American Civil War: Major General John McClernand

General John McClernand

Matthew Brady / Wikimedia Commons / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

John Alexander McClernand was born May 30, 1812, near Hardinsburg, KY. Moving to Illinois at a young age, he was educated in local village schools and at home. First pursuing an agricultural career, McClernand later elected to become a lawyer. Largely self-educated, he passed the Illinois bar exam in 1832. Later that year McClernand received his first military training when he served as a private during the Black Hawk War. A devout Democrat, he founded a newspaper, the Shawneetown Democrat, in 1835 and the following year was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. His initial term lasted only a year, but he returned to Springfield in 1840. An effective politician, McClernand was elected to the U.S. Congress three years later.

The Civil War Nears

During his time in Washington, McClernand violently opposed the passage of the Wilmot Proviso which would have banned enslavement in the territory acquired during the Mexican-American War. An anti-abolitionist and staunch ally of Senator Stephen Douglas, he aided his mentor in passing the Compromise of 1850. Though McClernand left Congress in 1851, he returned in 1859 to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Representative Thomas L. Harris. With sectional tensions rising, he became a firm Unionist and worked to advance Douglas' cause during the election of 1860. After Abraham Lincoln was elected in November 1860, Southern states began leaving the Union. With the beginning of the Civil War the following April, McClernand commenced efforts to raise a brigade of volunteers for operations against the Confederacy. Eager to maintain a wide base of support for the war, Lincoln appointed the Democratic McClernand a brigadier general of volunteers on May 17, 1861.

Early Operations

Assigned to the District of Southeast Missouri, McClernand and his men first experienced combat as part of Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant's small army at the Battle of Belmont in November 1861. A bombastic commander and political general, he quickly irritated Grant. As Grant's command was expanded, McClernand became a division commander. In this role, he took part in the capture of Fort Henry and Battle of Fort Donelson in February 1862. At the latter engagement, McClernand's division held the Union right but failed to anchor its flank on the Cumberland River or another strongpoint. Attacked on February 15, his men were driven back nearly two miles before Union forces stabilized the line. Rescuing the situation, Grant soon counterattacked and prevented the garrison from escaping. Despite his error at Fort Donelson, McClernand received a promotion to major general on March 21.

Seeking Independent Command

Remaining with Grant, McClernand's division came under heavy attack on April 6 at the Battle of Shiloh. Helping to hold the Union line, he took part in the Union counterattack the next day which defeated General P.G.T. Beauregard's Army of the Mississippi. A constant critic of Grant's actions, McClernand spent much of the middle of 1862 conducting political maneuvering with the goal of either displacing Major General George B. McClellan in the east or obtaining his own command in the west. Obtaining a leave of absence from his division in October, he traveled to Washington to lobby Lincoln directly. Desiring to maintain a Democrat in a senior military position, Lincoln ultimately granted McClernand's request and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton gave him permission to raise troops in Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa for an expedition against Vicksburg, MS. A key location on the Mississippi River, Vicksburg was the last obstacle to Union control of the waterway.

On the River

Though McClernand's force initially only reported to Union General-in-Chief Major General Henry W. Halleck, efforts soon commenced to limit the political general's power. This ultimately saw orders issued for him to take command of a new corps to be formed out his current force once he united with Grant who was already operating against Vicksburg. Until McClernand rendezvoused with Grant, he would remain an independent command. Moving down the Mississippi in December he met Major General William T. Sherman's corps which was returning north after its defeat at Chickasaw Bayou. The senior general, McClernand added Sherman's corps to his own and pressed south aided by Union gunboats led by Rear Admiral David D. Porter. En route, he learned that a Union steamer had been captured by Confederate forces and taken to Arkansas Post (Fort Hindeman) on the Arkansas River. Re-routing the entire expedition on Sherman's advice, McClernand ascended the river and landed his troops on January 10. Attacking the next day, his troops carried the fort in the Battle of Arkansas Post.

Issues With Grant

This diversion from the effort against Vicksburg greatly angered Grant who saw operations in Arkansas as a distraction. Unaware that Sherman had suggested the attack, he complained loudly to Halleck about McClernand. As a result, orders were issued allowing Grant to take complete control of the Union troops in the area. Uniting his forces, Grant shifted McClernand into command of the newly-formed XIII Corps. Openly resentful of Grant, McClernand spent much of the winter and spring spreading rumors regarding his superior's supposed drinking and behavior. In doing so, he earned the enmity of other senior leaders such as Sherman and Porter who saw him as unfit for corps command. In late April, Grant elected to cut loose from his supply lines and cross the Mississippi south of Vicksburg. Landing at Bruinsburg on April 29, Union forces pressed east towards Jackson, MS.

Turning towards Vicksburg, XIII Corps was engaged at the Battle of Champion Hill on May 16. Though a victory, Grant believed that McClernand's performance during the battle was lacking as he had failed to press the fight. The next day, XIII Corps attacked and defeated Confederate forces at the Battle of Big Black River Bridge. Beaten, Confederate forces withdrew into the Vicksburg defenses. Pursuing, Grant mounted unsuccessful assaults on the city on May 19. Pausing for three days, he renewed his efforts on May 22. Attacking all along the Vicksburg fortifications, Union troops made little headway. Only on McClernand's front was a foothold gained in the 2nd Texas Lunette. When his initial request for reinforcements was declined, he sent Grant a misleading message implying that he had taken two Confederate forts and that another push might win the day. Sending McClernand additional men, Grant reluctantly renewed his efforts elsewhere. When all of the Union efforts failed, Grant blamed McClernand and cited his earlier communications.

With the failure of the May 22 assaults, Grant commenced a siege of the city. In the wake of the assaults, McClernand issued a congratulatory message to his men for their efforts. The language used in the message sufficiently angered Sherman and Major General James B. McPherson that they lodged complaints with Grant. The message was also printed in Northern newspapers which was in contravention of War Department policy and Grant's own orders. Having been constantly annoyed with McClernand's behavior and performance, this breach of protocol gave Grant the leverage to remove the political general. On June 19, McClernand was officially relieved and command of XIII Corps passed to Major General Edward O. C. Ord.

Later Career & Life

Though Lincoln backed Grant's decision, he remained cognizant of the importance of maintaining the support of Illinois' War Democrats. As a result, McClernand was restored to command of the XIII Corps on February 20, 1864. Serving in the Department of the Gulf, he battled illness and did not take part in the Red River Campaign. Remaining in the Gulf for much of the year, he resigned from the army due to health issues on November 30, 1864. Following the assassination of Lincoln the following year, McClernand played a visible role in the late president's funeral proceedings. In 1870, he was elected circuit judge of the Sangamon District of Illinois and remained in the post for three years before resuming his law practice. Still prominent in politics, McClernand presided over the 1876 Democratic National Convention. He later died on September 20, 1900, in Springfield, IL and was buried at city's Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Selected Sources

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General John McClernand." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, February 16). American Civil War: Major General John McClernand. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General John McClernand." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).