Beginning with those mental musings, Waldsmith started researching. In November 2007, Waldsmith self-published a biographical book about Clyde native and Civil War hero McPherson (1828-1864). BookSurge released “General James B. McPherson: The Star-Crossed Knight of the Union” in November 2006. The author said the book went through four or five rewrites and extensive editing.
“It was quite a project. I didn’t anticipate how much work it is to do the whole thing yourself, but it was a fun project. It was a good experience,” Waldsmith said. “I’ve written short articles before. I studied photo history in the past, so I’ve written for a few magazines, but nothing like this.”
A native of Chicago, Waldsmith graduated from Ohio State University, majoring in political science and history. He had considered going to law school but ended up in sales, as his dad and brothers had done. A Tiffin resident for 23 years, Waldsmith began his research on McPherson about three years ago.
“I had always passed through Clyde and I had always noticed the statue there, and I was curious of what this was all about. One day I just stopped and visited the home. I met with the curator there, Ralph Rogers. He told me the history of it and I said I’d like to read the biography on him,” Waldsmith said.
Rogers told Waldsmith only one book had been written, “Forgotten Hero,” by the late Elizabeth Whaley. The small book came out in the 1950s. Waldsmith bought the book and found it geared to a younger audience. He read it in one sitting.
“It didn’t give much detail about who he was as a person,” Waldsmith said. “She didn’t have too many sources. I think a lot of it was oral history, that she interviewed people who were still alive. It was a nice base for me to start from. It gave me a sort of compass.”
Rogers advised Waldsmith to visit the library at the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont. He said Nan Card, the curator there, had collected many of McPherson’s personal letters and documents related to the general. Over a six-month period, Waldsmith used his free time to read all the letters in the Hayes collection.
“The puzzle is, there aren’t that many personal letters from him, because he died young. ... For the next year and a half, I just got involved in putting the pieces of the puzzle together. I visited where I could,” Waldsmith said. “I haven’t been to Vicksburg. I plan to go there. I communicated with the people there. I tried to visit or at least contact people who had written about him or had some information on him. The only frustrating part was ... he died young and he left no heirs, so there’s no memoirs.”
Waldsmith’s stops included the museum in Ann Arbor, the Ohio Historical Society and other sites looking for “tidbits” about the Union general. Waldsmith said he contacted every historical society he could think of looking for letters, news articles, photos and other items pertaining to McPherson. He had visited Alcatraz in the past, before he knew about McPherson’s contributions there.
“I tried to plan vacations around different areas. I was in Atlanta. I went to West Point. He graduated from West Point. I visited the campus to get a feel for things. I was a little disappointed there, because there had been a fire back in the ’40s. All the records of the soldiers of that time were lost,” Waldsmith said. “The book was by accident. The more I read, I just got so interested. I didn’t know he built the fortress at Alcatraz. I didn’t realize that he was a kind of spy for the army on Grant. It was intriguing.”
Waldsmith said many people encouraged him to put his research into a book. He was further motivated by a desire to share what he had learned and educate the public about “the Star-Crossed Knight of the Union.” Once he committed to writing the book, Waldsmith decided his goal would be to write the book using the general’s personal observations and others’ comments about McPherson, against the backdrop of the Civil War.
“He was very literate and very well-educated, pretty much self-educated, other than when he went to West Point. I think his personality is what carried him. He was dashing and good looking ... he liked people, I think,” Waldsmith said.
Because McPherson was reserved and proper, his letters contain minimal personal information. If he had low opinions of others, he did not voice them. McPherson’s superiors and peers expressed high admiration for the general. One of them was Emily Hoffman, whom McPherson met in San Francisco. Waldsmith said he was not able to find much information about the woman except that her family was sympathetic to the South and did not approve of her attraction to McPherson. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the general left his love in California and never saw her again.
Because McPherson had been trained as an engineer, he was given many assignments to map terrain, build fortifications and repair the railroads to transport supplies and troops. He also was asked to investigate rumors about Ulysses S. Grant’s abuse of alcohol. In the process, McPherson became aware of Grant’s leadership qualities. The two became fast friends.
