MCCLERNAND, MAJ. GEN. JOHN ALEXANDER, was born in Breckinridge County, Ky., May 30, 1812, died at Springfield, Ill., September 20, 1900.
The Black Hawk War (1832) found young McClernand occupied in the study and practice of law in Shawneetown, Ill., but with the instincts of a born soldier, and with a patriotism that burned fiercely until the hour of his death, he volunteered for this Indian war, which meant so much to the safety of the pioneers and to the progress of Illinois. This service brought him a well-earned reputation for energy, fearlessness and skill, and cultivated a natural aggressiveness, which later became so strikingly prominent in his career in the Civil War.
Appointed a Brigadier General, while serving as a Representative in Congress, he took the field for the Union at Cairo, Ill., in September, 1861, and under Grant bore the principal subordinate part at the battle of Belmont in the following November. Here his coolness under fire, the resourcefulness of his active and aggressive mind in combating and overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and his marked ability to inspire the enthusiasm of victory where others saw only defeat, gained for him the loyalty and confidence of his soldiers that he ever afterwards maintained, and which served him and his cause such signal service on many a hard-fought field to follow.
Advanced to the command of a division, McClernand led in the attacks upon Forts Henry and Donelson in February, 1862, and beyond question largely contributed to those decisive victories. His skill in posting his troops on February 13 and 14 in front of the enemy's entrenchments at Donelson, and the desperateness with which he fought his command on the 15th prevented the Confederates, who had massed practically their entire force against the Union right, commanded by McClernand, from cutting their way out and escaping. During the sanguinary conflict that occurred at this time an unfortunate combination of circumstances came near depriving the Army and Naval Commanders, Grant and Foote, of the full fruits of their well-planned campaign.
His army being in position, Grant left the field to consult with Foote on the latter's gun boat. Not foreseeing that the enemy would attempt to force his way out, he gave orders to part of the line, at least, and certainly to Smith, who commanded the left division, not to bring on an engagement without further orders. Doubtless he contemplated arranging with Foote for a combined and simultaneous attack by land and river, and assuming that the enemy had remained on the defensive, the measures adopted would seem to have been wise, but the enemy did not remain on the defensive; on the contrary he hurled nearly his entire force on McClernand's Division; hence its desperate fighting, while other parts of the Union line, with minor exceptions, stood looking on. As events developed, the order referred to was unfortunate, costly, and nearly enabled the Confederates to escape. On General's Grant's return he ordered Smith to assault. This, of course, relieved the pressure on McClernand and, indeed, nailed victory to the Northern standards. If this battle had been fought later in the war, probably neither Smith nor Wallace, commanding left and center, able and gallant soldiers, would have hesitated to set aside orders given to cover conditions that no longer existed, and at once moved to the assault when the roar of the battle on their right reached them.
The battle of Shiloh, April 6 and 7, 1862, one of the most desperately fought of the war, and, indeed, of all times, came near being a great Southern victory. That it was not is due wholly to the stubborn gallantry on the first day of the better elements of the Army of the Tennessee. As the enemy unexpectedly advanced on the 6th under the able leadership of Albert Sidney Johnston, surprise and terror passed rapidly through the Union ranks, and swept a great mass of panic-stricken men back to the vicinity of the steamboat landing. Many were seized with terror who, on previous and later battlefields, fought with courage. During all that long and terrible first day when the Northern troops were driven from position to position, and when those who appreciated the situation prayed for Buell or night, none fought harder, with death and panic surrounding them on all sides, than McClernand and the greater part of his gallant division. These are facts, and are susceptible of proof to any lover of truth who will put aside a lot of trash written under the name of history, and turn to the Rebellion Records, officially published by the Government. An intelligent and diligent reader will have little difficulty in sifting the wheat from the chaff if he will read those "Records," where the dispatches, orders and reports of the war are found verbatim, with the comments and criticisms they called forth at the time by men who were actually participating in the great drama. Nearly twenty years later General Buell told a son of General McClernand that, when he arrived on the field in person on the evening of the 6th, McClernand's Division was the only one with any fair organization left.
With Grant and Sherman, and other officers of high rank who were present, McClernand must share the just criticism of permitting the Army to be surprised; but his share is materially less than that of the two named, because Grant commanded and it was his bounden duty to prevent surprise, which could have been done, and Sherman's division being nearer the enemy, the importance of proper reconnaissance and outpost by his division was more evident.
In September, 1862, McClernand submitted to the President and Secretary of War a plan to capture Vicksburg from the rear, by ascending the Yazoo, and thus open the Mississippi, and later to cut the Confederacy in two parts by advancing from the Mississippi River eastward, and from Mobile, which he would seize, toward Opelika, and in this way permanently break the only rail communications left open between the eastern and western States of the Confederacy.
The Vicksburg proposition, at least, was favorably considered, and McClernand was ordered to Illinois to raise the necessary troops therefor. He raised and forwarded, principally from Illinois, Indiana and Iowa, some forty thousand. He expected to command this expedition, and a perusal of the official records will show he was fully justified in this assumption. However, in the end he did not.
