Day One: James McPherson

McPhersonMonSignPart two in a series

James McPherson still finds himself surrounded by Southerners.

The difference now, though, is that the shady neighborhood of small, tight houses seems far more hospitable than the Confederate skirmishers that surrounded him on July 22, 1864.

Confederates, trying to outflank the Federal army, caught them off guard. McPherson, riding toward Sherman’s headquarters, suddenly rode into a group of Confederate skirmishers from Patrick Cleburne’s division. “Halt!” the skirmishers yelled. McPherson, lifting his hat as though in a signal of compliance, wheeled his horse around and dashed for the rear, but the Confederates opened fire.

McPherson, commander of the Army of the Tennessee, was the second-highest-ranking Federal officer killed during the war and the only Federal army commander.

We pull in along Monument Avenue SE and pass through an old neighborhood that, at the time of the battle of Atlanta, had not been there. At the intersection of McPherson Avenue, Monument divides, with a shady square park little larger than the size of a bedroom sitting in the middle. Inside a fence of long metal tubes, an upside-down cannon tube sits on a granite block that says “McPherson.” A metal Georgia historical marker tells McPherson’s story.

Dan and I unfold ourselves from the car while Steph naps in the air conditioning. We snap a few pictures and b.s. a little about McPherson when a tall fellow approaches us. “Excuse me,” he said. “Do you mind me asking what your interest in General McPherson is?”

His name is Eric Dudley, a grad student from California doing his Ph.D. in Kansas. He’s interested in McPherson as a “forgotten” figure of the war and so was surprised to see the two of us paying attention to the monument.

“I do tours at Spotsylvania Court House, where John Sedgwick was killed,” I explain. Dan nods. “Sedgwick was the highest-ranking officer killed and McPherson the second-highest, and we sometimes get questions about that. So, I thought I’d come see him.”

“Yeah, Sedgwick’s date of commission came first,” Eric says. “McPherson was an army commander, so it could depend on how you look at it.”

McPhersonMonFlagI ask Eric why he thinks McPherson gets forgotten about. “The fact that he wasn’t a Southerner, for one,” he says. “He wasn’t a Stonewall Jackson. Also, the fact that he died during the war.”

Guys like Sherman and Grant survived and wrote their memoirs and were able to promote their stories. And even with those written records, as best selling as they were, they still had a tough time getting their stories to stick in American memory in the face of the Lost Cause. A guy like McPherson, who left no written account, was sure to be lost.

“He was a poor record keeper,” Eric explains. “He wrote letters to his fiancée, but her family were Southern sympathizers, so they burned all his letters. The worst nightmare for a historian!”

No serious academic biography of McPherson has been written. No one seems to remember his role as Grant and Sherman’s favorite “fair-haired son.” Eric hopes to rectify that, first by doing a memory study as his doctoral dissertation.

“Damn shame about those letters,” Dan says later in the car.

I ask him what he thinks about McPherson. “His death had layers of repercussions. When he’s killed, Hooker is next senior in line, but Sherman doesn’t want to put his Army of the Tennessee–the army he’s served and commanded–under the command of someone he detests.” The nod goes instead to Oliver Otis Howard, whom Hooker blames for the defeat at Chancellorsville. So Hooket resigns, which opens the door for Henry Slocum to come back; Slocum, still at Vicksburg, had refused to serve under Hooker because of Chancellorsville. “That realignment,” Dan says, “has huge repercussions for the March to the Sea.”

We leave McPherson behind, with many questions to ponder as we continue our own march. Time to go see Steph’s favorite fallen leader–at least in spirit–not too far out of town.

1 Response to Day One: James McPherson

  1. It’s worth noting that the fight on July 22nd, and McPherson’s death, also put to rest grumblings in the Armies of the Cumberland and Ohio about how Sherman was keeping his “pets” (Army of the Tennessee) out of the worst fighting.

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