This September marks the 148th anniversary of the fall of the City of Atlanta to Union forces under the command of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. This pivotal event likely insured the re-election of Pres. Abraham Lincoln, sounding the death knell for the Southern Confederacy and the institution of slavery. What follows is a snap shot of a little known aspect of Sherman's personality.
Perhaps no historical figure other than Dr. Martin Luther King is more associated with the City of Atlanta than Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. The traditional image of the grim visaged conqueror of Atlanta as the ultimate “hard war” soldier is as indelibly etched in the city’s memory as the flames that consumed her. A long limbed, rough hewn, sandy bearded warrior perched on a short legged horse leading his army of “bummers” on a campaign of devastation with a saber in one hand and a torch in the other. Or as, his letter to then Atlanta Mayor James M. Calhoun put it, while reaffirming his order that the city’s civilian population be evacuated prior to its destruction:
“ You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.”Yet ,there is another side to Sherman. An aspect that events in Atlanta in that fateful July of 1864 throw into bold relief. A facet of the man’s humanity that hardly squares with his popular image as it has come down to us. It was the death of Gen. James Birdseye Mcpherson, for whom Fort McPherson is named, that opens this unexpected window into the interior life of the man who swore to “...make Georgia howl.”
McPherson was by all accounts an attractive and dashing character. Prior to Sherman’s descent on Georgia, McPherson had been given command of the Union Army of the Tennessee. This army comprised one of two wings of of Sherman’s invading host and was crucial to the flanking movements which famously drove the Confederate Army out of North Georgia and into the defensive works of the City. That the youthful , curly bearded, West Point honor graduate should be given such a command was a mark of both Sherman’s trust and personal affection. Having been Commandant of a Southern military academy prior to the war, the romantic flair and dash of military youth held a special place in Sherman’s heart.
McPherson had such qualities in spades and was not only Sherman’s favorite but highly popular with the army overall. Engaged to Emily Hoffman, the daughter of a Confederate sympathizing Baltimore clan, McPherson had postponed their wedding in the Winter of 1864 at Sherman’s behest in order to join the advance on Atlanta. In some respects McPherson was the antithesis of Sherman, having once remarked that if being a soldier required him to forsake the claims of humanity “then I do not want to be a soldier.” As it turned out, he was to be spared the necessity of testing his idealism against such harsh realities as the burning of Atlanta and the march to the sea.
Following the Battle of Peachtree Creek , a bloody Confederate defeat, Sherman once again ordered McPherson to make a wide flanking move from the east through Decatur. At noon on July 22,1864, McPherson was finishing his lunch at what is now the Candler Park Marta station when a storm of rifle fire was heard towards the South West. Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood had launched a combined assault on the Army of the Tennessee while it was separated from Sherman’s main force. The battle of Atlanta had begun.
Wasting no time McPherson lept into the saddle and galloped off towards the sound of the guns. Such youthful impetuosity was to cost him dear. Riding ahead of his staff escort, McPherson was abruptly confronted by rebel skirmishers who demanded his surrender. Refusing to be cowed, the Union General wheeled his horse in an attempt to escape. The Confederate riflemen shot him out of his saddle and into history. The first intimation of his death was carried to his staff in the form of his terrified, riderless steed as it came crashing back through the thickly wooded undergrowth.
With McPherson dead, the battle rolled on. Two Corps of rebel troops smashed into the Federal line in the vicinity of the Inman Park Marta station, at one point actually breaking through before being driven off by massed artillery under the direction of Sherman himself. The General had been observing the fight from Logans Hill, currently the site of the Carter Center. This is the engagement that is portrayed in Grant Park’s Cyclorama.
McPherson’s body was recovered. It was taken to Sherman’s Headquarters where the hard-bitten General wept uncontrollably at the sight. It’s reported that his tears were so copious that they dripped from his grizzled whiskers. When word of McPherson’s death reached his fiancee in Baltimore, it was passed to her by her mother with the comment “Here at last is some good news.” Emily responded by withdrawing to her room, not to emerge or to see any of her family for an entire year.
In the days after, Sherman took thought of Emily and wrote to her a remarkable letter in which he laid bare the depth of his grief in commiseration with her own. He began by writing:
“ I yield to none on Earth but yourself the right to excel me in lamentations for our Dead Hero. Better the Bride of McPherson dead, than the wife of the richest Merchant of Baltimore.”
Describing his long friendship with McPherson and the circumstances of his death, he remarked:
“I see him now, So handsome, so smiling, on his fine black horse, booted & spurred, with his easy seat, the impersonation of the Gallant Knight.”He closed by glorifying his friend and denouncing those he saw as responsible for the war:
“The lives of a thousand men such as Davis and Yancey and Toombs and Floyd and Buckner and Greeley and Lovejoy could not atone for that of McPherson. But it is in this world some men by falsehood and agitation raise the storm which falls upon the honorable and young who become involved in its Circles.Something bright had indeed gone out of Sherman’s world and perhaps out of the General himself. From this point forward Sherman’s war would be the “...grim, remorseless, revolutionary struggle...” that President Lincoln had earlier feared. It would begin in the ashes of Atlanta, cut a swath of destruction through the heart of Georgia and lead on through the ruins of Columbia, South Carolina to ultimate victory.
Though the cannon booms now, and the angry rattle of musketry tells me that I also will likely pay the same penalty yet while Life lasts I will delight in the Memory of that bright particular star which has gone before to prepare the way for us more hardened sinners who must struggle on to the End.”