“By silent merit alone” seem to be the words that epitomize the life of Gen. James “Birdseye” McPherson.
“Those words describe his military career as well as his life,” said Scott Thomas, who portrays Gen. McPherson as a living historian and has spent much time studying his life. “He certainly was not a braggart. You hear very little of his accomplishments. I think you’ll see that silent merit is the driving force behind the life of Jimmy McPherson.”
McPherson, a native of Clyde, is being remembered July 29 for his leadership in the War Between the States.
McPherson was killed in battle July 22, 1864, in East Atlanta, the only Union army commander killed in battle, said Brenda Stultz, curator of Clyde Museum and General McPherson House.
Although Stultz said there is contradictory information about the circumstances of his death, she said the anniversary is a time to remember him. He was buried in Clyde’s McPherson Cemetery July 29, 1864.
“Bottom line is, we would like people to remember he was an able leader,” Stultz said. “He was respected as an able leader by both the North and the South.”
McPherson was born Nov. 14, 1828, and grew up in Clyde and Green Springs.
“The important thing to remember is he was the son of a farmer, a blacksmith,” Thomas said. “He was a very common man. To get into West Point was usually reserved for the well connected.”
Thomas recapped what he has learned about McPherson’s life.
“Even as a young man living in Stemtown, he was one of the most-read, most-learned teenagers,” he said. “What he did for the children, even though he was not much more than a child himself, was teach the young children how to read and write and helping them.”
He helped them and then quietly moved on.
“The silent merit seemed to mark him more than anything else,” Thomas said. “He was a man a very limited means. He wouldn’t have been able to go to college if it hadn’t been for West Point.
“When he was young, his father went insane after losing a lot of money and darned near everything the family had.”
His father was institutionalized in a state mental hospital, which left the young man to help care for his mother and siblings. At one point, McPherson went to live in what is now Green Springs to live with his aunt and uncle, Robert and Catherine Smith.
“They saw to it that he had books to read,” Thomas said.
And it was his uncle who saw his potential.
“It took three times,” he said. “The first two times he was unsuccessful. He got into West Point in his last year of eligibility, which made him the oldest one in his class.”
He explained cadets must be in school before they turned 21 years old.
So the young McPherson embarked on an adventure.
“A man 20 years old who had never been farther than 20 miles from home,” Thomas said. “Now, he is on the adventure of his life. He rides a train at the harrowing speed of 9 miles per hour, and he ends up on a riverboat cruising Lake Erie to New York. It’s steam-powered, as well. This is a marvel.”
He then gets on a canal boat and ends up on the Hudson River at West Point.
“Can you imagine what kind of trip that must have been for him?” Thomas said. “He wrote a letter home saying he was surprised he didn’t get seasick.”
When McPherson arrived at the academy, he was surrounded by the sons of senators, politicians and wealthy families.
“Here’s little Jimmy from Hamer’s Corners, Ohio, where he was a store clerk,” Thomas said.
He had one year at the Norwalk Institute, but little formal education compared to his classmates.
“He really had to buckle down when he got to the academy,” Thomas said. “His first year of French, he finished second in his class. That was the only class he finished second in.”
Despite the differences in their backgrounds, Thomas said McPherson fit in well with his classmates and made lasting friendships. He roomed with the future Gen. John Bell Hood, who became a commander for the Confederates, they fought on different sides of the Civil War.
“McPherson really was responsible for him graduating,” Thomas said. “He tutored him and tried to keep him on track.”
Superintendent of West Point during McPherson’s years there was Robert E. Lee.
“They knew one another,” Thomas said. “In fact, McPherson’s best friend in West Point was Robert E. Lee’s oldest son, Custus Lee. They remained good friends after graduation. The last letter he got from Custus Lee was after a New York holiday in 1861.”
After graduating from West Point first in his class in 1853, McPherson became a career U.S. Army officer.
“From the beginning of his career, he really had no political allies,” Thomas said. “All of his assignments after graduation, they were all obtained by merit alone.”
After serving briefly as assistant instructor of practical engineering at West Point, he was assigned to various harbor defense projects in New York and Delaware.
