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General J. B. McPherson, The Man and Soldier


Transcribed from Official Souvenir McPherson County, July 4, 1917 
by Lu Hickey

Major General James Birdseye McPherson was one of the most promising generals of the Union army and at the time of his heroic death was in command of the Army of the Tennessee. On July 22, 1864,  his command was engaged in defending an attempt by the Confederates to crush the left wing of Sherman's army which was advancing upon Atlanta, Ga. In reconnoitering during that battle he rode through a gap between two corps of his command and was shot from his horse by the enemy, expiring almost instantly. He was succeeded by General John A. Logan.

General McPherson was born at Clyde Ohio, Nov. 14, 1828, and owing to his father's failing health was thrown on his own resources at the age of 13. For years he worked as store boy, utilizing every spare moment to get an education. At nineteen he was named as cadet and graduated from West Point in 1853. He was employed by the government as engineer and at the opening, of the war organized a company of engineers and got actively into the fighting. By extraordinary skill, ability and bravery he won such distinction that he rapidly rose from one post to the next until in March, 1864, he was given command of the Army of Tennessee.

But two army commanders were killed during our terrible Civil War, Albert Sidney Johnston, at Shiloh, April 6th, 1862, and James Birdseye McPherson, in front of Atlanta, July 22d, 1864.

It has been stated that General McPherson rashly and unnecessarily threw his life away; that he was far in advance of his own troops, and that he foolishly exposed himself to bullets of the enemy. This is not true. He was a man who feared no danger and shirked no responsibility, but was never fool-hardy nor rash. His fellow-officers and his men know that he fell while in the discharge of his duties as commander of the army, on the verge of a terrific fight with a daring and desperate enemy, who, under a new commander, was attempting to reach his flank and rear. General Sherman, in his official report of his death, shows that he had left his headquarters but a little time before and was on his way to see in person to the execution of orders the success of which seemed to involve the fortunes of the day and the salvation of his army.

In personal appearance McPherson was eminently prepossing. He was six feet high, of remarkable physical development, graceful carriage and pleasing manners. He blended in the most happy manner "the grace and gentleness of the friend with the dignity, courage, faith and manliness of the soldier." He loved his boyhood home and kindred, and there he was almost idolized even before he had won honors and fame. At the time of his death he was betrothed to a beautiful young lady in Baltimore, the matrimonial union with whom had been postponed on account of the pressing demands of the Atlanta campaign.

Tribute by General Sherman

General W. T. Sherman said in an address at the dedication of a monument to General McPherson at Clyde, Ohio:

"I have endeavored on many occasions by words spoken and by letters written to bear testimony to the noble character of General James Birdseye McPherson. I have heard others describe his personal traits and eulogize his many virtues, conspicuously so Generals Logan, Strong and Hickenlooper, his comrades and warm friends. My mind rapidly runs back and I see McPherson plainly on his black charger, bright, cheery, strong and hopeful; one of the best types of knightly grace united to mental strength and genial humor of all my acquaintances.

"In 1857 I met McPherson in New York and was attracted to him because of his intelligence and his manly bearing - also because he was from Ohio and had graduated at the head of the class at West Point. There it was my first acquaintance began and it continued without interruption until I saw him last alive, Howard House, near Atlanta, Ga., whence I sent his body to his home at Clyde for burial. From New York, late in 1857, he was ordered to California, and when the Civil War broke out in 1861 he came back, and again we met in St. Louis, where he was an aide-de-camp to General Halleck, before the battle of Shiloh. He was with General Grant at Henry and Donelson, and afterwards was sent with me up the Tennessee river, as a staff officer, to represent, first, General C. F. Smith and later, General Grant, in the attempt to reach the Charleston Railroad at Burnsville, and then to assist at Pittsburg Landing, preliminary to the great campaign there to begin. McPherson was still at that time technically an aid-de-camp of General Halleck, who remained at St. Louis, but he had wisely permitted this young, enterprising and gallant engineer officer to go ahead, as he always wanted to go, with the advance of the leading column. McPherson, however, was not content to remain in the capacity of a   staff officer, but sought for command. To do acts and not merely to advise. His natural place was as a leader of men, the highest sphere in military life. This he attained at Corinth, and thence forward as a Brigidier General and Major General at Corinth, Oxford, Vicksburg, Chattanooga and Atlanta, he performed deeds which are fully recorded, and place his name honorably and worthily in the catalogue of the great generals of the world. Events followed each other in such quick succession that at this distance of time all seem projected into one grand result, but the years 1863 and 1864 were big with events which will influence the destiny of America for centuries to come. Days were as months' and months as years of ordinary limit. McPherson, a youth, grew from a lieutenant of engineers to be a corps commander, an army commander, promotion as rapid as ever marked the progress of the mighty men in the days of Napoleon, but, like a brilliant meteor, 'Loved of the Gods,' his young life went out before we had achieved the full measure of the work demanded of us by the times."

