Review: Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas by Benson Bobrick

by James Durney on March 5, 2009 · 16 comments

Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas
by Benson Bobrick

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (February 10, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743290259
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743290258

This is a very well written book about one of our more interesting Civil War generals.  George Thomas has a large vocal fan club that is quick to defend his actions and attack those who do not share their adoration.  Much about Thomas is admirable.  He refused to join the Confederacy, even as his family broke with him.  His two sisters are reputed to have turned his portrait to the wall.  He was a faithful subordinate, refusing to replace Don Carlos Buell and supporting William S. Rosecrans.  Thomas’ actions at Chickamauga may have allowed the broken army to reach the safety of Chattanooga, preventing the destruction of a principle Union army.  That day, he earned the nickname “The Rock of Chickamauga”.  He worked well with Sherman during the Atlanta Campaign.  Returned to Tennessee, Thomas organized his forces and defeated the Army of Tennessee during the Battle of Nashville.  However, he was not without problems.  Thomas had a tendency to rub people the wrong way and displayed an astounding lack of understanding of politics.  In addition, Thomas seems to have forgotten simple manners at critical times.  This placed him in a series of unfortunate positions while damaging his chances for major commands.

cppbanner Review: <i>Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas</i> by Benson Bobrick

This book is everything the adoring Thomas fan could want.  George Thomas is always right.  George Thomas always has the answer.  George Thomas is never defeated.  George Thomas can do no wrong.  The other officer causes all of the problems Thomas has.  For much of the book, the “other officer” is Grant and/or Sherman.  This is the biggest of many problems with this book.  Simply put, the author decided Grant is a drunken butcher and Sherman is his crazy buddy.  That this is not accurate, historical or even true seems never to have occurred to the author.  It never occurs to the author either that the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War is a questionable source.  This committee dominated by Radical Republicans attacked anyone who would not bow to them and the author quotes them a number of times to support his attacks.

The book is full of inconsistencies stemming from the author’s adoration of Thomas.  The author tells us Thomas did very well at West Point giving the impression Sherman needed his help.  A few pages later, we are told Sherman graduated sixth and Thomas twelfth in the Class of 1840.  In another place, Thomas’ promotion to Captain gives the impression that he beats a number of others to this rank.  Later, we find he is brevetted to Captain and his promotions were very much at the standard pace for an outstanding officer.

The worst part of the book is the author’s acceptance of the anti West Point bias of the Radicals in Congress; the idea that Jefferson Davis planned secession while Secretary of War and stacked the 2nd Cavalry as a Southern training ground.  In his attack on West Point for teaching secession, the author quotes Benjamin Wade, not the most reliable or uninterested of sources.

A word on footnotes and quotes, there are no footnotes in the text.  In the 30 pages of notes at the end of the book, a chapter and page number links the note to a quote.  The reader needs to count quotes on the page, to determine where a quote came from.  Only quotes are noted.  None of the author’s more startling conclusions or statements rates a source.  Among these are:

“Joseph E. Johnston Outwitted Sherman for much of the Atlanta Campaign”.  I have heard Richard M. McMurry contradict this statement.

Thomas is “The most successful general on either side of the Civil War”.  In addition, “He arguably won the war for the North”.

William S. Rosecrans “was promoted over Thomas to succeed Buell”, ignores Thomas refusing to take command when told Buell was being relived.

Braxton Bragg “was decisively beaten by Thomas at Missionary Ridge”.  This ignores Thomas stating that he did not order the men up the ridge, something which all historians agree on.  Bragg was “decisively beaten” but Thomas & Grant had little to do with it.

This is not a balanced history and I cannot and will not recommend this book.  While well written and very convincing, the book is full of misinformation that will require years of unlearning.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Will Hickox March 5, 2009 at 10:30 pm

Russel Bonds made some excellent comments on the Civil war Discussion Group site:

“Hi guys. I have the book and have picked through it as I work on Atlanta. It is well-written, but it is a hagiography–I wonder if Bobrick would admit that that’s what it is. Also wonder if he set out to right a hagiography, or if it became one as he wrote it? I think the former.

He insists that Thomas was NOT slow, except slow to retreat. (I’ve always been a little puzzled at the extent to which Thomas fans bristle at suggestions that he was slow. What’s wrong with being a little slow, if you’re otherwise perceived as “the Rock” and the best defensive fighter in the Western theater?).

