August 9, 1863 (Sunday)
Though Confederate President Jefferson Davis would not receive General Lee’s submission of resignation for another day or so, in writing to another crestfallen General, John Pemberton, he was able to gather his thoughts, and reflect on what he and his new country needed in military commanders.
Following the surrender of Vicksburg and its garrison on July 4th, Union General Grant paroled General Pemberton, who had commanded the capitulated Rebel forces. He was ordered by Grant, as part of the terms, to report to General Joseph Johnston. Their meeting was cold and Johnston wanted little to do with him.
The Southern press, however, wanted everything to do with him, fully blaming him for the July 4th defeat and demanding that he be relieved. Still without much of a command, Pemberton had retired to Gainsville, Alabama to be with his family and to write his official report of the Vicksburg Campaign. He also wished to “disprove many charges made against me through ignorance or malice.” Pemberton knew this was would be a battle, and one that he would probably lose. After all, he admitted, “I fully acknowledge the correctness of the principle, that in military affairs, ‘Success is the test of merit.'”
Unlike General Lee, Pemberton wasn’t about to resign. Davis, in his reply written on this date, took issue with Pemberton’s assertion that success was truly the test of merit. Davis asserted that some men, well loved by the press, are commended for simply doing “what they are expected to do.” These same men are “sheltered when they fail by a transfer of the blame” to someone else.
Conversely, other men, who are not loved by the press, have their successes either “denied or treated as a necessary result.” Likewise, their failures are highlighted and turned into crimes.
“The test of success,” Davis surmised, “though far from just, is one which may be accepted in preference to the popular delusion so readily created by unscrupulous men who resort to the newspapers to desseminate falsehood and forestall the public judgement.”
According to Davis, newspapers supplied opinions, not justice. He respected his officers not because of the press, but despite the press.
“General Lee and yourself have seemed to me example of the second class,” continued Davis, reffering to the rought treatment both had received from the quills of the pundits, “and my confidence has not been diminished because letter-writers have not sent forth your praise on the wings of the press.”
Davis tried to comfort Pemberton, writing that he was “no stranger to the misrepresentation of the which malingnity is capable, nor to the generation of such feelings by the conscientious discharge of duty.” He had learned through personal experience “how slowly the messenger of truth follows that of slander.”
Unlike General Lee, Pemberton would remain without an army under a Court of Inquiry delved into just why and how the Vicksburg Campaign went to horribly wrong. He would languish in Montgomery, Alabama until he was officially exchanged in October. He would not take the field as a General again.
Though Davis’ words were not directed at General Lee, the President would soon find them applicable to more officers than Pemberton.1
- Sources: The Papers of Jefferson Davis: January-September 1863; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 52, Pat 2, p515; Pemberton, Defender of Vicksburg by John C. Pemberton [the General’s Grandson]; Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds. [↩]