John C. Pemberton: Part 2
by Morgan Gates,
Owner Historic Vicksburg Tours, Owner Haunted Vicksburg Tours, Author, Blogger, & Historian
In our last episode: John has followed his heart south, and become embroiled in the nation’s most tragic conflict. Thinking himself among friends, he finds himself betrayed on every side and fighting for his very survival against a relentless and overwhelming foe. Can he survive? Will Pattie still be waiting for him? Let’s find out…
Okay, sorry I couldn’t resist!
Last time, we learned that John C. Pemberton was a good solid soldier, a man with a good deal of military experience, a clean record and he had a good deal of opportunity to learn from the best. He was generally well liked by his superiors. Yet history remembers him as one of the biggest losers of the war. So, what happened?
Criticisms of Pemberton included lack of combat experience, too much reliance on “councils of war”, and a failure to act decisively to counter Grant’s moves toward Vicksburg. So, let’s break these down.
Combat experience: If you mean leading large units in traditional battles using the Napoleonic tactics that were the rule of the day in the early to mid-nineteenth century, then yes, you are correct. But you must remember that the same can be said for almost all of his contemporaries. Since the end of the Mexican-American War, 14 years before, the United States had seen no such action, and those who had done so, for the most part, were gone or too old to lead another war. Grant had seen some small unit action, but had not made the high-level decisions of a senior officer in Mexico. Pemberton, as an adjutant, had looked over the shoulders of those who had. He had also seen small scale action in Florida, against the Seminoles, before the war in Mexico, and was a member of the Utah Expedition against the Mormons in 1857. Pemberton often served as a staff member to those who were in command and as such he was in an excellent position as an “apprentice” of sorts and thus was no stranger to the demands of high level command.
Grant had no pre-Civil War command experience! He had resigned his Captains Commission in 1853, shortly after receiving it, and returned to civilian life. Prior to Vicksburg, Grant had experienced a baptism of fire in 1862 with a decisive win at Fort Donaldson, and a bloody nail biter at Shiloh. It could, however, be strongly argued that, in both cases, luck played a much larger role in these victories than skill, but as Napoleon once said “I would rather have a general who was lucky than a good one”
Councils of war: These are seen by some a sign of lack of confidence. This may in part be true, several of his recent experiences would have been enough to rock any man’s confidence. On the other hand, the same could have been said of Grant after Shiloh, as he sat with no duties as another man led his army. Grant even contemplated resigning again, but Sherman talked him out of it. On the other hand, one of the tenants of good leadership is to hire good people and let them do their jobs, and even the Bible endorses the concept of listening to wise council in Proverbs 12:15.
Failure to act decisively: Other criticisms leveled against Pemberton have to do with his failure to stop Grant’s crossing of the Mississippi on April 30/May 1, and his subsequent, and unprecedented, 19th century Blitzkrieg approach to Vicksburg. The reply to this is that Pemberton did not have the man power, the reconnaissance (cavalry) or the transportation assets, to counter Grant’s movements and he knew it! His pleas for the return of his cavalry (from Tennessee where Johnson had ordered it), and reinforcements fell on deaf ears.
Pemberton’s performance at the Battle of Champion Hill is perhaps his most damming failure and a debacle it was, but as with most really great disasters, a whole series of failures occurred in quick succession. Contradictory directions from his President and his immediate commander. A break down in chain of command that delayed his move from Bovina due to inadequate supplies. Not to mention, a lack of good reconnaissance, due to lack of sufficient cavalry. Top this off with Loring’s insubordination and ultimate abandonment of the Army of Mississippi upon the retreat, had left Pemberton badly shaken before during and after the battle. Still, he managed to extract the army back to Vicksburg.
Once besieged, there was little he, or anyone else, could do but hold on and wait for help to arrive. The ultimate failure of Johnson to act decisively was Vicksburg’s, Pemberton’s, and, ultimately, the Confederacy’s doom. The political fallout from the loss of Vicksburg is compounded by a lingering prejudice among the people of the south against Pemberton’s northern birth and he becomes the scapegoat for the loss in the minds of many. Post War, Johnson attempts to deflect any tarnish from his own reputation by blaming the loss on Pemberton in his memoirs, rubbing salt into the wound so to speak.
Pemberton, by all objective standards, was a good, solid military man, who understood the military world of the day (pre-war). At any other point in history, he would have been remembered as a successful, if not imaginative, career officer. He lived, however, in a time when the rules of war were being torn up and rewritten. His opponent was considered to be very unmilitary in bearing and actions by many of his contemporaries. He did, however, have a good bit of experience in things not working as planned and coping on the fly, and in the chaotic world of the Civil War, this proved to be a positive asset.
He fell into Pattie’s arms, his spirit broken, his reputation in tatters, she softly whispered “I love you no matter what comes!” Together, they turned to face an uncertain future!