Forestalling the Public Judgment

Following the devastating surrenders of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, the southern press generally concluded that Lieutenant-General John C. Pemberton, who had surrendered Vicksburg, was the most to blame. President Jefferson Davis disagreed, noting that General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding all Confederates in the Western Theater, had urged Pemberton to abandon Vicksburg, and when Pemberton got trapped there, Johnston did little to try to rescue him.

A letter circulated among southern newspapers from Johnston’s medical director, Dr. D.W. Yandell, in which Yandell (apparently writing to a fellow doctor) praised Johnston while condemning Pemberton and Davis for lacking decisiveness and wisdom. When Davis read this “article/letter,” he resentfully forwarded a copy to Johnston with a message of his own: “It is needless to say that you are not considered capable of giving countenance to such efforts at laudation of yourself and detraction of others, and the paper is sent to you with the confidence that you will take the proper action in the premises.”

A few days later, Pemberton, now awaiting a prisoner exchange at Gainesville, Alabama, submitted his official report on the Vicksburg campaign. In it, he sought to “disprove many charges made against me through ignorance or malice.” However, “I fully acknowledge the correctness of the principle, that in military affairs, ‘Success is the test of merit.’”

That quote came from General Albert Sidney Johnston when he was assembling Confederate forces for a counterattack after the fall of Fort Donelson in 1862. A.S. Johnston, a close friend of Davis’s who had been killed at the Battle of Shiloh, had said, “The test of merit in my profession with the people is success. It is a hard rule, but I think it right.”

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit:

Davis responded on August 9. He tried to ease Pemberton’s resentment by noting that in the eyes of the press, success was not necessarily the test of merit; for press favorites, the test was simply doing “what they are expected to do.” Such favorites were “sheltered when they fail by a transfer of the blame.” Those whom the press disliked often had their success “denied or treated as a necessary result.” “The test of success,” Davis wrote, “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.”

To Davis, both Pemberton and General Robert E. Lee had recently received harsh press criticism due more to opinion than fact. He stated, “General Lee and yourself have seemed to me example of the second class, and my confidence has not been diminished because letter-writers have not sent forth your praise on the wings of the press.”

Davis assured Pemberton that he was “no stranger to the misrepresentation of that which malignity is capable, nor to the generation of such feelings by the conscientious discharge of duty.” He knew firsthand “how slowly the messenger of truth follows that of slander.”

But southerners continued railing against Pemberton, with some speculating that his Pennsylvania roots may have played a role in his surrender. Davis received a letter from an army chaplain expressing the sentiments of many troops in the western armies “that every disaster that has befallen us in the West has grown out of the fact that weak and inefficient men have been kept in power,” including Pemberton. The chaplain asked, “I beseech of you to relieve us of these drones and pigmies.”

Pemberton remained disqualified from service until paroled in October. He did not take up active field operations again.


  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.

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