Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 30/The Gallant Pelham
[From the Mobile, Ala., Register, May 20, 1894.]
THE GALLANT PELHAM.
Jeb Stuart's "Boy Artillerist" From Alabama.
HOW JOHN PELHAM, BY HIS SKILL AND COURAGE, WROTE HIS NAME HIGH ON THE TEMPLE OF FAME.
(By James R. Randall.)
Just as the Spring came laughing thro' the strife,
The wondrous lulling of a hero's breath
Grander and nobler than the child of Rome,
Gentlest and bravest in the battle's brunt—
A clang of sabres 'mid Virginia's snow,
The pennon droops, that led the sacred band
We gazed and gazed upon that beauteous face,
Oh! mother of a blessed soul on high,
How must he smile on this dull world beneath,
N. B.—This is the original version from Randall's manuscript.—T. C. D.
No one can be accused justly of raking amid the ashes of the past to rekindle the fires of sectional prejudice when he undertakes to briefly sketch one of the many brilliant careers during the late war that illustrate the valor of the American soldier on a hundred battlefields, especially when that career is all too little known, says the Louisville Courier-Journal. In Alabama, in the vale of Alexandria, September 7, in the year 1838, there was born a babe destined to be Bellona's bridegroom, and write "John Pelham" across the sky in flaming letters of battle. His was a superb career, but for some reason or other it is scarcely known outside of his native State, and even in that State but for being commingled with fiction the daring deeds and brilliant bravery of "Jeb" Stuart's "boy artillerist" would be almost mere tradition when the last Confederate shall have passed away. Indeed, while writers almost innumerable both historical and penny-a-liners have, in song and story, traced the career of lesser light of higher rank, they have scarcely mentioned much less eulogized the beardless boy whom General Robert E. Lee, in his report of Fredericksburg, termed "the gallant Pelham," thus knighting him upon the field. Of this same youth the London Times, in chronicling his death in,1863, said: " For his age no soldier on either side in this war (Confederate) has won such fame as has young Pelham."
John Pelham came from old Kentucky stock, his father, Dr. Atkinson Pelham, having removed from this State to Calhoun county, Ala., in 1837. Young Pelham was appointed a cadet at West Point in 1856 by the representative in Congress from the Talladega (Ala.) district, Hon. S. W. Harris. The only five-year class in the history of the academy was organized that year, which accounts for his being there at the opening of the war. Like many other West Pointers who have made gallant soldiers, his standing in his classes was low, but his commission was passed on, and he would have received it had he not resigned a week before commencement to go South. As a cadet he had a dash and a soldierly bearing, and it is related that when he started to walk across the parade grounds, or from one quarter to another, he went straight as a "bee line" and never looked back, no matter how much noise the other cadets made in his rear. He was considered the best athlete at West Point, and was there noted for fencing and boxing.
Then, as now, at the academy, a cat with its reputed plurality of lives would be dead a dozen times in taking half the chances those laughing cadets would eagerly seek in the cavalry drill, but Pelham excelled them all. The Prince of Wales was struck with his horsemanship when he visited the academy in 1860. His horseback riding was marvellous, and went down from class to class as a sort of tradition, and long years after he had met a soldier's death the cadets would relate to gaping plebes how Pelham rode.
In 1861, when the laughing blue of the Southland sky was overcast by the dark cloud of civil strife and Alabama called to her sons in every clime to come to her defence, Pelham resigned his cadetship at the academy and started South. At New Albany, Ind., he was intercepted by the Federal authorities, for it was known there by some one who reported the fact that he had left West Point to join the Confederate army. He was placed under surveillance and not allowed to cross the river to Louisville. However, he accepted the first opportunity to elude the authorities and went up to Jeffersonville.
Around his stay at Jeffersonville and subsequent escape there is woven a pretty little romance, which; whether true or not, is worth relating. He had disguised himself as one of General Scott's couriers, so the story goes, before entering the town, and while watching his chance to slip across the river, he became acquainted with a pretty Yankee maiden, who was visiting friends in the place. She became smitten with the handsome young soldier, and they were together much.
By and by he gained her confidence sufficiently to disclose his identity without fear of betrayal, and informed her of his purpose to go South and join the Confederate army. She was a true Northern girl, and endeavored to prevail upon him to stand by the "old flag," but he was firm. Love has been known to be stronger than patriotism in hearts colder than that of a sympathetic maiden. It was true in her case, and Cupid overthrew Mars in her heart.
