American Civil War: Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton

John C. Pemberton
Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, CSA.

Library of Congress


Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton was a Confederate commander during the Civil War. A native of Pennsylvania, he elected to serve the South as his wife was from Virginia. Pemberton had seen fighting during the Mexican-American War and was given command of the Department of South Carolina and Georgia. Though he proved unsuccessful in this role, he was admired by Confederate President Jefferson Davis and received a posting to lead the Department of Mississippi and West Louisiana. Heading west, Pemberton successfully protected the vital river town of Vicksburg in 1862, but was repeatedly bested by Major General Ulysses S. Grant the following year. His military career effectively ended after he was forced to surrender at the Siege of Vicksburg.

Early Life

Born August 10, 1814 in Philadelphia, PA, John Clifford Pemberton was the second child of John and Rebecca Pemberton. Educated locally, he initially attended the University of Pennsylvania before deciding to pursue a career as an engineer. To achieve this goal, Pemberton elected to seek an appointment to West Point.

Using his family's influence and connections to President Andrew Jackson, he gained admittance to the academy in 1833. A roommate and close friend of George G. Meade, Pemberton's other classmates included Braxton Bragg, Jubal A. Early, William H. French, John Sedgwick, and Joseph Hooker. While at the academy, he proved an average student and graduated ranked 27th of 50 in the class of 1837.

Commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 4th US Artillery, he traveled to Florida for operations during the Second Seminole War. While there, Pemberton took part in the Battle of Locha-Hatchee in January 1838. Returning north later in the year, Pemberton engaged in garrison duty at Fort Columbus (New York), Trenton Camp of Instruction (New Jersey), and along the Canadian border before being promoted to first lieutenant in 1842.

Mexican-American War

Following service at Carlisle Barracks (Pennsylvania) and Fort Monroe in Virginia, Pemberton's regiment received orders to join Brigadier General Zachary Taylor's occupation of Texas in 1845. In May 1846, Pemberton saw action at the Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma during the opening phases of the Mexican-American War. In the former, the American artillery played a key role in achieving victory.

In August, Pemberton departed his regiment and became an aide-de-camp to Brigadier General William J. Worth. A month later, he earned praise for his performance at the Battle of Monterrey and received a brevet promotion to captain. Along with Worth's division, Pemberton was shifted to Major General Winfield Scott's army in 1847.

With this force, he took part in the Siege of Veracruz and the advance inland to Cerro Gordo. As Scott's army neared Mexico City, he saw further action at Churubusco in late August before distinguishing himself in the bloody victory at Molino del Rey the following month. Brevetted to major, Pemberton aided in the storming of Chapultepec a few days later where he was wounded in action.

Fast Facts: Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton

Antebellum Years

With the end of the fighting in Mexico, Pemberton returned to the 4th US Artillery and moved into garrison duty at Fort Pickens in Pensacola, FL. In 1850, the regiment transferred to New Orleans. During this period, Pemberton married Martha Thompson, a native of Norfolk, VA. Over the next decade, he shifted through garrison duty at Fort Washington (Maryland) and Fort Hamilton (New York) as well as assisted in operations against the Seminoles.

Ordered to Fort Leavenworth in 1857, Pemberton took part in the Utah War the following year before moving on to the New Mexico Territory for a brief posting at Fort Kearny. Sent north to Minnesota in 1859, he served at Fort Ridgely for two years. Returning east in 1861, Pemberton assumed a position at the Washington Arsenal in April.

With the outbreak of the Civil War later that month, Pemberton agonized over whether to remain in the US Army. Though a Northerner by birth, he elected to resign effective April 29 after his wife's home state left the Union. He did so despite pleas from Scott to remain loyal as well as the fact that two of his younger brothers elected to fight for the North.

Early Assignments

Known as a skilled administrator and artillery officer, Pemberton quickly received a commission in the Virginia Provisional Army. This was followed by commissions in the Confederate Army which culminated in his appointment as a brigadier general on June 17, 1861. Given command of a brigade near Norfolk, Pemberton led this force until November.

A skilled military politician, he was promoted to major general on January 14, 1862 and placed in command of the Department of South Carolina and Georgia. Making his headquarters at Charleston, SC, Pemberton quickly proved unpopular with local leaders due to his Northern birth and abrasive personality. The situation worsened when he commented that he would withdraw from the states rather than risk losing his small army.

Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton. Photograph Source: Public Domain

When the governors of South Carolina and Georgia complained to General Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis informed Pemberton that the states were to be defended to the end. Pemberton's situation continued to degrade and in October he was replaced by General P.G.T. Beauregard. Despite his difficulties in Charleston, Davis promoted him to lieutenant general on October 10 and assigned him to lead the Department of Mississippi and West Louisiana.

Early Vicksburg Campaigns

Though Pemberton's first headquarters was in Jackson, MS, the key to his district was the city of Vicksburg. Perched high on the bluffs overlooking a bend in the Mississippi River, the city blocked Union control of the river below. To defend his department, Pemberton possessed approximately 50,000 men with around half in the garrisons of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, LA. The remainder, largely led by Major General Earl Van Dorn, was badly demoralized following defeats earlier in the year around Corinth, MS.

