Last week, you may have read my colleague Hunter’s take on Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax’s quiet protest of Virginia’s Republican senators’ decision to adjourn in honor of the birthday of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. He was a son of Virginia and one of the South’s toughest and most audacious generals until friendly fire took his life in 1863. Robert E. Lee, another Virginian who decided to command Rebel troops to save the slavocracy, was also honored by the legislature a couple of days later. Thus did treason maintain its hallowed place among the standard-bearers of whitewashed American history.
If the states’ GOP lawmakers truly wish to honor a Virginia hero of the Civil War, Gen. George Henry Thomas ought to be their man. But this would bristle the neck hairs of the state’s neo-Confederates and other assorted Lost Cause advocates.
Thomas didn’t join the secessionists intent on keeping millions of human beings in shackles. He stayed with the Union and became one of its most accomplished generals. For this, he was reviled by his own family for the rest of his life and by many white Southerners until the present day. I’ll get back to him in a moment.
The decision last week to once again honor Jackson and Lee was understandably too damn much for the state’s new lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, the second black man in Virginia to be elected to statewide office. His slave ancestors had been manumitted in 1798, and at his inauguration earlier this month, he carried the handwritten document that freed them in the breast pocket of his suit.
Lieutenant governors normally preside over the Virginia Senate, but Fairfax couldn’t bring himself to do it while the praise poured out for these leaders of the rebellion. So, as Stephen A. Crockett Jr. at The Root noted, Fairfax:
… quietly walked off the dais, as he didn’t want to be disrespectful, but as a black man in the South, he didn’t want to hear that shit.
Fairfax bounced, and Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Bedford), the Senate pro tempore, moved into Fairfax’s place. [...]
“There are people in Virginia history that I think it’s appropriate to memorialize and remember that way, and others that I would have a difference of opinion on,” he told reporters afterward, the [Washington] Post reports. “I just wanted to, in a very respectful but very definite way, make it clear that these were not adjournment motions that I felt comfortable presiding over, and I was not going to do it.”
Justin Fairfax, descendant of slaves, shouldn’t have to be so respectful of those who praise a slave-owning secessionist. He ought to be able to say, without damage to his political career, it is the worst kind of bullshit to say slavery was bad, bigotry is bad, then follow up by taking special positive note of a man who ordered others to kill people to guarantee a bright future for human bondage.
Republican Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. was chosen to give Jackson the plaudits this year. The Post reported his words:
“Jackson was not a perfect man. As a devout Christian, he had conflicting views on slavery. But there’s no questioning the fact that in his short life, he became one of the most respected military leaders the modern world has known.”
Many respected military leaders throughout history have been—let me be charitable—morally obtuse. Jackson may have been conflicted, but not enough to free a single one of his slaves. And he chose to fight for the Confederacy whose fundamental reason for going to war was the prospect that otherwise the “peculiar institution” could not be spread to additional U.S. territories.
George Henry Thomas, on the other hand, chose to remain true to the oath he had taken when he graduated from West Point in 1840. When the war ended, he was a major general with a sterling record, though he was not as much credited in his own time as he should have been.
He fought in Second Seminole War, the U.S.-Mexican War, and in the early Comanche wars. When the guns opened up on Fort Sumter in 1861, he informed his sisters he would stay with the Union. They turned his pictures to the wall, denied they even had a brother, and returned his letters unopened. His brothers too no longer spoke to him. When he died in 1870, nobody in his family except his New York-born wife attended.
At Smithsonian magazine, Ernest Furgurson has written:
Thomas would earn the undying loyalty of soldiers like Henry Van Ness Boynton, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor fighting under him in 1863. Boynton wrote that Thomas “looked upon the lives of his soldiers as a sacred trust, not to be carelessly imperiled. Whenever he moved to battle, it was certain that everything had been done that prudence, deliberation, thought and cool judgment could do under surrounding circumstances to ensure success commensurate with the cost of the lives of men. And so it came to pass that when the war ended it could be truthfully written of Thomas alone that he never lost a movement or a battle.”
