August 5, 1864 Better Angels

“Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States, that by the accession of a Republican Administration, their property, and their peace, and personal security, are to be endangered.”

The election, was over. With a nation riven as never before the time was near, for the swearing-in. The 16th President-elect sat down in the back room of his brother-in-law’s store in Springfield Illinois, to write his acceptance speech.

“Fellow-citizens of the United States:
… I appear before you to address you briefly, and to take, in your presence, the oath prescribed by the Constitution of the United States…”

It was his first inaugural. The President-elect brought with him for the task of writing the address only four works, for reference: The United States Constitution. Webster’s 1830 reply to Hayne on the matter of States’ Rights. Henry Clay’s 1850 speech on Compromise and Andrew Jackson’s proclamation, against Nullification.

“Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States, that by the accession of a Republican Administration, their property, and their peace, and personal security, are to be endangered.”

The speech was secretly printed by the Illinois State Journal and entrusted to the new president’s son Robert who proceeded to lose it for a time, causing a “minor uproar before it was found”.

“Resolved…[W]e denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.”

The speech was telegraphed from New York to Kearney Nebraska and taken by Pony Express to Folsom California and again telegraphed, this time to Sacramento, for publication.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature”.

A. Lincoln, First Inaugural, March 4, 1861

Despite this appeal to the better angels of our nature the formerly United States were at war with themselves, within a month.

Within three years what was expected to be a brief police action at worst, had devolved into a Civil War which would kill more Americans than every war from the Revolution to the War on Terror, combined.

If the “better angels” of Lincoln’s 1st inaugural were to take human form one of those might resemble, General James Birdseye McPherson.

First in his class, West Point 1853, McPherson was superintending engineer constructing the defenses at Alcatraz Island at this time, in San Francisco. There he met Emily Hoffman, the daughter of a prominent Baltimore merchant who had come west, to help care for her sister’s children. The couple was soon engaged and a wedding was planned, but then came the Civil War. The wedding would have to wait.

And then there was John McAuley Palmer, a politician who was at one time a Democrat, a Free Soiler, a Republican, a Liberal Republican and a National Democrat. Whatever it takes, I guess.

Captain Mcpherson began his Civil War service in 1861 under Major General Henry Halleck, and the Corps of Engineers. He was a lieutenant colonel and chief engineer in the amy of Brigadier General Ulysses Grant during the capture of forts Henry and Donelson in February, 1862.

Major General John Palmer

Political promotions were common enough in the military of 1861. John Palmer received his first one in 1861, entering Civil War service, as a Colonel. Palmer was promoted to Brigadier that December and went on to provide effective leadership at Chickamauga, and during the Chattanooga campaign. By the Summer of 1864 he was Major General John Palmer, commanding the 14th corps under George Henry Thomas.

McPherson’s career followed the same trajectory during this time but his were no political appointments. He became a Brigadier based on his actions at Shiloh and Major General for bravery displayed, at Corinth. In March 1864 McPherson was given command of the Army of the Tennessee replacing William Tecumseh Sherman who was now Supreme Commander, in the west.

Around this time McPherson requested time to marry his sweetheart, in Baltimore. Leave was quickly granted but then rescinded. With the upcoming campaign for Atlanta, this man was indispensable. Emily Hoffman would have to wait. Again.

A series of sharp battles began that May and concluded in September. From Dalton to Chattahoochie first against the Confederate forces of General Joe Johnston and later, General John Bell Hood. Rocky Face Ridge. Marietta. Kennesaw Mountain.

The confusingly named single-day Battle of Atlanta took place on July 22, square in the middle of the Atlanta campaign. Sherman mistakenly believed that Hood’s Confederates had gathered to retreat while McPherson rightly understood. Hood was concentrating for the attack.

General Sherman Observing The Siege of Atlanta

McPherson was personally scouting the area when a line of grey-clad skirmishers emerged from the forest calling out, “HALT”! The General raised his hand as if to tip his hat and then wheeled his horse. There was no outrunning the bullets which then tore into his back. The second-highest ranking federal officer to lose his life in the Civil War, was dead. His killers asked who they had shot and McPherson’s aid replied, “You have killed the best man in the Army”.

If the warm praise of an adversary be the measure of a man then let McPherson’s West Point classmate John Bell Hood, declare his eulogy:

General John Bell Hood

“Neither the years nor the difference of sentiment that had led us to range ourselves on opposite sides in the war had lessened my friendship; indeed the attachment formed in early youth was strengthened by my admiration and gratitude for his conduct toward our people in the vicinity of Vicksburg. His considerate and kind treatment of them stood in bright contrast to the course pursued by many Federal officers”.

On hearing what had happened General Sherman, openly wept. Emily Hoffman never recovered and spent the rest of her life, in secluded mourning.

The four months-long slugfest for Atlanta moved on to the Battle of Ezra Church and then Utoy Creek and John Palmer’s singular moment, of ignominy.

Sherman believed that only a major force was capable of taking the railroad south of Atlanta and bringing this bloodbath, to a conclusion. Major General John Schofield’s XXIII corps now situated on the extreme right of the federal position, was ideally placed to do so. Sherman placed General Palmer’s XIV Corps under Schofield’s operational control, to accomplish that objective.

Originally mislabeled “Potter house”, this was the home of Ephraim Ponder, a wealthy slave dealer in Atlanta used by confederate sharpshooters during the battle of Atlanta and heavily damaged by Union shellfire. The house was never rebuilt and abandoned, after the war. Henry Ossian Flipper, son of Festus Flipper and one of Ponder’s former slaves went on to become the first American of African ancestry to graduate from West Point, class of 1877.

That’s when the stuff hit the fan. The temper tantrum. With men facing a determined adversary and literally dying in the field John Palmer had a hissy fit, over seniority. He would NOT place the XIV under a general who had received his two stars, after himself.

Technical niceties as date of seniority are swell subjects for discussion over cigars in garrison but not in the midst of kinetic battle, against a lethal adversary.

Sherman’s letter of August 4, decided the matter:

Major General John Schofield

“From the statements made by yourself and Gen. Schofield today, my decision is that he outranks you as a major general, being of the same date as present commission, by reason of his previous superior rank as brigadier general”.

William Tecumseh Sherman

Except, no. Sherman’s letter settled, nothing. With the Utoy Creek operation scheduled to begin the following day, August 5, Palmer rode out to Sherman’s headquarters to argue the case. Even entreaties that Palmer’s behavior might jeopardize his political career after the war, fell on deaf ears. In the end, Sherman suggested that Palmer needed to offer his resignation, to Schofield.

This he did, said resignation forwarded back to Sherman with the recommendation, that it be accepted. Palmer was sent back to Illinois to await further orders as XIV corps senior divisional commander Brig. Gen. Richard Johnson took his place and the war moved on.

How many ordinary soldiers were to lose their lives by this delay and the defensive advantage afforded entrenched Confederate forces, is difficult to ascertain. Ever the politician, the lesser angel that was John Palmer served out the remainder of the war as military governor of Kentucky and returned afterward to politics, serving as Illinois Governor, United States Senator and one-time Presidential candidate.