I also don’t understand why you have to either love Thomas, and hate Grant and Sherman, or vice versa. Maybe one of you Yanks can explain it to me.”

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admin March 5, 2009 at 11:55 pm

Will,

THAT’s where I read the hagiography comment. Thanks for bringing that up. I suspect if I were to read the book my review wouldn’t be too different than Jim’s. Any book that insists one man was always right and his critics were always wrong is going to throw up red flags all over the place!

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James Durney March 6, 2009 at 5:59 am

The Thomas fans are dominating the Amazon reviews for this book. The majority are five-star “it rocks” reviews. The reviews that do not fall into line are getting a goodly number of Not Helpful votes. It has nothing to do with the reviews and everything to do with Thomas.

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Stephen Keating March 6, 2009 at 11:58 am

Having read a couple of books on Thomas, it strikes me that the arguments for or against him have more to do with the people having the argument, then with Thomas himself. Everything I have read paints him as a very reticent man.

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Benson Bobrick March 6, 2009 at 8:16 pm

Well, I thank the author for his review. Unlike some other critics, he made a major effort to sift the wheat from the chaff. I disagree with some of Mr. Durney’s assumptions; but that’s to be expected. There’s room for a civil discussion here. I do think he makes some interesting points. At the same time, he inadvertently misstates some things in the book. However, I do not think he did so intentionally. I never said, or even suggest, that Thomas helped Sherman with his studies at West Point. Nor do I ever say, or suggest, that he ordered his men up Missionary Ridge. A series of things done by Thomas account for the Union victory at Chattanooga: in that sense, yes, Thomas was the one who defeated Bragg. But the men went up on their own, as I clearly state. Finally, I quote testimony before the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War far more than its conclusions. The two are very different things. Anyway, I’m genuinely flattered that Mr. Durney found my book “well-written and convincing,” despite its shortcomings, as he views them, and hope that some of my conclusions will not take “years of unlearning,” as he fears. In fact, I would welcome a further dialogue on all these points. If he could write me care of my publisher (Simon & Schuster), I’d be happy to respond. (For obvious reasons, I’m reluctant to post my personal email address on a public site.) Thank you.

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Joe March 6, 2009 at 9:42 pm

Kudos to Benson Bobrick for a very classy, dignified and sharply reasoned response to the mixed review and subsequent debate of his book above. The discussion here certainly makes me want to buy Bobrick’s book and join the debate. Other authors could learn a lot from Bobrick’s professional approach.

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admin March 6, 2009 at 10:43 pm

Joe,

I agree wholeheartedly.

Mr. Bobrick, thank you for taking the time to write to us here at TOCWOC. I’ve forwarded your comments (and your email address in private) to James Durney.

Reply

Benson Bobrick March 6, 2009 at 11:56 pm

I’m grateful to you both for your encouragement of good dialogue. The better email to reach me at, then, is the one I indicate below. Please forward that to James Durney. You are both welcome to contact me at the same address as well.

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admin March 7, 2009 at 12:02 am

Mr. Bobrick,

I have passed along your personal email address to Jim as well.

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Benson Bobrick March 7, 2009 at 12:44 am

My thanks to you both for encouraging good dialogue. The email address given above is the better one to reach me at. Please forward that to Mr. Durney. You are both welcome to contact me at that address as well.

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Russell Bonds March 8, 2009 at 2:01 pm

Let me add to those who appreciate Mr. Bobrick’s conscientious reach-out to the group here. Mr. Bobrick, if you are still reading these comments, I’m the author of the initial one quoted in the first comment above–I enjoyed your book as a part of my current research on the Atlanta Campaign (as I did your “Whirlwind” on the Revolution, some years ago). I think I portray Thomas as extremely capable in my forthcoming Atlanta book, though I think there is room for both he and Sherman to coexist as great generals (fully admitting, however, that Sherman was capable of being, and often was, quite an SOB, both during and after the war). Kind regards, Russell Bonds, Atlanta GA

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Benson Bobrick March 8, 2009 at 8:37 pm

Thank you, Mr. Bonds. I will certainly look forward to your book on the Atlanta campaign. My great-grandfather fought on that campaign all the way to the gates of Atlanta, as I recount in my last Civil War book (“Testament”) based on his surviving war letters. Those letters proved enormously eloquent and detailed (he served in the Western theater of the war for over 3 years) , so I was able to tell much of the story of that arena of fighting through his eyes. It was while working on that book that I became aware of Thomas as a singular figure in the Union high command. Also, there are some details in those letters that might interest you about the Atlanta march. My great-grandfather was a lowly private, but marvelously observant. Also, I’m delighted to learn that you are familiar with my book on the American Revolution, too.

