The Wrong Man at the Wrong Place
By Robbie Smith; Hallowed Ground Magazine, Fall 2004 Issue
In the minds of many, if not most, Civil War historians the name John Clifford Pemberton is synonymous with failure, defeat, and ruin. Lieutenant General John Pemberton's career and life are defined by the events that culminated at Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 4, 1863. With the capitulation of Vicksburg, the South relinquished its hold on the final section of the Mississippi River under its control. Vicksburg was recognized as the "Gibraltar of the Confederacy" due to its elevation on the high bluffs overlooking the great river. Forfeiture of that bastion resulted in the envelopment of that half of the Confederacy east of the Mississippi and its severance from those Southern states across the muddy waters to the west. The verdict of history as well as Civil War-era contemporaries laid the responsibility for the Confederate loss squarely at the feet of John Pemberton.
Pemberton's very loyalty to the South and its cause was called into question. After the battle of Champion Hill on May 16, Confederate Surgeon John A. Leavy voiced the harshest criticism:
"Today proved to the army and the country, the value of a General. Pemberton is either a traitor or the most incompetent officer in the Confederacy. Indecision, indecision, indecision ... Is he a traitor? Time will show. I cannot believe him such a villain. He is incompetent. Our soldiers and officers are determined not to be sold if they can possibly help it."
Sentiments remained unchanged when the Southerners stacked their arms and relinquished Vicksburg. William Pitt Chambers, who served with the 46th Mississippi Infantry, believed it a "conviction" among many Confederate soldiers, "that our Commanding General had been false to the flag under which he fought." Although the accusations plagued Pemberton for the remainder of his life, it was the charge of incompetence that became inseparably attached to his reputation. While the accusation of false loyalty was unfounded, undoubtedly prompted by the fact that he was born and reared in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the criticism of Pemberton's generalship was valid — if severe.
It is instructive to distinguish between John Pemberton's suitability as a staff officer and his abilities as a battlefield commander. An examination of his talents, interests, education, and antebellum career demonstrate that while he was proficient in the former, he was sorely lacking in the experience, skills, and qualities necessary for the latter. In October 1862, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general to command the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, a responsibility that proved to be beyond his capabilities. Nothing in his background or natural ability provided him with the skills necessary to meet the Confederacy's need in its greatest crisis. Time and again during the campaign leading to the siege of Vicksburg, Pemberton failed to exhibit the necessary qualities of a battlefield commander.
Pemberton was born into an influential Philadelphia family on August 10, 1814. His father, also named John, was a merchant and land speculator who was politically connected at the national level with none other than President Andrew Jackson. A romantic by inclination, young John Pemberton exhibited an affinity for languages and art. These were the same subjects in which he excelled during his West Point career. The Pemberton family was a close and supportive one. In several instances, family members with prominent friends gained favors for John. His acceptance into West Point, for example, was accomplished when his mother wrote to family friend Andrew Jackson.
Life at West Point agreed with Cadet Pemberton as he frequently expressed in letters throughout his four-year residence. Phrases such as "much pleased," "a devilish pleasant life," "not a finer place in the world," "a peculiar lilting for the life," and "I like the place better every day I stay here" were common refrains in reference to West Point. Unfortunately his "peculiar liking for the life" proved a preference for the camaraderie, tradition, and social life of the military academy rather than a penchant for or commitment to academic discipline. He graduated 27th of 50 cadets in the class of 1837.
Guided by the inclinations of his youth, Pemberton excelled in both art and languages. However, his effortless ability to achieve high marks in subjects that held his interest disguised a less than average performance in areas of a more technical and purely military nature. Over the course of three years, his performance in art was just short of perfect while in French he held a score of 95. By contrast, his performance in tactics, artillery, math, and engineering was dismal. His averages in those courses were 46, 52, 68, and 55 respectively. West Point policy allowed a cadet to seek tutoring in subjects in which he struggled. Cadet Pemberton did request private tutoring — however, it was in the area in which he already excelled. He requested what amounted to private art lessons while demonstrating little interest or effort in more military matters. Instead of making an effort to improve in those subjects in which he showed serious deficiencies, he spent his free time sketching. Both his own future and that of his adopted country suffered, at least partly, because he lacked the foundation that a strong academic performance in military science could have provided.
John Pemberton's army career began auspiciously, with an appointment to the artillery branch of the army. His standing in his graduating class would normally have only guaranteed acceptance into one of the less prestigious cavalry or infantry branches of the service; however, his father pulled some strings. Lieutenant Pemberton was assigned to the Fourth Artillery regiment and saw combat with that unit during the Second Seminole War. During that period Pemberton gained valuable experience while in command of an ordnance depot. When war erupted with Mexico, First Lieutenant Pemberton participated in the action at Palo Alto and commanded a company at the Battle of Resaca de la Palma. While serving on the staff of General William Worth, he was awarded the brevets of captain and major, respectively, for his conduct during the Battles of Monterrey and Molino del Rey.
Pemberton served honorably in the United States Army for twenty-four years. Nevertheless, on April 24, 1861, he resigned his commission and offered his services to the fledgling Confederacy, with whose ideas of duty and honor he sympathized. He began his new career as a lieutenant colonel of Virginia State troops, but within two months experienced an unexplainably meteoric rise to brigadier general. Nine months later he was a Confederate major general in command of the Department of South Carolina and Georgia, which included the pillar of states' rights doctrine: Charleston. The following September, merely six months later, Pemberton was replaced as department commander largely due to his inability to assure South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens that Charleston would be held at all costs.