The Battle of Atlanta

On the afternoon of July 20, 1864, the Army of the Tennessee under General McPherson moved through the town of Decatur and engaged the enemy in a fierce conflict, finally, at dark driving him into his defenses at Bald Hill, a mile and a half from Atlanta. This was the first of a three-day fight for the possession of Atlanta. The next day Bald Hill was taken after an awful conflict and the trenches of the enemy occupied during the night. At 4 o'clock on the morning of the 22d General McPherson was directed to move after the enemy, who had retired into Atlanta. General Hood, the class and room-mate of General McPherson at West Point, had succeeded to the Confederate command and McPherson, knowing his impetuous nature, was sure the day would bring forth the fierciest struggle of the   campaign. Carefully he placed his troops and received the sanction of General W. T. Sherman.

After a hurried inspection of all the Union positions, the generals sat down to a hasty noon lunch, as everything seemed quiet. Hardly had they finished their lunch than shots were heard and the battle was on. With the best possible disposition of the different commands there was a gap of nearly  three-fourths of a mile between the left of the 17th Corps and the right of the 16th. General McPherson was watching this gap and as the battle progressed found that it was advisable to close it. News came that the enemy infantry was moving out of Atlanta toward this gap and General McPherson at once asked General John A. Logan to send a brigade to fill the gap. This was the last order he gave. At once he dashed up the road in this gap and before he had gone 150 yards was killed. No one was with him except his orderly, A. J. Thompson, who was riding a little behind the general. Thompson's own words are:

"All at once the rebels rose on our left and cried, 'Halt! Halt!' General McPherson turned quickly from them to the right and I followed. Just as we turned they fired a volley at us. I dodged down and hung on to the side of my horse and several balls came so close that they fairly blistered the back of my neck. They shot over me and killed the General. I saw him fall, and just as he fell his horse ran between two saplings and my horse after the General's. My head struck one of the saplings, knocking me off my horse, senseless. When I came to, McPherson was lying on his right side with his right hand pressed against his breast, and every breath he drew the blood flowed in streams between his fingers. I went up to him and said to him, 'General, are you hurt?' He raised his left hand and brought it down upon his left leg and said: 'Oh, Orderly, I am,' and immediately turned over on his face, straightened himself out, trembling like a leaf. I stooped to turn him over, when one of the rebels who had come up caught hold of my revolver strap and jerked it until he broke the buckle, at the same time calling me rough names and said to me to go to the rear quick or he would shoot me. I know nothing further."

Private George Reynolds of the 17th Corps was badly wounded and in trying to get to the rear ran across General McPherson lying upon the ground mortally wounded. He raised the dying general's head, placing it upon a blanket, and tried to give him a drink of water from his canteen, and asked him if he had any message, but the general could make no reply and soon expired.

Reynolds said:

"The enemy certainly had possession of General McPherson, and took from his person his watch, sword belt (the general wore no sword that day), field glass and the book containing his private papers. I am quite certain that these articles were taken by the rebel soldiers immediately after he fell from his horse and before he died."

Reynolds was with the general when he breathed his last and they were then missing. All of them were recovered from prisoners taken during the afternoon, excepting only the watch. The bullet which killed the general passed through the strap which supported his field glass, nearly severing it.

Reynolds succeeded in getting to officers and notified them of the death of the general. During a lull in the fighting his body was recovered and the next day sent under military escort to his home in Clyde, Ohio, where it now lies near the site of his birthplace.

On learning of the death of General General McPherson, General John A. Logan assumed command of the army, and in a short time received official orders from General Sherman, placing him in command.

Transcribed from Official Souvenir McPherson County, July 4, 1917

From the General's Own Hands...

Mr. Enos Frost, of Wymore, Nebraska, a cousin of General McPherson, loaned to the Unveiling Committee four very interesting relies of General McPherson - a quaint silver spoon from the General's mess chest, a small photograph of himself, and two letters written by the general to his grandmother. These letters show so well the noble spirit of the man that the committee decided they should be a part of this souvenir.

(Unpublished letter of Gen. Jas. B. McPherson to his Grandmother.)