Later, McPherson was put in charge of some black brigades, comprised of freed slaves, and the Army of the Tennessee, which included volunteers from Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. The general instructed his troops not to loot and pillage as they marched through the southern countryside.
“People forget that the Army of the Tennessee was actually the largest army in the world at the time. He headed that army. It was actually the most successful army. They never lost a battle. It opened my eyes that it really was the midwestern volunteer ... that really won the war,” Waldsmith said.
The author discovered the “war in the west” was not as well-documented as that along the east coast. When the Union Army occupied Vicksburg, Grant assigned McPherson to the role of mayor of the sacked city. Unlike General Sherman, who annihilated everything in his path, McPherson preferred to do what needed to be done without excessive violence and destruction. Waldsmith said he was impressed with McPherson’s respect for his soldiers and for the conquered Southerners, whom he still regarded as his countrymen.
“As a combat leader, he wanted the best for his troops. He didn’t take a lot of unnecessary risks,” Waldsmith said. “He had to take over the city of Vicksburg as the governor or mayor of the town. Here are people that certainly despised the North. They were under siege, they were starving. In a very short time, he turned it around and took care of them ... He realized the war would end soon and the nation had to get back together. He realized there was no reason to have a lot of animosity.”
At age 35, McPherson was killed while leading Union troops in the Battle of Atlanta in 1864. Waldsmith was fascinated by a quote from Grant given upon learning of McPherson’s death. Grant called McPherson his “best friend.” Waldsmith said a soldier had written in his diary that McPherson was “the greatest man” he had ever met.
“I think he just took orders and did what he was told. He was perfect for the military,” Waldsmith said. “There was some criticism out there about what he ‘should have done,’ but I always felt, for the time and where he was, who knows what was the right decision?”
In researching the dedication of McPherson’s monument, Waldsmith learned 20,000 people from all over the country converged in Clyde for the ceremony. Even the president of the United States was invited. As popular as McPherson was at the time, his accomplishments faded from the public’s memory.
“I thought it was interesting that ... by the turn of the century, he is forgotten,” Waldsmith said. “I think the people of Clyde and this area should be pretty proud. ... I think he was an important leader for his day.”
Now that the book is available, Waldsmith said the people of Clyde have been very receptive. He said he has donated copies of the book to every area library in an effort to educate readers about the Civil War hero cut down in his prime. He has a number of speaking engagements planned. Next month, he is to speak in Clyde and to the Civil War Roundtable at 7 p.m. March 29 at T.J. Willie’s in Tiffin.
Waldsmith’s book has 325 pages of biographical and historical material, followed by the bibliography with about 150 sources. Each chapter has notations Waldsmith included with other researchers in mind, an index, which he felt was important to include. The book also contains photographs from the National Archives and Library of Congress. Waldsmith said he doesn’t own any photos of McPherson, but he believes private collectors may have others he hasn’t seen.
“I wanted to have (pictures of) people I was talking about in there, not just McPherson, so they’d have an idea who they were. The war in the west wasn’t photographed very well,” Waldsmith said.
He said the research was interesting and exciting. The Internet helped him to locate sources and verify facts. Waldsmith said he continues to learn more about McPherson. Recently, Waldsmith corresponded with an elderly descendant from McPherson’s mother’s side. The man had inherited McPherson’s sword, which now is on display in the Clyde Museum.
“In his letter, he said, ‘Did you realize his father had hung himself?’ It was stunning,” Waldsmith said. “I wish I had known that. It maybe would have shed more light on him as a character.”
With the biography finished, Waldsmith said he learned many skills and would consider writing another book. He said his admiration for writers has grown from the experience. In addition, he was amazed by the history all around us.
“It was under my nose this whole time,” Waldsmith said. “The legacy I kind of learned from (writing) the book, is it’s not what you accomplish or what you’ve done but what people think about you. That’s what lives on.”
The McPherson home is located on the corner of Maple Street (SR 101) and McPherson Highway (US 20). McPherson Cemetery with McPherson’s monument is directly across the highway. To arrange a tour, contact: Bob Gill at (419) 547-0870.
PHOTO BY MARYANN KROMER
General James McPherson is entombed in McPherson Cemetery on US 20 in Clyde. His statue marks the grave.