James Birdseye McPherson was born on November 14, 1828, in Clyde, Ohio, McPherson’s parents were William and Cynthia Russell McPherson. The couple had married near Canandaigua, New York before moving to Clyde, Ohio.
William McPherson was a blacksmith, but his son James spent much of his youth working the family’s 160-acre farm. James McPherson was the family’s eldest son. When McPherson was just thirteen years of age, his father became too weak to continue on as a blacksmith. James McPherson immediately found employment as a clerk in Robert Smith’s store in nearby Green Spring, Ohio. He remained there until he was nineteen years old.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
In 1847, McPherson received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy. Because of his limited education, however, McPherson enrolled in the Norwalk Academy for two years before entering West Point in 1849. McPherson graduated from the academy in 1853 ranked at the top of his class academically.
U.S. Army Officer
After graduating from West Point, McPherson received a brevet promotion to second lieutenant, and he remained at the academy as an Assistant Professor of Practical Engineering. McPherson held this position until 1854 when he joined the Army Corps of Engineers. McPherson spent most of the next three years making improvements to New York City’s harbor and then he assumed command of the fortifications at San Francisco, California for the next three-and-one-half years.
Union Army Officer
As Southern states began to secede from the Union in December 1860 and the first several months of 1861, McPherson determined that he had to fight for the North. He summarized his views in a letter to his mother:
My mind is perfectly made up, and I can see that I have but one duty to perform, and that is, to stand by the Union and the support of the General Government. I left home when I was quite young, was educated at the expense of the Government, received my commission and have drawn my pay from the same source to the present time, and I think it would be traitorous for me, now that the Government is really in danger, to decline to serve and resign my commission. Not that I expect any service of mine can avail much; but such as it is it shall be wielded in behalf of the Union, whether James Buchanan or Abraham Lincoln is in the Presidential chair.
In another letter to his mother, McPherson further stated:
However men may have differed in politics, there is but one course now. Since the traitors have initiated hostilities and threatened to seize the National Capital, give them blow for blow and shot for shot, until they are effectually humbled. I do not know whether I shall be kept here or ordered East; but one thing I do know, and that is, that I am ready and willing to go where I can be of the most service in upholding the honor of the Government, and assisting in crushing out the rebellion; and I have faith to believe that you will see the day when the glorious old flag will wave more triumphantly than ever. I wish I was at home now to join the Ohio volunteers. I swung my cap more than once on reading the telegraphic message of Governor Dennison: What Kentucky will not furnish, Ohio will! . . . Now that the fires are kindled, I hope they will not be permitted to die out until Jeff. Davis and his fellow conspirators tire in Washington to be tried for treason, or, in the language of old Putnam, tried, condemned, and executed.
Service in the Western Theater
McPherson pledged his willingness to fight for the North in the second letter, and he soon received his opportunity to do so. Army officials promoted McPherson to the rank of lieutenant colonel in early 1861, and he soon joined General Ulysses S. Grant’s staff, serving as the general’s chief engineer. Grant entrusted McPherson to deploy Union forces at the Battle of Fort Donelson. McPherson also took part in the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862.
Because of his battlefield accomplishments, officials promoted McPherson to the rank of brigadier general of volunteers in May 1862 and to major general of volunteers on October 8, 1862. In December 1862, McPherson assumed command of the Seventeenth Corps of the Army of the Tennessee. For most of 1862 and the first part of 1863, McPherson took part in Grant’s assault on Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Ulysses S. Grant’s Recommendation
McPherson performed so well during the war’s first two-and-one-half years that Grant recommended that officials appoint McPherson as a Brigadier-General in the regular army. In his recommendation, Grant wrote:
[McPherson] has been with me in every battle since the commencement of the rebellion, except Belmont. At Forts Henry and Donelson, Pittsburg Landing, and the siege of Corinth, as a staff officer and engineer, his services were conspicuous and highly meritorious. At the second battle of Corinth his skill as a soldier was displayed in successfully carrying re-enforcements to the besieged garrison, when the enemy was between him and the point to be reached.
In the advance through Central Mississippi, General McPherson commanded one wing of the army with all the ability possible to show, he having the lead in the advance, and the rear in retiring.
In the campaign and siege terminating in the fall of Vicksburg, General McPherson has filled a conspicuous part. At the battle of Port Gibson it was under his direction that the enemy was driven late in the afternoon from a position they had succeeded in holding all day against an obstinate attack. His corps, the advance, always under his immediate eye, were the pioneers in the movement from Port Gibson to Hankinson’s Ferry.
From the North Fork of the Bayou Pierre to Black River, it was a constant skirmish, the whole skillfully managed. The enemy was so closely pressed as to be unable to destroy their bridge of boats after them. From Hankinson’s Ferry to Jackson the Seventeenth Army Corps marched roads not traveled by other troops, fighting the entire battle of Raymond alone; and the bulk of Johnston’s army was fought by this corps, entirely under the management of General McPherson. At Champion Hill’s the Seventeenth Army Corps and General McPherson were conspicuous. All that could be termed a battle there was fought by General McPherson’s corps and General Hovey’s division of the Thirteenth Corps. In the assault of the 23d of May on the fortifications of Vicksburg, and during the entire siege, General McPherson and his command took unfading laurels.
