John Pegram was born on January 24, 1832 in Petersburg, Virginia. He was the oldest son of James West and Virginia Johnson Pegram.
James was a planter, attorney, banker and major general in the Virginia militia. John’s grandfather, also a planter, had been a major general in command of Virginia forces in the War of 1812. James was killed in a steamboat accident on the Ohio River in 1844 and his wife, Virginia, opened a girls school to support the family of five children.
John attended West Point from 1850-1854 (USMA ’54) and graduated tenth in his class, which included J.E.B. Stuart. Pegram was assigned to the dragoons as a second lieutenant. He served on the western frontier until 1857, when he was appointed Assistant Instructor of Cavalry at West Point. In 1858 he took a leave of absence to visit Europe as an observer of the Austro-Sardinian War.
When John returned to the United States in 1860 he was assigned to frontier duty in New Mexico. He resigned his commission in May of 1861 after Virginia seceded from the Union and made his way back east.
In July of 1861 Pegram was commissioned as the lieutenant colonel of the 20th Virginia Infantry Regiment, which was assigned to Brigadier General Robert Garnett’s brigade in western Virginia. On July 13 in the Battle of Rich Mountain the regiment was cut off and forced to surrender. Pegram became the first former United States Army officer to be captured in the Civil War. While the Lincoln administration debated what to do with him Pegram was imprisoned in Fort Monroe.
Pegram was paroled in January of 1862 and allowed to return to Richmond until exchanged. It was there he began a three year courtship with Hetty Cary, “the handsomest woman in the Southland” and a scion of two of the First Families of Virginia.
After Pegram was exchanged he was promoted to colonel and joined the staff of General Pierre G.T. Beauregard in Kentucky as Chief Engineer. He continued in the role when Braxton Bragg took over the army, but shortly after transferred to the staff of Major General Edmund Kirby Smith.
In November of 1862 Pegram was promoted to brigadier general and assigned to a brigade of cavalry. He was criticized for performance during the Battle of Stones River in December, and in March of 1863 led a raid into Kentucky that was defeated at the Battle of Somerset. He fought in the Battle of Chickamauga befofre returning, at his request, to the Eastern Theater.
Pegram was assigned to a brigade of five Virginia regiments in Early’s Division of the Second Corps. In May he was wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness. He returned to the field in the summer, rejoining his brigade in the Shenandoah Valley where the Second Corps had become part of Early’s Army of the Shenandoah.
Pegram took over his division when its commander, Stephen Ramseur, was moved to take over Rodes’ Division after Rodes’ death at the Third Battle of Winchester. He did well handling the division and continued to command it when it returned from the Shenandoah Valley in December to join Lee’s main army at the Siege of Petersburg.
On January 19, 1865, Pegram married Hetty Carry at St. Paul’s Church in Richmond in the social event of the winter, whose guests included the President and Mrs. Davis. But there were foreboding omens all about the wedding. While trying on her bridal veil for her cousin two days before Hetty accidentally shattered the mirror. On the day of the wedding the couple were late to the church when the horses drawing the President’s carriage which Mrs. Davis had sent for them violently balked and refused to go forward and a run down replacement carriage had to be found. As Hetty entered the church she dropped her handkerchief and, bending to pick it up, tore her veil.
Three weeks later Pegram was killed leading his division at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run when he was shot through the body near his heart. His funeral was also held at St. Paul’s Church, with most of his wedding guests returning as mourners. He was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. He is remembered with a monument on the Hatcher’s Run battlefield.
John Pegram’s younger brother William was one of the outstanding artillery commanders of the Civil War. He was killed just a few weeks after his older brother at the Battle of Five Forks.