Vilified by Northerners for leaving the U.S. Army to fight for the South, and by Southerners for surrendering Vicksburg, Pennsylvanian, John C. Pemberton rose to the rank of lieutenant general in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War
Early Life and Education
Future Confederate Lieutenant General John Clifford Pemberton was born on August 10, 1814, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was the second child of John and Rebecca (Clifford) Pemberton. The family’s patriarch was a successful merchant and land speculator with substantial political connections that extended to President Andrew Jackson. In 1833, he used his influence with Jackson to secure an appointment for his son, John, to the United States Military Academy.
John Pemberton entered the Academy on July 1, 1833, along with future Civil War generals of note including Braxton Bragg and Jubal A. Early who fought for the Confederacy, and Joseph Hooker, William H. French, and John Sedgwick who served the Union. During his years at West Point, Pemberton excelled in classical studies, but his performance in military subjects was sub-par. As a result, he graduated near the middle of his class, standing twenty-seventh out of fifty cadets, on July 1, 1837.
United States Army Soldier
Upon leaving West Point, the army commissioned Pemberton as a second lieutenant with the 4th Artillery Regiment and sent him to Florida to campaign against American Indians during the Second Seminole War (1837–38). Following the conclusion of his service in Florida, Pemberton served with the 4th Artillery at Fort Columbus, New York (1838–39), near Trenton, New Jersey (1839), along the northern U.S. frontier during the brief Canadian Border Disturbances of the Aroostook War (1839), at Detroit, Michigan (1840), at Fort Mackinac, Michigan (1840-41), at Fort Brady, Michigan (1841), in Buffalo, New York (1841–42), and at Fortress Monroe, Virginia 1842).
On March 19, 1842, the army promoted Pemberton to the rank of first lieutenant. Remaining with the 4th Artillery, Pemberton served at the U.S. Army Cavalry School at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania (1842–43), and returned to Fort Monroe from 1844 to 1845.
In 1845, the army deployed Pemberton and the 4th Artillery to the Republic of Texas when tensions between the United States and Mexico escalated after the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution annexing Texas on March 1, 1845. When war between the two nations erupted in 1846, Pemberton served with General Zachary Taylor’s Army of Occupation, seeing action at the Battle of Palo Alto (May 8, 1846) and commanding a company during the Battle of Resaca de la Palma (May 9, 1846). On September 23, 1846, the army brevetted Pemberton to captain “for Gallant and Meritorious Conduct” during the Battle of Monterrey (September 21–24, 1846).
By the end of 1846, Taylor’s Army of Occupation controlled most of northern Mexico. After Mexican officials rebuffed President Polk’s attempts to reach a negotiated settlement, the War Department struck at the heart of Mexico. In early 1847, General Winfield Scott ordered nearly 8,000 of Taylor’s army, including Pemberton, to depart for the gulf coast to prepare for the invasion. After joining Scott’s Army of Invasion, Pemberton took part in the Siege of Veracruz (Mar 9–29, 1847), the Battle of Cerro Gordo (April 18, 1847), the Skirmish of Amazoque (May 14, 1847), the Capture of San Antonio (August 20, 1847), the Battle of Churubusco (August 20, 1847), the Battle of Molino del Rey (September 8, 1847), the storming of Chapultepec (September 13, 1847), and the occupation of Mexico City (September 13–14, 1847). On September 8, 1847, the army brevetted Pemberton to major for his “Gallant and Meritorious Conduct in the Battle of Molino del Rey.”
Upon returning from Mexico, Pemberton married Martha Thompson of Norfolk, Virginia, in January 1848. Their marriage produced three children who survived to adulthood.