But for Thomas, every battlefield success seemed to stir controversy or the jealousy of ambitious rivals. Unlike other noted generals, he had no home-state politicians to lobby on his behalf in Washington. Ulysses S. Grant, for example, was championed by Illinois congressman Elihu Washburne, and Sherman by his brother, Ohio senator John Sherman. For Thomas, every step upward depended solely on his performance in the field.
In one of the war’s first skirmishes, he led a brigade in the Shenandoah Valley that bested Confederates under Stonewall Jackson. When the dashing Rebel J.E.B. Stuart heard that Thomas was commanding Union cavalry, he wrote to his wife that “I would like to hang him as a traitor to his native state.” Even after that, there was lingering doubt among some Unionists, including Lincoln.
From that early battle until the end of the war, Thomas succeeded when other generals failed. In 1862 in Mill Springs, Kentucky, he led his weary troops against a larger Rebel force, driving them back into Tennessee. In Mississippi, he gained admiration when he noted at Stones River that “This army does not retreat” and proved it in the fight.
As Thomas rose, he proved to his men that his addiction to detail and his insistence on preparation saved lives and won battles. His generalship behind the front, before the battle, was generations ahead of his peers. He organized a professional headquarters that made other generals’ staff work seem haphazard. His mess and hospital services, his maps and his scouting network were all models of efficiency; he was never surprised as Grant had been at Shiloh. He anticipated modern warfare with his emphasis on logistics, rapidly repairing his railroad supply lines and teaching his soldiers that a battle could turn on the broken linchpin of a cannon. He demanded by-the-book discipline, but taught it by example. He made no ringing pronouncements to the press. His troops came to understand his fatherly concern for their welfare, and when they met the enemy they had faith in his orders.
In Chattanooga, in the late summer of 1863, under a vigorous assault by Confederate troops along Chickamauga Creek, six Union generals broke off and retreated with thousands of troops into the city. But Thomas gave his troops the inspiration to hold fast all day, saving the army there from devastation, and becoming known from then on as the “Rock of Chickamauga.” Gen. U.S. Grant fired one of those retreating generals and put Thomas in charge of holding the city. It was tough going. The Union troops almost starved, but eventually prevailed. After a battle in which they took the heights above the city, Thomas wanted a cemetery built on the site, and a chaplain asked if he wanted to divide the graves by state. Thomas replied: “No, no! Mix them up. Mix them up. I’m tired of states’ rights.”
In late 1863, United States Colored Troops were filling the depleted ranks of the Union armies. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was one of the many generals who resisted having black soldiers under his command. Thomas was glad to have them. In the bloody fight for Georgia in 1864, under Sherman’s command, Thomas led the way, but, typically, got none of the credit publicly or privately. Later in the year, after another victory in Kentucky at Franklin, Thomas returned to Tennessee, and at Nashville, with a force including two brigades of black troops, crushed the Rebel troops under one of the South’s most effective generals, John Bell Hood.
During Reconstruction, [Thomas] commanded troops in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. He was considerate toward ragged defeated soldiers, but he was as strict as the angriest Northern Radical in opposing the Ku Klux Klan and defiant politicians. “Everywhere in the states lately in rebellion, treason is respectable and loyalty odious,” he said. “This, the people of the United States, who ended the rebellion and saved the country, will not permit.”
As I said earlier, Thomas deserves applause, but for lawmakers to do it formally would make the state’s neo-confederates go all squinty-eyed.
So, if he is just too much for these political relics to honor, they could pick a Virginia civilian instead, the abolitionist Moncure Conway:
"He was the most radical white male who grew up in the antebellum South," said John d'Entremont, a history professor at Randolph Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Va., and author of an award-winning 1987 biography of Conway.
Conway—the black sheep of his prominent, slaveholding family after he became a Unitarian minister, radical feminist and abolitionist—also was honored last summer  with a state historical marker in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he led 30 or more of his family's slaves to freedom.
You can read more about him in Southern Emancipator: Moncure Conway: The American Years, 1832-1865.