John Alexander McClernand

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John Alexander McClernand
John A. McClernand(01085v).jpg
Member of the United States House of Representatives for Illinois' 6th district
In office
November 8, 1859 – October 28, 1861
Preceded byCharles D. Hodges
Succeeded byAnthony L. Knapp
Member of the United States House of Representatives for Illinois' 2nd district
In office
March 4, 1843 – March 3, 1851
Preceded byZadok Casey
Succeeded byWillis Allen
Member of the Illinois House of Representatives
In office
In office
Personal details
BornMay 30, 1812
Breckinridge County, Kentucky
DiedSeptember 20, 1900(1900-09-20) (aged 88)
Springfield, Illinois
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)Sarah McClernand,
Minerva McClernand
ChildrenEdward John McClernand
OccupationMilitary officer
ProfessionPolitician, lawyer
Military service
AllegianceUnited States of America
Branch/serviceUnited States Army
Union Army
Years of service1832, 1861–1864
RankUnion Army major general rank insignia.svg Major General of Volunteers
Battles/warsBlack Hawk War
American Civil War

John Alexander McClernand (May 30, 1812 – September 20, 1900) was an American lawyer and politician, and a Union general in the American Civil War. He was a prominent Democratic politician in Illinois and a member of the United States House of Representatives before the war. McClernand was firmly dedicated to the principles of Jacksonian democracy and supported the Compromise of 1850.

McClernand was commissioned a brigadier general of volunteers in 1861. His was a classic case of the politician-in-uniform coming into conflict with career Army officers, graduates of the United States Military Academy. He served as a subordinate commander under Ulysses S. Grant in the Western Theater, fighting in the battles of Belmont, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh in 1861–62.

A close friend and political ally of Abraham Lincoln, McClernand was given permission to recruit a force to conduct an operation against Vicksburg, Mississippi, which would rival the effort of Grant, his department commander. Grant was able to neutralize McClernand's independent effort after it conducted an expedition to win the Battle of Arkansas Post, and McClernand became the senior corps commander in Grant's army for the Vicksburg Campaign in 1863. During the Siege of Vicksburg, Grant relieved McClernand of his command by citing his intemperate and unauthorized communication with the press, finally putting an end to a rivalry that had caused Grant discomfort since the beginning of the war. McClernand left the Army in 1864 and served as a judge and a politician in the postbellum era.

Early life and political career[edit]

McClernand was born in Breckinridge County, Kentucky, near Hardinsburg, but his family moved to Shawneetown, Illinois, when he was quite young. His early life and career were similar to that of another Illinois lawyer of the time, Abraham Lincoln. He was largely self-educated and was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1832. In that same year he served as a volunteer private in the Blackhawk War (Lincoln briefly served as a captain).

In 1835 McClernand founded the Shawneetown Democrat newspaper, which he edited. As a Democrat he served in 1836 and from 1840 to 1843 in the Illinois House of Representatives.[1]

He served in the United States House of Representatives from 1843 until 1851. He was known for his bombastic oratory and his adherence to Jacksonian principles. His dislike of abolitionists generated favor among his constituents, many of whom were originally natives of slaveholding states, as he was. McClernand vigorously opposed the Wilmot Proviso. He was an important ally to Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas played a crucial role in formulating the Compromise of 1850, and McClernand served as a liaison for him the House of Representatives during the debate over the proposed compromise.[citation needed] McClernand also served as Chairman of the Committee on Public Lands from 1845 to 1847 and on the Committee on Foreign Affairs from 1849 to 1851. In 1850, McClernand declined to be a candidate for renomination, and his term expired in 1851.[1]

In 1859, McClernand was again elected to the House to fill a vacancy caused by the death of Thomas L. Harris. His term began on November 8.[1] He was a strong Unionist and introduced the resolution of July 15, 1861, pledging money and men to the national government. In 1860 he was defeated in a bid for the speakership of the House of Representatives; the coalition of representatives opposing him objected to his moderate views on slavery and the importance of retaining the Union.

McClernand supported the campaign of his friend, Stephen Douglas, in the 1860 presidential election. He served as one of his campaign managers during the divisive Democratic presidential nomination convention held in Charleston, South Carolina in 1860.

In November 1842, McClernand married Sarah Dunlap of Jacksonville, Illinois, a close friend of Mary Todd Lincoln. Sarah was a daughter of James Dunlap, who served as a quartermaster in the Union Army during the Civil War, eventually appointed to the rank of brevet major general. John and Sarah's son, Edward John McClernand, was notable as a U.S. Army brigadier general in the Indian Wars and later in the Philippines. After Sarah's death, McClernand married her sister, Minerva Dunlap.[2]

Civil War[edit]

General McClernand during the Civil War
Embarkation of General McClernand's Brigade at Cairo

Upon the outbreak of the American Civil War, he raised the "McClernand Brigade" in Illinois, and was commissioned brigadier general of volunteers on May 17, 1861. His commission as a general was based not on his brief service in the Blackhawk War, but on Lincoln's desire to retain political connections with the Democrats of Southern Illinois.[citation needed] He eventually resigned his Congressional seat effective October 28.[1]

McClernand was second in command under Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Belmont in Missouri on November 7, 1861, and commanded the 1st Division of Grant's army at Fort Donelson; his division, whose flank was not properly anchored on an obstacle, was struck by a surprise attack on February 15, 1862, and driven back almost two miles before he was able to get reinforcements. On March 21, he was promoted to major general of volunteers for his service at Fort Donelson. At the Battle of Shiloh on April 6–7 he commanded a division of the Army of the Tennessee, which resisted, along with that of William Tecumseh Sherman, the strong Confederate assaults around Shiloh Church.

