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History's Headlines: Vicksburg: That other Civil War battle fought 150 years ago at same times as Gettysburg has unique tie to the Lehigh Valley

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Mar 15 2013 04:27:20 PM CDT
Updated On: Mar 18 2013 04:31:58 PM CDT

When the summer months approach this year, a flood of SUVs and trailers will be on the road headed for Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

When the summer months approach this year, a flood of SUVs and trailers will be on the road headed for Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Many will be piloted by Civil War re-enactors eager to commemorate the greatest battle of the Civil War- one many believe that 150 years ago changed the course of history. Even those tourists who have a tough time remembering what the Civil War was about remember Gettysburg.

Because of this, many forget the bloody struggle at Vicksburg, Mississippi that ended in surrender on July 4, 1863- one day after the conflict at Gettysburg came to a close. And it is one of history’s ironies that the man who lost Vicksburg that day ended up at war’s end living for a time in Allentown.

What strange chain of events left former General John Clifford Pemberton CSA reduced to counting iron ingots in a dusty lot in Allentown’s Sixth Ward?  Well in some ways it was not really all that strange.

Though Pemberton wore Confederate gray, he was a born a Pennsylvanian: a Philadelphia blue blood. His ancestors stood beside William Penn when the City of Brotherly Love was a clearing in the wilderness.

Unlike his Quaker forbearers, Pemberton chose the life of a soldier. Graduating from West Point in 1837 he took up garrison duty in forts along the frontier, an existence that combined generous doses of boredom and violence. Finally in 1846 the Mexican War gave Pemberton a chance to test himself against a fighting force trained in traditional European style warfare.

One of his fellow soldiers was a young officer from Illinois and his future antagonist, Ulysses S. Grant.  Seeing how he bore with long marches- although clearly in pain- shaped Grant’s impressions of Pemberton. “This I thought of all the time he was in Vicksburg and I outside of it,” Grant noted in his memories, “and I knew he would hold out to the last.”

Few of his fellow soldiers could imagine Pemberton as the marrying kind. Yet it was Martha “Patty” Thompson of Norfolk, Virginia who won his heart. Descriptions of her, and not always from friendly sources, suggest a stereotypical “southern belle.”  Regardless, she was she was in love with Pemberton, and he with her.          

How much influence his wife had on Pemberton’s views is unclear. Far more influential was the time he spent in Kansas in the late 1850s.

A violent place full of hate between pro and anti-slavery forces, it did not allow neutrality. Basically a conservative person, Pemberton came to see anti-slavery types as a threat to the social order. And from everything he was hearing at home from his wife and her friends, those people were radicals. By early 1861 he had just about made up his mind to join the Confederacy.

But Pemberton had one last task to perform for the U.S. Army. Shortly after the April 12th  firing on Fort Sumter, as part of his garrison duty in Baltimore, he was ordered to help escort part way through the city’s streets a group of Pennsylvania militia as they changed trains for Washington D.C.

By all accounts- though surrounded by a brick-throwing mob- Pemberton carried out his orders to the letter, but no further. Reaching the half-way point, he turned off toward Fort McHenry, leaving the First Defenders to their fate, which for some was a bloody one. Twelve years later Pemberton was to meet them again under different circumstances.

Despite the pleading of his mother, father and military superiors, the call of his wife was stronger. “My darling husband, why are you not with us? Why do you stay? Jeff Davis has a post ready for you,” she wrote. On April 28, 1861 Pemberton resigned his commission and rode to Richmond. Davis, over the heads of many Southern born generals, named Pemberton second in command to Robert E. Lee.

Almost from the start there was resentment at Davis’s action. And it only grew worse as Pemberton’s by-the-book style and less than genteel manners made many unhappy. By the time he arrived in Vicksburg in October, 1862 he had already acquired many enemies.

Lincoln had called Vicksburg “the key” to victory in the west. But its fortifications and location were formidable. And Grant, who took over the siege of the city the same time Pemberton arrived there, had his work cut out for him. On May 16, 1863, Pemberton confronted Grant at the battle of Champion’s Hill outside the city and was defeated by a larger Union force. A siege of 47 days coupled with a bombardment of the city followed. Finally confronted by requests from starving troops and citizens, he agreed to surrender to Grant. After much discussion the surrender was announced on July 4, 1863.

“The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea,” said Lincoln when he got the news. But there was another cry from the South: “It’s all Pem’s fault!” Ignored by his fellow officers and distrusted by many others, this cry was to echo in his ears until 1865. Finally he left a South that was glad to see him go.

By 1872 Pemberton returned home to Pennsylvania and shortly thereafter was in Allentown making a living counting iron and trading war stories with local Union veterans. “He was what I’d call spunky,” one of them remembered. “There were a lot of us soldiers around ready to start an argument, but he always had good answers, took the teasing good naturedly, but didn’t back up an inch.” A young Harry C. Trexler would remember meeting Pemberton for the rest of his life.

In 1879 Pemberton had his U.S. citizenship restored. Now able to own property, he left Allentown for Philadelphia. Later he bought a small home in Montgomery County where he died at age 66 in 1881, almost as much a victim of  the Civil War as if he had died on a battlefield.