Lorenzo Thomas was born in Newcastle, Delaware. In 1823, he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He saw action in the (Second) Seminole War and served as General William O Butler’s chief of staff in the Mexican War.
Thomas then became General Winfield Scott’s chief of staff until the out break of the Civil War. In March 1861 he was named Adjutant-General (The Adjutant General, US Army, in the War Department, was the chief administrative officer for the Army.) and two months later, given the rank of Brigadier-General. In March 1863, as punishment for alleged inadequacy, he lost his status as Adjutant (while retaining his rank) and was assigned to organize black troops in the South. After the war he was brevetted a Major-General in recognition of his military services
In late January, 1863, Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts received permission to raise a regiment of African American soldiers. This was the first black regiment to be organized in the north. The pace of organizing additional regiments, however, was very slow. In an effort to change this, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton sent General Lorenzo Thomas to the lower Mississippi valley in March to recruit African Americans. Thomas was given broad authority. He was to explain the administration’s policy regarding these new recruits and he was to find volunteers to raise and command them. Stanton wanted all officers of such units to be white, but that policy was softened to allow African American surgeons and chaplains. By the end of the war, there were at least 87 African American officers in the Union army. Thomas’ endeavor was very successful, and on May 22, 1863, the United States Department of War issued General Order No. 143, establishing the Bureau of Colored Troops. The purpose of the directive was to recruit colored soldiers to assist the Union Army in the fighting of the Civil War.
Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas decided that the officers for the newly formed Corps d’Afrique would come from existing white enlisted volunteers. In order to prepare for the expansion, the authorization was granted to create a Bureau that would certify qualifications of candidates for officer’s commission in the USCT. The process of becoming a white officer in the USCT was very selective. Prospective candidates wrote to the Bureau to receive permission to appear before a board of examiners. This board determined who qualified for an officer’s commission and for what rank the individual demonstrated competence.
Thomas played a pivotal role in the political battle between President Johnson and the Congressional Radicals for control of Reconstruction. When the President decided to fire Secretary of War Stanton in February 1868, he named Thomas to replace Stanton on an ad interim basis and restored the general’s Adjutant status. Thomas was not well respected in the Army, but he had a grudge against Stanton and he supported Johnson on Reconstruction. Thomas personally delivered the President’s dismissal notice to Stanton, but the Secretary refused to accept its legitimacy or to vacate the premises. Instead, Stanton had Thomas arrested for violating the Tenure of Office Act.
When Stanton realized, however, that the arrest would allow the courts to review the law, which was what President Johnson wanted, The Secretary of War had the charges dropped.
Lorenzo Thomas retired in 1869 at the end of Johnson’s term. He died on March 2, 1875 in Washington D.C. and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, DC.
Ref. Albert Castel, The Presidency of Andrew Jackson; Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History; Mark Boatner, The Civil War Dictionary.