Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 12/The Gallant Pelham and His Gun at Fredericksburg

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Southern Historical Society Papers: Volume 12  (1884)  by Henry Brainerd McClellan
The Gallant Pelham and His Gun at Fredericksburg

"The Gallant Pelham" and His Gun at Fredericksburg.

Letter from Major H. B. McClellan.

Rev. J. Wm. Jones, D. D.,

Secretary of the Southern Historical Society :

Dear Sir, — My attention has recently been called to a publication entitled " Contributions to a History of the Richmo7id Howitzer Battalion, Pamphlet No. j," which contains, on page 58, a letter from Reuben B. Pleasants, Sergeant of the Second company, in which the claim is made that the praise which was bestowed by General R. E. Lee, General J. E B. Stuart, and by others, upon Major John Pelham, of the Stuart Horse Artillery, for the gallantry with which he fought one Napoleon gun upon the extreme Confederate right, at the open- ing of the battle of Fredericksburg, on the 13th of December, 1862, really belongs to a gun of the second company of the Richmond Howitzer Battalion, which was served by Sergeant Pleasants himself

I make the following extracts from Sergeant Pleasant's letter. He says :

" Soon after the war, I read a volume of ' so-called ' history, writ- ten, I think, by Howison, in which was an account of the gallant con- duct of Pelham' s artillery in the battle of Fredericksburg, ascribing to Pelham and his command what was really the work of the first detachment of our old Second company, even crediting our killed and wounded to the Horse Artillery."

" Subsequently, I read substantially the same in General Lee's re- port of the engaement. I have also read allusions of the same tenor in articles contributed to the Southern Histo7'ical Society Papers.

" I have, at each repetition of the error, thought I would write some- thing for publication, giving the truth of this affair (which all seem to think so gallant and glorious), but until now neglected to do so.

"General Alexander says {Souther?i Historical Society Pafers, Nos. 10 and 11 of Volume X, page 446), that 'Lieutenant Pelham, of Alabama, approached close upon the enemy's left flank with only two guns, and so punished his Une of battle that the advance was checked until Pelham could be driven off, an operation which it took four bat- teries an hour to accomplish.'

"Now, on that morning after an all-night march with Jackson's corps, from near Port Royal, our battery, with a number of other

"TAe Gallant Pelham" and His Gun. 467

batteries, was put in position below the line of hills on which Frede- ricksburg is located. We were advanced by half-batterv to the front, firing- at our 'level best' as we went forward. As we advanced, ours being the right section of the right battery. Captain Watson was approached by two mounted officers, one of whom I recognized as General J, E. B. Stuart, and the other, as I learned afterwards, being Colonel Rosser, who, after saluting our Captain, said to him : 'We are instructed to get a gun from your battery for special duty,' or words to that effect.

"Captain Watson ordered the first gun to 'limber up' and report to the two officers. Being Sergeant of the first detachment, I limbered to the rear, reported to the officers, and was ordered to follow them. Well do I remember the chase they gave us across fields and ditches, without a halt anywhere, and at a long trot all the way.

" We finally got into a sunken road, with a 'wattling' fence on either side, and lined with cedars. Down this road we went for some distance, with no idea whatever of our destination.

" We were halted in the narrow road, and ordered to make an opening in the fence. This was soon done, and a few spadefulls of earth thrown into the ditch made a passage-way.

" Colonel Rosser than told me to go up into the field and see what I had to do. I rode up with Halyburton, who was Orderly at the time, but had begged to be allowed to go with his old detachment, and so was with me, and found that we were on the extreme left flank of the Army of the Potomac. A battery was in position, command- ing the field we were about to enter.

" Colonel Rosser told me to take any distance I chose to fight them, and in answer to my question as to how long I was expected to stay, said, 'As long as you can.' I asked, 'Until we are out of ammu- nition?' He answered, 'Yes' I have often thought he never expected us to get away from there.

"We pulled into the field and were seen, and were met by a salute from the enemy's guns; but the way we put whip and spur to our teams, and ran upon them, seemed to unsettle their aim. and we got into position about five hundred yards in their front. Then we returned the salute ; and if you ever saw Sam Green shoot, you know he did his best.

