Thomas was born on April 21, 1831, in Pittsylvania County, the son of Philip Thomas and his second wife, Edith Meade Thomas. He had two half brothers. Little is known of Thomas’s early years or education. In 1851, he married Mary Ann Dickenson and the couple had four sons and three daughters. Mary Dickenson Thomas died in 1866, in Cherokee County, Georgia, probably as a result of childbirth.
The 1850 federal census lists Philip Thomas as a merchant, and by late in the decade he was operating as a slave trader in Pittsylvania County, in partnership with William A. J. Finney. The sale of enslaved men, women, and children was a lucrative business in Virginia, with men such as Thomas and Finney scouring their particular part of the state for slaves. They purchased them from individual planters and then either transported the slaves to the major trading hubs of Richmond and Alexandria or sent them directly to the Lower South for resale. The result was the same: slaves in Virginia were sold to labor in the cotton fields of Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, often separated from their families and facing shortened lives.
Infrastructure projects in Virginia aided business. The Franklin Turnpike, built in 1842, and the Danville and Richmond Railroad, built in 1856, connected county slave markets to other parts of the state. The telegraph also helped Thomas and Finney keep track of fluctuating markets in the cotton states. Illness, meanwhile, could hurt profits. An epidemic in Richmond led Thomas to write Finney on January 30, 1859, that slaves “die daily and I suppose there are at least 60 or 100 sick at this time. Some has actually died on the cars going south. Five or six has died out of Lumpkin’s jail, and the worst of it is they die in some 24 hours of being taken.” In the same letter, Thomas reassured his partner that he had protected their investment with insurance. “One of our children is very sick this morning,” he wrote. “I have sent for the doctor, but all the grown ones I have had insured as soon as I bought them.”
Later that year Thomas suggested to Finney that they get out of the slave-trading business because the quality of enslaved men, women, and children available for sale was not creating conditions for profit or maintaining social respectability. In a letter dated November 26, 1859, he described one lot of people for sale: “Woman and child very common brought $1,602. Another with fallen womb $1,050. Man 55 years old yellow and pale colour $900 […] a girl size of Gilmer’s girl but rough faced $300. Others in proportion and I have not bought a single one.” Thomas and Finney remained in business, however.
The 1860 census lists Thomas as a farmer with $9,000 of real estate and $25,000 of personal estate. He owned 375 acres of improved land, 178 acres of unimproved land, and thirty-four slaves to work it. The year’s output included 15,000 pounds of tobacco and 415 bushels of wheat. Most of his wealth, however, was tied to his slave trade business.
On March 1, 1862, Thomas enlisted in the Confederate army in Danville. He served as first sergeant in the 5th Virginia Cavalry Regiment, which saw action at the Second Battle of Manassas (1862), the Battle of Fredericksburg (1862), the Battle of Gettysburg (1863), and the Overland and Petersburg campaigns (1864). He left the service in 1865, still a first sergeant but having lost his land and—with the abolition of slavery—his business. He moved to Georgia, and the 1870 census lists him as a carpenter in Fulton County. He died in Cherokee County in 1888.