John C. Pemberton answers his wife’s call, heads south

Published 11:29 pm Saturday, October 20, 2012

As the residents of Vicksburg watched the Federal fleets withdraw, they breathed a collective sigh of relief. Their resolve — coupled with the strength of the powerful river batteries — had checked the U.S. Navy in its attempt to capture the Hill City, open the great river to Northern shipping and split the Confederacy in two.

Life in the fortress city slowly returned to a semblance of normalcy as the active area of military operations shifted to the northern portion of the state. On Sept. 19, 1862, Maj. Gen. Sterling Price and his small Confederate army were driven from Iuka. Price would join his force with that of Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, who had moved north with the Vicksburg garrison, and the combined armies attacked Corinth on Oct. 3 in an attempt to regain control of that vital rail center. Although on the first day of battle they drove the Federals from their entrenchments north and west of town and battled with them in the city streets, victory eluded the Confederates on day two and the soldiers clad in butternut and gray were forced to retreat.

In light of this, his second defeat, it was clear to all that Van Dorn had to go. Ordered to take his place was Maj. Gen. John C. Pemberton. A Pennsylvania native of Quaker stock, Pemberton was born on Aug. 10, 1814. Despite his religious background John grew quite social and enjoyed parties, dances and even the theater. Yet he was a quiet young man who shied away from intimacy and counted few close friends. (Among his boyhood friends was George Meade, who was destined to command the Union forces at Gettysburg.) Pemberton’s father, a close friend of President Andrew Jackson, secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for his son and John embarked on a military career.

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At West Point, Pemberton was an average cadet who did not excel academically and accrued demerits by the score. During his first class, or senior year, he even was arrested for violation of the academy’s prohibition against the possession of alcohol. Only after the entire senior class signed a pledge to abstain from alcohol for the duration of their term were the charges dropped. At graduation in 1837, Pemberton stood 27th in a class of 50 cadets and was assigned to duty with the 4th U.S. Artillery.

Pemberton went on to serve in the Second Seminole War and Mexican War, where he saw action at Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma and Matamoras. While serving in Mexico, he met a young lieutenant who would play a prominent role in his life during the Civil War. His name was Ulysses S. Grant.

Upon his return from Mexico, Pemberton married Martha Thompson of Norfolk, Va., and the couple had seven children. Patty, as he called his wife, held tremendous sway over her husband. At the outbreak of the Civil War, she wrote John, “My darling husband, why are you not with us? Jefferson Davis has a position for you.” Not willing to turn against his wife’s interests, Pemberton resigned his commission and headed south to a rendezvous with destiny at Vicksburg.

Terrence J. Winschel is a former historian for the Vicksburg National Military Park.

Next week: Vicksburg’s residents greet Pemberton