A Walk after Dark
by Morgan Gates
For the last several weeks as a run up to our July 3/4 Vicksburg Civil War Symposium/ Breakfast with the Generals I have been exploring Lt. General John C. Pemberton, Vicksburg's Confederate Commander. Volumes have been written about U.S. Grant (justifiably so, his is one of the great stories of the 19th Century) and his Lieutenants. but the man who opposed him has been little more that a cardboard cutout. Derided as incompetent and scapegoated for the loss of Vicksburg by historians, comparatively little has been written about him, yet he was in many way a much more typical professional soldier of his day than Grant was. The following is a historical fiction piece I wrote for my book "The Long Road Home" where I try to imagine what was going throgh Pemberton's head the night before he decided to surrender Vicksburg.
July 1863, Vicksburg: Lt. General John C. Pemberton stood on the front gallery of his Headquarters as the sun touched the horizon. His tall, lank frame cut an imposing figure. The platform soared a good twelve feet above street level, an observer looking up from Crawford Street below might have easily mistaken him for a statue. One of the gods of old, carved from marble! Perhaps, a 19th-century incarnation of Aries, the Greek god of War silhouetted as he was by the blood-red setting sun. The deadly missiles rising from the mortar barges behind him, and the surrounding carnage of war just enhanced the image! A god of War, indeed. He was a tall man, five foot ten and one-half inches, with a deep penetrating gaze, his eyes were so dark brown that they appeared black. His coffee-colored hair and lush, full beard were streaked with white, a premature graying that belied his forty-eight years. His dress uniform was immaculate, as always, the brass buttons caught a glint of the setting sun. A faint evening breeze rustled the tail of his sash, and it fluttered, ever so slightly. This air of regality was something he actively cultivated. It was good for morale, the men needed to see their leader as something more than just a man, they needed to see him as an unflappable a heroic figure. He desperately wished right now it was true.
He knew the classics well; he could read both Greek and Latin! Oh, to be able to pull off some supernatural feat right now. To be able to magically slay the hydra of the Union Army and Navy that beset Vicksburg, to be able to call down the thunderbolts like Zeus, or just conjure up Perseus' Helm of Darkness, to enable his army to slip by unseen and escape. What a foolish daydream, he thought to himself, he was a West Point officer, a trained soldier, he dealt in facts—in facts and formations, firepower, and fortifications. Besides, if there was a god of war at Vicksburg, it was that slovenly little Grant, out on the siege line throwing “his” thunderbolts into the city!
As he stood alone on the gallery, a once proud city lay in ruins around him—he had seen it before, he and his army had been trapped here for weeks. Now, he needed to see it again. He had a decision to make, the hardest decision of his life, the decision that would be the one pivotal decision of his life: he was afraid. He mused on how one man's entire life could be summed up in one sentence! A man of his station in life, of his experience, and it all came down to one sentence, no not even one sentence—only one word! The rest of the sentence had been written for him already! He desperately wished that sentence would read:
------John C. Pemberton, the man who saved Vicksburg! -
But in his heart, he knew even that one word had been written for him:
------John C. Pemberton, the man who lost Vicksburg -----
His only choice now was how to end it! He needed to think; he needed to be alone, he needed to take one last, good look at the city. He would go out, and he would go out alone! His aides had begged him not to expose himself needlessly, but he had dismissed them, he briefly considered the thought that if he were killed by a shell fragment or a sharpshooter, it would spare him the shame, but no, that was a coward's wish, and John C. Pemberton was no coward! He remembered an incident from early in his career. He had placed a particularly quarrelsome soldier on report for failure to salute. The soldier came to his quarters several days later, bearing a loaded horse pistol, with the full intention of killing him. He had single-handedly disarmed and subdued this large and powerful man! No, he may be many things, but he was no coward.
