During the last NFL season, I rode the MARTA train from the Atlanta-Green Bay game to where I parked my car. When we passed the Fort McPherson stop near Lakewood, a Southern man struck up a conversation with me about the military post, its importance to Atlanta, and why he was sorry to see it being closed down.
"Did you know it was named for a Northern general who died trying to capture the city?" I replied. The Southerner gaped, eyes bulging. He couldn't believe it was true. Others on the train turned to gasp at my words. They aren't the only locals who have been caught off-guard by that bit of Civil War trivia centered around the famous Atlanta landmark.
Fort McPherson closed down in 2011, though historic buildings on the base are sure to remain as part of the National Park Service, most likely Staff Row and the Old Post Area. The location will be used for a special science and technology center.
The landmark, however, will always bear the name of Gen. James Birdseye McPherson of the Union, who served Gen. William T. Sherman, the man who burned down Atlanta during the Civil War.
McPherson served with Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and Sherman in the Western battles of Fort Donelson (1862) and Vicksburg (1863). As a reward, he was named to lead the Army of the Tennessee, Grant's and Sherman's old post, in 1864, even though McPherson was only 36.
In the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864, McPherson was killed by rebel fire as he was trying to reach Sherman's headquarters. His death saddened many on both sides, including his West Point classmate John Bell Hood, the overall leader of the Confederate forces defending Atlanta.
McPherson was the only leader of the Union army to be killed during the fighting at Atlanta, and one of the highest ranking officers to perish in the Civil War. Fort McPherson, created in 1885, sits on the site of the old Georgia militia drilling grounds, created 50 years earlier and undoubtedly used by Confederates during the war.
Fort McPherson served the U.S. in several conflicts in several ways, from being a general hospital during the Spanish-American War to a P.O.W. camp in World War I, to even being the headquarters of the Third Army.
Now, as Fort McPherson becomes little more than a historical relic, a landmark sign remains to tell the tale of the fort and its namesake. You can find it on Hardee Avenue.
John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia.