Ohio native and West Point graduate James B. McPherson served as Chief Engineer for General Ulysses S. Grant during the Fort Henry and Fort Donelson campaigns in Tennessee in early 1862. McPherson impressed his commander, and Grant recommended him for multiple promotions. By January 1863, McPherson was a Major General and in command of the Union Army’s Seventeenth Corps. In early 1864, Grant was promoted to Lieutenant General and given command of the Armies of the United States, and William T. Sherman assumed overall command of the western Union Armies. McPherson was selected to succeed Sherman as commander of the Army of the Tennessee, consisting of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Army Corps.
On May 7th, 1864, Sherman’s Army began its drive south from the northwest corner of Georgia to Atlanta. By July 22nd, the Army of the Tennessee was east of Atlanta and only a couple of miles outside of the city. The Fifteenth Corps was on the right, facing west toward Atlanta, with the Seventeenth Corps on the Fifteenth’s left. Believing that an enemy attack was likely against his left flank, McPherson moved the Sixteenth Corps into position on that side.
McPherson was meeting with Fifteenth Corps commander Major General John Logan and Seventeenth Corps commander Major General Frank Blair behind the Fifteenth Corps’ lines in the early afternoon of the 22nd when firing was heard on the left flank in the direction of the Sixteenth Corps. Logan and Blair immediately got on their horses and departed for their respective commands, and McPherson and his staff headed for the Sixteenth Corps position to evaluate the situation there.
The Sixteenth Corps was battling Major General W.H.T. Walker’s and Major General William B. Bate’s divisions of Lieutenant General William J. Hardee’s Corps. The Confederate assault was successfully repulsed, and McPherson sent Lieutenant Colonel William Strong to assess the situation of the Seventeenth Corps. When Strong returned, he reported that General Blair believed the enemy would attempt to break through the gap between the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Corps positions.
Strong, McPherson, and two other members of the general’s staff then headed back to Blair’s position. McPherson sent Strong ahead to General Logan to have him send a reserve brigade of his corps to help fill the gap between the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Corps.
Just after Strong left, a group of Tennesseans of Major General Patrick Cleburne’s Division appeared out of the woods and ordered McPherson to surrender. The startled General tipped his cap to the Confederates, and attempted to gallop away. The Tennesseans opened fire, hitting McPherson in the back, with the bullet passing through his lungs near his heart. McPherson fell off his horse and hit the ground face down. Conflicting reports say that McPherson either lingered a few minutes or died immediately from the fatal shot. He was 35 years old.
Later in the afternoon, the Confederates were pushed back and a party led by Lieutenant Colonel Strong recovered the body of McPherson. Sherman gave command of the Army of the Tennessee to General Logan, and the Confederate attack was repulsed in the Union victory that is known as the Battle of Atlanta. Although corps commanders for the Union Army died in action, James B. McPherson was the only commander of an entire Union Army that was killed in action in the Civil War.
- Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 (Modern War Studies)by Albert Castel. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1992.
- Sherman’s Battle For Atlanta (Campaigns of the Civil War) by Jacob D. Cox. Reprint. New York; Da Capo Press, 1994.
- “The Death of General James B. McPherson” by William E. Strong. In Military Essays and Recollections: Papers Read Before the Commandery of the State of Illinois, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Vol. 1. Chicago: A.C. McClurg and Company, 1891.
- “The Struggle for Atlanta” by Oliver Otis Howard. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 4. Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel editors. New York: Century Company, 1887.