He decided not to call for his horse. His groom, a young slave boy named Andy, had found a reasonably safe spot to stable the animal in a ravine nearby, as safe as anyone or anything could be in this beleaguered city. He walked quickly down the steep flight of steps to the street, and began walking. He strode quickly through the streets of Vicksburg in the growing darkness. He did not mind walking, although the horse was almost as much part of the officer's uniform as was the sword. He thought back to the time in the War with Mexico, when the written order was given for the junior officers to dismount and march alongside the men. Most of the young West Pointers were soon so footsore they could not keep up, and the order was orally rescinded, and everyone quickly remounted except himself. When he was asked why, he stated that a written order should only be rescinded by another written order, and marched on! That was his life: order, discipline, honor, bravery. He had a strong sense of what was right and what was wrong! He was of Quaker stock, though his family had parted from the strict principles of the Quaker faith long before his birth. West Point had agreed with him, the hierarchy, the chain of command. This made sense to him, he had embraced it, put his full faith in it, and it had let him down. His world, as he knew it, was coming unraveled!
He was walking down a street where the road cut into an embankment, bluffs they were called. These bluffs—they were why he was here—high ground, along the Mississippi River. Vicksburg was unusual for a river town. He thought back to his time in New Orleans, that city set right on the river, surrounded by swampland. His father, a close friend of Andrew Jackson, had shared stories of Old Hickory's campaigns, especially the Battle of New Orleans—how a backwoods lawyer and self-taught soldier had turned back men who had just defeated Napoleon. This victory surprised the whole world, and the old world now knew that the new republic was not to be trifled with.
Holding the high ground was perhaps the most basic of military principles—hold the high ground. Napoleon knew it, Caesar knew it, Alexander knew It, and he knew it! When he had first looked down at the mighty river from these bluffs, he knew that this was the single, most important point in the Confederacy! President Davis had told him that Vicksburg must be held at all costs, and he agreed wholeheartedly. What heady days those had been. At West Point, he had pored over the tactics of Bonaparte! He had spent the Mexican War looking over the shoulders of those dynamic leaders. He had even worked briefly with Lee around Charleston early in this war, though that moment had been spoiled by the narrowmindedness of the South Carolinians who could not accept that a man of the north could be truly on their side. This should have been his time, given the command of the Department of Mississippi and Eastern Louisiana, at the rank of Lieutenant General, this would be his moment in the sun! He found the department in disorder, and with his administrative skills he soon had made great strides forward. But, it was never enough, too few resources coupled with conflicting political realities limited his success. He needed to commandeer the few railroad assets available in order to properly supply and fortify his strongholds on the river, but they were needed for cotton, the lifeblood of the Confederacy. He needed heavy guns, but there were never enough! If that was not enough, then came Johnston! Vicksburg should have become his career's finest hour. Instead, it had become its de facto end!
It was full dark now; he paused outside the entrance to a "rathole" one of the hundreds of shelters dug into the bluffs, that the citizens called "caves"! Inside he heard a little girl crying, as her mother attempted to comfort her. He thought of his own family; he was so glad that "Patty" and his children were not here, that would have been unbearable. Some of his officers had brought their wives with them to Vicksburg. Patty had wanted to come, but he had insisted that she and the children stay behind. He thought how he would dearly love to feel her tender embrace right now, but he thanked God that she was safely in Alabama now! It was her influence that had galvanized his resolution to come south. He had spent much time among the people of the south, time in Florida, fighting the Seminoles, postings in New Orleans, and of course, in Virginia. He loved Virginia- such a beautiful state- home of Washington, and Jefferson, and of course, Patty. He had loved Virginia though, even before he met Patty. Before his father died, he had seriously considered buying land in Warrenton, Virginia. He had corresponded with his dear mother in Philadelphia about the beauty and fertility of the land, and Patty's family lived in Norfolk, in southern Virginia: it was her home, and in many ways, he felt it was his as well! When the first shots were fired on Fort Sumpter, he was still in the U.S. Army, and his Artillery Unit was assigned to guard the Potomac! He was torn between his sense of duty, and the feelings in his heart. He was a house divided; he could not stand! He was a man of duty and honor, but he was just as much a man of love, love for his family, for his beautiful wife, and his adopted home! He was sworn to protect the United States, but his family was in Virginia—would he be ordered to turn his cannon on his own family? What man would obey that order, what man could obey that order? When Patty wrote, imploring him to come South, the decision was made, he did, and he did so with his whole heart, he was not a man of half measures, he was all in or all out!