If I may, I just want to add here, as an aside, that one reason Grant & Sherman are treated somewhat harshly in my book is that my book, after all, is about Thomas. And at least in relation to him their behavior was often bad. That being said, I have no quarrel with those who admire qualities (personal and otherwise) that Grant and Sherman both showed in other spheres of their lives. In writing about Thomas, however, I set out to right what I perceived as a grievous wrong. As I saw it, that wrong had been done to him by the two most famous Union soldiers of the war. Again, it’s not that Thomas was a saint, though I believe he possessed a kind of “Washingtonian” greatness. The thing about him was that he was a “man of honor” through and through. And so even when he made a political mistake (for example, not taking over from Buell), you can’t help but admire him for it, because the mistake that he makes is for the most high-minded of reasons (i.e., not to edge out a superior officer, or even to appear to conspire against him). So we are confronted with a difficult paradox: that the very character trait that enables him to shine forth in battle after battle–his fearless determination to do the right thing, and stand firm–is also the trait by which he slowed his own advancement. Can we honestly condemn him for it? I could not find it in myself to do so, though I can follow the reasoning that would find him in some sense at fault.

Well, I have gone on too long, perhaps. Again my thanks. With kind regards, Benson Bobrick

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Benson Bobrick March 9, 2009 at 6:42 pm

It so happens that I’m snowed in here in Vermont, so I unexpectedly have time to add another comment, before I make way for others. I’ll need to be away from my computer in any case until the end of the week.

I had a pleasant note from Jim Durney the other day. I’m hopeful we’ll both find it useful at some point to exchange ideas, even if we don’t win each other over to our respective “sides.”

Now, I wanted to address the concern he expressed in his review that I was somehow slamming West Point. I certainly didn’t mean to give that impression. I described the curriculum and training cadets received, and noted that the school had an engineering emphasis, which is accepted. I wasn’t critical of that, though I noted some had been. I also commended the West Point administration under Robert E. Lee, and the contribution Thomas made to the academy by his distinguished instruction in cavalry and artillery tactics during his relatively brief tenure as a teacher there. The one critical point I raised was whether secession had been taught at any time at West Point before the war. Some said it had been. Others said it merely leaned South. True, I quote Benjamin Wade. But for balance, I also quoted J.E.B. Stuart, who said there was “a strong Southern feeling” at the school. In any case, I raised the issue in the context of a brief discussion as to whether Lee or Thomas had the better grasp of the constitutional issues at stake. I think it’s clear that Thomas did, in the way he reasoned the matter out for himself. Lee is said to have been misled by the legal axioms of one of the textbooks with respect to the right of a state to secede. If Lee was not misled–or if William Rawle’s textbook was not, in fact, the culprit, as some have claimed–I’d be happy to correct it. But that would give Lee’s choosing less excuse. In any case, it was the contrast between Lee and Thomas that I was really trying to draw.

Of course, Thomas went on to become completely expert in all matters of military law, and his right reasoning in this instance demonstrated one aspect of his careful thought.

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Phil LeDuc March 13, 2009 at 2:17 pm

What a pleasure it’s been reading the exchanges here – a far cry from the all-too-often nasty, snarky, and spiteful shots that I’ve seen at other times and on other blogs. Isn’t it funny how dropping or changing just a few words can change the whole tone of a comment without diminishing its content or the point that the author wishes to make.
Best wishes to all the authors and commentators on their various projects.
(And my regards too to Mr. Bobrick for “Whirlwind”, which I read and enjoyed a few years back.)

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Don March 16, 2009 at 8:28 am

Well Mr. LeDuc, I hope you noticed the
“all-too-often nasty, snarky, and spiteful shots” are not coming from the hagiographer’s who right about Thomas!

Reply

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