Our Best Men: James B. McPherson

This entry is part 15 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

General James McPhersonThe American Civil War is filled with tragic stories. Excellent leaders who were cut down in the prime of their lives. Wasted human potential on the bloody battlefields of the war. Young men whose death were a painful loss for the country. Here are the stories of two such men. One wore blue and one were gray and both men’s deaths were a loss. (I will relate Stephen Ramseur’s story in my next post)

James Birdseye McPherson has been memorialized in many places across America. A fort, three counties, a national cemetery, an elementary school and a highway in his hometown all serve to keep his memory alive. In our nation’s capital there is an equestrian statue in the appropriately named McPherson Square. The statue was paid for by McPherson’s former comrades in the Society of the Army of the Tennessee.

But James McPherson was more than a bronze statue. When the Confederates who mortally wounded him his grief-stricken aide said: “You’ve killed our best man.” McPherson’s brief meteoric career left an imprint on many of those that he served with and commanded.

Born on November 14, 1828 near Hamer’s Corners, Ohio, James McPherson graduated number one in his class from West Point. He was immediately assigned to the Corps of Engineers where he served in New York, Delaware and California working on coastal defenses. 

At the onset of the war he asked for a transfer to the East thinking that being in the center of the action would advance his career. He was almost immediately assigned to the staff of Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck in St. Louis, Missouri. It was here that he met the man who would change his life, Ulysses S. Grant. Grant needed a chief engineer and McPherson fit the bill.

He was at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and Shiloh. After the latter battle he was promoted to brigadier general. Grant could see McPherson’s leadership qualities and by October 1862 he was promoted to major general and soon after was given command of the XVII Corps in Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. He would lead the corps through the long Vicksburg Campaign.

On March 12, 1864, he was given command of the Army of the Tennessee, after its former commander, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, was promoted to command of all armies in the West. His army was the right wing of Sherman’s triad of armies which included  the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of the Ohio.

On May 5, 1864 Sherman in coordination with the other Union armies began the Atlanta Campaign. McPherson’s army bore the brunt of the early fighting Sherman criticized him for being “slow”. It appears that faulty planning on Sherman’s part allowed the Confederates to escape the Union trap at Dalton, Georgia.

McPherson drove his troops hard chasing the Confederates “vigorously”. They drove the enemy out of Dallas, Georgia. After the Union disaster at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, McPherson tried a flanking maneuver at the Battle of Marietta, but that failed as well.

Meanwhile, Jefferson Davis grew frustrated with General Joseph E. Johnston and replaced him with Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood, McPherson’s classmate and friend. When Hood’s cavalry reported that the left flank of McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, east of Atlanta, was unprotected, he planned a flank attack reminiscent of Stonewall Jackson’s at Chancellorsville.

Sherman believed that the Confederates were beaten and were withdrawing but McPherson thought otherwise, feeling that Hood would attack his left and rear. Almost immediately, four divisions under Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee flanked Maj. Gen. Grenville Dodge‘s XVI Corps.

While McPherson was riding his horse toward his old XVII Corps, a line of Confederate skirmishers appeared, yelling “Halt!”. McPherson raised his hand to his head as if to remove his hat, but suddenly wheeled his horse, attempting to escape. The Confederates opened fire and mortally wounded McPherson.

His adversary, John Bell Hood, wrote,

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.


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