A mortar shell rumbled by particularly close, and he stepped up against the embankment. It exploded just after it passed over his head, but the momentum of the huge shell carried it past him without harm. He was an artilleryman by training; he had a good understanding of the "King of Battle," it could be a tool of great devastation against a regular army in the field. He had seen this in Mexico, but in Florida, against the Seminole, it had been less effective in inflicting casualties, though it did inspire terror. That was its main role in Vicksburg! The heavy river mortars and Parrot Rifles on the siege line kept up an almost continuous fire into the city, but the gunners were firing blindly, causing a good deal of property damage, but inflicting few civilian casualties. Even out on the line, more of his men fell to sharpshooters and fever than artillery. Still, the constant thundering noise, and rain of shrapnel grated on the nerves, making rest near impossible, wearing both soldier and civilian down to a nub of nerves. The next round rumbled by at a respectable distance, and his walk continued.
He was approaching a large Italianate mansion that was serving as one of the hospitals for his surgeons. The sentry at the front door snapped to attention as he walked up, --“At ease private,” he said --, as he smartly returned the salute. That boy cannot possibly be more than sixteen years old, he thought as he walked in. One of the nurses on duty greeted him as he entered. He walked around and said a few words of encouragement to some of the men who were awake. A young officer—he couldn't recall his name—was sitting up in bed as he walked up. The officer attempted to salute; his right arm had been amputated above the elbow.
–“Don't worry, son, some of the best soldiers I know are missing an arm, and the ladies will think no less of you for it,” --- the nurse gave him a report on the men suffering from dysentery, she told that Dr. Harris had administered mercury and lead purgatives, but few were showing signs of improvement. He wondered to himself if it was not wiser to stay away from doctors when sick. – “Tell Doctor Harris to consult with Dr. Balfour—He's not Army, but I understand he had some successes treating a cholera epidemic here in town a few years ago. “
His walk continued, there were few people on the street—most had retreated to the relative safety of the "caves," but there were some. It was easier to move around after dark; you could not be spotted from the batteries across the river. One of those batteries had fired on a gathering at Saint Paul's Catholic Church recently. Firing on the House of God! To think of a commander giving that order, this man was indeed, no gentleman! He stood near the river bank, making sure to stay in the shadows of a ruined building. It was a clear night, the moon had not yet risen, but a sharp-eyed man could see quite a bit, once the eyes had properly adjusted—no point in tempting fate. A few soldiers were dipping water from the river, filling hogshead barrels, in the back of a freight wagon! The streams running through the city had been contaminated by the Yankees. The carcasses of army mules had been placed in the headwaters; it was no longer fit to drink. The civilians drank from their cisterns, underground rainwater storage pits, but there were not enough cisterns for his thirsty men! He walked on.
