Born in Clyde, Ohio, in 1828, McPherson left home at 13 to clerk in the Green Springs store of Robert Smith, who assisted McPherson in gaining an appointment to the United States Military Academy. There McPherson excelled academically, developing into a skilled engineer, superb horseman, superior tactician, and a favorite of classmates. Graduating first in West Point's class of 1853, McPherson epitomized the Academy's gentleman officer image.
In 1858 he took charge of the Pacific Coast harbor defenses at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Handsome, worldly, and personable, he became a favorite with fellow officers and San Francisco society. There he met Emily Hoffman, of a prominent Baltimore family, who became his fiancee.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, McPherson returned east where he served as General Henry Halleck's aide, and later as Grant's chief engineer. With Grant at Forts Henry and Donelson and at Shiloh, McPherson became deeply attached to his commander. McPherson's courage under fire, professionalism, and loyalty brought rapid promotion.
As the Vicksburg Campaign unfolded, Grant trusted McPherson to lead the 17th Corps' advance. On the fourth of July 1863, Grant gave McPherson the honor of leading the victorious Union troops into Vicksburg. As commander of the Vicksburg occupation forces, McPherson drew criticism in the North for his compassionate treatment of Vicksburg's war-torn families. He responded, "When the time comes that to be a soldier, a man must forget... the claims of humanity, I do not want to be a soldier."
When Grant went east to take command of all the Union armies, he credited his trusted friends, McPherson and Sherman, with his successes of 1862 and 1863. Sherman received command of the West and McPherson succeeded him as commander of the redoubtable 30,000 man Army of the Tennessee. Few men rose so far so fast with so little combat experience and so few political friends as did General James McPherson.
Granted leave for the first time in three years, McPherson headed for Baltimore to marry Emily Hoffman, but en route Sherman recalled him to prepare for the Atlanta Campaign. As "Sherman's Whiplash," McPherson's Army of the Tennessee executed a series of superb flanking maneuvers that brought the Union ever closer to Atlanta. He earned the respect of his superiors and the trust and affection of his army.
He was, as General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote, "a bright particular star." Universally admired by Union and Confederate troops, greatness lay in his future; many believed he would one day become President of the United States. Yet this ideal came to a crashing halt on July 22, 1864, during the Battle of Atlanta when a bullet tore through the heart of General James Birdseye McPherson.
No union officer was as greatly mourned. Generals Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant wept at the loss of their "best friend." To the hardened veterans of the Army of the Tennessee, their gallant McPherson was the ideal American soldier. Their commander was intelligent, courageous, selfless, duty-bound, and even tempered. McPherson symbolized the soldierly virtues of the age.
In 1876, the Society of the Army of the Tennessee unveiled its memorial - an equestrian statue at McPherson Square in Washington, D.C. Five years later, President Rutherford B. Hayes opened ceremonies at Clyde, Ohio, where 20,000 people cheered as Sherman dedicated the bronze statue erected over McPherson's grave.
Thirty years after the American Civil War, 16th Corps Commander Grenville Dodge answered why Army of the Tennessee veterans rarely spoke of their magnificant victory at the Battle of Atlanta, a "giant among battles." Dodge replied, "The answer comes to all of us. It is as apparent to us today as it was that night. We lost our best friend, that superb soldier, our commander, General McPherson; his death counted so much more to us than victory, that we spoke of our battle, our great success, with our loss uppermost in our minds."
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