The next year, Pemberton was back in Florida, campaigning against the Seminole Indians (1849–50). After being promoted to captain on September 16, 1850, Pemberton served at many outposts around the country including New Orleans Barracks, Louisiana (1850), Fort Washington, Maryland (1851–52), and Fort Hamilton, New York (1852–56). In 1856–57, he was back in Florida, once again campaigning against the Seminoles. Afterward, the army sent Pemberton to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. During his time on frontier duty, Pemberton helped quell the border violence in Bleeding Kansas. He also took part in the nearly bloodless Utah Expedition (1857–58). Between 1859 and 1861, Pemberton served stints at Ft. Kearny, New Mexico and Fort Ridgely, Minnesota.
Civil War Service – Confederate Army Officer
When South Carolina artillerists fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, touching off the Civil War, the army garrisoned Pemberton at Washington Arsenal, in the nation’s capital. As with many U.S. Army officers, the commencement of hostilities created a vexing dilemma for Pemberton. His predicament was troublesome because his immediate family (including two brothers who fought for the North) sided with the Union, while his wife was a staunch Southern sympathizer. After two weeks of deliberation, Pemberton notified the army on April 24, 1861, that he was resigning his commission (effective April 29) to join the Southern cause. Pemberton’s decision made him a traitor in the North and a suspect Yankee in the South.
Upon leaving the U.S. Army, Pemberton accepted a commission as a lieutenant colonel of the newly formed Provisional Army of Virginia (PAV). First serving under his post-war detractor, Joseph E. Johnston, Pemberton accepted an assignment to construct a training camp for artillery and cavalry volunteers. Pemberton soon began a meteoric rise in rank that rocketed him to the highest echelons of the Confederate Army in short order. On May 8, 1861, officials promoted him to colonel (PAV). When the Confederacy absorbed Virginia’s militia, Pemberton received a commission as a major of artillery in the Provisional Army of the Confederate States (PACS) on June 15, 1861. Two days later, Confederate officials promoted him to brigadier general, bypassing the intermediate grades of lieutenant colonel and colonel.
Department of South Carolina and Georgia Commander
On November 29, 1861, the Confederate government transferred Pemberton to General Robert E. Lee’s Department of South Carolina and Georgia. A little over two months later, on February 14, 1862, the Confederacy promoted Pemberton to the rank of major general, effective January 14, 1862. In less than three-quarters of a year, Pemberton had risen from the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Provisional Army of Virginia to major general in the Provisional Army of the Confederate States, without accomplishing anything of major importance for the Rebel cause.
When Confederate President Jefferson Davis recalled Lee to Virginia to command the Army of Northern Virginia during the Peninsula Campaign, Pemberton assumed Lee’s position as department commander on March 4, 1862. Pemberton’s tenure in South Carolina was short-lived.
After Pemberton openly exhibited his preference for protecting his army more than southern soil by evacuating coastal areas, South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens lost confidence in the Yankee general charged with defending his state. On August 28, 1862, Davis gave in to Pickens’ lobbying for a change and replaced Pemberton with P. G. T. Beauregard.
On October 1, 1862, after Pemberton’s fall from grace in South Carolina, the Confederate War Department issued General Orders, Number 73 assigning him to command a newly established military department that would become known as the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana.
While Pemberton was en route to his new assignment, the Confederate War Department issued General Orders, No. 240, on October 14, 1862, announcing his promotion to lieutenant general and the addition of “the forces intended to operate in Southern Tennessee” to his command. When Pemberton arrived at Jackson the same day, he issued General Orders, Number 1, stating that “In compliance with instructions received from the War Department” he was assuming “command of the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, including the forces intended to operate in Southwestern Tennessee.”
Pemberton immediately set about reorganizing and reestablishing the morale of the forces in his command which had recently failed in their attempt to recapture Corinth, Mississippi, at the Second Battle of Corinth (October 3–4, 1862). The number of soldiers under Pemberton’s charge numbered fewer than 50,000 divided between Major General Earl Van Dorn’s and Major General Sterling Price’s commands. Roughly half of his men were garrisoned at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Louisiana, near the Mississippi River. The rest were spread across the two states.
