Grace, Gentleness & the Courage of a Soldier: The Loss of General James B. McPherson, Part 2
“…the country generally will realize that we have lost only only an able Military leader, but a man who had he survived was qualified to heal the National Strife, which has been raised by designing and ambitious men”.
These are the words written by General Sherman to General Lorenzo Thomas about the death of General James B. McPherson on this day in 1864 during the Battle of Atlanta. This is part 2 of my post about the loss of General McPherson. You can read Part 1 here.
We left off with McPherson having been called back to the army after wanting a leave to marry his fiancee, Emily Hoffman. We’ll pick right up with the Atlanta Campaign…
McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee made up the right wing of Sherman’s forces as he moved against Atlanta beginning in May of 1864. The Army of the Cumberland, led by the Rock of Chickamauga, General George H. Thomas and the Army of the Ohio, led by General John M. Schofield made up the rest of the army on the Atlanta Campaign.
The Atlanta Campaign, at least while Confederate Forces were commanded by General Joseph E. Johnston, was like a game of cat and mouse. Attempt after attempt was made to try and out manouvre Johnston, but this was to no avail.
The first battle in the Atlanta Campaign was the Battle of Rocky Face Ridge, fought from May 7 until May 13, 1864. The purpose was quite simple – destroy General Johnston’s Army. This was not to be the case though. While the battle resulted in a Union victory since it forced Johnston to withdraw, they did not still not have Johnston and his army. The game of cat and mouse would continue with battles like Kennesaw Mountain, which would see McPherson’s troops suffer heavily while assaulting its steep slopes.
Playing cat and mouse stopped on July 17, 1864 when Jeff Davis was at the end of his rope with Johnston’s constant retreating. In what could be considered an “ultimate” in throwing shade, he replaced him with winner for a having a perpetual frown and McPherson’s former classmate, General John Bell Hood. The exact opposite of the cautious Johnston, Hood was described by General Schofield to Sherman as being “bold even to rashness and courageous in the extreme”. The game had changed and there would now be fighting, as Sherman told his commanders.
The bulk of this fighting would happen in what would become known as the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864. Oddly enough, Atlanta would not be taken until September 2, 1864.
Leading up to July 22, there had been small skirmishes and, no doubt, some back and forth name calling on the picket lines (and maybe some brief truces for some trading of coffee and tobacco. I’d have been after some good whiskey myself).
The morning of July 22, McPherson rode to update Sherman and discuss with him orders he had received from him. Sherman recalls in his memoir the vivid details of what would be their last meeting – that they discussed Hood and they needed to be cautious and prepared for hard fighting because “Hood, though not deemed much of a scholar, or of great mental capacity was undoubtedly a brave, determined and rash man” . What stuck in my mind most of all from Cump’s memoirs was that Cump described McPherson as being “in excellent spirits, well pleased at the progress of events so far”. While starting out at what was called the Howard House, Sherman and McPherson made their way back outside and sitting at the base of a tree, studied a map of troop positions. It was determined that once the Augusta Road had been ripped up, he wanted McPherson to shift his troops by the rear to General Thomas’ extreme right.
It was during this meeting under the tree, they began to hear the sounds of skirmishing and artillery, which seemed to replying to those of what Schofield was throwing the Confederates way. Similar sounds were heard along Thomas’ lines and than to McPherson’s left. Using Sherman’s compass, they determined the sounds were coming from the rear left and McPherson called for his horses and staff. He quickly left.
This is the last time Cump would see his talented General McPherson alive.
Soon after, Sherman was walking back up to Howard House. Around him, he could hear the sound of artillery. It was at this time, a member of McPherson’s staff quickly rode up to him, explaining that McPherson was either “killed or prisoner”. It was explained to Cump that upon leaving, McPherson and his men had ridden rapidly across the railway. The sounds of battle had grown had begun to increase. Ordering and placing his divisions where they needed to be, he then ventured off into the woods, “doubtless with an absolute sense of security”.
It was later learned that McPherson was riding his horse to his old 17th Corps and a line of Confederate skirmishers appeared. They told him to halt. In an attempt to escape, he made as if he was going to remove his hat, but instead wheeled his horse and tried to flee. It was then he was mortally wounded, falling off his horse and the horse bolting back out of the woods. Confederate troops approached and asked an orderly who they had just killed. The orderly responded…
“Sir, it is General McPherson. You have killed the best man in our army”.
It was soon after, the sounds of muskets were heard and McPherson’s horse returned from the woods. The horse was bleeding, wounded and riderless. Having to think quickly, Sherman sent staff members off with orders for where the troops needed to be placed.
It was within an hour, the fate of McPherson was known. Sherman tells us in his memoirs an ambulance came bearing his body. It was taken inside Howard House. It was determined the wound, which had passed close to his heart, had probably killed him within a few minutes after being shot. Sherman also quickly discovered that the pocketbook McPherson always carried with him was gone. This pocketbook contained orders that Sherman had given him just that morning.
Cump tells us that:
Fortunately the spot in the woods where McPherson was shot was regained by our troops in a few minutes, and the pocketbook found in the haversack of a prisoner of war captured at that time and it and its contents were secured by McPherson’s staff.
