Thursday, August 16, 2012

The General Who Might Have Been President

This blog is about General James Birdseye McPherson who was the second highest ranking Union officer killed during the Civil War. I could find little information about the family except that his father, William, was born in Scotland. His Mother was Cynthia Russell McPherson and I assume she was also born in Scotland. I did find one source which said his father was an unsuccessful blacksmith and became ”mentally unstable.” We also know there were four children in the family and James B. was the oldest.

Because his father was unable to support the family, it was necessary that James find a job and help his mother. His employer, Robert Smith, took an interest in the young man and helped him spend two years at the Norwalk Academy. In 1849, again with the aid of Robert Smith, he entered West Point. He was now twenty years old. A gifted student, he graduated in 1853 first in his class. Included in his class were men who fought on both sides of in the Civil War including Philip H. Sheridan and John Bell Hood. Eleven years later it would be Hood’s battle order at Atlanta which would result in the death of Gen. McPherson.

After West Point, McPherson was commissioned a lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers and at the outbreak of the Civil War he was in San Francisco supervising the fortification of Alcatraz Island. It is said that no Union officer “had a more meteoric rise than McPherson.” In August 1861, he was a first lieut. and by October 8, 1862, he was a major general and in command of a division in the XIII Corps. He participated in the battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson as did many men from Illinois. He was also at Shiloh.

One of his finest moments as an officer came during the siege of Vicksburg. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant cited him for “conspicuous skill and personal bravery” and promoted him to Brig. General. On March 26, 1864, he assumed command of the Army of Tennessee which he led in the campaign of North Georgia.

After a meeting with Gen. Sherman on July 22, 1864, McPherson and one orderly were riding back to a battle which had just started. They entered a grove of woods and had traveled only about 100 yards where a cry of “halt” rang out. He stopped for a moment and saw a line of gray skirmishers. He raised his hand as if to tip his hat and made a quick turn to the right. The skirmishers let go with a volley. Gen. McPherson staggered in his saddle for a short distance and then fell to the ground. Only one bullet had found the General but several found his horse which was probably put down.

His troops soon recovered his body, tore a door from its hinges and improvised a bier. Gen. Sherman came to see his friend and it was reported that “tears rolled through his beard and down on the floor.” There are those who believe that his death was one of the heaviest individual losses suffered by Union forces during the war. Many believed that had he lived, he would have been elected President of the United States. Gen. Grant said “the nation had more to expect from him than from almost anyone living.” James Birdseye McPherson was only 35 years of age when he died. Among his friends were: Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield and Ulysses S, Grant. His body was taken back to Clyde, Ohio for burial.

 McPherson was engaged to be married to Emily Hoffman of Baltimore. While serving at Vicksburg, he was given leave to be married but before he reached Baltimore, he was returned to active duty. After his death, Emily mourned for a year and it is said she never left her room. She remained a spinster for the rest of her life. But, in 1876, she made an attempt to have her soldier buried in Washington, D.C.  A group of strangers arrived in Clyde, Ohio to remove the body but were met with fierce resistance that included the use of firearms. No one was going to take their hero from his home in Ohio.

Miss Hoffman, unable to have the body of her hero soldier began working to have a statue erected in his honor. She called on two of his closest friends for aid, President Ulysses S. Grant and General William T. Sherman. Her brother-in-law, one of the founders of Wells Fargo offered to pay for the statue. Congress provided the location and the granite base. McPherson Square and the Metro rail station in Washington are named in his honor. At the center of the square is the statue of McPherson on horseback. Thousands of people pass the statue every day, yet I wonder how many know the story?

In Chicago, the James B. McPherson Elementary School located in the Ravenswood area was named in his honor. The school has a website but nothing is written about its history. I wonder if the students know the story?

Here are just a few other honors for this outstanding SOLDIER

  • Fort McPherson near Atlanta, Georgia named in his honor.
  • McPherson, Kansas named in his honor. There is also a statue of him in the park across from the McPherson County Courthouse
  • McPherson County, South Dakota, named in his honor
  • McPherson Road in Ayer, Massachusetts was named in his honor.
  • In Clyde, Ohio, there is a school, a cemetery, and State Route 20 are all named for the General

There is more to the story but this is all the space left. I will publish tomorrow and the next day, two letters from General Sherman to Emily Hoffman. One letter was written before his death and another written after his death. They add a great deal more information to this story.

Wayne Rethford, Past President
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society
Scottish American History Club

Don’t forget the History Club meets September 8. The program will be presented by the Eastland Historical Society. Reservations are helpful. Call 630-447-5092.

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