April 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 3
“Why Oh! Why should death’s darts reach the young and brilliant —”
It took a lot of time to run an army, and that was why Major General James B. McPherson, commanding the United States Army of the Tennessee, didn’t write his Baltimore fiancee, Emily Hoff man, as often as he should. Not that he loved her any less—he had idolized that unbeatable Victorian combination of blue eyes, golden hair, and chaste daintiness ever since the summer they met just before the war—but he well knew that Emily, the daughter of a prosperous local merchant, was exposed to many attentions, arid perhaps he had also heard that a thirtyyear-old girl won’t wait forever.
In any case, by the summer of 1864 McPherson felt that Emily was growing a little petulant, and, living with that “secesh” family of hers, there was no telling what might happen. Now, with the Atlanta campaign getting under way, there would be even less chance to write, so clearly something had to be done. At this point, McPherson’s superior, Lieutenant General William Tecumseh Sherman, took over: Head-Quarters Military Division of the Mississippi Acworth, Ga. June 9, 1864
My Dear Young Lady,
I hardly feel that I should apologize for intrusion, for I can claim an old acquaintance with your Brother and Sister in California, and feel almost that I know you through them, and others of your honored family. It has come to my knowledge that you are affianced to another close friend and associate of mine Maj Genrl McPherson, and I fear that weighing mighty matters of State but lightly in the Realm of Love, you feel that he gives too much of his time to his Country and too little to you.
His rise in his profession has been rapid steady and well earned. Not a link unbroken. Not a thing omitted. Each step in his progress however has imposed on him fresh duties that as a man and a soldier and still more as a Patriot he could not avoid. I did hope as he returned from Meridian, when his Corps the i7th was entitled to go home on furlough, that he too could steal a month to obey the promptings of his heart, to hasten to Baltimore and I so instructed but by the changes incident to General Grants elevation McPherson succeeded to the Command of a separate Army and Department, and could not leave.
There is no rest for us in this war till you and all can look about you and feel there is Reason & Safety in the Land. God purifies the atmosphere with tempests and storms which fall alike upon the just and unjust, and in like manner he appeases the jarring elements of political discord by wars and famine. Heretofore as a nation we have escaped his wrath, but now with the vehemence of an hundred years accumulation we are in the storm, and would you have us shrink? Would you have us to leave our posts at the Rudder of the Ship in the midst of the Angry Sea of War? What would you think in a California Steamer of the Captain, who regardless of the hundreds of human beings consigned to his Care, would leave his deck, to dally with his loved one below?
But I will not discuss so plain a point with one who bears the honored name of Huffman, rather tell you of him whose every action I know fills your waking and sleeping thoughts, him so young but so prominent, whose cause is among the gallant and brave, who fight not for oppression and wrong but that the Government bequeathed to us by your ancestors shall not perish in ignominy and insult: but which shall survive in honor & glory, with a power to protect the weak, and shelter the helpless from the terrible disasters of a fratricidal war. I know that at the outset of this war many of the Class with whom you associated, were wont to style us the barbarian hosts of the North, not unlike the hordes that followed Alaric from the wood of northern Europe to desolate the fair field of the dynastic Romans. This may be a parallel but not a fair one. The People of the South were bound to us by a solemn compact which they have broken, and they taunted us with cowardice and poltroonery, which had we borne with submission, we would have passed down to history as a craven and coward race. I doubt even now if our brothers of the South would if free again to choose make so base an issue, but now we go further. We of the North have Rights in the South, in its rivers & vacant Land, the right to come & go when we please, and these Rights as a brave people we cannot & will not surrender on compulsion.
I know McPherson well, as a young man, handsome & noble soldier, activated by motives as pure as those of Washington, and I know that in making my testimony to his high & noble character I will not offend the Girl he loves. Be patient and I know that when the happy day comes for him to stand by your side as one Being identical in heart & human existence you will regard him with a high respect & honor that will convert simple love into something sublime & beautiful.
