Friday, October 15, 2021

Profiles In Georgia National Guard Leadership: Col. J. A. Thomas and 121st Regt.

 By Maj. William Carraway

Historian, Georgia Army National Guard


Col. J. A. Thomas and the 121st Infantry Regiment at Camp Wheeler, Macon, Ga. February 1918.

Colonel James Adrian Thomas Jr. of Macon, Ga. was the first commander of the 121st Infantry Regiment. Thomas led the regiment to the Mexican Border in 1916, directed the 121st through the long mobilization train up for World War I and was responsible for the 121st sobriquet as the Gray Bonnet Regiment.

Thomas was born March 10, 1870 in Dublin Georgia to James Adrian Thomas Sr. and Josephine Thomas. Thomas Sr. was a veteran of the American Civil War who became a prominent attorney[1]. The younger Thomas attended private school before enlisting in the Southern Cadets as a private in February 1887 at the age of 17. As sergeant of the Southern Cadets drill team Thomas traveled frequently representing the Macon organization at competitions and winning several. His education continued at the Georgia Military College in Milledgeville and Gordon Institute (now Gordon State College) in Barnesville.[2] In 1893 he transferred to the Macon Hussars, Company F, 2nd Infantry Regiment. That same year he married Fannie Holt in Vineville, Ga.[3] The couple enjoyed a one-week honeymoon in Florida travelling by rail to destinations across the state.

Thomas commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant Nov. 7, 1895 and was assigned as adjutant of the 2nd Georgia. On July 6, 1896 he transferred to the Macon Light Infantry where he served for nearly two years until mustering into federal service with the 1st Georgia Volunteer Infantry May 2, 1898 for service in the Spanish American War. The 1st Georgia mobilized but did not leave the state of Georgia before the end of hostilities. Thomas was mustered out of federal service November 18.[4]

Returning to the 2nd Georgia April 8, 1900, Thomas resumed the office of adjutant with the rank of captain where his execution of duties was widely recognized. In his report of the encampment of instruction in 1902, Col. Georgia T. Cann, inspector general, observed “The Post-Adjutant Capt. J. A. Thomas Jr., 2nd Infantry, kept with splendid accuracy and care records of the minutest detail pertaining to his duties.”[5] Promotion to major and command of 1st Battalion 2nd Georgia came July 23, 1906.[6]

While Thomas studied at his father’s law firm and was admitted to the bar, he never
practiced law gravitating instead to real estate and by 1910 was firmly established in Macon with the firm of A. T. Holt Co. On Nov. 18, 1912, Col. Thomas assumed command of the 2nd Infantry, replacing Walter Harris who advanced to brigadier general and command of the Georgia Brigade. Shortly after assuming command, Thomas designated the regiment the Old Gray Bonnet after the popular song "Put on your Old Gray Bonnet" by Stanley Murphy and Percy Wenrich which was first released in 1909.[7]

Col. J.A. Thomas (right) and Lt. Col. J. M. Kimbrough, at Camp Cotton, El Paso, Texas in 1916. Photo by 2nd Lt. Vivian Roberts.
On July 2, 1916, the 2nd Regiment of Infantry was mustered into federal service and dispatched to the Mexican Border the following October. For the following five months, Thomas’ infantrymen patrolled the border from El Paso, Texas to Noria, N.M. in support of Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing’s punitive expedition.[8] The regiment returned to Macon in March 1917 but remained in federal service. Over the next three months Thomas’ command was scattered as companies of the 2nd Georgia were detailed as far away as Key West, Fla. guarding railroad bridges and vital infrastructure following the United States declaration of war against Germany.[9]  By June, the 2nd Georgia had consolidated in Macon and would proceed to Camp Wheeler where the regiment initiated a pre-mobilization training regimen under Thomas’ direction. In August 1917, Companies B, C and F of the 2nd Georgia were reorganized as the 151st Machine Gun Battalion. The 151st would serve with the 42nd Infantry Division during World War I. The remaining companies of the 2nd Georgia Infantry were redesignated the 121st Infantry Regiment October 1, 1917.

Post card from Pvt. Ivar Peterson, Company F, 121st Infantry Regiment to his mother depicting troops leaving camp at Camp Wheeler, Ga.
Georgia National Guard archives.

Over the next 12 months, Thomas and the 121st Infantry Regiment prepared for overseas deployment with the 31st Infantry Division. Training consisted of battle drills, weapons familiarization, living and fighting in trench systems gas mask drills and foot marches of ever-increasing distance. After completing more than a year of training the 121st entrained with other units of the 31st Division for Camp Mills, N.Y.

Sheet music for Put on your Old Grey Bonnet. 1909.
The 121st departed Hoboken N.J. bound for France Oct. 5, 1918 aboard the transport
USS Orizaba. Arriving in the port of Brest the 121st was compelled to remain onboard until the ship could be unloaded. While waiting to disembark Thomas fell ill with Spanish Influenza. On Oct. 16, the beloved commander of the Gray Bonnet Regiment died having never set foot in France. He was 48.

Word of Thomas’ death did not reach Macon until October 29.[11] Thousands of mourners attended his funeral and graveside service at Riverside Cemetery in Macon, Ga. Major General LeRoy Lyon, commander of the 31st Division eulogized Thomas as “one of the most efficient National Guard Officers I ever met.”[12]


[1] 1870 Census, Laurens, Georgia, Militia District 342; Roll: M593_161; Page: 309A


[2] The National Cyclopaedia of American biography, being the history of the United States as illustrated in the lives of the founders, builders, and defenders of the republic, and of the men and women who are doing the work and moulding the thought of the present time. Vol. 17. (New York: J. T. White Company 1921) 57.

[3] “Home Wedding in Vineville.” The Macon Telegraph. December 21, 1893, 5.


[4] “Official Register of the National Guard of Georgia, 1916, 16.

[5] Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Georgia from Dec. 1st, 1901, to Sept. 30th 1902. (Atlanta: Geo. Harrison State Printer, 1902) 61.


[6] Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Georgia 1911-1912, Appendix No. 3. (Atlanta: Chas P. Byrd, 1913) 33.


[7] The first official authority for this designation appears March 24, 1924 in GO No. 1 in which the 121st Infantry was officially designated the Old Gray Bonnet Regiment. This much was affirmed in an October 28, 1926 outline of the history of the 121st Infantry certified by Charles H. Cox, Georgia's Adjutant General.


[8] William Carraway. We Are Having a Big Time Now: January-March 1917. April 17, 2017.


[9] Correspondence of Sgt. Robert G. Burton. Georgia National Guard Archives.


[10] The Georgia State Memorial Book Adopted as the Official Record by the Military Department of the State of Georgia. (Atlanta: 1921) 31.


[11] George Sparks. Macon’s War Work a History of Macon’s Part in the Great World War, 66.

[12] The National Cyclopaedia of American biography. Vol. 17. (New York: J. T. White Company 1921) 58.

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