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Introduction to the Thomas Family Correspondence
By George Rugg
George Thomas (1821-1905) was born in Mercer County, Kentucky, the son of William Y. Thomas and Mary Ferguson. In 1825 the family moved west to Spencer County, Indiana, where William Thomas established a farm, located in Ohio Township near the Ohio River community of Rockport. George Thomas would own and manage this farm for much of his life, becoming one of the county's more prosperous citizens. The 1860 Federal census appraises Thomas's real estate at $8,000; the same figure in the 1870 census is $15,000. On 2 May 1850 Thomas married Minerva Everton (1831-1868), of Spencer County. Children of the couple mentioned in the correspondence are Flora (b. c1852); Belle (b. c1854); Scott (b. c1856); Eugene (b. c1858); Grace (b. 1860); and Ella (b. 1862).
On 10 March 1862 George Thomas was mustered in to Federal service, as quartermaster of the newly organized 53rd Indiana Infantry. He had enlisted in the army the previous October, having spent much of the ensuing winter in Rockport, aiding with the organization of the 62nd Indiana a body of recruits ultimately consolidated into the 53rd. Thomas served the regiment as quartermaster until his resignation from the army, effective 15 May 1864. Regimental quartermaster was a staff position, typically bearing the grade of lieutenant; its responsibilities included transporting and quartering the regiment's men, and moving and storing supplies, equipment, and fuel.
The Thomas correspondence comprises fifty letters and one note; all but two of these date from the months between January 1862 and November 1863. Thirty-five of these items were written by George Thomas from the field, to his wife Minerva in Rockport. Eleven more were written by Minerva to her husband. The group includes four additional wartime letters addressed to the Thomases, including one written to Minerva by her nephew, Ezra B. Sherwin, then serving in the 14th Wisconsin Infantry.
Through most of 1862-63 the 53rd Indiana saw service in western Tennessee and northern Mississippi; it was involved in several key actions in that theater, including the sieges of Corinth and Vicksburg. As one might expect, the military content of Thomas's letters has less to do with combat than with the logistics (and frustrations) of troop movement and supply, up and down the waterways of the Mississippi Valley. Otherwise, Thomas discusses subjects familiar from many another soldier's letters: his health (which was not robust, and which he fears will be permanently broken by his service); pay (always late); the local progress of the war (on which he is often quite well informed); acquaintances in the army; questions and instructions relating to affairs at home. Throughout the letters Thomas also reveals a keen interest in the surrounding land, and its potential for agriculture. An irony of the correspondence is the military content of several of Minerva Thomas's letters to her husband: there was a good deal of Confederate "guerilla" activity in the area around Rockport.
Organization of the 53rd Indiana was completed on 26 February 1862. Thomas's first surviving wartime letter dates from but two days later, following the 53rd's arrival at Camp Morton in Indianapolis to guard Confederate prisoners captured in Grant's victory at Fort Donelson, Tennessee. Over the following weeks Thomas was obliged to oversee the regiment's transportation south, by rail and steamer. His letter of 27 April 1862 describes the movement of the 53rd (now attached to Grant's Army of Western Tennessee) up the Tennessee River from Savannah to Pittsburg Landing. The goal was the nearby railway center of Corinth, Mississippi (which would be evacuated by its Southern defenders on 25 May). Pittsburg Landing had been the site, on 6-7 April, of the battle of Shiloh, whose appalling casualty totals 20,000 killed and wounded were to that point in the war unprecedented. Thomas's wonderment at the firepower brought to bear by the contending armies, as evidenced by the devastation of the landscape, was echoed by many other observers, as was his sense that "It does not look to me as if a man could have taken any position and have remained in that position and escaped." The numbers Thomas cites to rationalize the Union performance at Shiloh are grossly inaccurate. In fact, each side had around 40,000 men on the first day of the battle, while Union reinforcements gave Grant a decided numerical advantage on the second day.
