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Confederate General Pegram Killed: 1865

PegramConfederate General John Pegram was killed at the Battle of Dabney’s Mill, Virginia.

Although Pegram has been immortalized for his participation in the Civil War, it now appears that Pegram’s peers were critical of his military prowess, especially his tactical abilities. The memorable part to Pegram’s life is his marriage to Hetty Cary, a prominent Richmond socialite who many called the “handsomest woman in the Southland.”

John Pegram was born in Petersburg, Virginia in 1832, the oldest son of James West Pegram and Virginia Johnson. James Pegram. the father, was part of the third generation of a planter family. James’ father rose to become a major general in the War of 1812. As one of twelve children, James did not inherit sufficient wealth to live on an inherited plantation. Perhaps encouraged by his father, James studied for the law. In 1829, he married Virginia Johnson, the daughter of a wealthy planter and racehorse owner. The couple lived initially at Mr. Johnson’s plantation, but when James was offered the position of cashier at Bank of Virginia’s Petersburg office, he readily accepted. Within a few years, the couple moved to Richmond, when James became president of the bank.1

An exerpt from E-History writer Scott Laidig describes how John’s father’s history affected his life:

Throughout his life James continued his family’s longstanding tradition of public service, becoming an active Whig orator; and, sometime between 1830 and 1841, he was appointed a colonel and then brigadier general in the Virginia militia. By 1844, Virginia Pegram had given birth to five children, and James had accumulated sufficient capital to invest in plantations. In October, John Pegram remained in Richmond with his mother and siblings while James made a fateful trip to Mississippi. An accident aboard a steamboat on the Ohio River made Virginia Pegram a widow and left her children fatherless. The shock of James’ death left the family emotionally traumatized and financially reduced, though certainly not ruined. Virginia moved her family back to her father’s plantation, but her father’s fortunes were on the wane and the family, while remaining high on the social list, was not quite so secure financially. In the mid-1850’s, Virginia started a school for girls in Richmond. The school remained open during the war years and the income, including income from boarders, augmented Virginia’s inheritance nicely.

Hetty CaryMuch of John Pegram’s war history can be found within the paper that carries the above quote. I’ll fast-forward to Richmond in winter of 1864, when Pegram is found in Richmond courting the lovely Miss Hetty Cary, a prominent Richmond socialite. Whether Hetty was truly smitten with Pegram or if she considered this marriage to be one of import is not known. Hetty’s lineage as part of the Virginia Cary’s intimates that she came from no small wealth and influence. A letter written by Hetty’s cousin, Mrs. Burton Harrison, describes the urgency and gaity the prospect of this marriage brought to the gloom that surrounded war-torn Richmond:

The engagement of my cousin Hetty Cary to Brigadier- General John Pegram having been announced, their decision to be married on January 19 was a subject of active interest. My aunt, Mrs. Wilson Miles Cary, of Baltimore, had before Christmas obtained from Mr. Lincoln, through General Barnard (chief of the United States Engineer Corps, married to her adopted daughter), a pass to go to Richmond to visit her children. The presence of Mrs. Cary gave General Pegram opportunity to urge that his marriage should not be longer delayed, and such preparations as were possible were hurried on.

John Pegram and Hetty Cary married on 19 January in Richmond. The Confederate capital was starved of entertainments, and the wedding was a social highlight attended by nearly all of the high-ranking Confederates, including President Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina. The bride, commented onlookers, was a vision of beauty and one said that the “happy gleam of her beautiful brown eyes seemed to defy all sorrow.”

Then, on 6 February 1865 – less than three weeks after the wedding – Pegram was killed at the battle of Hatcher’s Run when his division and “Little Billy” Mahone’s fought off a Union raid on Lee’s flank. Pegram’s body was returned to the same church, St. Paul’s Episcopal, and his young widow knelt beside his coffin as the minister who married them presided over the dashing general’s funeral ((Dr. Minnegerode). Pegram is buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

Despite the fact that Pegram’s peers often challenged his tactical military skills, Pegram was held in high esteem by those who valued the fact that the Confederacy had lost far too many generals at a time when the south needed them most.

1 A recent biography of John Pegram’s youngest brother, Willy, provides valuable insights into the Pegram family. See Peter S. Carmichael, Lee’s Young Artillerist: William R. J. Pegram (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), p. 7-13.

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