Sherman and Thomas outside Atlanta

W.T. Sherman

Driving through farm country in Western New York recently, I drove past a scene that harkened me back to a similar scene during the Civil War. There was a farm stand and two men walking together and talking quite intently about some serious subject.  Nearby sitting on the ground was a boy about 10 years old spinning an ear of corn by its base, tassels spinning in the wind.  One of the men, presumably his father, turned and said a few words to the boy who answered in an amusing way.

That scene brought to mind one that took place outside Atlanta in late August, 1864, which Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman recorded in his memoirs:

I was with General Thomas that day, which was hot but otherwise very pleasant. We stopped for a short noon-rest near a little church (marked on our maps as Shoal-Creek Church), which stood back about a hundred yards from the road, in a grove of native oaks. The infantry column had halted in the road, stacked their arms, and the men were scattered about—some lying in the shade of the trees, and others were bringing corn-stalks from a large corn-field across the road to feed our horses, while still others had arms full of the roasting-ears, then in their prime. Hundreds of fires were soon started with the fence-rails, and the men were busy roasting the ears.

George Thomas

Thomas and I were walking up and down the road which led to the church, discussing the chances of the movement, which he thought were extra-hazardous, and our path carried us by a fire at which a soldier was roasting his corn. The fire was built artistically; the man was stripping the ears of their husks, standing them in front of his fire, watching them carefully, and turning each ear little by little, so as to roast it nicely. He was down on his knees intent on his business, paying little heed to the stately and serious deliberations of his leaders.

Thomas’s mind was running on the fact that we had cut loose from our base of supplies, and that seventy thousand men were then dependent for their food on the chance supplies of the country (already impoverished by the requisitions of the enemy), and on the contents of our wagons. Between Thomas and his men there existed a most kindly relation, and he frequently talked with them in the most familiar way. Pausing awhile, and watching the operations of this man roasting his corn, he said, “What are you doing?”

The man looked up smilingly “Why, general, I am laying in a supply of provisions.”

“That is right, my man, but don’t waste your provisions.”

As we resumed our walk, the man remarked, in a sort of musing way, but loud enough for me to hear: “There he goes, there goes the old man, economizing as usual.”

“Economizing” with corn, which cost only the labor of gathering and roasting![i]


[i] William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs of W.T. Sherman (New York: Library of America, 1990) 579-580.

4 Responses to Sherman and Thomas outside Atlanta

  1. I thoroughly enjoy these stories that humanize these prominent leaders…giving a glimpse into their personalities. Most Civil Wa histories focus rightly upon the life and death decisions they were making on a daily basis. That makes it easy to forget their ‘human’ side. As another eye-opening example the friendship that developed post-war between Sherman and Hood came as a complete surprise.

  2. I liked your article, but I can’t help noticing that even in a nice little story about Thomas being ‘economical’ that Sherman could not help but throw in the idea about Thomas considering some movement ‘extra-hazardous’ while Sherman was presumably unconcerned. This is something Sherman did all the time in his memoirs trying to make it appear that Thomas was timid, too careful and therefore SLOW.

    The whole point of this was to prove to himself, if not his readers, that Grant was correct in promoting him over the senior and more successful Thomas to lead in the West (despite Sherman’s debacle at Chattanooga).

    In reality Sherman fully knew that the few times in the Atlanta Campaign that he over-ruled Thomas’ advice such as at Snake Creek Gap and Kennesaw Mountain led to missed opportunities or disasters.

    1. I think it’s unfortunate that the strengths and weaknesses of General Thomas are so often misrepresented by fans and haters today. Thomas was a competent commander on a division and corps level.

      But he was not perfect, and his own Chief of Staff admitted he was slow. Sherman and Thomas were friends, and if anyone was qualified to assess Thomas, it was Sherman.

      1. Does a friend write this in a private letter to US Grant?

        “I know full well that Gen. Thomas is slow in mind and in action…”.

        This was written just before Sherman found out about Thomas’ great victory at Nashville.

        With ‘friends’ like that no wonder Thomas was lost to history.

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