Though aligned with the Union, the Ohio River border area of Kentucky and Indiana had mixed political sympathies, and was the scene of much Confederate guerilla activity. In her letter of 20 September 1862, Minerva Thomas writes of an attack on the town of Owensboro, Kentucky, located only a few miles down the Ohio from Rockport. In most of its essentials her account is accurate. A Confederate force of around 500 men did take Owensboro, killing the Kentuckian commanding the garrison. Colonel John W. Crooks' 4th (Spencer County) Regiment of the Indiana state militia crossed the river and drove the Confederates from the town. Crooks then pursued the retreating Confederates and defeated them at Panther Creek, eight miles from Owensboro. Several weeks later, on the occasion of another threat against Owensboro, the Indiana state militia declined to cross the river.
Like many other units in the Western theater, the 53rd Indiana was ordered downriver in the late spring of 1863 to reinforce Grant's campaign against Vicksburg the "Gibraltar of the West." This was the key remaining Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi; its fall meant the opening of the river to the Union. Thomas wrote a number of letters from Vicksburg. In the first, dated 18 May, the regiment has just arrived below Vicksburg, having been forced to disembark above the town, march, and re-embark to avoid the batteries that still controlled the river. Thomas also provides an account of Grant's dramatic campaign into the interior of Mississippi though by the 18th the Union commander had already returned to the river and was preparing to attack Vicksburg from its landward side. These attacks failed, necessitating a siege. On 21 May the 53rd Indiana moved up to the Confederate defensive perimeter, and began to entrench. For most of the siege the regiment was situated toward the south end of the encircling Union lines, just east of Hall's Ferry Road. Vicksburg surrendered to Grant on 4 July 1863; in a letter of that date Thomas offers the hope that the event will mark "the begining of the rapid decline of the power of the Rebellion." A subsequent letter (12 July) summarizes the implications of the campaign. At this point in the war, prisoners were generally being exchanged rather than permanently imprisoned in camps. The "very cheering news from the East" refers of course to the Federal victory at Gettysburg on 1-3 July.
The correspondence sheds no light on Thomas's military career after 3-4 November 1863, when he wrote Minerva from Natchez, Mississippi. The previous March he had written of seeking to resign from the army because of ill health: "If there should be indications of my having as protracted a spell as I had before I will feel it to be my duty, as much as I should regret the necessity of seeking to have my Resignation accepted." Thomas does not reintroduce the subject in his subsequent letters, but on 15 May 1864 he did in fact resign his commission, having served the 53rd Indiana as quartermaster for more than two years.
Provenance note: Fifty of the Thomas letters were purchased by the University Libraries from Pacific Book Auction Galleries, of San Francisco (sale 219, 22 February 2001; lot 15). An additional letter (MSN/CW 5014-44) was purchased in 2002.
Bibliographic note: Eight additional wartime letters written by and to George Thomas are in the possession of Mr. and Mrs. Mark S. Collins III of San Buenaventura, CA. Seven of these were written by George Thomas to his wife Minerva; these are dated 18 April 1862; 1 May 1862; 16 August 1862; 26 September 1862; 28 September 1862; 10 July 1863; and 28 July 1863. There is also a letter written to George by John F. Thomas (12 February 1863). Photocopies of these letters were generously provided by Mr. and Mrs. Collins, and are on file in the Department of Special Collections. The Spencer County Historical Society in Rockport IN provided photocopies of a number of documents pertaining to the Thomas family, including George Thomas's will. A lengthy obituary of Thomas was published in the Rockport Journal Weekly, 3 March 1905. For a roster of the officers of the 53rd Indiana, see Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Indiana, Indianapolis, 1865-69, v. 2, 523-32; for a roster of the enlisted men, see v. 5, 563-89, with additions and corrections in v. 8, 233-39. The regimental history is Garland A. Haas, To the Mountain of Fire and Beyond: the Fifty-third Indiana Regiment from Corinth to Glory, Carmel IN, 1997. For the actions at Owensboro and Panther Creek, see Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Indiana, v. 1, 119-22.