Yrs with respect W. T. Sherman
Thus admonished, Emily sat at home trying to be patient while the Union Army swept through Georgia establishing the right “to come & go when we please.” By June 22, 1864, General McPherson’s forces were probing the outer defenses of Atlanta. But that morning the Confederates launched a surprise counterattack, and in the confusion McPherson rode forward himself to decide where to deploy his men. As he trotted alone down a country lane, Confederate skirmishers suddenly appeared in the woods not fifty feet away. Someone called on him to surrender, but he merely doffed his cap, wheeled and raced for safety. A fusillade of shots, and McPherson fell from his horse. Within an hour the Union lines were re-established, but the 35-year-old general lay dead in the arms of a broken-hearted Union private.
The following day a messenger appeared at the Baltimore residence of Samuel Hoffman bearing a telegram for Emily’s mother. Mrs. Huffman’s only son was in the Confederate service, and that perhaps made it less inexcusable when she remarked, as she handed Emily the message, that here at last was “some good news”:
THE AMERICAN TELEGRAPH COMPANY
NEAR ATLANTA JULY 23 1864
REC’D, BALTIMORE, 23 1864 ,
TO MRS SAML HOFFMAN FRANKLIN ST
GENL BARRY DESIRES ME TO SAY THAT GENL MCPHERSON WAS KILLED IN BATTLE YESTERDAY HIS REMAINS WERE SENT TO HIS HOME LAST EVENING IN CHARGE OF HIS STAFF
JC VAN DUSEN CAPT & ASST SUPR
Emily fled to her room and locked the door. She was still there three weeks later when a servant handed her a second letter from General Sherman. It was written from outside Atlanta—the city lay under siege now and victory was in sight—but the General’s thoughts were far from jubilant:
HEADQUARTERS , Military Division of the Mississippi In the Field, near Atlanta Geo.
1864 Miss Emily Hoffman,
My Dear Young Lady,
A letter from your Mother to General Barry on my Staff reminds me that I owe you heartfelt sympathy and a sacred duty of recording the fame of one of our Country’s brightest & most glorious Characters. 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.
Why Oh! Why should death’s darts reach the young and brilliant instead of older men who could better have been spared. Nothing that I can record will elevate him in your minds memory, but I could tell you many things that would form a bright halo about his image. We were more closely associated than any men in this life. I knew him before you did, when he was a Lieutenant of Engineers in New York we occupied rooms in the same house. Again we met at St. Louis almost at the outset of this unnatural war, and from that day to this we have been closely associated. 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.
We were at Shiloh together, at Corinth—at Oxford—at Jackson, at Vicksburg, at Meridian, and on this campaign. He had left me but a few minutes to place some of his troops approaching their position, and went through the wood by the same road he had come, and must have encountered the skirmish line of the Rebel Hardee’s Corps, which had made a Circuit around the flank of Blair’s troops. Though always active and attending in person amidst dangers to his appropriate duties on this occasion he was not exposing himself. He rode over ground he had twice passed that same day, over which hundreds had also passed, by a narrow wood road to the Rear of his Established Line.
He had not been gone from me half an hour before Col. Clark of his Staff rode up to me and reported that McPherson was dead or a prisoner in the hands of the Enemy. He described that he had entered this road but a short distance in the wood some sixty yards ahead of his Staff & orderlies when a loud volley of muskets was heard and in an instant after his fine black horse came out with two wounds, riderless. Very shortly thereafter other members of his staff came to me with his body in an ambulance. We carried it into a house, and laid it on a large table and examined the body. A simple bullet wound high up in the Right breast was all that disfigured his person. All else was as he left me, save his watch & purse were gone.
At this time the Battle was raging hot & fierce quite near us and lest it should become necessary to burn the house in which we were I directed his personal staff to convey the body to Marietta & thence North to his family. I think he could not have lived three minutes after the fatal shot, and fell from his horse within ten yards of the path or road along which he was riding. I think others will give you more detailed accounts of the attending circumstances. I enclose you a copy of my official letter announcing his death.
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.
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.
With affection & respect, W. T. Sherman
The letter did little good. Emily remained secluded in her room, blinds drawn. Food was left on a tray outside her door, and occasionally she put out a jar of slops. She allowed no one to enter except her sister Dora, who gradually ruined her eyes reading aloud in the gloom. It was exactly a year later—to the very day—when Emily HofTman finally emerged, to spend the rest of her life in bitter spinsterhood.