McClernand (right) with Abraham Lincoln during his inspection of the Antietam battlefield; Allan Pinkerton is standing at left.

McClernand's service as a major general was tainted by political maneuvering, which was resented by his colleagues. He communicated directly with his commander-in-chief, President Lincoln, offering his criticisms of the strategies of other generals, including Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's in the Eastern Theater and Grant's in the West.[3]

In October 1862, McClernand used his political influence with Illinois Governor Richard Yates to obtain a leave of absence to visit Washington, D.C. and President Lincoln, hoping to receive an important independent command. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton agreed to order him north to raise troops for the expedition against Vicksburg.

Early in January 1863, at Milliken's Bend, McClernand superseded Sherman as the leader of the force that was to move down the Mississippi. On January 11, 1863, he took Arkansas Post, an expedition suggested by Sherman. On January 17, Grant, after receiving the opinion of Admiral David Dixon Porter and General Sherman that McClernand was incompetent to lead further operations, united a part of his own troops with those of McClernand and assumed command in person, and three days later ordered McClernand back to Milliken's Bend. During the rest of the Vicksburg Campaign there was much friction between McClernand and his colleagues. He intrigued for the removal of Grant, spreading rumors to the press of Grant drinking on the campaign.[4]

McClernand landed his men on the Mississippi River levee at Young's Point, where they "suffered from the heavy winter rains and lack of shelter. Tents were not issued to the troops because they were within range of the [Confederate] guns at Vicksburg; so the more enterprising men dug holes in the levee and covered them with their black rubber blankets. Floundering in knee-deep black mud and still exhausted from recent expeditions, numerous soldiers fell sick. Many cases of smallpox were reported. Hospital tents lined the back side of the levee and were crowded with thousands of sick men. Many died, and soon the levee was lined with new graves."[5]

It was Grant's opinion that at Champion Hill (May 16, 1863) McClernand was dilatory, but Grant bided his time, waiting for insubordination that was blatant enough to justify removing his politically powerful rival. After a bloody and unsuccessful assault against the Vicksburg entrenchments (ordered by Grant), McClernand wrote a congratulatory order to his corps, which was published in the press, contrary to an order of the department and another of Grant that official papers were not to be published. He was relieved of his command on June 18, two weeks before the fall of Vicksburg, and was replaced by Maj. Gen. Edward O. C. Ord. The duty of notifying him of his dismissal fell to Lieutenant Colonel James H. Wilson, who'd held a grudge against him for an earlier chastising. Once McClernand read the order, he exclaimed in shock "I am relieved!" Then seeing the look on Wilson's face, he made a joke out if it by saying "By God sir, we are both relieved!". Grant's order relieving him ordered him to go to any place in Illinois and contact the War Department for new orders.

President Lincoln, who saw the importance of conciliating a leader of the Illinois War Democrats, restored McClernand to a field command in 1864. On February 20, 1864 McClernand returned to his old XIII Corps, now part of the Department of the Gulf.[6] Illness limited his role and by the time the Red River Campaign commenced, McClernand had been replaced in command by Thomas E. G. Ransom. For several days at the end of April McClernand returned to the field to command the detachment of two divisions from the XIII Corps participating in the Red River Campaign. He resigned from the Army on November 30, 1864 and in April 1865 played a prominent role in the funeral of Lincoln, his old friendly rival.

Postbellum life[edit]

In 1871, at the 17th Annual Illinois State Fair, McClernand's colt, Zenith, won first place in the "Best Stallion Colt, 2 Years Old" category. The prize was $25.[7] McClernand served as district judge of the Sangamon (Illinois) District from 1870 to 1873, and was president of the 1876 Democratic National Convention.[1] McClernand's last public service was on a federal advisory board overseeing the Utah Territory. Despite his resignation, he was able to receive an Army pension due to an act of Congress.

John McClernand died in Springfield, Illinois and is interred there at Oak Ridge Cemetery.[1]

In popular culture[edit]

McClernand is the villain of MacKinlay Kantor alternate history book If the South Had Won the Civil War. In the alternate history presented, General Grant was killed accidentally at the start of the Vicksburg Campaign. McClernand then insisted upon assuming command and by thoroughly bad generalship managed to lose the campaign, get the Army of the Tennessee almost completely destroyed, and contribute significantly to the Union losing the entire war and the Confederacy gaining independence.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e f "McCLERNAND, John Alexander, (1812 - 1900)". United States Congress. Retrieved October 23, 2016.
  2. ^ Kiper, p. 6, 153; Eicher, p. 218.
  3. ^ Woodworth, pp. 248-50.
  4. ^ Woodworth, pp. 286, 317.
  5. ^ Winters, p. 174.
  6. ^ Eicher, p. 372
  7. ^ Reynolds, p. 31


  • Eicher, John H., and David J. Eicher. Civil War High Commands. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
  • Kiper, Richard L. Major General John Alexander McClernand: Politician in Uniform. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0-87338-636-4.
  • Reynolds, John P., "Transactions of the Illinois State Agricultural Society, with Reports from County and District Agricultural Societies". Springfield, Illinois: Illinois Journal Printing Office, 1871.
  • Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964. ISBN 0-8071-0822-7.
  • Winters, John D. The Civil War in Louisiana, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1963. ISBN 0-8071-0834-0.
  • Woodworth, Steven E. Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861–1865. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. ISBN 0-375-41218-2.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "McClernand, John Alexander". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 17 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 202.

External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by Commander of the Army of the Mississippi
January 4, 1863–January 12, 1863
Succeeded by
U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Illinois's 2nd congressional district

Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Illinois's 6th congressional district

Succeeded by