James Birdseye McPherson

American Civil War Union Major General. He served as the commander of the Army of Tennessee from March 1864 until his death. The son of a farmer, he worked on the family farm and blacksmith business. At the age of 13 his father, who had a history of mental illness, became unable to work and he took a job at a store to help support the family. In 1849 he received an appointment to attend the US Military Academy at West Point, New York and graduated at the top of his class in 1853 with a commission as a 2nd lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. He remained at West Point for a year, serving as an Assistant Professor of Practical Engineering before receiving his first assignment to improve the New York Harbor in New York City, New York. In 1857 he was assigned to San Francisco, California to work on improving fortifications in the area. After the outbreak of the American Civil War in April 1861, he requested a transfer to the Eastern US and was assigned to Boston, Massachusetts for service in the Corps of Engineers at the rank of captain. The following November he requested for a position on the staff of Major General Henry W. Halleck, the commander of the Department of Missouri, and was sent to St. Louis, Missouri where he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and assigned as chief engineer on the staff of Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant. In 1862 he saw action at Fort Henry, the Battle of Fort Donelson, and the Battle of Shiloh and in May of that year, he was promoted by Grant to the rank of brigadier general. In the fall of 1862 he commanded an infantry brigade during the campaigns around Corinth and Iuka, Mississippi and his superior performance earned him a promotion to the rank of major general in October. The following December Grant's Army of the Tennessee was reorganized and he received command of the 17th Corps and played a key part in Grant's Vicksburg, Mississippi campaign in late 1862 and 1863. In the course of the campaign, he actively participated in the Union victories in Mississippi at Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill, and the Siege of Vicksburg. After Vicksburg surrendered on July 4, 1863 he remained in Mississippi to conduct minor operations against Confederate forces there. In March 1864 Grant made him commander of the Army of Tennessee and moved with General William Tecumseh Sherman in his march through Georgia that began in May of that year. Confronted by Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston's strong position at Rocky Face Ridge and Dalton, Georgia, Sherman dispatched him south to Snake Creek Gap and from this undefended gap, he was to strike at Resaca, Georgia and sever the railroad which was supplying the Confederates to the north. On May 9, 1864 he became concerned that Johnston would move south and cut him off and as a result, he withdrew to the gap and failed to take Resaca despite the fact the city was lightly defended. Sherman later blamed his cautiousness on May 9 for preventing a great Union victory. On June 27, 1864 his forces took part in the defeat at Kennesaw Mountain. On July 22, 1864 Confederate General John B. Hood planned to attack McPherson's forces when he learned that his left flank was exposed, in what became known as the Battle of Atlanta. Riding to the sound of the guns, with only his orderly as an escort, he entered a gap between Major General Grenville Dodge's 16th Corps and Major General Francis P. Blair's 17th Corps. As he advanced, a line of Confederate skirmishers appeared and ordered him to halt. After refusing, he tried to flee and the Confederates killed him as he tried to escape. He was 35 years old. A bronze and concrete memorial in his honor was erected in October 1876 at McPherson Square in Washington DC. Both the city and county of McPherson Kansas were named in his honor. (bio by: William Bjornstad)

James Birdseye McPherson was born, November 14, 1828, on a farm near the present village of Clyde, Ohio. He was compelled at the age of thirteen (when his father, a mentally unstable and unsuccessful blacksmith, became incompetent) to go to work in a nearby backwoods store in order to assist his mother in supporting the family. As a result of his employer's interest in aiding the young "store boy," McPherson spent two years at the Norwalk Academy (Ohio) and received an appointment to West Point at the rather advanced age of twenty. He was graduated in 1853, ranked first in a class which included the celebrated Union and Confederate figures, Philip H. Sheridan and John Bell Hood. Eleven years after graduation, Hood's battle orders at Atlanta would result in the death of McPherson on an isolated woods road near the beleaguered city. Commissioned into the Corps of Engineers, in keeping with his class standing, McPherson served on both coasts in connection with harbor and seacoast defense and supervised the fortification of the celebrated Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. After the outbreak of the Civil War no Union officer had "a more meteoric rise than McPherson. A first lieutenant of engineers as late as August of 1861, by October 8, 1862, he ranked as a major general of volunteers and commanded a division of the XIII Corps. In the interim he served as aide-de-camp to Henry W. Halleck; as chief engineer to U. S. Grant during the campaign of Forts Henry and Donelson, the battle of Shiloh, and the subsequent "advance" upon Corinth; and as superintendent of railways in West Tennessee. On August 19, 1862, he was appointed a brigadier general of volunteers, and soon after the battle of Corinth in October, 1862, in which his only part was the transporting of some troops who participated in the subsequent pursuit of the Confederate General Earl Van Dorn, he was promoted major general of volunteers. In January, 1863, McPherson obtained command of the XVII Corps which fought throughout the Vicksburg campaign in a manner which won the lively praise of both Grant and his chief lieutenant, W. T. Sherman, and won McPherson a promotion to brigadier in the Regular Army from August 1, 1863. On March 26, 1864, he assumed command of Sherman's old Army of the Tennessee, which he led in the subsequent campaign in north Georgia. During this campaign the affair at Snake Creek Gap, which might have dispersed Joseph E. Johnston's Confederates, came to nothing because of seemingly excessive caution by McPherson, and the handling of his troops thereafter was largely directed by Sherman himself. McPherson died while attempting with a single orderly to reach his command from Sherman's headquarters after Hood's massive blow against the Federal left in front of Atlanta on July 22, 1864. Sherman's tears rolled through his beard and down on the floor when he viewed the body of his friend laid upon a door torn from its hinges and improvised as a bier. A bachelor, McPherson had applied for a leave months previously to wed a Baltimore belle to whom he was engaged. The leave was refused by Sherman who felt that McPherson's presence was indispensable in the coming campaign. He was buried in the orchard where he played as a boy, and in 1881 a monument, erected over his grave through the efforts of the Society of the Army of the Tennessee, was dedicated by such luminaries as ex-President Hayes and Generals Sherman, Manning F. Force, and Mortimer D. Leggett.

Previous Page

Reference: Generals in Blue. Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge.