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At the Hands of the Great Captain


Another “good death” recorded in The University Memorial: Biographical Sketches of Alumni of the University of Virginia Who Fell in the Confederate War (1871) by John Lipscomb Johnson. The unlucky subject is William R. J. Pegram, an officer of the artillery who, as the war dragged on, found that “it was a pang to him even to contemplate surrendering the battle-scarred bosom of the ‘Old Mother’ to the petty tyrannies of those who hated and feared her.”

“I would rather die,” he said slowly, “than see Virginia given up, even for three months; but we’ll all follow the battle-flag anywhere.”

As it happens, the Battle of Five Forks provided him the chance:

Within thirty yards of the guns the dense columns of the enemy were staggering under their rapid fire. Pegram rode in, speaking cheerily to the men, a sweet serenity on his boyish face but the old light of battle shining in his eyes. “Fire your canister low, men!” he shouted, as the blue lines surged still nearer to the heated guns. It was his last order on a field of battle. Suddenly he reeled and fell from his saddle. Small wonder that he was first to fall. The infantry were lying down, by order, firing over a low “curtain” which they had hastily thrown up; he was sitting on his white horse on the front line of battle, cheering and encouraging his men. He had received his mortal wound, and knew it. “Tell my mother and sisters,” he said firmly, “that I commend them to God’s protection. It will be a great blow to them at home to lose me so soon after ‘Brother’; but for myself, I am ready.” He knew nothing of the bitter defeat. When victory no longer perched on the battle-flag of his old battalion, he had received his last promotion at the hands of the great Captain. He met a soldier’s death, and had but a soldier’s burial. Wrapped carefully in a coarse blanket, he was laid to rest in the bosom of his mother state, Virginia.

This same William Pegram had fought, the year before, at the Battle of the Crater, where a massacre of black Union troops took place. In a letter to his wife [his sister, Virginia Johnson (Pegram) McIntosh; see correction in comments –Ed.] he wrote that “it seems cruel to murder [the black soldiers] in cold blood, but I think the men who did it had very good cause for doing so.” It helped morale. “I have always said that I wished the enemy would bring some negroes against this army,” he wrote. “I am convinced, since Saturday’s fight, that it has a splendid effect on our men.”
Read about a “good death” and the origin of this series of posts.
IMAGE: Battle of Five Forks, Va.—Charge of Genl. Sheridan April 1st 1865 by Kurz & Allison (ca. 1886)

DISCUSSION

8 thoughts

  1. One correction in the second paragraph. Dying so young, Cousin Willy never married. His brother John of course married the famous beauty, Hetty Cary.

  2. Having had time to properly look it up —the letter is published in “‘The Boy Artillerist’: Letters of Colonel William Pegram, C.S.A.” by James I. Robertson, Jr. and William Pegram, in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (April 1990), 442–443—young Willie Pegram is addressing his sister, Virginia Johnson (Pegram) McIntosh, or “My dear Jenny.”
    We’ll have to make that change in our Crater entry. Thanks again for the sharp eyes, Mr. Johnson.

  3. Brendan Wolfe,
    You may be interested in the fact that I have secured permission through the Virginia Department of Human Resources for a Virginia historic marker at the Gordon McCabe House in Petersburg. Capt. McCabe was Willy’s Adjutant and was with him at his death and buried him in a shallow grave on the run from Five Forks. The Virginia road marker has been made and we await installation. Later there will be an unveiling on Sycamore St. where he had his famous University School for thirty years. I was interviewed by Peter Carmichael when he was working on his bio of Willy.

    1. I have the bio and have read it twice. It’s a very good book, I think. Back in the early 80s, I was considering writing Willy’s bio. That was when i went to the Virginia Historical Society to read his letters. I think a movie should be made about him. Done with quality, it would make a very good movie.

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