He is one of the ablest engineers and most skillful Generals. I would respectfully but urgently recommend his promotion to the position of Brigadier-General in the regular army.
McPherson received his promotion even as rumors circulated in the highest reaches of the federal government that the general supported slavery and showed too much kindness to Southern prisoners during the Vicksburg Campaign. While not an ardent abolitionist, McPherson did not support slavery. Regarding the Confederate prisoners, McPherson proclaimed that he was a humanitarian and expected the enemy to treat his captured men in a similar manner.
Army of the Tennessee Commander
Following the fall of Vicksburg, McPherson initially remained in Mississippi. He conducted feints toward Jackson, Mississippi, hoping to ease pressure on Union forces at Chickamauga, Georgia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. On March 12, 1864, McPherson became the commanding general of the Army of the Tennessee, which comprised approximately 24,000 men.
In April 1864, the Army of the Tennessee joined General William T. Sherman’s campaign to capture Atlanta, Georgia. As Northern forces approached Atlanta on July 22, 1864, Confederate forces killed McPherson during the Battle of Atlanta. Notifying Union military authorities of McPherson’s death, William T. Sherman wrote:
General It is my painful duty to report that Brigadier-General Jas. B. McPherson, United States Army, Major-General of volunteers, and commander of the Army of the Tennessee in the field, was killed by a shot from ambuscade about noon of yesterday.
At the time of this fatal shot he was on horseback, placing his troops in position near the city of Atlanta, and was passing by a crossroad from a moving column toward the flank of troops that had already been established on the line. He had quitted me but a few moments before, and was on his way to see in person to the execution of my orders.
About the time of this sad event, the enemy had sallied from his intrenchments around Atlanta, and had, by a circuit, got to the left and rear of this very line, and had begun an attack which resulted in serious battle, so that General McPherson fell in battle, booted and spurred, as the gallant knight and gentleman should wish.
Not his the loss; but the country and the army will mourn his death and cherish his memory, as that of one who, though comparatively young, had risen by his merit and ability to the command of one of the best armies which the nation had called into existence to vindicate its honor and integrity.
History tells us of but few who so blended the grace and gentleness of the friend with the dignity, courage, faith, and manliness of the soldier.
His public enemies, even the men who directed the fatal shot, never spoke or wrote of him without expressions of marked respect; those whom he commanded loved him even to idolatry; and I, his associate and commander, fail in words adequate to express my opinion of his great worth. I feel assured that every patriot in America, on hearing this sad news, will feel a sense of personal loss, and the country generally will realize that we have lost, not only an able military leader but a man who, had he survived, was qualified to heal the national strife which has been raised by designing and ambitious men.
Even Confederate General Hood, who had attended West Point with McPherson, expressed his sadness:
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.
Upon hearing of her grandson’s death, McPherson’s grandmother wrote the following letter to General Grant:
I hope you will pardon me for troubling you with the perusal of these few lines from the trembling hand of the aged grandma of our beloved General James B. McPherson, who fell in battle. When it was announced at his funeral, from the public print, that when General Grant heard of his death, he went into his tent and wept like a child, my heart went out in thanks to you for the interest you manifested in him while he was with you. I have watched his progress from infancy up. In childhood he was obedient and kind; in manhood, interesting, noble, and persevering, looking to the wants of others. Since he entered the war, others can appreciate his worth more than 1 can. When it was announced to us by telegraph that our loved one had fallen, our hearts were almost rent asunder; but when we heard the Commander-in-Chief could weep with us too, we felt, sir, that you have been as a father to him, and this whole nation is mourning his early death. I wish to inform you that his remains were conducted by a kind guard to the very parlor where he spent a cheerful evening in 1861 with his widowed mother, two brothers, an only sister, and his aged grandmother, who is now trying to write. In the morning he took his leave at six o clock, little dreaming he should fall by a ball from the enemy. His funeral services were attended in his mother s orchard, where his youthful feet had often pressed the soil to gather the falling fruit; and his remains are resting in the silent grave scarce half a mile from the place of his birth. His grave is on an eminence but a few rods from where the funeral services were attended, and near the grave of his father.
The grave, no doubt, will be marked, so that passers by will often stop and drop a tear over the dear departed. And now, dear friend, a few lines from you would be gratefully received by the afflicted friends. I pray that the God of battles may be with you, and go forth with your arms till rebellion shall cease, the Union be restored, and the old flag wave over our entire land.
With much respect, I remain your friend,
Aged eighty-seven years and four months.
Grant responded with the following letter:
My Dear Madam:
Your very welcome letter of the 3d instant has reached me. I am glad to know that the relatives of the lamented Major-General McPherson are aware of the more than friendship existing between him and myself. A nation grieves at the loss of one so dear to our nation’s cause. It is a selfish grief, because the nation had more to expect from him than of almost any one living. I join in this selfish grief, and add the grief of personal love for departed. He formed, for some time, one of my military family. I knew him well; to know him was to love. It may be some consolation to you, his aged grandmother, to know that every officer and every soldier who served under your grandson felt the highest reverence for his patriotism, his zeal, his great, almost unequaled ability, his amiability and all the manly virtues that can adorn a commander. Your bereavement is great, but can not exceed mine.
Yours truly, U. S. GRANT.