Political Generals’ Revenge: McPherson’s Death, Sherman’s Decision, and Logan’s Angst

On July 22, 1864, at the Battle of Atlanta, Union Army of the Tennessee commander General James McPherson was killed.  That was the root cause of a series of events which would over time reduce the size and effectiveness of the postwar army.

Union army commander W.T. Sherman now had the opportunity to replace McPherson with XVth corps commander (and “political general”) General John T. (Black Jack) Logan, the next highest in rank in that army and a proven, fierce fighter popular with his men.  He chose instead to name General O. O. Howard to the post., despite the fact that Howard, a West Point graduate, had performed poorly at Chancellorsville and at Gettysburg.

Sherman’s reasoning?  He wrote later that it was because Logan was a political general and politicians “were mistrusted by regular officers like Generals Schofield, Thomas, and myself.”  Sherman admitted that Logan “had some reason to believe that we intended to monopolize the higher honors of the war for regular officers;” but that he believed volunteers “looked to personal fame and glory as auxiliary and secondary to political ambition and not as professional soldiers.”

Logan took the decision very hard, writing to his wife, “West Point must have all under Sherman, who is an infernal brute.” He likely wasn’t mollified when, after Howard was made the head of the Freedman’s Bureau, Sherman named Logan as commander of the Army of the Tennessee just in time for the May 1865 Grand Review in Washington.

Logan’s postwar return to politics included helping to manage the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson; strenuously resisting attempts to overturn the conviction of Fitz-John Porter; and running as James G. Blaine’s vice-presidential candidate in the election of 1884.   He also was one of the founders of the volunteer military group, Grand Army of the Republic, and a creator of Decoration Day (later Memorial Day).

Logan also wrote a book, published posthumously in 1887, “The Volunteer Soldier in America,” which was a paean of praise for volunteers and a dirge of attacks on regular army professionals.  The book echoed his activities while in the House of Representatives and Senate until his death in 1886 to block and deter any efforts by Sherman, then commander of the U.S. Army, to enhance the size and influence of the army.

During 1880-81, while he was writing his book “Atlanta,” as part of Scribner’s Great Campaigns of the Civil War series, Jacob Cox consulted with many of the commanders in the campaign.  Sherman, who had offered Cox a brigadier generalship in the regular army at war’s end, told Cox that because of his decision about Logan, he had had “to stand the brunt of Logan’s anger and hatred” ever since.  Cox, who rarely criticized Sherman, wrote in his review of Sherman’s Memoirs, “Sherman was wrong in failing to give civilian generals top commands because they are activated by political ambition.”

Below are images of McPherson, Logan, Logan’s Book, and Cox’s book.

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