“Either a Traitor or the Most Incompetent Officer in the Confederacy”

John C. Pemberton
John C. Pemberton

This is another installment in the “Tales From the Tombstone” series

John Clifford Pemberton, to Civil War enthusiasts, conjures up one word: Vicksburg. On July 4, 1863, the Confederate lieutenant general surrendered the “Gibraltar of the West.” With the loss of Vicksburg, including the approximately 30,000 Confederate soldiers surrendered, the mighty Mississippi River now flowed unimpeded under complete Union control.

The architect of that victory, Ulysses S. Grant, would rise to the top echelon of Union military leaders and eventually to the top post in both the army and politics of the United States. Fittingly, Pemberton sunk to the lowest echelon of scapegoats in the Confederacy.

Born into an affluent Philadelphia family on August 10, 1814, Pemberton attended West Point, where demerits almost caused his expulsion. When graduation came, Pemberton stood right in the middle of the pack; 27th out of 50 graduating cadets.

What ensued was a 24-year army career, including service in the Mexican War, where he was brevetted twice for conduct during two separate engagements.

Yet, after shots were fired on Fort Sumter, in Charleston, South Carolina, Pemberton decided, possibly swayed by his Virginia-born wife, and his sense on honor and duty, to resign his commission on April 24, 1861.

Initially a lieutenant-colonel in the service of Virginia, he was quickly promoted brigadier general in June 1861, followed nine-months later by a promotion to major general. There is still some mystery to this meteoric rise in rank.

His first major command was on the Atlantic seaboard in charge of the Department of South Carolina and Georgia. Pemberton soon ran afoul of both state governors when he would not declare that certain positions would be defended at all costs including Charleston, and the symbolic Fort Sumter. Pemberton was soon relieved from command at the request of those same state governors.

Pemberton who had been promoted to major general in January, received a promotion to lieutenant general on October 10, 1862 and was tasked to defend Vicksburg.

And this is where disaster awaited the Northern-born rebel. After a siege of six weeks, Pemberton surrendered over 2,000 officers, approximately 27,200 men, 172 cannons, and over 60,000 muskets.

The vile and hatred that Pemberton received from his adopted homeland would stick with him the rest of the war.

After his surrender Pemberton became a high-ranking general without a command. Even Braxton Bragg declined adding Pemberton to his command and the Army of Tennessee. Less than a year after his surrender at Vicksburg, in May 1864, the Pennsylvanian resigned as a general officer and accepted three days later a commission in the artillery as a lieutenant-colonel. With all his shortcomings, this swallowing of ego and pride was evidence of his continued strong loyalty to the Confederate cause.

Pemberton would serve in this capacity in the Richmond defenses before being selected as inspector general of artillery on January 7, 1865. Captured in North Carolina on April 12, 1865, there is still no record of his parole to this day.

His post-war years consisted of farming near Warrenton, Virginia for a decade before returning north of the Mason-Dixon Line. He died in his birth city of Philadelphia on July 13, 1881 at the age of 66.

Even in death there was controversy surrounding Pemberton. When the fact became known that the ex-Confederate general was to be buried in the prestigious Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, former Union officers, including George Meade, protested.

John C. Pemberton grave stone at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
John C. Pemberton grave stone at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Eventually, the matter was settled as Pemberton was buried near the fringes of the cemetery and not until recently was there even mention of him as a former Confederate (a small plaque in front of his tombstone relates this information today).

Marker denoting Pemberton as a Confederate officer
Marker denoting Pemberton as a Confederate officer

*In a “bet-you-didn’t know that” fact, his nephew, also John Pemberton became an officer in the Confederate service and was wounded severely in one of the last actions of the war in Columbus, Georgia on April 16, 1865. He survived to become credited with inventing Coca-Cola.

**The title of this post comes from a quote, found on a biography about John C. Pemberton, courtesy of the Civil War Trust.

3 Responses to “Either a Traitor or the Most Incompetent Officer in the Confederacy”

  1. Sooooooooooooooooo the Grant victory at Vicksburg, Ms. was an inside job, not a great military victory as claimed and bestowed on the drunk.

  2. If George Meade protested Pemberton’s burial at Laurel Hill Cemetery, he did it from eternity. Meade died in 1872, Pemberton in 1881. Meade’s family may have protested.

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