Federal Judge Bill Wilson recently asked the editorial department of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette if he could write an op-ed piece responding to editorial page editor Paul Greenberg’s column in support of the state’s joint celebration of the birthdays of Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King Jr. When Greenberg responded through a secretary that a letter to the editor might be more appropriate, Wilson offered the op-ed to us.
It has always seemed incongruous to me to honor a man of war (Gen. Robert E. Lee) on the same day we honor a man of peace (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). As everyone knows, when the move to designate a day in honor of King gained a full head of steam, designating the same day to honor Lee was an “in-your-face move” by those who opposed honoring King at all, but didn’t care to go on record in opposition.
King was one of the world’s great champions of social justice. Lee was a superb military commander and a picture-book Southern gentleman, but he led a cause which, if successful, would have preserved human bondage for an unknowable length of time. He did not personally oppose slavery. At the outset of hostilities, Lee was offered command of the Union Army, but declined and chose to fight for his state, against his nation.
King’s role in history was singular and he should have a day of his own.
Since, however, we Southerners seem to have the martial spirit in our genes, why shouldn’t we honor someone who fought to preserve the nation during that great struggle? A likely candidate is a man little known to popular history — Gen. George H. Thomas, USA, who earned the sobriquet “The Rock of Chickamauga” during that crucial battle in Georgia.
Who is Thomas? William Tecumseh Sherman said on the dedication of a monument to Thomas in Washington, D.C., in 1870, “Brave George Thomas … will become the idol of the South.” Sherman’s prediction that Southerners would make pilgrimages to the monument did not come to pass, however.
Thomas was born in Virginia, near the site of the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion. His family owned slaves. In his early years, he read the Bible to slaves and helped them learn to read and write. An 1840 West Point graduate, he, unlike many other West Point officers, honored his oath to defend the American flag and the union for which it stands. His family and friends in Virginia disowned him. His sisters turned his portrait to the wall and thereafter insisted that their brother no longer existed.
Let’s consider a few of the high points of Thomas’ career:
• He won every engagement he commanded with the Army of the Cumberland.
• On Jan. 19, 1862, he won the Battle of Mill Springs, the first major Union victory.
• He used the most highly developed telegraph service of any army on either side, a service that made it possible to coordinate dozens of widely scattered units when he won the Battle of Nashville, which ended the war in the western theater.
• He had the Civil War’s most efficient hospital service. Use of chloroform was standard and rail cars were used as field hospitals.
• He employed the first female doctor in the Army, Mary Walker.
• He concentrated on the training of African-American troops and was the only commander under whom “colored” troops played a key role in a decisive battle (Nashville).
• He attempted to deal with unauthorized absences by good example rather than the noose. He never took a day of leave during the war.
• In September 1863, during two days of battle along Chickamauga Creek, a few miles south of Chattanooga, Thomas led the Union defense after the Union right collapsed. His troops withstood violent attacks on the left by the entire Confederate army, until the arrival of troops under Granger allowed the Union forces to withdraw. Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland then played a key role in the crucial Union victory at Chattanooga.
• After the war, Thomas was made governor of five Southern states, headquartered in Nashville. He took special effort to protect African-American troops and won the respect of people in Tennessee, who made him an honorary citizen of the state.
After the war, the citizens of Rome, Ga., marked the anniversary of Georgia’s secession by displaying the Confederate flag. Thomas ordered the offenders arrested. The mayor of Rome protested, saying no disrespect to the Union had been intended.
Thomas responded: “The sole cause of this and similar offenses lies in the fact that certain citizens of Rome and the people of the states lately in rebellion have not accepted this situation and that is, that the late Civil War was a rebellion and history will so record it.”
It would be wrong to assume that Thomas was an abolitionist before the outbreak of the war. By the end of the war, it appears that he had developed hostility to slavery, but there’s little in the record. He destroyed all his papers before his death in 1870. He said, “All I did for my government are matters of history, but my private life is my own and I will not have it hawked for the amusement of the curious.”
I again emphasize that Dr. King should have a day of his own, but if he must share his day of honor with a military leader, Thomas appears to be the companion rather than Lee.
If the latter-day Lost Cause devotees want to have a day set aside in honor of Lee, let ’em do it on another day.