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The Death Col. William Johnson Pegram
1841 - 1865



To the artillerists, it was a day of disaster not to be recorded solely in terms of four guns lost or of good soldiers captured. After Col. William Pegram had posted his six guns at 10 o'clock, he had lain down on the field and had fallen asleep. He had felt at its keenest, of course, the grief of the South at the death of his magnificent brother John, the General of the family, but he had shown and probably had felt no disappointment that he had himself been kept so long at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and had not been made a general officer. Heth and "Dick" Anderson separately had asked for his promotion and assignment to command of an infantry Brigade. Powell Hill in these words had endorsed Heth's recommendation of Pegram:  "No officer of the Army of Northern Virginia has done more to deserve this promotion than  Lieutenant Colonel Pegram."  Pegram did not know that when Heth had urged on Lee the advancement of the artillerist, the Commanding General had said: "He is too young--how old is Colonel Pegram ?" Heth had answered: "I do not know, but I suppose about 25.' Lee had replied: "I think a man of 25 as good as he ever will be; what he acquires after that age is from experience; but I can't understand, when an officer is doing excellent service where he is, why he should want to change."  The recommendation was returned, camp gossip had it, with the statement that "the artillery could not lose the services of so valuable an officer."  Pegram was made Colonel of Artillery as of February 18, though reports had persisted almost until that time that the higher honor was to be his.  It did not matter: he was content... even under that tree, on wet ground, and with no food that day except the parched corn taken from the horses.

The frightful crash of Warren's opening volley awakened Pegram with a start. Almost in the same moment he was in his saddle and, with his Adjutant, Gordon McCabe, was racing toward the assailed left. Soon he was among his gunners there. They were firing furiously but in perfect order at Federals who were not more than thirty to fifty yards in their front. From those advancing bluecoats there came a continuous hail of bullets.

Pegram admiringly watched the contest in the spirit that led Harry Heth to say that the young artillerist was "one of the few men who, I believe, was supremely happy when in battle."  Without deigning to dismount, Pegram then rode out between the guns.  "Fire your canister low," he said to his men. A moment after he reeled and fell from his horse. "Oh, Gordon," he cried to his companion, "I'm mortally wounded; take me off the field."

This was exceedingly difficult to do, because the enemy was at the very mouth of the guns. McCabe got his friend on a stretcher, sent him a little distance to the rear and then returned momentarily to the battery. When he came back, he put Pegram in an ambulance and had it started for Ford's Depot on the Southside Railroad.

Both the Colonel and the Adjutant were scarcely more than boys. The imminence of Pegram's death made them "as little children." McCabe wrote three days later: "While in the ambulance I held him in my arms and prayed for him and kissed him over and over again. Once when I prayed that his life might be spared, he said, 'If it is God's will to take me, I am perfectly resigned. I only wish life for my Mother's and sisters' sake.'  He said several times-- 'Give my love to mother and both sisters and tell them I thought of them in my last moments.'  Once when in my agony I cried out, 'My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me,'  he said quickly,  'Don't say that, Gordon, it isn't right.'  One thing I love to dwell upon. I bent over and kissed him and said, calling him by his name for the first time in my life, ' Willie, ! never knew how much I loved you until now.'  He pressed my hand and answered, 'But I did.'  Without ceasing, except when I lost my voice in tears, I prayed for him, for comfort for body and soul, and he would simply say, 'Amen.' "

McCabe continued: "At about 10 o'clock we reached Ford's, and I obtained a bed for him . . . I had given him morphine in small quantities until he was easier, and he soon fell into a doze. The enemy advanced on the place about 12 o'clock, and I was left alone with him. I sent off our sabres, horses, spurs, etc., as I felt sure that we would be captured. I shall never forget that night of waiting. I could only pray. He breathed heavily through the night, and passed into a stupor. I bound his wounds as well as I knew how and moistened his lips with water. Sunday morning he died as gently as possible."

His cause was dying with him.

Source: Lee's Lieutenants, Vol. 3, pp. 672 - 674 


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