A notable lower ranking Yankee general
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American National Biography Online
Corse, John Murray (27 Apr. 1835-27 Apr. 1893), soldier and politician, was
born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of John L. Corse, a stationer, and
Sarah Murray. At age seven he moved with his family to Burlington, Iowa,
where he worked in and later helped manage his father's business. After
spending two years (1853-1855) at the U.S. Military Academy, he returned to
Iowa to practice law and dabble in local politics. He married Ellen Edwards
Prince in 1856. Corse's political horizons soon
expanded: in the election of 1860 he was the unsuccessful Democratic
candidate for Iowa secretary of state. His prominence as a Democrat who
supported the war effort, along with his family's political connections (his
father was a six-term mayor of Burlington), brought Corse to the attention
of state officials when the Civil War broke out. On 13 July 1861 he was
appointed major of the sixth Iowa Volunteer Infantry.
An officer of youth, energy, and intelligence, Corse made a favorable
impression on Brigadier General John Pope when the latter gained an
important command in the western armies early in 1862. During Pope's
campaign along the upper Mississippi, Corse served as his inspector general.
Under fire at New Madrid
(13 Mar.) and Island Number 10 (7 Apr.), he earned praise for his
cool-headed efficiency. Soon after rising to lieutenant colonel of his
regiment on 21 May, he began an association with an even more successful
superior, Major General William T. Sherman. Under Sherman, Corse did
garrison duty at Memphis, Tennessee, and served ably in the October
campaigning around Corinth, Mississippi.
He managed to avoid Sherman's December debacle at Chickasaw Bluffs.
Corse continued to distinguish himself in Ulysses S. Grant's campaign
against Vicksburg in the spring and summer of 1863, especially on 16 July at
Jackson, Mississippi, where he commanded the skirmish forces in Brigadier
General William Sooy Smith's division, Sixteenth Corps, Army of the
Tennessee. "At the designated signal," Corse declared in his after-action
report of the engagement, "the men dashed forward with a shout, met the line
of the enemy's skirmishers and pickets, drove them back, capturing some 18
or 20, and killed as many more. . . . The enemy were driven from two pieces
[of artillery] at the point of the bayonet." His division leader described
Corse's conduct on that day as "daring that could not be excelled."
Such service, and the high-level appreciation it received, brought tangible
rewards to the young Iowan. By early August he was a brigadier general of
volunteers in command of a Fifteenth Corps brigade. The following month he
accompanied most of the army that had captured Vicksburg under Grant and
Sherman to the relief of Chattanooga. En route Corse's command drove a rebel
force out of Trenton, Tennessee; once at Chattanooga it helped wrest
commanding positions from the Confederates besieging the city.
Leading an assault along Sherman's right center at sunrise on
25 November, Corse's brigade captured a heavily defended ridge in front of
Braxton Bragg's main line atop Missionary Ridge and held it against over an
hour's worth of counterattacks. He was seriously wounded in the fighting.
Only two months after his "great gallantry" at Chattanooga, the recovering
Corse was chagrined to find himself assigned by the adjutant general's
office to command a draft rendezvous in Illinois. The intercession of
Sherman, however, secured his return to the Army of the Tennessee early in
February 1864. Upon Corse's arrival, Sherman appointed him an acting
inspector general and sent him on a series of missions up and down the
Mississippi aimed at strengthening outposts against the cavalry raiders of
Nathan Bedford Forrest and expediting the return of a part of Sherman's
command sent to support the Red River campaign of Major General Nathaniel P.
Rejoining Sherman in time for the Atlanta campaign, from early May until
late July Corse discharged the myriad of duties incumbent upon a
troubleshooter at the headquarters of the Military Division of the
Mississippi. On 26 July he returned to field duty at the head of the Fourth
Division, Sixteenth Corps, one day after its irascible, hard-drinking
commander, Brigadier General Thomas W. Sweeny, provoked a fistfight with his
immediate superior, Major General Grenville M. Dodge. As Sherman and Dodge
anticipated, Corse proved fully equal to divisional command, without
displaying his predecessor's temper. He won praise for his leadership at
Ezra Church (28 July) and especially at Jonesboro (31 Aug.), where his
troops tossed back a succession of attacks lasting all afternoon.