He came to the base of a large hill overlooking the river, the people of Vicksburg called it Sky Parlor Hill. He stood on its crest; the city and surrounding area spread out below him like a panorama. There was some danger standing here, but it would have taken a truly astounding marksman to pick him off from this distance on this moonless night. Overhead, millions of stars painted the ceiling of the world in a vista that shamed even Michelangelo! Below him, the City of Vicksburg huddled in a blanket of darkness, no lanterns burned in its windows, for fear of attracting the deadly attention of Union gun crews. Off to the east, he could see the glow of thousands of campfires; Grant's enormous army ringed the city like a colossal iron shackle. To the west, he could see the dark silhouettes of the Union fleet, most were dark and quiet as the crews stretched out on bedrolls and hammocks and caught a few hours rest. It was a deceptively calm scene; he knew that aboard each gunboat, there was a night watch, and stokers kept the fires hot so the ship could spring to life at a moment’s notice. He had considered trying to evacuate his army via the west, but had finally realized it was a pipe dream, even if he had had enough boats available to ferry his men across the mighty river, escape was impossible. Just then, he witnessed a volcanic eruption from one of the mortar barges anchored behind the spit of land, DeSoto Point, that formed the bend of the river. A moment later, the thunderous report reached his ears, and he watched as the deadly missile climbed slowly upward, at its apogee it looked almost like a shooting star. It seemed to hang suspended in mid-air for the slightest moment, then it began its deadly dive earthward. He said a silent prayer that it would take no more lives. He heard the dull thud it made as it struck the ground on the other side of the city, and then the muffled explosion. Good, he thought, mother earth had swallowed this meteorite and absorbed the worst of its destruction deep in her breast.
He looked away to the east once more. Where was General Johnston and the Army of Relief, why had he not come? His mind returned to the previous fall, when he took command of this department, the promotion to Lieutenant General. He reported directly to Davis and the War Department, heady days indeed. He had won decisive victories against Grant in December, then inexplicably, Johnston, had been inserted into his chain of command—had Davis lost confidence for some reason? He was a soldier, however, and did his best to work with his new commander. Pemberton had worked closely with Johnston early in the war and had, at that time, considered him a friend, but he had been anything but since his assignment to the west. Despite constant reassurances that he was coming to lift the siege, he had not yet arrived! There had been no word from him in weeks. At the beginning of the siege, he had been able to dispatch a messenger from time to time. One man on foot in the dark of night could slip by the pickets at first, but now the line had tightened to the point that none could come or go. He could but wonder at what was going on in Johnston's mind. Johnston had earlier removed the bulk of his cavalry to Tennessee—this had left him almost blind to Grant's movements toward Vicksburg. He had been ordered by the president to hold Vicksburg at all costs, but Johnston had repeatedly insisted that Pemberton come out and combine their armies against Grant. Did he not know that there were significant enemy forces on the river and to the west? If he had marched out in toto, they might have defeated Grant, and still lost Vicksburg! He did not need a courier to deliver the message that Johnston put little value on holding Vicksburg!
His men had fought bravely and withstood the grueling conditions of the siege for weeks, but he knew they were at the very end of their endurance. He had begun this ordeal with only 29,500 men, far too few to man the extensive lines surrounding the city. He had lost so many at Bakers Creek and Big Black River. Now, according to his officers, far less than half that number remained—so many dead, so many sick or wounded! Those still at their posts were so emaciated by short rations and their confinement to the trenches, they were hardly a viable fighting force. Dissention was spreading, a letter allegedly from the men had arrived at his Headquarters recently, urging him to surrender the army before they starved. He had reason to doubt its veracity, but still, if some were thinking that, soon, all would. The letter did not matter; Grant was planning another assault against the city any day now. The Union saps were right at the parapets of the defensive line, and the mines were being charged. Tomorrow or the next, a week at most, massive explosions would breach his defenses, and the end would come in fire and fury. His decision was made, as if he had any real choice! His only choice was to attempt to negotiate an honorable surrender for his beleaguered men! General Bowen of his command had known Grant in the Old Army; he would give Bowen the task to open a discussion for terms of surrender at first light! He turned and descended the hill, heading back to his quarters and perhaps a few hours of uneasy sleep.
John C. Pemberton did indeed go down in history as “The man who lost Vicksburg,” and it is only recently that historians are beginning to understand that the appellation should read: “The Man who was scapegoated for the loss of Vicksburg”! While his walk is fictional, many of his musing are historical fact, pulled from many sources.
If you enjoyed this piece there is a link on our homepage to buy it online and It is for sale at Loreli Books in Vicksburg. There will be a book signing at Loreli Books the afternoon of July 4th, I will join several other authors there, come join us.