct, detailed orders and instead drew up a strategic outline. He relied on Beauregard to fill in the operational details and make it work.

Beauregard, it turned out, was not up to the assignment.

Ordered to advance on April 2, Beauregard should have executed a swift and stealthy movement that would ensure the preservation of surprise. Instead, lack of detailed planning and follow-through supervision resulted in lines of march that crossed and recrossed one another, creating a snarl of confusion and delay. The attack was supposed to be made on April 4, but the army was not in position until April 5. Both of Johnston’s subordinates, Beauregard and Braxton Bragg, advised their commanding officer to call off the operation. They were convinced that the snags, the noise, the delays had surely been more than enough to alert the Union forces in the area to the army’s presence. Although they calculated that the opposing forces were evenly matched at about fifty thousand men each (Grant actually fielded about forty-two thousand), Beauregard and Bragg assumed that Grant, expecting the attack, had entrenched his forces “to their eyes,” making for an impregnable objective. Moreover, undisciplined troops had consumed five days’ rations in just three. They were hungry and probably in no condition to give their best.

Johnston listened, hearing his generals out, then calmly replied: “I would fight them if they were a million.”

It was not bravado or arbitrary obstinacy that motivated the remark, but a cool, calculated military assessment. This attack, Johnston had concluded, no matter how risky, was the only opportunity he had to save the army and hold on to the Western Department theater.

The attack on Shiloh, April 6, 1862, began with breathtaking success. Grant had taken no defensive precautions whatsoever, and his encampment was soon overrun. Johnston, who had left the detailed planning and execution to Beauregard in the run-up to battle, now appeared everywhere on the battlefield, personally rallying, forming up, and leading troops.

By midday, victory seemed clearly within grasp. That is when Johnston’s troops encountered a pocket of intense, unyielding Union resistance they dubbed the “Hornets’ Nest.” In the initial attack, the Union soldiers had seemed to melt away. Now, at the Hornets’ Nest, wave after Confederate wave broke and fell. Seeing his troops retreat from this redoubt, Johnston dispatched an aide to General John C. Breckin-ridge to re-form his men and get them to return to the attack. Breckinridge personally rode back to Johnston to tell him that, try as he might, he could not get one of his regiments forward.

“Then I will help you,” Johnston quietly replied.

In company with Breckinridge, he rode up to the reluctant regiment and cantered along the line. As he rode slowly by—oblivious to the fire around him—he touched each soldier’s bayonet, as if to anoint their blades. “These,” he said in a voice just loud enough to be heard, “will do the work. . . . Men, they are stubborn; we must use the bayonet.” Reaching the end of the line, he turned in his saddle. “I will lead you,” he said.

And so they all swept forward, fired up, pressing forward behind their general—who, suddenly, reeled in his saddle.

Johnston’s aide, Isham G. Harris, galloped up, catching the general’s shoulder to keep him from falling. Are you wounded? he asked.

“Yes, and I fear seriously.”

Harris and others nearby lowered Albert Sidney Johnston from his horse. Harris frantically felt of his commander, searching for a wound, but he could find none. And yet the general slipped rapidly away. Only after he had died was it discovered that a bullet had entered behind his right knee, severing his popliteal artery. He bled out rapidly into his high cavalry boot, which concealed the wound and the volume of blood it produced. More than likely, given the location of the wound and his position when it was sustained, Johnston had been the victim of friendly fire.

P. G. T. Beauregard was so confident at the end of the day on April 6, 1862, that he reported to Richmond a great victory that had come, tragically, at the loss of the commanding general. In fact, without Johnston to lead, the battle was lost the following day. At the time of his death, Davis considered Albert Sidney Johnston the best general he had. Even after the emergence of Robert E. Lee some two months later in the war, Davis continued to rate Johnston as indispensable. He would attribute the collapse of the Confederate West to his loss.


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.