James Birdseye McPherson, commander of the Federal Army of the Tennessee, was the highest-ranking Union officer killed during the Civil War.
... And apparently one of the most beloved.
His death merited national headlines at the time and was tinged by North/South hatred.
Harper’s Weekly reported:
“(McPherson) was shot while riding along his lines, superintending the advance of his skirmish line, by a band of rebel bushwhackers in ambush. Then occurred the most notably disgraceful act which has ever blackened the annals of civilized warfare. Having shot M'PHERSON, the rebels took the body and stripped it of its clothing. Colonel STRONG, however, led a charge and secured the body. Thus the Army of the Tennessee lost its brave commander.”
The citizens of McPherson’s hometown of Clyde, Ohio, described the act as murder.
The reality was McPherson ran across Confederate troops while investigating an outburst of rifle fire from his lines during the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864. He was ordered to halt, but instead tried to escape and was shot down by Confederate Corporal Robert Coleman of Mississippi.
Nor was his body stripped. He was still in his major general’s uniform when brought to Gen. William T. Sherman’s headquarters following his death. There, according to Sherman’s Memoirs, physicians removed his frock coat to probe his wounds.
His hat was taken by Capt. William A. Brown of Mississippi who wore it until the end of the Civil War. Other personal items were pilfered including his watch, field glasses and personal papers. Most, if not all, of the items were quickly recovered when Union troops took members of the Confederate 5th Regiment prisoner.
Among those Confederates was Capt. Richard Beard of Murfreesboro whose company was part of Gen. Patrick Cleburne’s Division of the Army of Tennessee. It was Beard who attempted to get McPherson to surrender.
The general was only a few feet away “When I threw up my sword for a signal to surrender. Not a word was spoken. He check his horse slightly, raised his hat as politely as if we were saluting a lady, wheeled his horse’s head directly to the right and dashed off to the rear at full gallop,” Beard recounted.
McPherson’s orderly, A.J. Thompson, told a slightly different story:
"All at once the rebels rose on our left and cried, 'Halt! Halt!' General McPherson turned quickly from them to the right and I followed. Just as we turned they fired a volley at us. I dodged down and hung on to the side of my horse and several balls came so close that they fairly blistered the back of my neck. They shot over me and killed the General.”
Thompson was knocked unconscious when his horse slammed into a tree.
“When I came to, McPherson was lying on his right side with his right hand pressed against his breast, and every breath he drew the blood flowed in streams between his fingers. I went up to him and said to him, 'General, are you hurt?' He raised his left hand and brought it down upon his left leg and said: 'Oh, Orderly, I am,' and immediately turned over on his face, straightened himself out, trembling like a leaf,” Thompson said.
A bullet killed the horse of Col. R.K. Scott, a brigade commander who was accompanying McPherson.
Beard approached Scott and asked, “Who is this man lying here?”
“Sir, it is General McPherson. You have killed the best man in our army,” answered Scott.
Both Sherman and Gen. U.S. Grant agreed with that sentiment.
"The country has lost one of its best soldiers, and I have lost my best friend, " Grant said after hearing the news.
Sherman felt particularly responsible, partially because he had only recently denied McPherson’s request for leave so that he could marry his fiancée, Emily Hoffman. In his official report, Sherman wrote:
“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.”
In a subsequent letter to his wife, Sherman wrote, “"McPherson's death was a great loss to me. I depended much on him."
The crusty general had written McPherson’s fiancée the month before when he turned down his request for leave explaining his importance to the army and begging her to be patient. Sherman wrote her again following his death.
“Though the cannon booms now, and the angry rattle of musketry tells me that I also will likely pay the same penalty yet while Life lasts I will delight in the Memory of that bright particular star which has gone before to prepare the way for us more hardened sinners who must struggle on the End,” Sherman concluded.
Emily Hoffman remained in mourning for a year and never married.
Ironically, McPherson’s roommate at the U.S. Military Academy, John Bell Hood, had only taken command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee a few days before the battle.
“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,” Hood wrote.
As for Beard, witnessing McPherson’s death was his last act of combat during the Civil War.
He spent the rest of the war on Johnson’s Islands prison on Lake Erie near Sandusky, Ohio, just a few miles from McPherson’s final resting place in Clyde, Ohio.
Click on MORE to read Captain Beard's account of McPherson's death.