When the Civil War started in 1861, he was overseeing the design and construction of fortifications on Alcatraz Island, San Francisco.
Thomas said he caused a stir among the eligible women. However, McPherson already had met Emily Hoffman, his future fiance. She was of a longtime family of millionaires and Emily’s mother didn’t approve for many years. Her mother was a secessionist and forbade the marriage to the Union officer.
“He was still making $23 a month, not very much at all,” Thomas said. “He really didn’t fit into that social circle. However, he was well liked.”
When conflict began, McPherson requested a transfer east and initially was assigned to serve as aide de camp to Gen. Henry Halleck, but by February 1862, he was a lieutenant colonel and chief engineer on the staff of Ulysses S. Grant.
McPherson played a large role in Grant’s capture of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and Corinth in Tennessee. At the Battle of Shiloh, McPherson warned Grant his forward camps were indefensible and had a horse killed under him.
McPherson fought side by side with William Tecumseh Sherman and Grant.
“Those three men together formed the nucleus of the western theater armies,” Thomas said.
During this time, McPherson bought a ring and sent it to Emily.
“I think, at this point in time, they were engaged,” Thomas said. “And Jimmy goes off to war with Ulysses S. Grant. This sealed the relationship between McPherson and Grant. They became fast friends, and for the next several years, they fought side by side.”
It was Grant who promoted him to colonel in May 1862.
“It was an older brother, younger brother situation. They were 10 years apart (in age),” Thomas said. “I think that paints the picture that Jimmy had with his superior officer. They were like family.”
In October 1862, McPherson was promoted to major general and given command of the 2nd division of the Army of Tennessee and served in this capacity through the Vicksburg campaign.
Aug. 1, 1863, he was promoted to brigadier general and began to command the Army of the Tennessee in March 1864 after Sherman was given command of all armies in the West.
McPherson’s army made up the right wing of Sherman’s force as they went to Atlanta in May 1864.
“He asked for a week’s furlough because Emily’s mother had finally agreed to the marriage because he now was important,” Thomas said. “Jimmy left for Boston to get married, but before he got there, he received another telegram to get his Army and meet in Alabama to talk about the battle for Atlanta.”
Sherman wrote a letter to Emily explaining why he couldn’t allow McPherson to complete the trip.
“And off they go to the battle of Atlanta in May 1864,” Thomas said. “About 10 weeks later, McPherson was ordered to disrupt communication in Atlanta to try to get the Confederates to surrender Atlanta without a fight.”
After several battles in the Atlanta Campaign, trying to outmaneuver Confederate forces under Joseph E. Johnston, McPherson tried May 9, 1864, to flank and destroy Johnston at the Battle of Rocky Face Ridge, but his 25,000-man column was thwarted by a blocking force of some 4,000 Confederates.
Hearing of this defeat, Sherman told McPherson he had “missed the opportunity of a lifetime.”
McPherson’s army also suffered heavily while assaulting the slopes of Kennesaw Mountain June 27, 1864.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed McPherson’s former classmate, Gen. John Bell Hood, in July 1864, and Hood attacked Union forces in Atlanta. During the battle, a line of Confederate skirmishers shot and killed McPherson after he attempted to escape capture.
“One bullet struck McPherson in his chest below the arm,” Thomas said. “He was dead before he hit the ground.”
According to an account of his death by the Civil War Trust, Sherman and Hood mourned the loss of McPherson.
“His body was laid on the dining room table,” Thomas said. “Sherman, also a good friend, walked around that table alone, crying, until his tears ran through his red beard onto the floor.”
“This country has lost one of its ablest soldiers, and I have lost my best friend,” Grant was noted to say.
Hood marked his passing with friendship, admiration and gratitude.
“And Sherman wrote another letter to Emily Hoffman, extolling the tragic loss,” Thomas said.
Emily went into mourning for a year.
“After the year, she wore black the rest of her life. She never married,” Thomas said. “It’s a tragic story. Not only for Emily Hoffman, but for everyone who knew McPherson was destined for greater things.
“He would have gone to Washington with Gen. Grant when he became president,” Thomas said. “And maybe McPherson would have become president after Grant.”
But the world will never know where McPherson’s silent merit would have taken him.