Death of an Army Commander


150 years ago today at 11 AM, the U.S. Army lost its first-ever Army Commander to die at the head of his troops, Major General James B. McPherson of the Army of the Tennessee.

General McPherson grew up in Ohio and graduated first in the Class of 1853 at West Point. Classmates included John M. Schofield and John Bell Hood, one a fellow army commander under Sherman and the other commanding the army opposite. After supervising the construction of Fort Delaware and Alcatraz Island, he quickly rose from a staff position to become one of U.S. Grant’s most trusted subordinates. By early 1864, he was Sherman’s choice to take over the Army of the Tennessee.

In February 1864, McPherson applied for leave to get married to a lady from Baltimore. Sherman disapproved it, citing the pressures of his new promotion and preparation for the Atlanta Campaign, and promised to let McPherson go as soon as possible. Since the campaign’s opening, McPherson’s army had been Sherman’s main striking force, and after the Battle of Peachtree Creek had maneuvered east of Atlanta to cut the railroad toward Virginia. There Hood attacked his army on July 22.

McPherson and Sherman were conferring when the firing intensified. Sherman related, “McPherson . . . gathered his papers . . . into a pocketbook, put it in his breast-pocket, and jumped on his horse, saying he would hurry down his line and send me back word what those sounds meant.” While on the reconnaissance,¬†McPherson stumbled into some Confederates who killed him instantly with a shot to the chest.

Union troops recovered McPherson’s body and brought it to Sherman’s headquarters. Its sight deeply affected Sherman, who “slowly paced the floor, frequently stopping short to receive reports of the progress of the fight, or to give orders for its conduct, or to gaze into the lifeless face of his beloved captain, the tears meanwhile rapidly coursing down his war-worn face.”

McPherson was buried in his hometown of Clyde, Ohio. Sherman wrote a fraught letter to McPherson’s fianc√©e, who was staying in Baltimore with her mother. Sherman apologized and took all responsibility and blame. She read it without comment and went upstairs to her room, not to come out for a full year.

After the war, McPherson Square in Washington was dedicated to the general; it is today the Metro stop for the White House. From 1866 to 2011 the U.S. Army operated Fort McPherson on the south side of Atlanta.

Since 1864, two other U.S. Army Commanders have died while in active command: Lieutenant Generals Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., in 1945 and Walton Walker in 1950.

Image: James B. McPherson, photographed by Matthew Brady.

3 Responses to Death of an Army Commander

  1. Hi Chris,

    Can you help me understand what the difference is in “Army Commander”. As an example, what’s the difference between McPherson being killed at Atlanta and Sedgwick being killed at Spotsylvania. Thanks!!

  2. General McPherson commanded a field army, the Army of the Tennessee. Sedgwick died at the head of the VI Corps, which is one level lower on the organizational chart. Two or more corps make up a field army.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!