American Civil War: Major General James McPherson

Major General James B. McPherson. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

James McPherson - Early Life & Career:

James Birdseye McPherson was born November 14, 1828, near Clyde, Ohio. The son of William and Cynthia Russell McPherson, he worked on the family's farm and aided with his father's blacksmith business. When he was thirteen, McPherson's father, who had a history of mental illness, became unable to work. To aid the family, McPherson took a job at a store run by Robert Smith. An avid reader, he worked in this position until he was nineteen when Smith aided him in obtaining an appointment to West Point. Rather than immediately enroll, he deferred his acceptance and took two years of preparatory study at Norwalk Academy.

Arriving at West Point in 1849, he was in the same class as Philip Sheridan, John M. Schofield, and John Bell Hood. A gifted student, he graduated first (of 52) in the Class of 1853. Though posted to the Army Corps of Engineers, McPherson was retained at West Point for a year to serve as an Assistant Professor of Practical Engineering. Completing his teaching assignment, he next was ordered to aid in improving New York Harbor. In 1857, McPherson was transferred to San Francisco to work on improving fortifications in the area.

James McPherson - The Civil War Begins:

With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the beginning of the secession crisis, McPherson declared that he wished to fight for the Union. As the Civil War began in April 1861, he realized that his career would be best served if he returned east. Asking for a transfer, he received orders to report to Boston for service in the Corps of Engineers as a captain. Though an improvement, McPherson desired to serve with one of the Union armies then forming. In November 1861, he wrote to Major General Henry W. Halleck and requested a position on his staff.

James McPherson - Joining with Grant:

This was accepted and McPherson traveled to St. Louis. Arriving, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and assigned as chief engineer on the staff of Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant. In February 1862, McPherson was with Grant's army when it captured Fort Henry and played a key role in deploying Union forces for the Battle of Fort Donelson a few days later. McPherson again saw action in April during the Union victory at the Battle of Shiloh. Impressed with the young officer, Grant had him promoted to brigadier general in May.

James McPherson - Rising through the Ranks:

That fall saw McPherson in command of an infantry brigade during the campaigns around Corinth and Iuka, MS. Again performing well, he received a promotion to major general on October 8, 1862. In December, Grant's Army of the Tennessee was reorganized and McPherson received command of XVII Corps. In this role, McPherson played a key part in Grant's campaign against Vicksburg, MS in late 1862 and 1863. In the course of the campaign, he took part in victories at Raymond (May 12), Jackson (May 14), Champion Hill (May 16), and the Siege of Vicksburg (May 18-July 4).

James McPherson - Leading the Army of the Tennessee:

In the months following the victory at Vicksburg, McPherson remained in Mississippi conducting minor operations against the Confederates in the area. As a result, he did not travel with Grant and part of the Army of the Tennessee to relieve the siege of Chattanooga. In March 1864, Grant was ordered east to take overall command of Union forces. In reorganizing the armies in the West, he directed that McPherson be made commander of the Army of the Tennessee on March 12, replacing Major General William T. Sherman, who was promoted to command all Union forces in region.

Commencing his campaign against Atlanta in early May, Sherman moved through northern Georgia with three armies. While McPherson advanced on the right, Major General George H. Thomas' Army of the Cumberland formed the center while Major General John Schofield's Army of the Ohio marched on the Union left. Confronted by General Joseph E. Johnston's strong position at Rocky Face Ridge and Dalton, Sherman dispatched McPherson south to Snake Creek Gap. From this undefended gap, he was to strike at Resaca and sever the railroad which was supplying the Confederates to the north.

Emerging from the gap on May 9, McPherson became concerned that Johnston would move south and cut him off. As a result, he withdrew to the gap and failed to take Resaca despite the fact the city was lightly defended. Moving south with the bulk of Union forces, Sherman engaged Johnston at the Battle of Resaca on May 13-15. Largely inconclusive, Sherman later blamed McPherson's cautiousness on May 9 for preventing a great Union victory. As Sherman maneuvered Johnston south, McPherson's army took part in the defeat at Kennesaw Mountain on June 27.

James McPherson - Final Actions:

Despite the defeat, Sherman continued to press south and crossed the Chattahoochee River. Nearing Atlanta, he intended to attack the city from three directions with Thomas pushing in from the north, Schofield from the northeast, and McPherson from the east. Confederate forces, now led by McPherson's classmate Hood, attacked Thomas at Peachtree Creek on July 20 and were turned back. Two days later, Hood planned to attack McPherson as the Army of the Tennessee approached from the east. Learning that McPherson's left flank was exposed, he directed Lieutenant General William Hardee's corps and cavalry to attack.

Meeting with Sherman, McPherson heard the sound of fighting as Major General Grenville Dodge's XVI Corps worked to halt this Confederate assault 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 Dodge's XVI Corps and Major General Francis P. Blair's XVII Corps. As he advanced, a line of Confederate skirmishers appeared and ordered him to halt. Refusing, McPherson turned his horse and tried to flee. Opening fire, the Confederates killed him as he tried to escape.

Beloved by his men, McPherson's death was mourned by leaders on both sides. Sherman, who considered McPherson a friend, wept upon learning of his death and later wrote his wife, "McPherson's death was a great loss to me. I depended much on him." Upon learning of the death of his protégé, Grant was also moved to tears. Across the lines, McPherson's classmate Hood penned, "I will record the death of my classmate and boyhood friend, General James B. McPherson, the announcement of which caused me sincere sorrow...the attachment formed in early youth was strengthened by my admiration and gratitude for his conduct toward our people in the vicinity of Vicksburg." The second highest ranking Union officer killed in combat (behind Major General John Sedgwick), McPherson's body was recovered and returned to Ohio for burial.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General James McPherson." ThoughtCo, Sep. 18, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, September 18). American Civil War: Major General James McPherson. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General James McPherson." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).