Pemberton’s forces acquired a formal name on December 7, 1862, when he issued General Orders, Number 17 (Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana) announcing that “By direction of the Secretary of War, hereafter this army will be denominated Army of the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana . . . ” Soon thereafter, Pemberton’s troops became known informally as the Army of Vicksburg.
Pemberton’s tenure in Mississippi got off to a good start. On December 20, 1862, Van Dorn led a raid on Ulysses S. Grant’s supply depot at Holly Springs, Mississippi. Van Dorn’s troopers surprised the Federal soldiers in an early morning attack, taking 1,500 prisoners and destroying over $1.5 million worth of Union supplies. On December 26–29, 1862, Pemberton’s forces decisively repulsed Major General William T. Sherman’s assault at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou, inflicting 1,700 casualties on the Yankees, compared to just 200 for the Rebels. Both operations deftly rebuffed Grant’s early efforts to capture Vicksburg and seize control of the Mississippi River.
Despite his initial successes, Pemberton’s situation began to erode soon after the New Year. On February 25, 1863, Johnston transferred Van Dorn and his cavalry to Middle Tennessee, leaving Pemberton without the vital reconnaissance units he needed to monitor Grant’s movements. As Grant continued to press toward Vicksburg with his characteristic doggedness, using several diversions, Pemberton could only react as he tried to determine Grant’s primary targets.
Further Confederate victories at the Battle of Yazoo Pass on March 11, 1863, and the Battle of Grand Gulf on April 29 proved to be inconsequential. On April 30, 1863, 23,000 Union soldiers boarded barges on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River, crossed over, and disembarked at Bruinsburg, on the Mississippi side, roughly fifty miles downriver from Vicksburg.
Despite the large number of Yankees involved, the Confederate forces in the area still enjoyed superior numbers. Pemberton had roughly 30,000 soldiers at his disposal near Vicksburg. Fortunately for Grant, Pemberton took literally his orders to defend Vicksburg at all costs. Rather than moving forward to confront the Union invasion at the beachhead where it was most vulnerable, Pemberton kept most of his troops in garrison at Vicksburg. As a result, the landing went unchallenged. The only Confederates nearby were Major General John S. Bowen’s force of 6,000–8,000 soldiers who had marched to Port Gibson after thwarting Grant’s landing at Grand Gulf the previous day. Following a heated battle on May 1, Bowen withdrew from Port Gibson, leaving Grant’s army temporarily uncontested.
Rather than marching on his primary target of Vicksburg immediately, Grant turned his army east and drove General Joseph E. Johnston’s forces away from the state capital at Jackson, Mississippi, on May 14, 1863. Johnston’s removal prevented him from uniting his forces with Pemberton, now isolated at Vicksburg.
As Grant moved on Jackson, Johnston ordered Pemberton to leave his defensive positions near Vicksburg and move east to stop Grant’s advance. Pemberton felt conflicted because he was also under orders from Confederate President Jefferson Davis to defend Vicksburg at all costs. After calling a council of war with his subordinate officers, Pemberton decided to ignore Johnston’s order, believing that a direct confrontation with Grant’s army would be overly risky. Instead, Pemberton marched south on May 15, hoping to isolate Grant’s army by severing its supply lines back to the Mississippi River. After starting his march south, Pemberton received another order from Johnston repeating his former directive. This time Pemberton complied and reversed his course back north.
Just after sunrise on the morning of May 16, 1863, Pemberton’s army, marching north, encountered Grant’s army, marching west, near Champion Hill, Mississippi, twenty miles west of Vicksburg. During the ensuing battle, Confederate Major General William W. Loring’s division became separated from Pemberton’s main army. Loring abandoned Pemberton and marched away to join Johnston’s forces in central Mississippi. After a spirited engagement, marked by several fierce attacks and counterattacks, Pemberton’s outnumbered soldiers fell back to the Big Black River as the day ended and awaited Grant’s next move.
