Saturday, February 25, 2017

Vanquished in Vicksburg, buried in Pennsylvania

John Pemberton is buried near his wife, Martha, in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.
Plaque in front of Pemberton's tombstone notes his Confederate service.
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Nearly nine years after the death of George Gordon Meade, the "Hero of Gettysburg," John Clifford Pemberton, the Confederate general vanquished at Vicksburg, died in Penllyn, Pa., a village north of Philadelphia.

Both men were buried in Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery -- Meade on a slope overlooking the Schuylkill River, Pemberton in a family plot on a hill about a 15-minute walk from the former commander of the Army of the Potomac's modest gravesite. (Of the 41 Civil War generals buried at Laurel Hill, Pemberton is the only Confederate.)

Although Pemberton's death on July 13, 1881, was mentioned on inside pages in local newspapers, coverage was nowhere near the massive number of column inches devoted to Meade's death and funeral service. An eight-line report in the Philadelphia Inquirer on July 16, 1881, noted mourners could gather at the residence of Pemberton's brother at 1947 Locust Street in the city. Coverage of Pemberton's burial at Laurel Hill was similarly scant.

Circa-1860 image of John Pemberton.
Born in Philadelphia to a prominent family, Pemberton married a Virginia woman named Martha Thompson in 1848, and lived in the South before the Civil War. A captain in the regular army when the war began, the West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran marched his troops to Washington, resigned his commission and joined the Confederate army. His family and former commander, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott ("Old Fuss and Feathers"), urged Pemberton to remain in the Union army,  but their pleas failed. Loyalty to his Virginia-born wife and the South, where he served for much of his pre-Civil War military career, trumped loyalty to the Union for Pemberton, whose two younger brothers served in the Federal army.

A friend in the highest of places aided Pemberton's rise through the Confederate army: Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was fond of him -- a friendship that made his promotion in the "rebel army sure and rapid," the New York Times reported after his death.

By the spring of 1863, Lieutenant General Pemberton's assignment was to defend the fortress city of Vicksburg, Miss. But his army was outmaneuvered by Ulysses Grant, his former Mexican War comrade, in battles at Champion Hill and Big Black River Bridge, leading to a siege of the strategic city on the Mississippi River.

In war, Pemberton apparently lived a charmed life. "Through perils of the storm and stress of battle," his obituary in the Philadelphia Times noted, "he seemed to bear immunity from harm. Horses white and gray and brown were shot from under him, caps and cloaks he wore were pierced with bullets, but in the front and midst of the fray through some of the most disastrous affrays he passed unscathed."

A metal Confederate marker next to John Pemberton's gravestone.
After a 46-day siege, Pemberton and his vastly outnumbered and undersupplied army surrendered Vicksburg on July 4, 1863 -- one day after the Union army defeated Robert E. Lee's army at Gettysburg. Food supplies had become so scarce in the beleaguered city that Pemberton had peas ground up to make what the New York Times called "a peculiar kind of bread." The food sickened the soldiers, and "after a few trials," the newspaper reported, "it was abandoned as worse than worthless."

The loss of Vicksburg "so stirred up the popular feeling of the South against [Pemberton]" the Philadelphia Times reported after his death, "that he never had the opportunity to retrieve the disaster ..." Even in 1881, the Vicksburg Campaign, according to the newspaper, was "still the subject of controversy among ex-Confederate officials."

After he was paroled, Pemberton -- never fully trusted in the South because of his Northern roots and often branded a traitor -- served out the war in lesser roles for the Confederacy.

After the war, Pemberton farmed in a "remote and isolated" corner of Warrenton, Va., where he "passed a quiet, uneventful life," the Philadelphia Times wrote. Later, he lived in Norfolk, Va., his wife's hometown; South Amboy, N.J., and Allentown, Pa. "He had given up nearly everything for the cause in which he cast his lot," the Philadelphia newspaper noted, "and his fortune was necessarily diminished." In his later years, he reportedly was loath to discuss the Civil War.

In the summer of 1881, Pemberton lived in Penllyn, a stop on the Pennsylvania Railroad. In May that year, he complained of indigestion, and the pain gradually grew worse. A doctor performed a "remarkable operation" on his bladder, providing Pemberton temporary relief. But the 66-year-old Confederate veteran later became delirious and slipped in and out of consciousness. With old friends, son Francis and other family members at his bedside, the life of the man whose long career was filled "with disappointment and daring" ended early on a Wednesday evening.

"At eleven minutes after five, bearing to the last the evidences of his soldierly training and gentleness of character," the Philadelphia Times reported, "he passed away."

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-- The Donaldsville (La.) Chief, July 30, 1881.
-- New York Times, July 14, 1881.
-- Philadelphia Times, July 14, 1881.


  1. Anonymous7:45 PM

    I have hard time understanding how quick Southerners were to brand Pemberton as a traitor.

    Pemberton's loss at Vicksburg may have been a result of his lack of military knowledge and experience and perhaps even incompetence. Pemberton's ability to defend Vicksburg was made more complicated by the conflicting orders and instructions he was receiving from the President of the Confederacy Davis and the General Joe Johnson who was Pemberton's department commander.

    But nothing in the historical record suggests that Pemberton intentionally lost Vicksburg because he was a "sleeper" Unionist.

  2. Regardless, he was the commander at Vburg, and all blame falls on him, no matter what actually happened. Not fair no doubt. Loring and Johnston didn't do him any favors either.

  3. I live in Penllyn PA. Does anyone have any information on where exactly he may have lived?