May 3, 1864: Sherman discusses tents with Meigs

Montgomery Meigs

Sherman writes to the head Quartermaster, Montgomery Meigs. He’s still a bit peeved over not getting General Allen to move with his army as quartermaster, but then he moves on to a discussion of tents. I’m not entirely sure what this is all about, although he spends some effort contrasting different types of tents. However, he’s going to do without entirely, and he wishes that the entire army could travel lighter. His imagined message from Uncle Sam — ” you must gather your own grub and wagons” — seems prescient.

Official Records:

In the Field, Chattanooga, May 3, 1864.
General M. C. MEIGS,
Washington, D. C.:

GENERAL: I received yours of April 26 and agree with you that the chief quartermasters of the army, if they want to control its economy, should be with the main armies in the field, and not at Louisville, Chicago, and Washington. I think Secretary Stanton has made a mistake in denying me the services of General Allen. By a general supervision of the whole department he could save more money to the Treasury than by scrutinizing 1,000,000 separate vouchers of purchase and expenditure. Also by providing means of transportation at the very time and in the manner demanded by events which cannot always by foreseen, a quartermaster can assist in achieving success, and, being at headquarters, he could be consulted and could act understandingly instead of receiving short categorical orders by the telegraph, which is almost as mischievous as useful. You often feel disposed to find fault with commanders of troops for not consulting the experienced quartermaster. I want to do so, but the chief quartermaster is at Louisville, another at Nashville, another here, all under my orders, but each so circumscribed by conditions that I cannot disturb them. I know this is wrong, and instead of commanding an army thus a general but drifts with its fate.

As to tents: You will need all kinds, and, as in clothing, must bend a little to fashion. The Sibley is the best when transportation is easy, wind high, and wood scarce, as on the prairie. The common wedge is the best when no boards can be ripped off our neighbors’ houses and fences with which to make sidings to the bivouacs, and when officers study to have handsome camps, which all general officers will and should encourage. The tente-d’abris is of course good for a roof as long as the men can take boards off the fences and houses of the people, or can split out “shakes,” but for men to use these tents for any time would be wrong, because it brings their persons too near the ground. I prefer no tent at all for marching troops and the common A tent without poles for a camp of several days, weeks, or months, but repeat that in tents there is a fashion almost as despotic as in dress.

I write hastily from the same house in which General Grant was, but I go to the front, Ringgold, to-morrow or next day and will dispense with tent. My entire headquarters transportation is one wagon for myself, aides, officers, clerks, and orderlies. I think that is as low down as we can get until we get flat broke, and henceforward things will begin to mend. Soldiering as we have been doing for the past two years, with such trains and impediments, has been a farce, and nothing but absolute poverty will cure it. I will be glad to hear Uncle Sam say “we cannot afford this and that – you must gather your own grub and wagons, and bivouac and fight, not for pay, but for self-existence.” I think I see that period not far distant. I assure you I will second any effort you will make looking to economy, and first to that end have your chiefs at the very points where they can see the causes and prevent waste. Old men as auditors can control the papers to the rear, but the causes are here. I would like Mr. Stanton to know this, my opinion.

I am, with great respect, your friend,

Major-General, Commanding.

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