" General Stuart and Colonel Rosser remained with us awhile (I think the latter' s horse was wounded there), but soon left, and there we were, a gun detachment without even a straggling cavalryman

468 Southern Historical Society Papers.

for support, and there we staid as long as we had a round, ahhough, soon after we got into position, they opened on us with thirty-two pounders from across the Rappahannock. The nearest shot from these struck about thirty yards from our left.' "

I omit portions of this letter, which seem to reflect unnecessarily upon the Horse Artillery, and which might provoke an angry retort from a member of that organization. But I desire to place in close juxtaposition some extracts from a letter written (not twenty years after the battle, but four days after it), by Lieutenant Channing Price, at that time aid-de-camp to General Stuart. Lieutenant Price was, before his promotion to General Stuart's staff, a member of the Rich- mond Howitzer Battalion. This letter was addressed to his mother, by whose kindness such of her son's letters, as might aid me in writing the story of General Stuart's campaigns, have been placed in my hands. Lieutenant Price writes thus in describing the events of the 13th December, 1862:

" I then galloped out to where General Stuart was [at the junction of the Bowling Green and Hamilton's Crossing roadsj, and there Major Pelham had come up with one gun of Harvey's Horse Artillery. The enemy were in dense masses, advancing straight towards our line of battle, and Pelham was exactly on their left flank with his gun, with no support whatever. He opened on them with solid shot, and though most of them went amongst the infantry, one blew up a caisson for the Yankees. They now opened about fifteen or twenty guns on Pelham ; but he had splendid shelter for his gun, and only had one man wounded, I think. He kept up his fire until he was ordered to cease, so that they might come up closer to our line. Not a gun on our long line, from Fredericksburg to Hamilton's Cross- ing, had yet fired, only Pelham with his Napoleon, and soon after- wards a Blakley, nearer the railroad. General Lee expressed his warm admiration for Major Pelham' s distinguished gallantry, but said that the young Major-General (alluding to Stuart) had opened on them too soon."

After describing the repulse of the enemy by Jackson's troops, and the renewal of the attack by the Federal troops. Lieutenant Price continues :

"A Parrott Gun of the Second Howitzers and one of the Powhatan battery, now crossed the Bowling Green road and opened a very de- structive fire on their flank, under the direction of Colonel Rosser, Major Pelham commanding the others * * * *

          • Galloping to the General I

"■The Gallant Pelham" and His Gun. 469

found him looking on with his usual coolness. He soon started to- wards the crossing, and on our way met the two Parrotts I have mentioned above, leaving the field. The General was very much displeased at first, but Colonel Rosser made matters all right, by telling him that it was useless to stay there, a great many horses having been killed, men wounded, and ammunition nearly exhausted."

Other portions of Lieutenant Price's letter show how warm an affection he cherished for his old comrades of the Howitzer Battalion, and how impossible it would have been for him to misrepresent their conduct or to ascribe to any other the credit which was due to them.

Sergeant Pleasants says, in another part of his letter :

" I believe our dear old General, had he lived and had he known, would have corrected the error in his report."

Now, any error in General Lee's report must have arisen from wrong information furnished by his subordinate commanders, and in this case the information must have come from General Stuart. But the latter is relieved from this charge by the fact that he made no re- port of the battle of Fredericksburg. Moreover there is abundant evidence to show that Major Pelham' s fight was made under the very eyes of Generals Lee and Jackson, who were both present on the ex- treme right of the Confederate line at that time. General Lee writes as an eye-witness, when he says :

"As soon as the advance of the enemy was discovered through the fog. General Stuart, with his accustomed promptness, moved up a section of his Horse Artillery, which opened with effect upon his flank and drew upon the gallant Pelham a heavy fire, which he sus- tained unflichingly for about two hours."

Aside from all this, there is one sentence in Sergeant Pleasants's let- ter, which, at once and conclusively, shows that he has made a mis- take. He says that when his gun was detached to follow General Stuart and Colonel Rosser, " IVe were advanced by half battery to the front, firiJig at oiir ' level best ' as we zvent fonuard." That is, his gun was not detached until the engagement of the artillery had become general along the line. Now, Channing Price says that where Pelham was engaged with Henry's Napoleon, " not a gun an our long line, from Fredericksburg to Hamilton s Crossing, had yet

fired ; only Pelham, with his Napoleon, ayid soon afterwards a Blakely, nearer the railroad^

Every report of the battle confirms this statement. It is, therefore, very plain that Sergeant Pleasants's gallant detachment must have served one of the other guns which are particularized by Channing Price, and that the honor which has for so long a time been ascribed to Pelham and his Napoleon, cannot yet be given to another.

H. B. McClellan. Lexington, Ky.. November J 8th, 1884.