The Illustrious Career of Gen. Stephen Thomas

Front Page / Jul. 17, 2003 12:00am EDT

The Illustrious Career of Gen. Stephen Thomas

People hiking through Bethel occasionally stumble across a small monument on a dirt road up in the rocky hills of Bethel-Gilead. It is set on the foundations of a log cabin, where civil war hero Stephen Thomas was born in 1809.

Bethel-Gilead was a new community then. Thomas’ mother, Rebecca Batchellor, was the daughter of a revolutionary war captain who was one of Bethel-Gilead’s first settlers. Her father was a revolutionary war lieutenant who fought at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. Back then, Bethel-Gilead was very isolated and must have been a harrowing place for the family, especially after Stephen Thomas' father John was killed in the War of 1812.

But in such small settlements neighbors stick together, help each other, and traditionally generate a strong sense of community. Although young Stephen Thomas eventually left Bethel-Gilead, his sense of community was strong, and led to a long commitment to public service. 

Staunch Democrat

He received what was known as a "common school education" in Thetford, worked in the woolen mills there, became a woolens merchant in West Fairlee, and served in various political offices—sheriff, judge, and state legislator. A staunch Democrat, he was nominated twice for lieutenant governor, and was a Vermont delegate to two Democratic Party national conventions, an experience that gave him a strong feeling for American nationhood.

In 1861, while Thomas was in the legislature representing West Fairlee, he served on a committee considering an appropriation of half a million dollars for the civil war effort. Fully understanding the eventual scope of the conflict, he amended the appropriation to a full million.

"Until this rebellion shall have been put down," he said in the House, "I have no friends to reward nor enemies to punish and I trust that the whole strength and power of Vermont, both of men and money, will be put into the field to sustain the Government." The higher appropriation passed unanimously.

Later that year, General Benjamin F. Butler, who was raising a New England division, appointed Thomas colonel of a Vermont regiment.

Thomas, 51, with no military experience, threw himself into recruiting, training, and organizing his regiment of tough, independent Vermont country boys into a disciplined fighting force—the 8th Vermont Volunteers. It was the only Vermont regiment to retain its original colonel throughout its three-year term. They were fortunate to have him, for he proved himself a natural soldier and born leader.

Off to Louisiana

The 8th Vermont went to Louisiana in the spring of 1862. For two years it performed varied services in the gulf region. Sometimes Thomas would lead its expeditions personally, as in August 1862 when he took a couple of companies up river, routed some confederate units and returned with 20 prisoners and 2000 head of cattle.

Thomas also received command of the 1st Louisiana Native Guards, a regiment of black troops. He took them into western Louisiana where, in one week, they rebuilt several bridges, laid fifteen miles of telegraph line, built culverts, rebuilt stretches of track, repelled enemy attacks, captured enemy artillery, and earned official praise from General Butler for their "energy and skill." Thomas was one of the first union officers to command black troops.

In early 1863 the regiment went into the bayous to attack confederate land positions that were supporting the confederate gunboat Cotton in an engagement with the union navy. With extraordinary speed, the 8th Vermont moved three miles to the scene, drove off the enemy, saved a grounded union gunboat, and was commended for "intrepid gallantry."

In the spring of 1863, the 2nd Brigade, of which the 8th Vermont was a part, attacked strongly entrenched confederate positions near Bisland. Thomas displayed an unflinching willingness to expose himself to enemy fire.

When union forces were in danger of being driven back after two days of murderous confederate shelling, he rode to the front of the 8th Vermont battle line, and called out, "Steady, men. Stand firm. Remember, Old Vermont is looking at you today." Their steadfastness paid off, and the rebels abandoned their positions.

In late May, Thomas was in command of the whole 2nd Brigade at the siege of Port Hudson. The black 1st Louisiana Native Guards fought not far from the 8th Vermont. The year before, Thomas had told them that they would have a chance to avenge past wrongs against their race. At Port Hudson, they were as brave as anyone. After numerous assaults in the murderous heat, Port Hudson capitulated and Thomas’ troops marched in with the union army.