The next morning (May 17, 1863), three divisions of Grant’s army, commanded by Major General John A. McClernand, caught up with the Rebels. Even though a bayou of waist-deep water, protected by eighteen canons, fronted the Confederate position near the Big Black River, the Rebels threw down their weapons and fled for the two makeshift bridges spanning the river when the Yankees advanced. With no other options, Pemberton ordered his men to burn the bridges spanning Big Black River, to gather everything edible in their path, and to retreat to the safety of Vicksburg. Most of Pemberton’s soldiers made it across, but the Federals captured 1,700 stranded Rebels.
Following the Union victory at the Battle of Big Black River Bridge, Grant made two unsuccessful attempts to storm Vicksburg (May 19 and May 22). Rather than suffer further Federal casualties, the Union leader dug in and besieged Vicksburg. Facing an army that eventually swelled to about 75,000 Union soldiers surrounding the city and a fleet of federal gunboats on the river, Pemberton’s only hope for escape was the possibility of General Johnston marching on Grant from the rear to relieve the city. Johnston did not share the belief held by others about Vicksburg’s military importance, so help never came.
With no supplies coming into the city, citizens and soldiers alike suffered from a lack of food. Eventually, the poor diet led to the onset of diseases, including scurvy, malaria, dysentery, and diarrhea. To add to the misery, Union troops lobbed thousands of shells into the city, forcing citizens to dig and inhabit over 500 caves for shelter. Finally, on July 3, Pemberton asked for terms of surrender. Initially, Grant demanded unconditional surrender, as he had done at Fort Donelson. Upon further reflection though, Grant decided that he did not want the burden of caring for nearly 30,000 starving Confederate soldiers in poor health. Instead, he offered to parole all of his prisoners, hoping that they would never take up arms against the Union again. Satisfied with Grant’s terms, Pemberton surrendered the city along with 2,166 officers and 27,230 soldiers, 172 cannon, and almost 60,000 muskets and rifles on July 4, 1863.
Return to the Eastern Theater
After capturing Vicksburg, Union officials exchanged Pemberton as a prisoner of war on October 13, 1863. The fallen general returned to Richmond, where he spent the next eight months awaiting an assignment that never came. On May 9, 1864, Pemberton resigned his commission as a general officer. Three days later, he accepted a token assignment from President Davis as a lieutenant colonel of artillery in the defenses of Richmond. On January 7, 1865, the Confederacy appointed Pemberton as an inspector general of artillery. He served in that capacity until Union soldiers captured him at Salisbury, North Carolina, on April 12, 1865, at the end of the war.
After the Civil War, Pemberton lived on a farm named “Harleigh” near Warrenton, Virginia, from 1866 to 1876. During that period, General Johnston published his memoirs, blaming the loss of Vicksburg squarely on Pemberton’s shoulders. Pemberton spent much of his remaining life drafting a detailed rebuttal that he never published.
In 1876, Pemberton returned to his native state of Pennsylvania, taking a position with the Iron Storage Department of the Pennsylvania Warehousing and Safe Deposit Company in Allentown. His job occasionally required extensive travel, sometimes to the Deep South, where many residents vilified him for surrendering Vicksburg.
Some Northerners disliked Pemberton, especially in his native state. Nonetheless, Pennsylvania Congressman Samuel J. Randall, Speaker of the House of Representatives, introduced legislation to restore Pemberton’s U.S. citizenship in 1879. Both chambers of Congress approved the resolution over the objection of some Pennsylvania representatives, and President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the legislation on June 19, 1879.
Toward the end of his life, Pemberton and his wife took up residence in Philadelphia. Early in 1880, Pemberton began experiencing respiratory and prostate problems. During the next year and a half, his health declined dramatically. On July 13, 1881, Pemberton died at the age of sixty-six, at his summer home in Penllyn, Pennsylvania. Over objections from some Unionist families, the Confederate general was buried in an obscure section of Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.