The Death of a Colonel and a Cause
Today is the 150th anniversary of the battle of Five Forks outside of Petersburg, Virginia. One of the most popular stories from that fight is the gallant defense of the crossroads and mortal wounding of Confederate Colonel William Pegram. To this day Pegram occupies a special place in our collective memory of the war. Like the crossroads he defended, Pegram’s life and legacy bring together a number of important narrative threads, including devotion to the Confederacy, family and God, fearless leadership on the battlefield and a youthful exuberance snuffed out all too soon.
William McCabe’s description of Pegram’s injury and death is incredibly moving and as a close to what a “good death” should involve in war. It is easy to get wrapped up in a narrative that celebrates young Pegram’s character and martial valor. He is, indeed, an appealing young man. At the same time we should not look beyond the cause for which he never lost sight of during his four years in the Confederate army. His commitment to the Confederacy and his willingness to expose himself on the battlefield time and time again and even after the point where many believed the cause was lost were a function of firm devotion.
According to Pegram biographer, Peter Carmichael:
Pegram was neither a zealot nor a fanatic. Rather, he resembled many other Southerners who went to war in 1861 believing the South had embarked on a mission to preserve a way of life that had been endangered by the godless North. Whether one accepts that real differences existed between the two regions is beside the point. The fact remains, that from the perspective of men like Willy, the Republican Party — with its attacks against slavery and its emphasis on social mobility — threatened the South. Once Republicans had gained control of the White House, Pegram feared his community, home, and family would be at their mercy. The election of Lincoln thus placed more than personal honor at risk. Were the new president’s ideas to win general acceptance, the traditions, values, and a way of life that had been part of Pegram’s family for generations and gave meaning to his own life would face a precarious existence. The South’s antebellum class structure and social relations might eventually unravel. As Reconstruction demonstrated, Pegram’s fears were not without merit. In the end, William Pegram gave his life in defense of a nation that upheld a social order that he cherished, respected, and most of all, believed had been ordained by God. Pegram’s letters testify to his devotion to the Confederacy and its principles, but his actions in battle provide the most powerful evidence of his commitment to Southern independence. (p. 170)
Is it possible to walk the battlefield at Five Forks and imagine the young Pegram atop his horse stoically bringing his artillery to bear on the Federals without remembering what animated him? I think not. The outcome of Civil War battles – even at Five Forks – reverberate through time. As Pegram himself testified in his wartime letters, much was at stake in this war.
Thankfully, his vision for the future was ultimately defeated.