Sherman was deeply affected by the death of McPherson. Robert L. O’Connell, writing in “Fierece Patriot” stating that once the body was brought back, Sherman paced with “tears streaming down his cheeks” and “he took turns giving orders as reports came in and bemoaning the fate of his thirty-four year old golden boy”.
Writing to General Lorenzo Thomas the next day, one can tell that the death of McPherson is still raw for Cump: “…the country and army will mourn his death, and cherish his memory at that of one who though comparitively young, had risen by his merit and ability to the command of one of the best Armies…”.
He goes on to write:
His public enemies, even the men who directed the fatal shot, never spoke or wrote of him, without expressions of marked respect, those whom he commanded love him even to idoltry and I his assosciate and Commander failed in words adequate to express my opinion of his great worth.
He is said to have also said in the days following the loss of McPherson that “I had expected him to finish the war. Grant and I are likely to be killed or set aside…and McPherson would have come into chief command at the right time to the end. He had no enemies”.
We know just from Sherman’s words that McPherson must have been deeply respected and loved by many who knew him.
His former classmate and now adversary John Bell Hood even mourned for him, writing of what he felt when he found out McPherson had been killed.
I will record the death of my classmate and boyhood friend, General James B. McPherson, the announcement of which caused me sincere sorrow. Since we had graduated in 1853, and had each been ordered off on duty in different directions, it has not been our fortune to meet. Neither the years nor the difference of sentiment that had led us to range ourselves on opposite sides in the war had lessened my friendship; indeed the attachment formed in early youth was strengthened by my admiration and gratitude for his conduct toward our people in the vicinity of Vicksburg. His considerate and kind treatment of them stood in bright contrast to the course pursued by many Federal officers.
This also provides us with an example of, despite a Civil War that was tearing a country apart, feelings of friendship and respect still existed among those who fought against each other.
General Ulysses S. Grant said of McPherson that he had been one of the army’s “ablest, purest and best generals”.
And what of Emily Hoffman, McPherson’s fiancee? Sherman wrote her a heart-felt letter of condolence after McPherson’s death:
My Dear Young Lady,
A letter from your Mother to General Barry on my Staff reminds me that I owe you heartfelt sympathy and a sacred duty of recording the fame of one of our Country’s brightest and most glorious Characters. I yield to none on Earth but yourself the right to excel me in lamentations for our Dead Hero. Why should death’s darts reach the young and brilliant instead of older men who could better have been spared?
Nothing that I can record will elevate him in your mind’s memory, but I could tell you many things that would form a bright halo about his image. We were more closely associated than any men in this life. I knew him before you did; when he was a Lieutenant of Engineers in New York, we occupied rooms in the same house.
Again we met at St. Louis, almost at the outset of this unnatural war, and from that day to this we have been closely associated. I see him now, so handsome, so smiling, on his fine black horse, booted and spurred, with his easy seat, the impersonation of the Gallant Knight.
We were at Shiloh together, at Corinth, at Oxford, at Jackson, at Vicksburg, at Meridian, and on this campaign. He had left me but a few minutes to place some of his troops approaching their position, and went through the wood by the same road he had come, and must have encountered the skirmish line of the Rebel Hardee’s Corps, which had made a Circuit around the flank of Blair’s troops.
Though always active and attending in person amidst dangers to his appropriate duties, on this occasion he was not exposing himself. He rode over ground he had twice passed that same day, over which hundreds had also passed, by a narrow wood road to the Rear of his Established Line. He had not been gone from me half an hour before Col. Clark of his Staff rode up to me and reported that McPherson was dead or a prisoner in the hands of the Enemy.
He described that he had entered this road but a short distance in the wood some sixty yards ahead of his Staff and orderlies when a loud volley of muskets was heard, and in an instant after, his fine black horse came out with two wounds, riderless. Very shortly thereafter, other members of his staff came to me with his body in an ambulance. We carried it into a house, and laid it on a large table and examined the body. A simple bullet wound high up in the Right breast was all that disfigured his person. All else was as he left me, save his watch and purse were gone.
At this time the Battle was raging hot and fierce quite near us, and lest it should become necessary to burn the house in which we were, I directed his personal staff to convey the body to Marietta and thence North to his family. I think he could not have lived three minutes after the fatal shot, and fell from his horse within ten yards of the path or road along which he was riding. I think others will give you more detailed accounts of the attending circumstances. I enclose you a copy of my official letter announcing his death.
With affection & respect,
W. T. Sherman
Emily would go into deep mourning for her beloved James. She spent nearly an entire year in her bedroom. Just as General John Reynold’s fiancee Kate never married after John was killed, Emily never would either. Their stories are just two examples of many where loves were lost during the Civil War.
General McPherson would be the second highest ranking Union killed in the Civil War. The first was General John Reynolds, killed just over a year before at the Battle of Gettysburg.
General McPherson is buried at McPherson Cemetery in Clyde, Ohio.
Thank you for reading these posts about McPherson.
Until next time,
- Sherman’s Memoirs
- Selected Correspondance of Sherman
- “Fierece Patriot” by Robert L. O’Connell
- Ohio Civil War Central https://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=118