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Book: Master of War: The Life of George H. Thomas

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Just received this recent book written by Benson Bobrick about union general George H. Thomas. I had high hopes it would be interesting and educational because there are few books on Thomas and I think he was a very capable general. I am sadly disappointed, not only are there a number or factual errors but the book runs heavily to maligning Grant and Sherman. Interesting to read reviews of the book on Amazon.com. I would not recommend this book to anyone. I waisted my money.

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George H. Thomas, the authorized biography


What I believe to be the “best book” on General George H. Thomas is actually a trilogy: the General admonished his biographer to write the History of his Army first; and then devote "whatever energy was yet needed" to compiling his biography. So Thomas B. Van Horne wrote the two volume (950 pages) “History of the Army of the Cumberland” (published 1875) and “The Life of Major General George H. Thomas” went to print in 1882. Both works were published after General Thomas' death in 1870.

Naturally, I began reading “The Life of Major General Thomas” first... but although interesting and moderately detailed, it felt “incomplete.” [The Battle of Shiloh was accorded only one paragraph.] So I put that work aside and commenced “History of the Army of the Cumberland,” and came to an unexpected realization: General Thomas wanted the History of his Army to be the history of him. And the Biography generated by Thomas Van Horne was created primarily to act as “clean-up,” addressing any material not covered in two volumes of Army of the Cumberland. The strategy works; but it is a LOT of material to cover and process: over 1500 pages. A good feel is gained of General Thomas and what became his Army after about 200 pages; and the degree of interconnected development continues to build and progress, until George Thomas and the Army of the Cumberland become one. Everything one could hope for is addressed through these three volumes (although, as in the case of Thomas' relationship with U.S. Grant, that requires compiling facts dispersed throughout the three-volume work.) And the revelation that General Thomas kept Personal Journals (provided to Thomas Van Horne for creation of these works) adds an extra level of authority to the story of the General and His Army.

All three volumes are available at archive.org (links below):

https://archive.org/details/historyofarmyofc01vanh/page/n11/mode/1up  History of Army of the Cumberland, Vol.1

https://archive.org/details/historyofarmyofc02vanh/page/n6/mode/2up     History of Army of the Cumberland, Vol.2

https://archive.org/details/lifemajorgenera00horngoog/page/n8/mode/2up  Life of Major General George H. Thomas

https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/21327077/thomas-budd-van_horne  Chaplain Van Horne at find-a-grave


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...and one more thing, as regards Memoirs

Okay, I'll admit it: I'm lazy. And when I study History, I do not want to have to lift every rock and dislodge every stone, and then wade through the minutia scraped free and sort fact from fiction, and prioritize what remains, in order to “know” that bit of history.

Which is why Memoirs are a preferred source of information: first hand accounts, by someone who was there; or at least, contributed in some important way. But the problems with memoirs: time lag (from time of observation to act of writing the memoirs, years and years may pass, allowing “sorting” of the important from the unimportant; but some potentially vital facts are forgotten, or miss-remembered at time of writing); bias (every writer has a bias); agenda (Is this written for family and friends? Is this propaganda to grease the wheels of a political career? Is this written to advance claims for more responsibilities and promotion? Is this an attempt to shift blame?)

Another problem with Memoirs: the omnipresent “ I “ ...as in “I did this,” and “I ordered that.” After a while, too much “ I “ sounds self-serving, even from the most saintly of characters.

Which is why the Authorized Biography may assume pride of place, ahead of personal memoirs. The tale is written in Third Person: “HE” did this; and HE ordered that. The feeling is as if the actions were pre-ordained; and a casual observer has taken note of proceedings, and merely recorded what took place. But the end result: a Memoirs, without the pesky “ I.”

At one time, I bemoaned the lack of memoirs produced by General George H. Thomas. (His untimely death in 1870 prevented those ever being produced.) But now, having read the trilogy produced by Chaplain Thomas Van Horn who made use of journals produced by George Thomas, there arises a realization that this authorized biography is effectually the Memoirs of General George Thomas, written in the Third Person.

Sometimes the Truth hides in plain sight.



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