from Horace Porter’s “Campaigning with Grant”
On October 23rd, a very weary Ulysses S. Grant arrived in Chattanooga. He rode to the headquarters of Major General George Thomas, newly promoted to command the Army of the Cumberland, and replacing William S. Rosecrans. Thomas, who had turned down command of this very army a little over twelve months previously, accepted his new assignment without protest. He understood that the Federal government would not let Rosecrans remain in charge, and also that they would brook no additional recalcitrance on Thomas’s part.
Grant, who was still injured from a fall, had to be helped from his horse and brought inside. He was wet, muddy, and tired from the difficult ride over Walden’s Ridge, the only way into the beseiged city of Chattanooga.
The conventional story has it that Thomas was cold, aloof, and even rude to Grant. I have half a dozen biographies of Grant, including both the much cherished Bruce Catton works and my favorite recent biography of the man, by Brooks Simpson. They all pretty much relfect this same narrative.
As noted in the picture, only a few men were present for this seminal meeting, and fewer still left us a detailed discription of the incident.
The most influential of those descriptions comes to us from James Harrison Wilson, one of Grant’s staffers, a brash young Colonel who in later years would have his own reasons to dislike Grant. Perhaps because of this subsequent animosity, historians tend to take Wilson’s words at face value. In any case, it is Wilson’s account that leaves us with the impression that Thomas received Grant so poorly.
Horace Porter’s “Campaigning With Grant” contains the other significant account. In reading it, I am struck by the fact that Porter did not seem to sense anything like the same tension or animosity between the two men, though he does provide many of the same details (wet uniform, puddle under the chair, Grant warming himself by the fire, etc.) Wilson offers.
Charles A. Dana, in what is an otherwise detail-rich memoir – see, for example, his description of Rosecrans’s council of war on the night of September 19, 1863 – merely describes Grant’s arrival in four words: “wet, dirty, and well.”
I have no reason to doubt that there was friction between Grant and Thomas, but I find myself questioning Wilson’s underlying assumptions anyway. Brain Steel Wills, in his first-rate biography of the latter (“George Henry Thomas; As True as Steel”) has a detailed discussion of this meeting, and provides an interesting observation. The fault might well lie more with the two staffs than with the two generals. Thomas’s military family might have resented Grant, coming in as the new man, to tell them how to wage war in Chattanooga – though again, Porter’s memoir fails to convey any such resentment, and he was on Thomas’s staff at the time. Equally, Grant’s staff was famously protective of their boss, especially John Rawlins – even to the point of jealousy towards other officers.
George Henry Thomas was a famously taciturn man, a reputation guarded by his wife even after his death, when she destroyed his letters and papers. As a result, we will likely never know exactly what Thomas was thinking as Grant drew rein on Walnut and Fourth Streets, Chattanooga Tennessee on the night of October 23rd. But for history’s sake, I wish more than just one account serves as the basis for this oft-described tension between the two men.