Taking command, Pemberton began work to improve Vicksburg's defenses while blocking Union thrusts from the north led by Major General Ulysses S. Grant. Pressing south along the Mississippi Central Railroad from Holly Springs, MS, Grant's offensive stalled in December following Confederate cavalry raids on his rear by Van Dorn and Brigadier General Nathan B. Forrest. A supporting thrust down the Mississippi led by Major General William T. Sherman was halted by Pemberton's men at Chickasaw Bayou on December 26-29.

Grant Moves

Despite these successes, Pemberton's situation remained tenuous as he was badly outnumbered by Grant. Under strict orders from Davis to hold the city, he worked to thwart Grant's efforts to bypass Vicksburg during the winter. This included blocking Union expeditions up the Yazoo River and Steele's Bayou. In April 1863, Rear Admiral David D. Porter ran several Union gunboats past the Vicksburg batteries.

As Grant began preparations to move south along the west bank before crossing the river south of Vicksburg, he directed Colonel Benjamin Grierson to mount a large cavalry raid through the heart of Mississippi to distract Pemberton. Possessing around 33,000 men, Pemberton continued to hold the city as Grant crossed the river at Bruinsburg, MS on April 29.

Calling for aid from his department commander, General Joseph E. Johnston, he received some reinforcements which began to arrive in Jackson. Meanwhile, Pemberton dispatched elements of his command to oppose Grant's advance from the river. Some of these were defeated at Port Gibson on May 1 while newly-arrived reinforcements under Brigadier General John Gregg suffered a setback at Raymond eleven days later when they were beaten by Union troops led by Major General James B. McPherson.

Failure in the Field

Having crossed the Mississippi, Grant drove on Jackson rather than directly against Vicksburg. This caused Johnston to evacuate the state capital while calling for Pemberton to advance east to strike the Union rear. Believing this plan to be too risky and cognizant of Davis' orders that Vicksburg be protected at all costs, he instead moved against Grant's supply lines between Grand Gulf and Raymond. On May 16, Johnston reiterated his orders forcing Pemberton to countermarch and throwing his army into a degree of confusion.

Later in the day, his men encountered Grant's forces near Champion Hill and were soundly defeated. Retreating from the field, Pemberton had little choice but to retreat towards Vicksburg. His rearguard was defeated the following day by Major General John McClernand's XIII Corps at Big Black River Bridge. Heeding Davis' orders and possibly concerned about public perception due to his Northern birth, Pemberton led his battered army into the Vicksburg defenses and prepared to hold the city.

Battle of Vicksburg. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Siege of Vicksburg

Quickly advancing to Vicksburg, Grant launched a frontal assault against its defenses on May 19. This was repulsed with heavy losses. A second effort three days later had similar results. Unable to breach Pemberton's lines, Grant commenced the Siege of Vicksburg. Trapped against the river by Grant's army and Porter's gunboats, Pemberton's men and the city's residents quickly began to run low on provisions. As the siege continued, Pemberton repeatedly called for aid from Johnston but his superior was unable to raise the necessary forces in a timely manner.

On June 25, Union forces detonated mine which briefly opened a gap in the Vicksburg defenses, but Confederate troops were able to quickly seal it and turn back the attackers. With his army starving, Pemberton consulted his four division commanders in writing on July 2 and asked if they believed the men to be strong enough to attempt an evacuation of the city. Receiving four negative responses, Pemberton contacted Grant and requested an armistice so that surrender terms could be discussed.

The City Falls

Grant refused this request and stated that only unconditional surrender would be acceptable. Reassessing the situation, he realized that it would take a tremendous amount of time and supplies to feed and move 30,000 prisoners. As a result, Grant relented and accepted the Confederate surrender on the condition that the garrison be paroled. Pemberton formally turned the city over to Grant on July 4.

The capture of Vicksburg and subsequent fall of Port Hudson opened the entirety of the Mississippi to Union naval traffic. Exchanged on October 13, 1863, Pemberton returned to Richmond to seek a new assignment. Disgraced by his defeat and accused of disobeying orders by Johnston, no new command was forthcoming despite Davis' confidence in him. On May 9, 1864, Pemberton resigned his commission as a lieutenant general.

Later Career

Still willing to serve the cause, Pemberton accepted a lieutenant colonel's commission from Davis three days later and assumed command of an artillery battalion in the Richmond defenses. Made inspector general of the artillery on January 7, 1865, Pemberton remained in that role until the end of the war. For a decade after the war, he lived at his farm in Warrenton, VA before moving back to Philadelphia in 1876. He died in Pennsylvania on July 13, 1881. Despite protests, Pemberton was buried in Philadelphia's famed Laurel Hill Cemetery not far from his roommate Meade and Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, February 16). American Civil War: Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).