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.

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15 comments… add one
  • msb Apr 2, 2015 @ 1:14

    Thanks for drawing my attention to this episode, Kevin. I had heard of Chamberlain’s adventures in this series of battles, but not the death of Pegram. What strikes me most in the account of his death is the change in standards of masculine behaviour. As you know, many participants saw the war as a test of manhood (I remember how Frederick Douglass described military service as proving the manhood of African Americans). McCabe’s declarations of love, his weeping, his kisses of his friend, mentions of sharing a bed with him, etc. plainly adhere to a standard of behavior that changed profoundly afterwards. “Manly” behaviour was quite different when I was young, and of course has changed much since then. Another reason to finally read that copy of Faust’s book on death in the Civil War that I bought last year.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 2, 2015 @ 1:15

      My colleague at school who accompanied me on my Civil War trip last week picked up a copy of Faust’s book and read it in three days. You won’t be disappointed.

  • Al Mackey Apr 1, 2015 @ 19:08

    FYI, the Futch letters are available at the North Carolina Digital Collections website:

    Just search on “John Futch” and they’ll pop up. If you search on “Futch” you’ll also get some letters from Charley Futch.

  • Pete Carmichael Apr 1, 2015 @ 12:30

    I will call you Jim, if you call me Pete!

    I agree Kevin that there is tremendous overlap in how soldiers depicted the war. But class and education matter of course and it is clear that semi-literate solderers had their own aesthetic standard that partially derived from an unfettered style that was cut loose from the dominant cultural and stylistic conventions of the day. What we see in this group of semi-literate soldiers is an act of writing that allows for incredible freedom of expression. Kevin: Consider the theJohn Futch letter that I seem to read to anyone who comes within my breathing space in Gettysburg. I am off to the University of Alabama to give a talk on the aesthetic standard of semi-literate Confederates for the J.C.C.Sanders lecture series. This will be a major part of The War for the Common Soldier to be published by UNC press.

    Kevin: I am happy to share the Futch letter with your readers and paste it in this conversation.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 1, 2015 @ 12:43

      Thanks for the follow-up. Why don’t you take a few sentences to frame it and I will feature it as a separate post. The conversation might be interesting.

  • Pete Carmichael Apr 1, 2015 @ 10:51

    James: What made Pegram distasteful to your historical sensibilities after reading Lee’s Young Artillerist?

    I am troubled by how quickly I was to give him a free pass for his Confederate zeal, that he was just like any historical figure who is destined to accept the world to which he/she is born. What is especially bothersome about my analysis is my failure to explain how a really smart guy like Willy could be so damn blind to the physical decline of Lee’s army and the Confederacy. His absolutism is responsible for his obtuseness, and it had appalling effects on Pegram—Including his sanctimonious defense of the murder of black soldiers at the Crater.I believe his understanding of providence explains his rigid thinking, which stands in sharp contrast to the thinking of poor/semi educated Confederates who admitted that they did not know God’s plans and whether the Southern people were really the chosen ones. Believing in the inscrutability of God helped soldiers on the margins to become tough-minded realists and pragmatists. Pegram’s zealotry defies common sense–not by our standards–but by the standards of his peers.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 1, 2015 @ 11:11

      Hi Pete,

      I don’t think you do give him a free pass unless you are now questioning some of your own interpretation in The Last Generation. You at least offer an explanation as to why mid-grade officers like Pegram believed and behaved as they did even toward the end of the war. To what extent is your new project on Civil War soldiers challenging this view? I tend to see Pegram’s response to black soldiers at the Crater as vindication of his view of the North and defense of slavery and white supremacy as others did. If anything, it clarified, which seems to me to be the opposite of what you are suggesting.

      I believe his understanding of providence explains his rigid thinking, which stands in sharp contrast to the thinking of poor/semi educated Confederates who admitted that they did not know God’s plans and whether the Southern people were really the chosen ones.

      This is quite interesting. Do you really believe that such a distinction can be made? What is it about class that you believe explains such a stark difference?

    • James F. Epperson Apr 1, 2015 @ 11:15

      First, let me second Kevin’s comment about the book. Peter, it was one of the first times I was confronted with a prominent figure (well, prominent to me) expressing the kind of anti-black sentiments that Pegram did. I had raised myself on McCabe’s very romantic account of Willie’s death, and so my own veneer of romanticism was kinda scuffed up as a result. He’s not distasteful to me at all; I just think I’ve grown up a bit myself (at 60+ years!) in how to view these things. I did not mean my comment to be the least bit critical of the book. To the contrary, it was very eye-opening to me. It was part of my own transition from a “guns and glory” Civil War buff to a more complete student of the era.

      (PS: call me “Jim.”)

  • Pat Young Apr 1, 2015 @ 8:56

    What a great quote from PC. I’m buying that book next.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 1, 2015 @ 9:02

      You won’t be disappointed. It’s one of the better Civil War military biographies.

  • James F. Epperson Apr 1, 2015 @ 7:22

    Willie Pegram was one of my favorite Rebels until I read Peter’s book 🙁

    (Don’t take that too seriously, Prof. Carmichael, I really enjoyed the book.)

  • Pete Carmichael Apr 1, 2015 @ 4:16

    Was I too empathetic in trying to understand Willy Pegram?

    And where is the picture of usat Five Forks with Keith Bohannon!

    • Kevin Levin Apr 1, 2015 @ 4:31

      Not at all. In fact, I think you helped to make my point. Here is the photo of us.

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