Becoming John C. Pemberton
by Morgan Gates
July 4th 2018 will be our second "Breakfast with the Generals" program at the Baer House Inn and Old Courthouse Museum (see last weeks post for more information) so this is a repost from last summer, about my journey to portraying the man who became the scapegoat for the loss of Vicksburg.
Sometimes last summer my friend Cory Rickrode, asked me to portray Lt. General John C. Pemberton for the 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 fundraiser put on by the Old Courthouse Museum each December, for several years but this was a small somewhat one-dimensional role. To do this role 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 and 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, 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 halfway 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.
The differences, Pemberton was from an 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 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……………