Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman

Text to Speech

the picket-line, and may have "reserves," but usually the main line

of battle constitutes the reserve; and in this connection I will

state that the recent innovation introduced into the new infantry

tactics by General Upton is admirable, for by it each regiment,

brigade, and division deployed, sends forward as "skirmishers" the

one man of each set of fours, to cover its own front, and these can

be recalled or reenforced at pleasure by the bugle-signal.

For flank-guards and rear-guards, one or more companies should be

detached under their own officers, instead of making up the guard

by detailing men from the several companies.

For regimental or camp guards, the details should be made according

to existing army regulations; and all the guards should be posted

early in the evening, so as to afford each sentinel or vedette a

chance to study his ground before it becomes too dark.

In like manner as to the staff. The more intimately it comes into

contact with the troops, the more useful and valuable it becomes.

The almost entire separation of the staff from the line, as now

practised by us, and hitherto by the French, has proved

mischievous, and the great retinues of staff-officers with which

some of our earlier generals began the war were simply ridiculous.

I don't believe in a chief of staff at all, and any general

commanding an army, corps, or division, that has a staff-officer

who professes to know more than his chief, is to be pitied. Each

regiment should have a competent adjutant, quartermaster, and

commissary, with two or three medical officers. Each brigade

commander should have the same staff, with the addition of a couple

of young aides-de-camp, habitually selected from the subalterns of

the brigade, who should be good riders, and intelligent enough to

give and explain the orders of their general.

The same staff will answer for a division. The general in command

of a separate army, and of a corps d'armee, should have the same

professional assistance, with two or more good engineers, and his

adjutant-general should exercise all the functions usually ascribed

to a chief of staff, viz., he should possess the ability to

comprehend the scope of operations, and to make verbally and in

writing all the orders and details necessary to carry into effect

the views of his general, as well as to keep the returns and

records of events for the information of the next higher authority,

and for history. A bulky staff implies a division of

responsibility, slowness of action, and indecision, whereas a small

staff implies activity and concentration of purpose. The smallness

of General Grant's staff throughout the civil war forms the best

model for future imitation. So of tents, officers furniture, etc.,

etc. In real war these should all be diacarded, and an army is

efficient for action and motion exactly in the inverse ratio of its

impedimenta. Tents should be omitted altogether, save one to a

regiment for an office, and a few for the division hospital.

Officers should be content with a tent fly, improvising poles and

shelter out of bushes. The tents d'abri, or shelter-tent, carried

by the soldier himself, is all-sufficient. Officers should never

seek for houses, but share the condition of their men.

A recent message (July 18, 1874) made to the French Assembly by

Marshal MacMahon, President of the French Republic, submits a

projet de loi, with a report prepared by a board of French generals

on "army administration," which is full of information, and is as

applicable to us as to the French. I quote from its very

beginning: "The misfortunes of the campaign of 1870 have

demonstrated the inferiority of our system.... Two separate

organizations existed with parallel functions--the 'general' more

occupied in giving direction to his troops than in providing for

their material wants, which he regarded as the special province of

the staff, and the 'intendant' (staff) often working at random,

taking on his shoulders a crushing burden of functions and duties,

exhausting himself with useless efforts, and aiming to accomplish

an insufficient service, to the disappointment of everybody. This

separation of the administration and command, this coexistence of

two wills, each independent of the other, which paralyzed both and

annulled the dualism, was condemned. It was decided by the board

that this error should be "proscribed" in the new military system.