On October 25, 1862, Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant was appointed commander of the Department of the Tennessee. Almost immediately he began preparations for combined land and naval operations against Confederate-held Vicksburg. For the better part of the next six months, Grant made multiple attempts to reach Vicksburg, moving in various directions in the process. On March 29, 1863, Grant ordered his Thirteenth and Seventeenth Corps to begin marching south on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River. Thirty-two days later, the leading elements of the Thirteenth Corps crossed the great river and landed unopposed at Bruinsburg. Confederate forces under the command of Brigadier General John S. Bowen challenged the advance of Grant's army shortly after midnight on May 1 as it began moving toward the interior of Mississippi. What became the Battle of Port Gibson continued through the day until the early evening of May 1, when Bowen's 8,000 Confederates were forced to withdraw by Grant's numerically superior force of 24,000.
A Union column under John A. "Black Jack" Logan enters Port Gibson. (Harpers Weekly)
Circumstances leading up to the crossing of Grant's army on April 30 – May 1, 1863, and the subsequent battle of Port Gibson, demonstrate in Pemberton an absence of both perspective and intuition. During the six months in which Grant operated against Vicksburg prior to the landing at Bruinsburg, Pemberton had numerous opportunities to become acquainted with his adversary's operational methods. It should have come as no surprise to Pemberton then, during the spring of 1863, that Grant's movements were numerous and complex as were his diversions. But it did.
While the Thirteenth and Seventeenth Corps of Grant's army were moving south in Louisiana, the Fifteenth Corps was making a demonstration north of Vicksburg. In early April, Brigadier General Frederick Steele commanded an expedition that operated in the Greenville area north of Vicksburg. Shortly thereafter, on April 17, Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson led three regiments of cavalry south from La Grange, Tennessee, primarily to operate against the rail system in Mississippi. The challenge facing Pemberton was divining Grant's intention and identifying the true threat to Vicksburg. As late as April 12, Pemberton believed Grant's forces were withdrawing to Memphis. On April 15, Pemberton was satisfied that Grant's army was moving to reinforce Major General William Rosecrans. Twenty-four hours later, Pemberton offered to forward two brigades to General Joseph Johnston even though by that time he was less confident that Grant was withdrawing. Within the week, all of Pemberton's available cavalry was in motion in reaction to Grierson's raid, leaving no mounted force to scout the movement of Grant's infantry.
Meanwhile, Union gunboats and transports passed the river batteries at Vicksburg en route to their rendezvous with the Thirteenth and Seventeenth Corps. Pemberton's use of his cavalry indicates that he perceived that Grierson's raid posed the greatest threat in his department. In response to numerous and complex enemy advances, Pemberton remained on the defensive and thus surrendered all initiative to his adversary. Pemberton simply reacted to Grant's movements, was consistently distracted by diversions, and consequently failed to discern true threats.
Similarly, indecision and the complete loss of command and control over his army marked Pemberton's leadership before and during the Battle of Champion Hill. On May 14, in response to an order from General Johnston, Pemberton prepared to advance his army toward Union forces occupying Clinton, Mississippi. When second thoughts about moving farther from Vicksburg gripped Pemberton, he halted the advance and convened a council of war. Contrary to the majority of his subordinates who favored obeying Johnston's orders, Pemberton instead chose to march south against Grant's supply line at Dillon's plantation. Pemberton intended for his troops to move out at 8 a.m. on the morning of May 15. Mismanagement and a failure to reconnoiter the intended avenue of advance caused delays and the Confederates had marched only a few miles beyond their point of departure by the early hours of May 16. Unbeknownst to Pemberton, during these same hours Grant's Army of the Tennessee was marching west on three parallel routes of advance toward the Confederates. The Battle of Champion Hill opened when the leading elements of the Union advance met Confederate cavalry along the Raymond road around 7 a.m. on May 16. It was at this point that Pemberton received, courtesy of the U.S. Army, a second communication from Johnston restating his previous order to advance north for the purpose of uniting their forces. Pemberton, in compliance with the directive of his commanding officer, changed his orders but in doing so he also changed the direction of his army in the face of a numerically superior enemy.
As the battle intensified, the situation deteriorated to the point that the commanding general exercised little control over his army. To one Confederate officer, Pemberton seemed "confused." He also noted that Pemberton "gave orders in ...[an] uncertain manner that implied to me that he had no matured plans for the coming battle." Another soldier noticed the commanding general along a roadside during the battle. To him, Pemberton "seemed to be somewhat excited; he and his staff were vainly endeavoring to rally some stragglers, who had already left their commands in the fight." These instances illustrate that Pemberton lacked the mental endurance necessary to sustain an army through the rigors of an engagement.
Historically, successful battlefield commanders possessed certain common characteristics. Civil War commanders such as Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant are notable because they shared the qualities of perspective, responsibility, intuition, daring, and endurance. These traits were conspicuously lacking in the leadership of Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton during the Vicksburg campaign.
Robbie Smith is a Park Ranger at Vicksburg National Military Park.