Index of Letters
|MSN CW 5014-1||Letter||January 8, 1859||Memphis, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN CW 5014-2||Letter||January 30, 1862||Rockport, Indiana||Minerva Thomas|
|MSN CW 5014-3||Letter||February 28, 1862||Indianapolis, Indiana||George Thomas|
|MSN CW 5014-4||Letter||March 25, 1862||Savannah, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN CW 5014-5||Letter||March 29, 1862||Savannah, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN-CW 5014-6||Letter||April 3, 1862||Savannah, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN-CW 5014-7||Letter||April 7, 1862||Rockport, Indiana||Minerva Thomas|
|MSN-CW 5014-8||Letter||April 16, 1862||Savannah, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN-CW 5014-9||Letter||April 27, 1862||Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN-CW 5014-10||Letter||May 9, 1862||Rockport, Indiana||Minerva Thomas|
|MSN-CW 5014-11||Letter||May 17, 1862||Camp near Corinth, Mississippi||George Thomas|
|MSN-CW 5014-12||Letter||May 25, 1862||Rockport, Indiana||Minerva Thomas|
|MSN CW 5014-13||Letter||May 25, 1862||[Camp near Corinth, Mississippi]||George Thomas|
|MSN-CW 5014-14||Letter||June 9, 1862||Corinth, Mississippi||George Thomas|
|MSN-CW 5014-15||Letter||June 12, 1862||Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee||Ezra B. Sherwin|
|MSN/CW 5014-16||Letter||July 6, 1862||Rockport, Indiana||Minerva Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-17||Letter||July 13, 1862||La Grange, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-18||Letter||July 22, 1862||Memphis, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN CW 5014-19||Letter||July 28, 1862||Memphis, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN CW 5014-20||Letter||August 20, 1862||Memphis, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN CW 5014-21||Letter||September 20, 1862||Rockport, Indiana||Minerva Thomas|
|MSN CW 5014-22||Letter||September 25, 1862||Rockport, Indiana||Minerva Thomas|
|MSN CW 5014-23||Letter||November 10, 1862||La Grange, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN CW 5014-24||Letter||November 16, 1862||La Grange, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN CW 5014-25||Letter||November 18, 1862||La Grange, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN CW 5014-26||Letter||November 23, 1862||Rockport, Indiana||Minerva Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-27||Letter||December 15, 1862||Gentryville, Indiana||John Hiley|
|MSN/CW 5014-28||Letter||December 21, 1862||Columbus, Kentucky||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-29||Letter||December 30, 1862||Columbus, Kentucky||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-30||Letter||February 12, 1863||Collierville, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-31||Letter||February 15, 1863||Rockport, Indiana||Christopher J. Mason|
|MSN/CW 5014-32||Letter||February 16-19, 1863||Collierville and Memphis, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-33||Letter||February 21, 1863||Rockport, Indiana||Minerva Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-34||Letter||March 15-16, 1863||Rockport, Indiana||Minerva Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-35||Letter||March 17, 1863||Memphis, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-36||Letter||March 19, 1863||Memphis, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-37||Letter||March 23, 1863||Rockport, Indiana||Minerva Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-38||Letter||March 26, 1863||Memphis, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-39 ||Letter||April 9, 1863||Memphis, Tennessee||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-40||Letter||May 18, 1863||Grand Gulf, Mississippi||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-41||Letter||June 10, 1863||Vicksburg, Mississippi||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-42||Letter||June 16-17, 1863||Vicksburg, Mississippi||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-43||Letter||June 18-19, 1863||Vicksburg, Mississippi||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-44||Letter||July 4, 1863||Vicksburg, Mississippi||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-45||Letter||July 12, 1863||Vicksburg, Mississippi||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-46||Letter||July 14, 1863||Vicksburg, Mississippi||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-47||Letter||August 12, 1863||Vicksburg, Mississippi||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-48||Letter||November 3-4, 1863||Natchez, Mississippi||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-49||Letter||February 21, 1865||Jeffersonville, Indiana||Alfred Abshier|
|MSN/CW 5014-50||Letter||[Summer 1862?]||Unknown||George Thomas|
|MSN/CW 5014-51||Letter||Unknown||Unknown||George Thomas|