John Alexander McClernand (1812–1900)

John Alexander McClernand was a controversial Union army general whose frequent machinations against Major General Ulysses S. Grant during several campaigns in the Western Theater of the Civil War and inconsistent performance in battle epitomized the ambitious character traits of a “political general.” McClernand’s most significant military achievement involved the Battle of Arkansas Post in early 1863.

Born to John McClernand and Fatima McClernand in Breckinridge County, Kentucky, on May 30, 1812, John McClernand grew up in Shawneetown, Illinois. Although he received very little formal education, he passed the state bar examination in 1832. McClernand also enlisted as a private in a local militia unit during the Blackhawk War of 1832. From 1833 to 1834, he worked as a commercial trader on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. In 1835, McClernand established the Shawneetown Democrat, practiced law, and won election to the state House of Representatives in 1836, 1840, 1842, and 1843. In November 1842, McClernand married Sarah Dunlap of Jacksonville, Illinois. The couple had four children, only one of whom survived to adulthood. Sarah McClernand died at the age of thirty-six on May 8, 1861. On December 25, 1861, McClernand married Sarah’s younger sister Minerva Dunlap.

McClernand earned his first national office with election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served from 1843 until 1851. He also supported Stephen A. Douglas during the Compromise of 1850. Thereafter, he declined re-nomination and settled briefly in Jacksonville, before moving to Springfield in 1856. He returned to Congress in 1859 as a replacement for the late Thomas L. Harris and renewed his support of Douglas during the presidential campaign of 1860. McClernand resigned from Congress on October 28, 1861, to accept a commission as a brigadier general of volunteers in the Union army.

Early in the war, McClernand served under Grant at the Battles of Belmont, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh, and he earned promotion to major general. He also earned a reputation for undermining his superior officers with politically motivated criticisms. In the short term, this tactic produced some advantage and advancement for McClernand, including command of the Union forces that captured Arkansas Post on January 11, 1863, during the early stages of the Vicksburg Campaign.

In early January 1863, McClernand received permission from President Abraham Lincoln to lead an offensive action against Vicksburg, Mississippi, from his base at Memphis, Tennessee, despite the fact that it clashed with Grant’s ongoing operations. McClernand’s force, comprising over 30,000 men and christened the Army of the Mississippi, consisted of McClernand’s XIII Corps and Major General William Tecumseh Sherman’s XV Corps (both commands detached from Grant’s Army of the Tennessee). Although McClernand’s objective was supposed to be Vicksburg, he undertook a movement toward Arkansas Post on January 5, in conjunction with a naval force commanded by Rear Admiral David Porter.

Located on a turn in the Arkansas River near its confluence with the Mississippi, the Confederate fortification at Arkansas Post, also known as Fort Hindman, guarded against the Union army’s movement down the Mississippi River. Its capture, therefore, held strategic value in relation to the operation against Vicksburg. Brigadier General Thomas Churchill commanded Fort Hindman and its complement of approximately 5,000 men, with no realistic chance for reinforcement. On January 9, 1863, Union troops under Sherman landed near Arkansas Post, marched along the Arkansas River, and forced a Confederate retreat toward Fort Hindman. On January 10, Porter’s fleet bombarded the fort for the remainder of the day. The Confederates surrendered on January 11, 1863, due to continued artillery fire and infantry assaults.

On June 18, 1863, Grant removed McClernand from his command for poor performance in May at the Battle of Champion Hill and insubordination after the failed frontal assaults at Vicksburg. As a War Democrat, however, his political value remained strong. (A War Democrat was a member of the Democratic Party from the border or northern states who favored the continued fighting of the Civil War, in contrast to the so-called Peace Democrats who opposed the war and advocated a negotiated peace with the South.) Therefore, in February 1864, President Lincoln restored McClernand to an assignment with the XIII Corps in the Department of the Gulf, where he served in the Red River Campaign when his health allowed.

McClernand resigned his commission on November 23, 1864. On May 4, 1865, McClernand led a portion of Lincoln’s funeral procession through Springfield, Illinois. After the war, McClernand resided in Springfield, where he practiced law, served as a district judge for the state’s circuit court, and remained active in the Democratic Party at the state and national levels.

McClernand died at the age of eighty-eight in Springfield on September 20, 1900, and is buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery.

For additional information:
Kiper, Richard L. Major General John Alexander McClernand: Politician in Uniform. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1999.

Meyers, Christopher C. Union General John A. McClernand and the Politics of Command. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010.

Robert Patrick Bender
Eastern New Mexico University–Roswell

Last Updated: 07/19/2018

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