Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
George Henry Thomas
By James Abram Garfield (18311881)
[Born in Orange, Ohio, 1831. Died at Elberon, N. J., 1881. Works. Edited by Burke A. Hinsdale. 1882.]
HIS career was not only great and complete, but, what is more significant, it was in an eminent degree the work of his own hands. It was not the result of accident or happy chance. I do not deny that in all human pursuits, and especially in war, results are often determined by what men call fortunethat name for the unknown combinations of infinite power. But this is almost always a modifying rather than an initial force. Only a weak, a vain, or a desperate man will rely upon it for success. Thomass life is a notable illustration of the virtue and power of hard work; and in the last analysis the power to do hard work is only another name for talent. Professor Church, one of his instructors at West Point, says of his student life, that he never allowed anything to escape a thorough examination, and left nothing behind that he did not fully comprehend. And so it was in the army. To him a battle was neither an earthquake, nor a volcano, nor a chaos of brave men and frantic horses involved in vast explosions of gunpowder. It was rather a calm, rational concentration of force against force. It was a question of lines and positionsof weight of metal and strength of battalions. He knew that the elements and forces which bring victory are not created on the battle-field, but must be patiently elaborated in the quiet of the camp, by the perfect organization and outfit of his army. His remark to a captain of artillery while inspecting a battery is worth remembering, for it exhibits his theory of success: Keep everything in order, for the fate of a battle may turn on a buckle or a linch-pin. He understood so thoroughly the condition of his army and its equipment that, when the hour of trial came, he knew how great a pressure it could stand, and how hard a blow it could strike.
His character was as grand and as simple as a colossal pillar of chiselled granite. Every step of his career as a soldier was marked by the most loyal and unhesitating obedience to lawto the laws of his government and to the commands of his superiors. The obedience which he rendered to those above him he rigidly required of those under his command. His influence over his troops grew steadily and constantly. He won his ascendency over them neither by artifice nor by any one act of special daring, but he gradually filled them with his own spirit, until their confidence in him knew no bounds. His power as a commander was developed slowly and silently; not like volcanic land lifted from the sea by sudden and violent upheaval, but rather like a coral island, where each increment is a growthan act of life and work .
A very few of our commanders possessed more force than Thomasmore genius for planning and executing bold and daring enterprises; but, in my judgment, no other was so complete an embodiment and incarnation of strengththe strength that resists, maintains, and endures. His power was not that of the cataract, which leaps in fury down the chasm, but rather that of the river, broad and deep, whose current is steady, silent, irresistible .
His modesty was as real as his courage. When he was in Washington in 1866, his friends with great difficulty persuaded him to allow himself to be introduced to the House of Representatives. He was escorted to the Speakers stand, while the great assembly of representatives and citizens arose and greeted him with the most enthusiastic marks of affection and reverence. Mr. Speaker Colfax, in speaking of it afterward, said: I noticed, as he stood beside me, that his hand trembled like an aspen leaf. He could bear the shock of battle, but he shrank before the storm of applause.
He was not insensible to praise; and he was quick to feel any wrong or injustice. While grateful to his country for the honor it conferred upon him, and while cherishing all expressions of affection on the part of his friends, he would not accept the smallest token of regard in the form of a gift. So frank and guileless was his life, so free from anything that approached intrigue, that when, after his death, his private letters and papers were examined, there was not a scrap among them that his most confidential friends thought best to destroy. When Pheidias was asked why he took so much pains to finish up the parts of his statue that would not be in sight, he said: These I am finishing for the gods to look at. In the life and character of General Thomas there were no secret places of which his friends will ever be ashamed.
But his career is ended. Struck dead at his post of duty, a bereaved nation bore his honored dust across the continent, and laid it to rest on the banks of the Hudson, amidst the tears and grief of millions. The nation stood at his grave as a mourner. No one knew until he was dead how strong was his hold on the hearts of the American people. Every citizen felt that a pillar of state had fallenthat a great and true and pure man had passed from earth.