America’s Greatest Warrior? George Henry Thomas and the War in the West

A BGES Civil War Field University Program

Presented by Brian Steel Wills and Robert Jenkins

November 4-10, from Chattanooga, Tennessee

There are some people who just keep appearing in the center of things. In the American Revolution, British peer Lord Charles Henry Cornwallis seemed to be in every major military engagement of the war. So, too, it is with George Henry Thomas in the American Civil War. If the war is won in the West, then Thomas by definition plays a key role. Some historians of note, such as Thomas Buell (Warrior Generals) and Albert Castel (Articles of War), have suggested that Thomas may have been the best officer in the Civil War. What does his contemporary biographer think?

George Henry Thomas will always represent a conundrum as the Virginian who sided with the North in the American Civil War and emerged as one of the Union’s best and most successful general officers. Born in Southampton County, Virginia, on July 31, 1816, and raised to adulthood in the paternalistic world of Southern slavery, Thomas survived Nat Turner’s slave uprising. He proceeded in his education to the United States Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated in 1840, ranked twelfth, and went on to a broad and distinguished career in the “Old Army” before confronting the crisis of secession and Civil War.

In this glimpse of Thomas’s extraordinary career, we will follow him through many of his most important campaigns and consider the contribution he made to the Union war effort in the critical Western Theater of operations. From Kentucky to Georgia to Tennessee, Thomas’s presence was considerable and essential. We will learn how and why this was the case. In addition to providing a supervisor and critical path tour of many of the greatest battles of the war, you will come away with a greater appreciation for the Virginian who chose to wear blue in a conflict that set him at odds with fellow Southerners until final victory could be achieved and the Union saved.

On January 12, 2022, Brian and Len had an animated and informative discussion about General Thomas and this program. Click here to watch that 70-minute show.


Monday, March 7, 2022

7:30 PM. Have an early dinner and meet at the headquarters hotel in Chattanooga at 7:30 PM. Ezra Warner, the compiler of two volumes of biographical sketches of Union and Confederate commanders, has described Thomas as the “third of the triumvirate who won the war for the Union.” George Thomas enjoyed many nicknames that reflected his character. Whether “Old Pap” to his men or “Slow Trot” to some of his critics, Thomas found early success at Mill Springs in 1862 and demonstrated his reliability and dependability on many other fields such as Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and Nashville.

Meet up with Brian as he addresses these battles and other items of interest related to Thomas and the Union war effort. He will overview the next five days and provide a basis for your lines of inquiry.

Hotel is included, and dinner is on your own.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

8 AM. Have your bags out by 7:45 AM. We are headed for Kentucky, where we will focus on the first big fight in Kentucky at Mills Springs. Despite his West Point credentials and a long period of military service that included recognition for his performance in the War with Mexico, there were significant doubts about George H. Thomas from the very start of the War Between the States. There need not have been. The outcome of an engagement in the misty rain near the Cumberland River at Logan’s Cross Roads, on January 19, 1862, resulted in the destruction of the opposing Confederate army. We will examine this small but significant battle and see how Thomas set a standard for his various tenures as a field commander for the rest of the war. This is a special treat for us, as we will get to see the new National Park Service Visitors Center at this new National Military Park.

We will then push back down into Tennessee just southeast of Nashville and overnight in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Breakfast, lunch, and the hotel are included. Dinner is on your own.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

8 AM. Leave your bags in place; we have another night here. Today our focus will be on the politically essential success at Stones River. The year had been an important one as the front between the opposing sides had pushed the engagement zones to northern Alabama and central Tennessee, whereas at the start of the year the fight was in Kentucky.

At Stones River, General Thomas exhibited his stoutness and determination in the wake of a powerful Confederate attack by Braxton Bragg that drove the Federal right flank and threatened the center of the Union line. The Virginian’s resolve—“There is no better place to die than here”—and his firmness—“This army can’t retreat”—stiffened the will of his commander, Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, and set the stage for a successful conclusion to the fighting at the start of a new year. For Lincoln, a major shift in war aims came into effect on January 1, 1863, a proclamation emancipating slaves. Stones River was the only life preserver in a military storm of failure in Virginia and Mississippi.