In mid-1864, the 8th Vermont joined the Army of the Shenandoah in Virginia, and on Sept. 19 participated in a union assault against the confederates at Opequon Creek. Thomas was again in command of the 2nd Brigade. The carnage was terrible but, an eyewitness reported, "Colonel Thomas sits like a statue on his horse, refusing to dismount, encouraging the men within sound of his voice."

At one point, however, the confederates were able to halt the whole 19th Corps, of which Thomas’ brigade was a part. Thomas ordered the 8th Vermont and 12th Connecticut regiments to fix bayonets. Ignoring shouts from union generals to hold his ground, he rode in front of his Vermonters and called out, "Boys, if you ever pray, the time to pray has come. Pray now, remember Ethan Allen and old Vermont, and we’ll drive them to hell. Come on, old Vermont." He then turned and rode towards the confederate lines with his sword in the air.

The two regiments followed him, driving the rebels from their positions, and allowing the 19th Corps to break the confederate line. The confederates fell back 15 miles to Fisher’s Hill, where Thomas’ troops joined in an assault a few days later that sent the rebels into full retreat.

Battle of Cedar Creek

A month later came the battle of Cedar Creek. The union commander, General Philip Sheridan was away with his top officers, unaware that the confederates were preparing a daring massive attack. Thomas, whose troops were on guard duty, noticed rebel spies reconnoitering union positions. Deploying his brigade with particular care, he rode out himself to reconnoiter in the wee morning hours. He stumbled upon forward units of a confederate offensive, and the full force of the rebel assault began almost immediately.

The battle of Cedar Creek on October 19 was almost a union disaster. The rebels quickly routed one whole corps of the army, leaving the 19th corps exposed. Although Thomas’ brigade was undermanned, with several units detached for duty elsewhere, it was nevertheless among the first units to get into fighting position. It then received orders to carry out an obvious suicide mission—to oppose the main thrust of four confederate divisions, and buy time for the rest of the 19th corps and the union army.

In bloody and vicious hand-to-hand fighting, the brigade, flanked on both sides by the enemy, fought bravely. They fell back, made another stand, and fell back, again and again. They were thus able to delay the attack, allowing other union units to withdraw and re-deploy. But the brigade was almost annihilated. The 8th Vermont Volunteers suffered 68% casualties.

Meanwhile General Sheridan and other senior officers returned to rally the army. Thomas resumed direct command of the 8th Vermont. When union forces counter-attacked, his troops charged with such ferocity that, incredibly, it was the first union regiment to break the confederate line. Thomas was in the thick of the fighting. When his horse was shot from under him, he jumped up and, brandishing his sword, led his men on foot.

Cedar Creek turned into a decisive victory for the union, but it would have been impossible if not for Thomas’ gallantry and leadership, for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

On a farm in Virginia, there is a seldom-visited, crude monument made of Vermont granite, erected in 1885. It cites Stephen Thomas and his 8th Vermont Volunteers for their gallant delaying action. It was purposely left rough on three sides, to underscore that Thomas’ forces faced the enemy in front and on both flanks, and to represent the awful savagery of the battle.

Before the war was out, Thomas was made a brigadier-general. He is Vermont’s only war hero who was a registered Democrat. Afterwards, he became a Republican out of loyalty, he said, to the memory of Abraham Lincoln. He served as Republican lieutenant governor of Vermont, and later was a United States pension agent. He lived out the rest of his life as a farmer.

Thomas died in 1903 at 94, and was buried in Green Mountain Cemetery in Montpelier. Years later, on October 19, 1914—the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek—his devoted old soldiers dedicated the birth marker to him in Bethel Gilead. It’s a bit out of the way, and few people visit it any more. But today’s residents of Bethel-Gilead treat it with care and respect, in memory of a great man—and Bethel’s greatest son.

By Chris Costanzo

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