Most Civil War buffs can tell you that Gen. George Thomas was known as the “Rock of Chickamauga.” But who was “The Savior of Chickamauga?”
In his new book, “General Gordon Granger: The Savior of Chickamauga and the Man Behind Juneteenth,” Robert C. Conner presents a good argument that Granger, a native of Wayne County in central New York, deserves that moniker more than anyone.
Published last month by Casemate of Philadelphia, the book is the first full-length biography of Granger, a West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran who, despite a somewhat cantankerous personality, distinguished himself as a fine soldier and leader during the Civil War.
“He’s a very interesting character, and also a very ornery character,” said Conner. “He’s larger than life, and the Civil War is full of men like him. There were hundreds of generals who fought, and many of them, like Granger, did some significant things.”
While the Battle of Chickamauga, fought in September of 1863 in northwest Georgia, was not a Union victory, things could have been a lot worse if not for the actions of Thomas and Granger.
“On the last day of the battle, the Confederate lines broke through the Union line, but Thomas was holding on up on Snodgrass Hill,” explained Conner. “Granger was commander of the reserve corps, and his orders were ambiguous. Though it wasn’t clear what was going on, he could hear the battle Thomas was in, and on his own authority he marches his reserve corps in that direction.”
Granger’s troops helped Thomas hold out until dark, allowing the rest of the Union Army to escape. The ramifications of Granger’s actions, according to Conner, can not be overstated.
“Chickamauga was not a Union victory, but it could have been a lot worse,” he said.
“Thomas goes down in history as the ‘Rock of Chickamauga,’ and if he hadn’t held on until dark, the whole Union army might have been captured. You might think this is a stretch, but if the whole Army of the Cumberland had been captured, it would have been a devastating blow. Lincoln was worried about his election in 1864, but if Granger doesn’t help Thomas at Chickamauga, Chattanooga a couple of months later is probably not a Union victory, and the whole course of the war and U.S. history is altered.”
Granger remained in the Western Theater of the Civil War, performing well again in the Mobile Campaign before taking over command of all Union troops in Texas.
It was there, after the war was over, that Granger had the responsibility of telling black people that they were no longer enslaved and hadn’t been slaves, at least not legally, since Lincoln released the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.
“In June of 1865, Granger issues orders enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation, and it created a huge stir in Texas,” said Conner.
“Texas hadn’t been conquered during the war, and many Texans couldn’t believe that they were actually going to abolish slavery. When you read the contemporary reports of that day, it’s as if it was completely impossible for there to be free blacks in Texas. And of course, the blacks hadn’t been told. That wasn’t going to happen.”
But on June 19 of that year, Granger issued his order and freedom began spreading throughout Texas. The event is remembered today as part of the Juneteenth celebration held annually in black communities around the country.
In 1876, Granger died in Santa Fe, N.M., where he was commander of U.S. troops in the District of New Mexico.
He was 54.
“Sometimes his temper got the better of him, but most of his troops grew to respect and like him,” said Conner. “He was not a saint by any means and he did drink, and on one occasion made a fool of himself during the war. But he was brave. He was a 39-year-old lieutenant at the beginning of the war, and he went on to do some amazing and significant things to help the Union cause.”
Conner, a former editorial writer for the Daily Gazette, discovered Granger while working at the Grant Cottage in Wilton, where former president and Civil War general U.S. Grant died in 1886.
“I wasn’t at all aware of him, but as I obviously started learning more about Grant and then Thomas, I came across Granger,” said Conner, who lives in Ballston Spa.
“As I looked into him and got more interested in Granger, I realized there wasn’t a biography of the man, and that maybe I could do it.”