As much as we want to treat this history chronologically, we are here and it doesn’t make sense to come back to Nashville later in the week, so we will head to Nashville, a battlefield lost to development. From Fort Negley and perhaps Shy’s Hill, we will discuss Thomas’s destruction of the Confederate army in December 1864.

Within this trip, we will pick up and discuss Thomas after Sherman splits up his army following the fall of Atlanta. It is important to understand Thomas’s role in protecting Nashville and Middle Tennessee while Sherman unleashed his “March to the Sea” toward Savannah. Nashville creates much controversy for Thomas as he exasperates Ulysses Grant with what that general deemed a lack of leadership. Indeed, Grant nearly relieved the Virginian from command and was on his way to Nashville to do that very thing when Thomas struck decisively on December 15, 1864. No doubt flushed with the success he now enjoyed, Thomas called out to his subordinate James Harrison Wilson in an unusual outburst: “Dang it to hell, Wilson, didn’t I tell you we could lick ‘em, didn’t I tell you we could lick ‘em?” The crushing defeat of John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee earned Thomas another nickname: “Sledge of Nashville.”

We will return to the Murfreesboro hotel by 6 PM and have a group dinner

Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the hotel are included.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

7:45 AM. Bags on board, we depart at 8 AM. Every leader has a signature battle that becomes the foundation of their legacy. Today, we reach Thomas’s bedrock with our focus on Chickamauga.

Our trip will move the Federal army from Murfreesboro to Chickamauga. That operation, known as the Tullahoma Campaign, is interesting for real students of the war, and Brian will have his take on Rosecrans vision and Thomas’s role in it. But we will not delay long as our major objective today is Chickamauga.

The South only won one major battle in the west, and it was on the fields behind the Missionary Ridge at Chickamauga Creek. It should have and could have been a big thing. Instead, it ranks as one of the emptiest of all such triumphs in large measure to the strength of George Thomas on the slopes of Snodgrass Hill. Here, Thomas exhibited his best traits as a military commander.

In fighting that stretched across three days, from September 18 to 20, 1863, Confederates under Braxton Bragg with the spear of James Longstreet’s Corps from the Army of Northern Virginia ultimately broke through the Union lines and drove most of William Rosecrans’s army from the field. Only the stubborn defense of the Union left flank at Snodgrass Hill and Horseshoe Ridge by George Thomas prevented the entire collapse of the Union command. From that point, the Virginian in Blue became known as the “Rock of Chickamauga.” Today, we study the performance that more than any other established his public persona as a leader under the most strenuous of circumstances.

We will overnight in Dalton. Hotel, breakfast, lunch, and dinner are included.

Friday, March 11, 2022

8 AM. We depart at 8 AM sharp. As the Federal army fled into Chattanooga, Bragg slowly followed and perched on the high ground of Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain. Rosecrans would soon be toast, and the victorious Grant came to assume command and open lines of supply for the besieged Federals. Thomas had reason to believe he might receive Rosecrans command. However, Grant was the man, and he intended to bring the rest of his team with him. Brian will discuss Thomas’s interface with his new commander. It will lead us to Orchard Knob and Grant’s efforts to sweep the Confederates from his front and the role of Thomas in upstaging Sherman and breaking the siege. You will marvel, as did Grant, looking at the spontaneous surge of Thomas’s troops to the top of the Confederates’ dominating position atop Missionary Ridge—an honor that was supposed to go to Grant’s protégé Billy Sherman.

The success of Grant in November 1863 set the stage for the penultimate campaigns to end the war. At the head of Sherman’s largest army, the Army of the Cumberland, Thomas became the anvil in Sherman’s drive to Atlanta. We will look at operations in the winter of 1864 in and around Dalton finishing the day with the Confederate decision to abandon Dalton and Resaca.

