Thomas offered an alternative method of conducting war to that of Grant.
Thomas's method can be summed up as follows: Take care of your men and
train them well, plan thoroughly so as to put yourself in the position
to improvise with minimal risk, force or trick your opponent to attack
you on ground of your choosing, know the terrain better than your opponent
does, have a reserve ready for flanking movements, be open to technological
innovation, NEVER throw massed forces against a single point of your opponents
line (because it almost never really works and is always expensive), and
strike hard when it counts. Thomas always tried to coordinate attacks at
2 or 3 or more different points of the enemy's position so that the enemy
commander could never know which was the main thrust. This method requires
a lot of very dull homework on the part of the practitioner, which doesn't
recommend it to the hasty or the distracted.
In this Thomas was in agreement with Rosecrans who did well enough by
this method until he disregarded Thomas's advice to first consolidate in
Chattanooga before going after Bragg in Georgia. Instead Rosecrans got
overconfident (also bowing to intense pressure from Washington), dispersed
his forces, and stumbled into a battle before he had got set (fn5).
Following the above named precepts, Thomas had been phenomenally successful
until then in every battle or segment thereof where he had commanded. On
the other hand, Grant's method was a study in contrasts to that of Thomas.
Grant sums it up himself in his Chattanooga battle report in this way:
“…the great object being to mass all the force possible against one given
point.” This was in accordance with the Napoleonic doctrine taught at West
Point before the war, but already outdated in 1849 with the introduction
of the minié bullet and rifling. Grant's method would still work
given a preponderance of force, but the human cost would be very high.
However, Grant had an advantage over Thomas: Grant was from Ohio. Thomas
was from Virginia and had therefore renounced his political base when he
returned south "at the head of my men" (fn6). It is difficult
for us today to conceive the importance of regional politics and its effect
on the military of those times, because our political parameters have changed.
Today corporations dominate politics, but back then the dominant forces
were the state political machines. Thomas had no potential usefulness to
these machines and their would-be president makers and exploiters. Indeed,
there were many politicians who professed to distrust Thomas, suspecting
him of doubtful loyalty and perhaps, in the long run, of not being amenable
to a policy of looting a defeated adversary.
Before I begin discussing this confrontation I want to outline the possible
background of a personality conflict between Grant and Thomas. Consider
what it was like to be a career officer in the pre Civil War army. If you
were from the South, and especially from Virginia, you had the better chance
of promotion because of Virginia’s decades long domination of the war department.
Northern born officers therefore had years to conceive and then nurture
a grudge against southern born officers. For whatever reason, Grant’s career
had stagnated before the Civil War, and Thomas, the quintessential Virginian,
had made steady progress. Of course, this disadvantage was completely reversed
with the start of the war, but that does not mean that old resentments
were forgotten. After the unprecedented carnage of Shiloh, Halleck arrived
on the scene and took charge. He apparently disapproved of the way Grant
had handled the battle, so he made Grant a supernumerary second in command,
placed Grant’s troops under Thomas, and spent most of his time at Thomas’s
headquarters (the right wing) during the slow approach to Corinth. Grant
was decidedly unhappy about this, although he probably needn't have been
(fn7). Shortly thereafter, Thomas requested that Grant’s
troops be restored to him, perhaps thereby only adding fuel to the fire.
Finally, every one of Grant’s victories up until his arrival at Chattanooga
had drawn much criticism. Knowing this as well as anyone, Grant faced Thomas
whose record of command success to that point had been an unimpeachable
100 % (fn7.5).
On the other hand, Thomas must have resented Grant’s very presence there
as an affront and a suggestion that Thomas couldn’t do the job alone (fn8).
Thomas also surely did not approve of Grant’s improvised approach to doing
battle which led to avoidable suffering and death among the troops in his
own commands (fn9). At some point he perhaps began to
suspect that Grant had even deeper motives for being there. So, when Grant
arrived at Chattanooga on 23 Oct. 1863, the stage was set for a behind
the scenes confrontation. They both knew each other very well, and both
had reasons for mistrusting the other. According to adjutant James H. Wilson's
often and variously retold anecdote about Grant’s first arrival at Chattanooga,
Thomas let him know from the beginning he wasn’t particularly welcome (fn10).
However, according to Horace Porter in his "Campaigning with Grant"
the scene was quite different: Porter recounts that a member of Thomas's
staff first pointed out the situation. Apparently Grant had first ordered
a staff meeting before worrying about his creature comforts, and summoning
the staff officers seemed to be Thomas's first priority after the hasty
meal. But Wilson's anecdote, harmless as he tells it but villainous as
the apologists retell it, is the version most commonly cited (fn11).
Another factor influencing Grant's behavior was the freshness of his
promotion to commander of the Division of the Mississippi. If successful
in Chattanooga, Grant could expect to be called east in order to deal with
the Lee problem on which many a good man before him had bitten out his
teeth. However, if Grant were to stumble in his new assignment, the only
possible choice to succeed him would have been Thomas. To buttress his
position for the moment and against the possibility of future setbacks
in the East, Grant needed a certain kind of victory in Chattanooga, one
which would propel his fairly pliant lieutenant Sherman forward and not
unduly enhance the reputation of Thomas. Sherman’s limited grasp of battlefield
dynamics didn’t matter. His political connections (his brother a U.S. senator,
father-in-law a former senator) and his willingness to apply himself to
Grant’s larger design did matter. In other words, Grant came to Chattanooga
in order to head Thomas off at the pass, already planning to promote Sherman
over Thomas at the end of this battle. Politically at least it was "nolo
contendere" because Thomas was one of those rare top commanders who focused
more on the military objective than his personal advancement. However,
as far as the strictly military objective of securing Chattanooga and doing
as much damage to Bragg’s army as possible was concerned, Thomas would
not back down, not even to Grant.
Grant’s plan consisted of giving Sherman the major role and the credit
for the victory, and as little as possible of both to Thomas. Sherman was
to have the bulk of the troops, and Thomas and Hooker were to do no more
than demonstrate and then cooperate with Sherman once Sherman had crushed
Bragg's northern flank. This plan is outlined in Grant's order of 18 Nov.
63 to Thomas and Sherman which I quote here from Grant's battle report
of 23 Dec.63:
Maj. Gen. GEORGE H. THOMAS: All preparations should
be made for attacking the enemy's position on Missionary Ridge by Saturday
at daylight. Not being provided with a map giving names of roads, spurs
of the mountains, and other places [but he did have a scientific contour
map], such definite instructions cannot be given as might be desirable.
However, the general plan, you understand, is for Sherman, with the force
brought with him, strengthened by a division from your command, to effect
a crossing of the Tennessee River just below the mouth of Chickamauga,
his crossing to be protected by artillery from the heights on the north
bank of the river (to be located by your chief of artillery); and to secure
the heights from the northern extremity to about the railroad tunnel before
the enemy can concentrate against him. You will co-operate with Sherman.
The troops in Chattanooga Valley should be well concentrated on your left
flank, leaving only the necessary force to defend fortifications on the
right and center, and a movable column of one division in readiness to
move whenever ordered. This division should show itself as threateningly
[only a “demonstration”] as possible on the most practicable
line for making an attack up the valley. Your effort then will be to form
a junction with Sherman, making your advance well toward the northern end
of Missionary Ridge, and moving as near simultaneously with him as possible.
The juncture once formed, and the ridge carried, communications will be
at once established between the two armies by roads on the south bank of
the river. Farther movements will then depend on those of the enemy.