After the capture of Atlanta, Sherman assigned Corse the difficult job of
guarding communications in northwestern Georgia. The Iowan reached the
pinnacle of his career on 5 October at Allatoona, site of a fortified supply
depot on the Western & Atlantic Railroad, whose retention was critical to
Sherman's ability to subsist his troops in Georgia. With a small portion of
his division, Corse reinforced the vulnerable garrison just in time to
thwart an assault by twice as many Confederates under Major General Samuel
G. French. Though virtually surrounded, Corse spurned his enemy's offer to
surrender and thus "avoid a needless effusion of blood." Enjoined by Sherman
to hang on until reinforcements arrived (a plea later corrupted into the
phrase "Hold the fort!"
which inspired a famous song of that title), Corse repelled a succession of
assaults through his masterful disposition of limited forces and despite
sustaining a wound in the cheek. A frustrated French called off his attack
and retreated before Sherman's additions could arrive. Casualties had run
unusually high: more than 700 of the 2,000-man Union garrison and as many as
650 of the 4,000 Confederate attackers.
Returning to Atlanta in mid-November as a brevet major general, Corse was
transferred to the command of the Fourth Division in the Fifteenth Corps,
which he led on the March to the Sea and throughout the Carolinas campaign.
From Atlanta to Goldsborough (now Goldsboro), his division wrecked miles of
railroads, freed hundreds of slaves, and drove thousands of enemy troops
from its path. Its service culminated on the last day of the battle of
Bentonville (21 Mar. 1865), when it seized a hotly contested line of works
along the Confederate left.
In the postwar army, Corse sought to remain with Sherman but instead was
assigned to a military department headed by his old superior, Pope. In late
August 1865 Corse took command of the District of Minnesota at St. Paul,
where he spent most of his time protecting outlying settlers from the Sioux.
Frontier duty proved not to his liking; in April 1866 he left the volunteer
service and declined a lieutenant colonelcy in the regular army.
For some years he worked as a civil engineer in the Northwest before moving
to Massachusetts and reentering political life as chairman of that state's
Democratic committee. He served as postmaster of Boston during Grover
Cleveland's first administration, making that office a nationally recognized
model of governmental efficiency. In 1882 he married Frances McNeil. It is
not known when his first wife died or if he had any children by either
marriage. He died in Winchester, Massachusetts.
Corse was one of those solid, dependable, sometimes extraordinary officers
whose emergence in 1863-1865 made the Union armies in the West consistently
successful. He was both a talented aide and a gifted field leader; in either
capacity he enjoyed the utmost confidence of Sherman and Grant. A man of
steady habits and unswerving morality, he could not refrain from lecturing
his troops on the rules of right living. He frequently enjoined them to
overcome the "debasing influences of camp vices" through harmless
entertainments and physical exercise. (He was one of very few commanders to
establish gymnasiums in his camps.) His men were made to understand that "it
is disgraceful to get drunk, to quarrel, to use profane and coarse language;
that they are regarded as gentlemen, and should bear themselves as such." He
saved his harshest rhetoric for "marauding and lawlessness,"
especially when committed against helpless citizens. Such utterances were
prompted by Corse's belief that the profession of soldiering was "the most
dignified and honorable in the world" and the cause
of the Union "the most sacred in which man ever embarked."
Corse's life and career cannot be traced through any known collection of
personal letters. The only biographical work is William Salter,
"Major-General John M. Corse," Annals of Iowa 3, no. 2 (1895-1896):
1-19, 105-45, 278-304. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (128 vols., 1880-1901)
includes several of his battle and campaign reports (see ser. 1, vols. 24,
pt. 2; 38, pt. 3; 39, pt. 1; 44; and 47, pt. 1) as well as some of his
paternalistic admonitions to his troops (ser. 1, vol. 38, pts. 3 and 5).
Corse's stint as regimental commander is chronicled in two unit histories:
Lurton D. Ingersoll, Sixth Iowa Infantry (n.d.), and Henry Haviland Wright,
A History of the Sixth Iowa Infantry (1923). He also receives attention in
two works by Victor Hicken, Illinois in the Civil War (1966) and "The Battle
of Allatoona," Civil War Times Illustrated 7 (June 1968): 18-27; and in
Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 (1992).
Edward G. Longacre
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Edward G. Longacre. "Corse, John Murray";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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