The report then goes on at great length discussing the provisions.

of the "new law," which is described to be a radical change from

the old one on the same subject. While conceding to the Minister

of War in Paris the general control and supervision of the entire

military establishment primarily, especially of the annual

estimates or budget, and the great depots of supply, it distributes

to the commanders of the corps d'armee in time of peace, and to all

army commanders generally in time of war, the absolute command of

the money, provisions, and stores, with the necessary staff-

officers to receive, issue, and account for them. I quote further:

"The object of this law is to confer on the commander of troops

whatever liberty of action the case demands. He has the power even

to go beyond the regulations, in circumstances of urgency and

pressing necessity. The extraordinary measures he may take on

these occasions may require their execution without delay. The

staff-officer has but one duty before obeying, and that is to

submit his observations to the general, and to ask his orders in


With this formality his responsibility ceases, and the

responsibility for the extraordinary act falls solely on the

general who gives the order. The officers and agents charged with

supplies are placed under the orders of the general in command of

the troops, that is, they are obliged both in war and peace to

obey, with the single qualification above named, of first making

their observations and securing the written order of the general.

With us, to-day, the law and regulations are that, no matter what

may be the emergency, the commanding general in Texas, New Mexico,

and the remote frontiers, cannot draw from the arsenals a pistol-

cartridge, or any sort of ordnance-stores, without first procuring

an order of the Secretary of War in Washington. The commanding

general--though intrusted with the lives of his soldiers and with

the safety of a frontier in a condition of chronic war--cannot

touch or be trusted with ordnance-stores or property, and that is

declared to be the law! Every officer of the old army remembers

how, in 1861, we were hampered with the old blue army regulations,

which tied our hands, and that to do any thing positive and

necessary we had to tear it all to pieces--cut the red-tape, as it

was called, a dangerous thing for an army to do, for it was

calculated to bring the law and authority into contempt; but war

was upon us, and overwhelming necessity overrides all law.

This French report is well worth the study of our army-officers, of

all grades and classes, and I will only refer again, casually, to

another part, wherein it discusses the subject of military

correspondence: whether the staff-officer should correspond

directly with his chief in Paris, submitting to his general copies,

or whether he should be required to carry on his correspondence

through his general, so that the latter could promptly forward the

communication, indorsed with his own remarks and opinions. The

latter is declared by the board to be the only safe role, because

"the general should never be ignorant of any thing that is

transpiring that concerns his command."

In this country, as in France, Congress controls the great

questions of war and peace, makes all laws for the creation and

government of armies, and votes the necessary supplies, leaving to

the President to execute and apply these laws, especially the

harder task of limiting the expenditure of public money to the

amount of the annual appropriations. The executive power is

further subdivided into the seven great departments, and to the

Secretary of War is confided the general care of the military

establishment, and his powers are further subdivided into ten

distinct and separate bureaus.

The chiefs of these bureaus are under the immediate orders of the

Secretary of War, who, through them, in fact commands the army from

"his office," but cannot do so "in the field"--an absurdity in

military if not civil law.

The subordinates of these staff-corps and departments are selected

and chosen from the army itself, or fresh from West Point, and too

commonly construe themselves into the elite, as made of better clay

than the common soldier. Thus they separate themselves more and

more from their comrades of the line, and in process of time

realize the condition of that old officer of artillery who thought

the army would be a delightful place for a gentleman if it were not

for the d-d soldier; or, better still, the conclusion of the young

lord in "Henry IV.," who told Harry Percy (Hotspur) that "but for

these vile guns he would himself have been a soldier." This is all

wrong; utterly at variance with our democratic form of government

and of universal experience; and now that the French, from whom we

had copied the system, have utterly "proscribed" it, I hope that

our Congress will follow suit. I admit, in its fullest force, the

strength of the maxim that the civil law should be superior to the

military in time of peace; that the army should be at all times

subject to the direct control of Congress; and I assert that, from

the formation of our Government to the present day, the Regular

Army has set the highest example of obedience to law and authority;

but, for the very reason that our army is comparatively so very

small, I hold that it should be the best possible, organized and

governed on true military principles, and that in time of peace we

should preserve the "habits and usages of war," so that, when war

does come, we may not again be compelled to suffer the disgrace,

confusion, and disorder of 1861.

The commanding officers of divisions, departments, and posts,

should have the amplest powers, not only to command their troops,

but all the stores designed for their use, and the officers of the

staff necessary to administer them, within the area of their

command; and then with fairness they could be held to the most

perfect responsibility. The President and Secretary of War can

command the army quite as well through these generals as through

the subordinate staff-officers. Of course, the Secretary would, as

now, distribute the funds according to the appropriation bills, and

reserve to himself the absolute control and supervision of the

larger arsenals and depots of supply. The error lies in the law,

or in the judicial interpretation thereof, and no code of army

regulations can be made that meets the case, until Congress, like

the French Corps Legislatif, utterly annihilates and "proscribes"

the old law and the system which has grown up under it.

It is related of Napoleon that his last words were, "Tete d'armee!"

Doubtless, as the shadow of death obscured his memory, the last

thought that remained for speech was of some event when he was

directing an important "head of column." I believe that every

general who has handled armies in battle most recall from his own

experience the intensity of thought on some similar occasion, when

by a single command he had given the finishing stroke to some

complicated action; but to me recurs another thought that is worthy

of record, and may encourage others who are to follow us in our

profession. I never saw the rear of an army engaged in battle but

I feared that some calamity had happened at the front the apparent

confusion, broken wagons, crippled horses, men lying about dead and

maimed, parties hastening to and fro in seeming disorder, and a

general apprehension of something dreadful about to ensue; all

these signs, however, lessened as I neared the front, and there the

contrast was complete--perfect order, men and horses--full of

confidence, and it was not unusual for general hilarity, laughing,

and cheering. Although cannon might be firing, the musketry

clattering, and the enemy's shot hitting close, there reigned a

general feeling of strength and security that bore a marked

contrast to the bloody signs that had drifted rapidly to the rear;

therefore, for comfort and safety, I surely would rather be at the

front than the rear line of battle. So also on the march, the head

of a column moves on steadily, while the rear is alternately

halting and then rushing forward to close up the gap; and all sorts

of rumors, especially the worst, float back to the rear. Old

troops invariably deem it a special privilege to be in the front

--to be at the "head of column"--because experience has taught them

that it is the easiest and most comfortable place, and danger only

adds zest and stimulus to this fact.

The hardest task in war is to lie in support of some position or

battery, under fire without the privilege of returning it; or to

guard some train left in the rear, within hearing but out of

danger; or to provide for the wounded and dead of some corps which

is too busy ahead to care for its own.

To be at the head of a strong column of troops, in the execution of

some task that requires brain, is the highest pleasure of war--a

grim one and terrible, but which leaves on the mind and memory the

strongest mark; to detect the weak point of an enemy's line; to

break through with vehemence and thus lead to victory; or to

discover some key-point and hold it with tenacity; or to do some

other distinct act which is afterward recognized as the real cause

of success. These all become matters that are never forgotten.

Other great difficulties, experienced by every general, are to

measure truly the thousand-and-one reports that come to him in the

midst of conflict; to preserve a clear and well-defined purpose at

every instant of time, and to cause all efforts to converge to that


To do these things he must know perfectly the strength and quality

of each part of his own army, as well as that of his opponent, and

must be where he can personally see and observe with his own eyes,

and judge with his own mind. No man can properly command an army

from the rear, he must be "at its front;" and when a detachment is

made, the commander thereof should be informed of the object to be

accomplished, and left as free as possible to execute it in his own

way; and when an army is divided up into several parts, the

superior should always attend that one which he regards as most

important. Some men think that modern armies may be so regulated

that a general can sit in an office and play on his several columns

as on the keys of a piano; this is a fearful mistake. The

directing mind must be at the very head of the army--must be seen

there, and the effect of his mind and personal energy must be felt

by every officer and man present with it, to secure the best

results. Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in

humiliation and disaster.

Lastly, mail facilities should be kept up with an army if possible,

that officers and men may receive and send letters to their

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