Death of a Union General and His Love Story

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The family of Samuel Hoffman, a prosperous Baltimore merchant, was noted for its southern sympathies. After the patriarch’s death in 1852 those sentiments endured in the family mansion on West Franklin Street. His wife, Elizabeth, organized groups to sew garments for Confederate soldiers; his son, Richard, fought alongside Stonewall Jackson.

So it was no surprise that when a brief telegram arrived at the Hoffman home on July 23, 1864, announcing the death of Union General James Birdseye McPherson, that it was greeted with glee: For, against her family’s wishes, Samuel Hoffman's daughter Emily was to wed the young Buckeye. 

The short life and sad death of McPherson, one of the most promising and beloved of the North’s military men, coupled with his Shakespearean romance with Emily Hoffman, is one of the great stories of heartbreak in a chapter of American history synonymous with tragically abbreviated lives, sundered families, and lovers separated for all eternity.  

McPherson was born in northern Ohio, in a settlement known today as Clyde. He graduated first in class from West Point in 1853. A brilliant engineer, after matriculation he participated in the construction of New York Harbor and Fort Alcatraz. He joined Ulysses S. Grant’s staff in 1861 and quickly rose to Major General. Both Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, among many other Northern luminaries, adored McPherson.

So did Emily Hoffman. The two met in 1859 at a soiree in San Francisco; she had come the California to care for her sister’s children. The attraction was immediate and mutual: McPherson, 30 at the time, was handsome, elegant and intellectual. Hoffman was blue-eyed, blonde and beautiful. A wedding was set but postponed by the arrival of war. “You cannot imagine how much I miss you, though each hour is adding to the distance which separates us,” he wrote just days after leaving her behind in the Golden State. 

While Hoffman waited patiently, McPherson fought alongside his mentor Grant in the Battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donaldson, Shiloh, and the Siege of Vicksburg. In early 1864 there was a pause in action and McPherson planned to travel to Baltimore and at last wed his fiancé. But battle again interfered. With the coming Atlanta Campaign, McPherson, now commanding the Army of the Tennessee, could not be spared. Accordingly, the day was again delayed.  

Seeing the resulting heart ache, Sherman took it upon himself to explain the decision to Hoffman. “Be patient,” he pleaded. “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.”

Again they waited. 

On July 22, Union forces were on the outskirts of Atlanta, when Confederates under John Bell Hood, McPherson’s old West Point classmate, launched a surprise attack. The young general galloped toward the action, rode into a gap in the Union lines, ran into the Fifth Confederate Infantry Regiment and was gunned down. When the Rebels reached the fallen body and asked one of McPherson’s unscathed aides about its identity, he cried,  “Sir, it is General McPherson. You have killed the best man in our army.”

When the telegram reached Baltimore the following day, Emily retreated to her darkened room. Three weeks later in an attempt to provide some comfort and perhaps alleviate his guilt, Sherman again wrote to the bereaved. “I yield to none on Earth but yourself the right to excel me in lamentations for our Dead Hero,” he sympathized. “Better the Bride of McPherson dead, than the wife of the richest Merchant of Baltimore.”

Emily Hoffman never recovered from the loss; she spent her remaining days alone before dying in 1891. McPherson, the second highest-ranking Union causality of the war, was eulogized across the nation; monuments and memorials to his memory, including the one in downtown Washington, D.C., proliferated as the 19th century concluded.

Today, 150 years later, she rests in Old Saint Paul Cemetery in Baltimore; he in McPherson Cemetery in Clyde, Ohio. Separated for all time by, in Sherman’s words, “the angry rattle of musketry and the storm of war which falls upon the honorable and young who become involved in its circles.”

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