General Pemberton was born on August 10, 1814, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1837. He saw his first action in the Second Seminole War and was decorated for bravery and brevetted twice in the Mexican War. In 1848, he married Martha Thompson of Norfolk, Virginia, reinforcing his ties to the South.
When war broke out in 1861, he resigned from the Union Army and joined the Virginia State forces. His first significant duty came in March 1862, when he was promoted to major general and took command of the Department of South Carolina and Georgia.
Pemberton was soon involved in the first of many controversies. Many South Carolinians feared that the Northern-born general was not dedicated to an all-out defense of their department. Pemberton felt that it would be better to abandon the area rather than risk losing his outnumbered army. Lee, at that time the military advisor to President Davis, ordered Pemberton to defend the department at all cost.
In fall 1862, Davis promoted Pemberton to lieutenant general and ordered him to defend Vicksburg, Mississippi. Its defenses were the last major river obstacle to Union control of the river and splitting the Confederacy in two.
Pemberton took command of the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana on October 14, 1862. He immediately put his years of administrative experience to use solving supply problems and improving troop morale. For several months he enjoyed remarkable success, defeating attempts by Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to take Vicksburg in the winter of 1862-63.
In the spring, Grant crossed the Mississippi below Vicksburg. Pemberton was ordered by President Davis not to move his army from the city. Davis then ordered Gen. Joseph E. Johnston to Mississippi to relieve Vicksburg. Johnston ordered Pemberton to unite his forces and attack Grant even if that meant abandoning the defense of Vicksburg. Pemberton kept his forces at Vicksburg, following the higher of the conflicting orders. Meanwhile Grant moved swiftly closer with victories at Port Gibson, Raymond, and Jackson.
Pemberton moved his army east from Edwards Station, all the while maintaining close contact with Vicksburg. In this manner he hoped to head Grant off, while keeping Vicksburg protected. However, another order from Johnston forced Pemberton to reverse direction to join with Johnston's forces which had been defeated at Jackson. Before he could reach Johnston, Pemberton was forced into battle at Champions Hill and suffered a major defeat.
Pemberton retreated to Vicksburg to try to save the city, as ordered by President Davis, even if that meant risking the loss of his army. He and his men endured a forty-seven day siege before surrendering on July 4, 1863. Pemberton was accused by General Johnston of causing he Confederate disaster by disobeying orders.
Pemberton resigned both to end the distracting controversy over the loss of Vicksburg and because there were no posts available for someone of his rank. He rejoined and served the remainder of the war as a lieutenant colonel of artillery in Virginia and South Carolina, rather than give up fighting for the Confederacy.
After the war he settled on a farm near Warrenton, Virginia, and eventually returned to Pennsylvania, where he died July 13, 1881, in the village of Penllyn. He is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.
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