           San Francisco, California,

October 20th, 1858.
Dear Grandma:
I have just finished reading your most welcome letter for the sixth time, and shall take a few moments this calm quiet morning before the steamer leaves to answer it. It is right that my best thoughts should be given to you, who have always been so kind and shown so much interest in my welfare, and I assure you Grandma, that often, very often, both morning and evening do my thoughts fly
across the broad space which separates us and I see you and recall the counsel which you gave me as I was about to say "Good-bye" and start on my journey to this distant shore. More especially Grandma do I feel drawn towards you, now that you are oppressed with sorrow, and would that I could be near to assist and comfort you. But though deeply conscious of the loss you have sustained I know that the enduring faith and Christian Hope which have so long been your shield and staff will not desert you in this hour of trial, and will do far more towards consoling you for this earthly separation than anything I can do or say. But Grandma I can give you my heartfelt sympathy, and I can also with a firm consciousness assure you that you are not left alone nor will not be as long as Mother or uncles
have a home. Their home is your home whenever you wish to make it so and I only wish I had one to offer you, - However, my home is where Mother is and there you are welcome. I am getting along very comfortably, have enjoyed excellent health since I came here and find my duties pleasant and agreeable to my taste. Sometimes when I think about it and call up scenes long passed I wonder at
finding myself here. I think the time I was living with you on the farm, fifteen years ago and Russel came out for me to go home, that Mr. Smith wished me to go into his store at Green
Springs, was the turning point of my destiny. Of course I thought nothing about the military academy then nor for three years afterwards, but I feel that if I had not gone there I should not be where I am now. So far I have endeavored to do my duty to my country at least and have no reason to complain, rather cause for rejoicing at the good fortune which has accompanied me, Mother or Emeline has undoubtedly given you an account of my present station. It is only a mile and a half from the city on a little rocky island named "Alcatraces" (the Spanish for pelicans), which is being fortified in the strongest manner. Although my time is principally passed on the island, I have rooms in town with two of the lieutenants from Fort Point (which is almost 31/2 miles distant) at which we always meet Saturday evenings. Sunday I most generally go to the Episcopal Church to hear Bishop Kip with whom I was acquainted before coming out here. I often visit at his home and like Mrs. Kip who is a New
York lady, very much. The Bishop has a son who is a lieutenant in the army and is stationed in Oregon. I must thank you Grandma for writing to me, and I shall try to profit by your advice.
Your affectionate Grandson,
JAS. B. McPHERSON.

(Unpublished letter of Gen. Jas. B. McPherson to his Grandmother.)
           San Francisco, California,
November 19th, 1860.
My Dear Grandma.
I cannot express to you the feeling of pleasure which your letter gave me. To know that you are at home again, safely and well relieves me of a good deal of anxiety. When I first heard that you had started for York State on a visit to our friends and relatives, I was apprehensive that the journey would be too fatiguing, but I am gratified to learn that it was not and that you enjoyed your visit so much. I am still at my first station, "Alcatraces Island" though I have been absent on other duty a great part of the time since February last; First I had to make a very accurate survey of a portion of "Lime Point" which is about seven miles from the city. This, with the field work and making the maps kept me occupied until August, after which I took a trip for pleasure into the interior of the State. Making out the "Annual Report" of my operations and doing a little architectural drawing on my own account kept me occupied until the middle of September when I resumed work on the island, though I am living in the city, going
over to the island in the morning and returning in the afternoon. San Francisco has been very lively during the past three months, though we have not had the Prince of Wales visit us. However, we have had a veritable prince, viz:

"Prnice Lot Kamehameha," from the Sandwich Islands, brother of the present King. His coming, however, did not create much of a furor, simply the burning of a little gun powder as a matter of courtesy. He was a fine smooth black looking fellow, a regular native or "Kanaka" as they are called, good size and very intelligent, and having been educated in the United States and in England, spoke the English language with great fluency. Among other things, independent of politics which tended to make lively times, was the arrival of the English ships of war, The "Ganges" and the "Termigant." The former was the Flag ship of the squadron on this coast, having on board Admiral Barnes and his staff. 0n account of the good sense and discretion shown by the admiral in the "San Juan Island" affair more than a year ago, the citizens of San Francisco were very favorably disposed towards him, and desirous to show him every attention. The pleasure of so doing was greatly enhanced by the affable and courteous manner of the Admiral and the agreeable manner of his subordinate officers. Almost every house was thrown open to them, and there were balls and dinner parties innumerable. I saw a good deal of them and although as general thing, I am rather prejudiced against Englishmen, I was forced to
acknowledge that they were a clever set of fellows. I was quite surprised to hear that all Aunt Rowena's Boys but one are married. A quiet country life must be more conducive to matrimony than a roving soldier's life like mine. Perhaps my turn will come some of these days, though I must say I never have given the subject much serious consideration. At all events, I do not expect to find my better half in
California. When thinking of Home my thoughts always wing their way to Clyde and stop in the family circle composed of yourself Mother, Emma, Rus., Rilly and Mattie. Aunt Lydia, how many, many years have elapsed since I have seen her! How I wish that I could see her and try to cheer her in her sad affliction. When you write you must give her my warmest love. I have now been out here three years, and according to the regulations of the service one year more ought to finish up my tour of duty on this coast, but it may be that I will be kept out here longer, as the rule is not an invariable one. You must give my love to mother and all at home, also to Uncle Norton's and William's folks, - and I wish my dear
Grandma you would write to me as often as you can.
Your affectionate Grandson,
JAMES