Breakfast, lunch, and hotel are included.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

8:15 AM. Today we have a round-robin trip to the outskirts of Atlanta. Have your bags out by 8 and before our 8:15 departure. Sherman’s move of his behemoth force of which Thomas had the largest command dominates May and June 1864. Today we will drive to two engagements involving Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland—Pickett’s Mill and Kennesaw Mountain. A third significant site, Peachtree Creek, is being covered in detail, along with the Crossing of the Chattahoochee River, on the very weekend before this program starts with Bob Jenkins (Atlanta Part V) on March 4-6, 2022. If you want to get a blow-by-blow with the man who wrote the definitive work, then you are invited to sign up for that program for $375 (a 25% discount) as long as you also are registered for this one. Just check the box.

With the need to return to Dalton by 5 PM today, we won’t go into Atlanta—the traffic is just too unreliable. In a perfect day, we will return sooner. In a typical Atlanta SNAFU, we do not want to be caught inside I-285 late in the day.

Thomas’s stellar performance gives Sherman the stability and firepower to successful encircle Atlanta and force its capitulation. This first significant breakthrough just two months before the presidential election helped Lincoln coast to victory and with it the guarantee of ultimate success in the war on the rebellion.

As we head back, with the war won, Thomas still had work to do. While his life’s journey would be cut short, he lived and served enjoying the rewards of a triumphant officer—promotion within the regular army and the respect of a nation. He had made a strong case for canonization as one of America’s elusive warriors in Valhalla. Brian will summarize and take your questions as we return to and dismiss from our opening hotel in Chattanooga.

Breakfast and lunch are included, but the hotel tonight is not included.

About the Faculty

Brian Steel Wills is a professor of history at Kennesaw State University outside of Atlanta. He is also the Director for the Center for the study of the Civil War Era. In addition to the biography on Forrest, he is also the author of the most recent biography of General George Henry Thomas, As True as Steel. Another of his books is The War Hits Home The Civil War in Southeastern Virginia . Last but certainly not least is his entertaining book Gone with the Glory, the Civil War in Cinema. Each of Brian’s works reveals an expansive view of history and its potential. His interpersonal interactions have proven him to be a popular and engaging speaker. You will enjoy your time with him.

Hotel Information

Your headquarters hotel is the Fairfield Inn and Suites, 1453 North Mack Smith Road, East Ridge Tennessee (423-499-4080). We will make and pay for your reservation there. The remainder of the paid hotels in Murfreesboro, TN (2 nights) and Dalton, GA (2 nites) will be announced. The last day we will do a round trip to the outskirts of Atlanta through Kennesaw (I recommend you see Jenkins do Peachtree Creek–see special offer) and then back to the Fairfield Inn to dismiss. If you drive in you will be able to leave your car in Chattanooga. If you join us from the Jenkins program and ride our bus up you can ride the bus back to Marietta at no additional cost.


The servicing airport is Chattanooga (CHA), served by every major airline. There are rental car companies at the airport. Uber and Lyft offer taxi-type services.

BGES will be doing a weekend program with Robert Jenkins on March 4-6. A bus will be leaving that program on Monday to head to Chattanooga for this program. Should you wish to attend both, you can ride to Chattanooga and back at no charge. The bus will return to the Atlanta area hotel on Saturday night.

Some may find it more attractive to fly into Nashville or Atlanta. No need to rent a car, Groome Transportation runs shuttles on the hour to Chattanooga and their Chattanooga terminal is just 500 yards from our hotel. The cost is about $80 one way, contact them in advance or see them in the airport terminal and arrange your transport on the regularly scheduled hourly run.

Recommended Reading

You will be provided with maps upon arrival. The following books are suggested to enhance your readiness for the program. has a program to support non-profits IF YOU SIGN UP to support Blue and Gray Education Society (EIN 54-1720582) at AmazonSmile. When you sign up there rather than the normal Amazon site, one-half of one percent of your purchase price will be provided to BGES as a donation from Amazon. This will apply not only to this purchase but others you may make at other times. Thank you.


Registration includes five nights hotel, five breakfasts, five lunches, and two dinners; maps; the academic program; support of a professional historian; a tour director; and transportation. We will also provide snacks and cold bottled water.

Register for this program using a secure PayPal link

Registration Type

To register by mail or fax, download this printable registration form: George Henry Thomas and the War in the West

Questions? Need more information? Please contact us.