Near Atlanta on the afternoon of the 22nd of July 1864, General James Birdseye McPherson, Union Commander of the Army of the Tennessee, was in a hurry. He had just been proved right- despite the doubts of General Sherman, he had feared a Confederate attack on his position, and that attack was now in full swing. Rebels under General William Hardee were currently smashing into his flank while other forces threatened his front. A dangerous gap existed between his XVII Corps and XVI Corps positions, and he was riding hard to make sure that gap was plugged. Accompanied only by his orderly and a signal officer, he galloped down a little wagon road towards what he thought were his own lines. He was suddenly confronted not by his own soldiers, but a line of men from the Fifth Confederate Infantry Regiment, a unit of mainly Memphis Irishmen serving in General Pat Cleburne’s Division.
The ninety-one men of the Fifth Confederate had started their day early. Their march around their enemy’s flank had taken place during the night, but the difficult terrain they encountered meant it was afternoon before they could attack, finding the gap between McPherson’s two Corps. Captain Richard Beard was amongst them, and describes the scene as the Union General suddenly appeared: ‘He was certainly surprised to find himself suddenly face to face with our line. My own company and possibly others had reached the road when he discovered that he was within a few feet of where we stood. I was on the very verge of the road, and McPherson checked his horse for a second just opposite where I stood. I could have touched him with the point of my sword. Not a word was spoken. I threw up my sword to him as a signal to surrender. He checked his horse slightly, raised his hat as if he were saluting a lady, wheeled his horse’s head to the right, and dashed off to the rear in a full gallop.’
Among the group of Fifth Confederate soldiers who witnessed the incident was one of Beard’s Company, Corporal Robert Coleman. Captain Beard noted that he was as gallant a young soldier as he had ever seen on a battlefield, but very excitable. He describes what happened next: ‘Corporal Coleman, who was standing near me, fired on him, whether some one ordered fire I do not remember. It was his bullet that brought Gen. McPherson down. He was shot as he was passing under the thick branches of a tree, and as he was bending over his horse’s neck, either to avoid coming in contact with the limbs or, more probably, to escape the death dealing bullets that he knew were sure to follow him. A number of shots were also fired at his retreating staff. I ran up immediately to where the dead General lay, just as he had fallen, upon his knees and face. There was not a quiver of his body to be seen, not a sign of life perceptible. The fatal bullet had done its work well……When I got up to the body of the dead General I found a man lying on his back near him, who, if at all hurt, was but slightly wounded. I noticed only a slight spot of blood on his cheek. Pointing to the dead man, I asked him: “Who is this lying here?” He answered, with tears in his eyes : “Sir, it is Gen. McPherson. You have killed the best man in our army.”
The Fifth Confederate’s good fortune in encountering the isolated General would not last, however. As they pressed on with their attack, they succeeded in assaulting and lodging in the enemy’s works, but the difficult ground meant the attack was uncoordinated and many of the men were isolated. A determined Union counterattack took place in which 10 officers and 36 men were captured along with the regimental colors, the latter becoming the prize of the Fifteenth Michigan Infantry. The Fifth Confederate was a broken force. They participated in another attack later in the day in which they could furnish only twenty-two men. Captain Richard Beard was not among them; the by now captured officer instead found himself describing the circumstances of General McPherson’s death to one of the dead commander’s staff.
The actions of July 22nd were Beard’s last of the war, but they were certainly memorable. Writing in 1903, he was able to state: ‘This is the last tragedy that I took part in during the war, and it is as vividly and as distinctly photographed on my memory as if it all had occurred yesterday.’ The fateful day saw not only the death of General McPherson but also the virtual destruction of the Fifth Confederate Regiment. The Rebel attempts to drive back Sherman’s men failed, and Atlanta would fall on the 2nd September. The Fifth would remain with the Army of Tennessee until the bitter end in 1865. James Birdseye McPherson would be the only Union army commander killed during the American Civil War.
References & Further Reading
Beard, R. 1903. ‘Incident’s of General McPherson’s Death: Account Given By Captain Beard’ in Confederate Veteran
Castel, A. 1992. Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864
Frazer, C.W. 1886. ‘Fifth Confederate’ in Lindsley, John Berrien (ed.) The Military Annals of Tennessee
Warner, Ezra J. 1964. Generals in Blue
Official Records 38, Pt. 3. Report of Captain Aaron A. Cox, Fifth Confederate Infantry, Polk’s brigade, of Operations July 20-22
Official Records 38, Pt. 3. Report of Lieutenant Colonel Frederick S. Hutchinson, Fifteenth Michigan Infantry, of Operations May 6- August 3