Becoming John C. Pemberton
by Morgan Gates, Haunted Vicksburg, Historic Vicksburg, author & speaker
Sometime last summer, my friend Cory Rickrode, asked me to portray Lt. General John C. Pemberton for Vicksburg’s first annual Breakfast with the Generals, which took place on July 4th 2017. This was something I had never considered doing before, but it sounded like fun, so I said, "Why not!"
I am a historian and a storyteller but I had not, at that time at least, done much reenacting. I have portrayed Dr. William Balfour, host of the annual Confederate Ball, a fund raiser put on by the Old Courthouse Museum each December, for several years but that is a small rather one-dimensional role. To do the role of General Pemberton justice, I had to attempt to crawl inside Pemberton’s head. Fortunately, I have had previous experience crawling inside heads--I am a retired public-school principal who spent much of his career trying to figure out what made troubled children tick. Also, I had a good role model in Dr. Curt Fields, of Memphis, who has been portraying U. S. Grant for years. So, I dug in and started studying the Defender of Vicksburg!
The first thing I discovered is that there is not a great deal of information out there about Pemberton. Losers don’t make as good a story as winners I suppose. The second thing I discovered is that Pemberton, at the time, got a really bad rap! The superficial “picture” of the commander of Vicksburg is that he was (A) incompetent or (B) if not incompetent, then, at least, in way over his head! I am now convinced that neither allegation is true, let’s explore this some more over the next several posts, shall we?
Pemberton and Grant were in many ways very different men but they also had very many things in common. Then again, don’t we all?
First the commonalities:
Both were born in the north; Pemberton in Pennsylvania and Grant in Ohio. Both were West Pointers. Both struggled in some subjects and excelled in others. Both had graduated just below the half way point in their respective classes. Both had aspired to be engineers but wound up serving in other branches of the Army. Both served in Mexico in the same division and they had met during that earlier war. Both had “Seen the Elephant”. Both had served in far-flung frontier outposts and detested them. Both had fallen in love and married girls with southern roots.
Pemberton was from and upper-class Philadelphia family, Grant middle class small town Ohio. Pemberton embraced life at West-Point and was quite social, and very much a lady’s man. Grant less so, and somewhat kept to himself. Pemberton did well in language but struggled with math. Grant was just the opposite. Pemberton, after West Point, was assigned to the Artillery Grant to Infantry. Pemberton, who was older, spent many years in postings in the south and grew quite fond of the people of the south. Grant spent much less time in the south. In Mexico, Pemberton attained the brevet rank of Major. Grant was a brevet Lieutenant. Pemberton served in the U.S. Army right up to the day he resigned his commission to join the Confederacy. Grant resigned his commission in 1853 and spent a number of years in civilian life – rather unsuccessfully-- before rejoining after the Civil War began.
The two men really had a lot more in common that than we might at first realize, and up until the spring of 1863, John C. Pemberton had, in most aspects, been the much more successful of the two! To put it in modern terms, if you had no prior knowledge of either man and their resumes (ca.1862) were placed on your desk, you would have very likely hired John C. Pemberton, and consigned Ulysses S. Grant’s to “File 13”! So where did it go wrong for General Pemberton? Let’s talk more next time……………