McClernand assumed command at Milliken's Bend, La., January 4, 1863. The troops there had a few days before bee repulsed under Sherman at Chickasaw Bayou, in an attempt to take Vicksburg from the rear. In order to encourage the beaten troops, as well as to deal the enemy a heavy blow, McClernand moved the Army against Fort Hindman, a strongly fortified position on the Arkansas River, more generally known as Arkansas Post. Here, on the 11th, he met with complete success, capturing the fort with five thousand prisoners, a number of cannon, small arms, and munitions of war. President Lincoln congratulated the successful General and his troops for the victory gained at a time when "disaster after disaster was befalling our arms." Governor Yates, of Illinois wrote, "Your success on the Arkansas was both brilliant and valuable, and is fully appreciated by the country and the Government."
Subsequently McClernand returned to the Mississippi and was assigned to the Thirteenth Army Corps, under Grant, who assumed immediate command of all the forces operating against Vicksburg. The time until March 29 was mainly spent in digging a canal in the attempt to deflect the Mississippi away from Vicksburg, but without success. Finally Gen. Grant decided to run the batteries at Vicksburg with sufficient vessels to cross his Army to the east bank of the river, below the enemy's stronghold. The Thirteenth Corps initiated the movement across the peninsula from Milliken's Bend to New Carthage. Many obstacles, with considerable fighting, were met and overcome. The Army was finally landed on the east bank of the Mississippi, and the struggle for Vicksburg commenced in terrible earnestness. This is generally and justly considered Grant's most brilliant campaign. All the honors that pertain to the position of the General-in-Chief are his, and they are great, but the responsibility for any failures that followed honest, skillful and gallant attempts to execute his orders is likewise his, and must be so assigned.
In the marches and battles that followed the crossing of the Mississippi, McClernand and his corps (Thirteenth) did their full duty and did it well. The long list of honored dead, the testimony of many eye-witnesses, and the official "Rebellion Records" all attest this. Port Gibson, fought mainly by the Thirteenth Corps, was skillfully won, and caused the enemy to evacuate Grand Gulf, and retire upon Vicksburg and Edward's Station.
When the objective point of Grant's army was changed May 12 from Edward's Station to Jackson, Miss., to beat back the Confederates in that direction before closing in on Vicksburg, McClernand's Corps, facing the enemy at Edward's Station, had to be withdrawn with great care. Grant states that McClernand accomplished this delicate movement with skill. On May 15, McClernand's and McPherson's Corps won an important battle at Champion Hill, and on the following day the Thirteenth Corps beat the enemy at the Big Black River, capturing some 1500 prisoners and 18 cannon, with a loss of only 373 killed, wounded and missing.
After brilliantly driving the foe within his entrenchments at Vicksburg, Grant thought to carry that stronghold by assault. With this purpose in view he ordered two assaults all along the line, the first on the 19th and the second on the 22nd. Both failed, with heavy losses. The first assault was ordered before the army had gained a favorable position from which to make it.
On the evening of the 21st Grant notified McClernand that "a simultaneous attack will be made tomorrow, at ten o'clock a.m., by all the army corps of this Army." It was made, as ordered, and gallantly made too. Had success been achieved the laurels would have justly belonged to Grant. It failed, and no amount of argument can shift the responsibility from his shoulders. In his memoirs he expresses a regret that he ordered the assault. Where all failed, the Thirteenth Corps came nearer gaining success than any other. McClernand's men carried the ditch and slope of a heavy earthwork, and planted their colors on the latter. The enemy began concentrating against them to check their advance, and the battle there raged with great fury. At noon McClernand notified the Commanding General that he was in partial possession of two forts. Re-enforcements were ordered to him, but did not arrive in time to be useful. Upon receiving McClernand's reports, Grant ordered the assault to be renewed along other parts of the line, but nothing substantial was gained.
Viewing the conflict in the calmness that comes with passing years, it appears that McClernand should have been promptly and heavily re-enforced, or that Gen. Grant should have suspended operations along his entire line. That McClernand did make a considerable impression the enemy's position is an established fact. Maj. Bluford Wilson, who first carried the news of this success to the Corps Commander, still lives, and is an honored and respected citizen of Springfield, Ill., and one of that city's foremost men.
A controversy later arose about the amount of the success gained by McClernand, and as to whether or not the renewal of the assault along other parts of the line should have been ordered. In this connection it is important to bear in mind that Grant himself ordered the renewed assault; he commanded, and the responsibility is his. It is also important to note that he states that, from his position, he thought he could observe the action along McClernand's front as well as that Corps Commander. Nevertheless, he ordered the renewed assault, the responsibility for which cannot be shifted to another.
It was also claimed that the contents of McClernand's congratulatory order to his Corps, or the fact that a copy was not sent to Army Headquarters, was sufficient reason for relieving him from his command on June 18. An oversight of his Adjutant General explains the fact that a copy of the order was not sent to Gen. Grant's Headquarters. As to the congratulatory order itself, it can be found in the Rebellion Records, and will bear favorable comparison with many other such orders found there.
McClernand's Corps lost in killed, wounded, and missing before Vicksburg, 1487 men. Of the missing there were but few. To say that that Corps and its Commander did not do their whole duty intelligently, manfully, and nobly, is a direct contradiction of historical facts.
McClernand was later assigned to duty in Texas along the Rio Grande, observing the French occupation of Mexico. He also served under Banks in the expedition against the Confederates on the Red River, where he became dangerously ill, and was sent North to recuperate. No further opportunity offered for him to continue his valuable military services to his country.
The lustre of his fame will continue to brighten as the impartial historian seeks for facts to replace the prejudices that usually accompany contemporary history.