Several prominent Union Civil War generals are featured on United States Treasury Notes from the series of 1890 and 1891. Our latest edition of "Better Know Your Notes" looks at the portrait seen on the $5 denomination — General George H. Thomas.
Unlike most Union generals Thomas was a southerner, born in Newsom’s Depot, Virginia in 1816. His family owned slaves who worked their plantation-style farm, and as a young man Thomas witnessed first-hand the violent slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. In 1836 Thomas was appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he was a close friend and roommate of William T. Sherman.
After graduation Thomas served in an artillery company where he became close friends with future Confederate general Braxton Bragg. In 1851 Thomas returned to West Point as an instructor working closely under the school’s superintendent Robert E. Lee. While an instructor at West Point, Thomas taught future Confederate generals J.E.B. Stuart and Fitzhugh Lee. In 1855 Thomas was made a Major in the 2nd Cavalry by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Many of the cavalry’s officers were southerners and when the Civil War broke out in 1861, 19 of the 36 officers resigned including superiors Albert Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee.
Many southern-born officers struggled with loyalty to their home states and to the Union they served. Virginians especially resigned their United States Army commissions in support of defending their home state. Perhaps influenced by his northern-born wife, Thomas stayed with the Union Army. In response, Thomas’ family back home, including his five siblings, completely disowned him and remained estranged from him for the rest of his life. Former student and fellow Virginian J.E.B. Stuart wrote home to his wife: "Old George H. Thomas is in command of the cavalry of the enemy. And I would like to hang, hang him as a traitor to his native state."
Thomas was rapidly promoted through the ranks at the onset of the war, achieving the rank of major general by April 1862. Thomas made a name for himself while leading the defense of a Union retreat at the Battle of Chickamauga on September 19, 1863. As Union lines collapsed against a brutal Confederate assault led by Thomas’ old friend Braxton Bragg, Thomas rallied shattered units at Horseshoe Ridge to hold off the advancing Confederate forces long enough to prevent an all out rout. Future president James Garfield, who was serving as a Union field officer during the battle and had visited Thomas on the field, reported back that Thomas was standing "like a rock" in defense of his position. After the battle Thomas became widely known as the "Rock of Chickamauga." At the Battle of Nashville in December 1864, Thomas’ forces demolished John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee, virtually ending its effectiveness as a fighting force.
In the post war reconstruction era Thomas led various military districts, setting up commissions to protect the rights of freeman and using military forces to defend against threats of the Ku Klux Klan. He was serving as commander of the Military District of the Pacific in San Francisco when he died from a stroke in 1870 at the age of 53. None of Thomas’ blood relatives attended his funeral, having never forgiven him for taking up arms against Virginia. He was buried in Troy, New York.
Thomas was chosen along with other Union generals James McPherson, Philip Sheridan and George Meade to be featured on a new series of notes known as Treasury or Coin Notes beginning with the series of 1890. Thomas is featured on seven different $5 Treasury Note varieties spanning Friedberg numbers 359 to 365.
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