Finding her entreaties of no avail, she volunteered to ferry him across the river. Consequently they took a skiff the following day for a pleasure row on the Ohio, but they never came back; that is, he did not, for they landed on the old Kentucky shore, where he bade his fair benefactor a last farewell and she returned to Jeffersonville by way of the ferryboat. From the time he set foot upon Kentucky soil Pelham' s brilliant career began. However, he did not remain in Louisville long, but hurried on to Montgomery, then the capital of the Confederacy, and reported for duty. He was commissioned first lieutenant in the regular Confederate States Army, and assigned to duty at Lynchburg, Va., where he had charge of the ordnance. Shortly after reporting there he was ordered to Winchester, Va., and was drillmaster of Albertu's Battery.
In the meantime, the Federal army, like a huge snake, was coiling itself around Manassas preparatory to striking Richmond. The Confederate army went out to receive the blow and deliver another in return, and Pelham rushed to the front with his battery. All that long day of Manassas he fought with superb courage. So well did he handle his guns that he attracted the attention of that Prince Rupert of American calvarymen, General J. E. B. Stuart. General Stuart saw what was in the boy, and intrusted him with the organization of a battery of six pieces of horse artillery. Some of these men were from Virginia and Maryland, but most of them were from Alabama. From Talladega, Ala., near Pelham's home, went forty men under Lieutenant William McGregor, a gallant officer now living in Texas. One gun was manned by French Creoles from Mobile, Ala., who were called by Pelham the "Napoleon Detachment." They were gallant fellows, and invariably in battle the voices of these men could be heard above the roar of the guns singing the "Marseillaise," that stirring song that roused the man of destiny's imperial eagles on many a gory field where the Old Guard could die, but never surrender. This six-gun battery was the nucleus around which gathered that brave body of men that goes down in history as Stuart's horse artillery. Wherever the dashing Stuart and his cavalry went there were Pelham and his war dogs. At Williamsburg and Cold Harbor Pelham fought with bull dog tenacity. At the latter fight he advanced one gun a third of a mile to the front, and for more than an hour it was the only gun on the Confederate left firing, drawing the attention of a whole Federal battery, until Stuart said to Stonewall Jackson:
"General, all your artillery on the left is idle; nobody is firing except Pelham." After the battle the warm pressure of Jackson's hand told Pelham how well he had demeaned himself. That is history. Shortly after this Pelham drove a gunboat from the "White House" with one gun.
He again received the thanks of old Stonewall at Second Manassas, where he thrust his guns forward almost into the enemy's columns and used them with bloody effect. During this fight Jackson said to Stuart, pointing to the young artillerist: "General, if you have another Pelham give him to me." He was then twenty-three years old.
In the bloody repulse the Federals received at Sharpsburg, his guns roared for hours, and a little later he was with Stuart in the bloody track he made from Aldie to Markham's, fighting the immense odds of the foe till they were in a few yards of his guns, drawing off to a better position only to fight again. In was in this gory track that an instance occurred which illustrates his courage. He was with one gun far in advance of the others when the enemy almost reached him, and Stuart ordered him to retire, but he begged to be allowed to remain a little longer, which request was granted. His cannoneers scampered away and left him alone. He loaded the piece and fired almost in the face of the enemy, surging forward like a great billow, and then mounting one of the lead horses, began to gallop away with the cannon, but had not proceeded far when the horse was shot from under him. Quickly cutting the traces to free the dead animal he mounted another, and it, too, was shot down immediately. He escaped with the gun only after a third horse had been shot down and cut from the traces. At Sharpsburg he commanded nearly all the artillery on the Confederate left, and rent the blue lines with shot and shell.
But it was at Fredericksburg that the zenith of John Pelham's renown was reached. The martial king of the proudest nation in all the tides of time might well envy—if the shades in Valhalla are given that privilege—the story that crowned the "boy artillerist" in that stupendous fight and dreadful revelry of death. All was quiet in the Confederate army at Fredericksburg on the morning of the thirteenth of December, 1862. The flower of the South's young manhood was there on the heights in double lines behind bristling bayonets and grimmer guns. Every soldier knew there was to be a fearful fight before the sun sank behind the western wood. The Federal army had crossed the Rappahannock and was forming line of battle under cover of the river bank. Jackson, Stuart and Lee rode down the Confederate lines to the extreme right, followed by waves of cheers, where the Stuart horse artillery was parked. Stuart called to Pelham and said something. Then Pelham turned and galloped to his guns. Immediately he dashed down the heights followed by one gun. It was the "Napoleon detachment," of Mobile Frenchmen. Onward they rushed far down the foot of the heights where the road forks. There they halted, unlimbered and prepared for action. The mist that overspread the field cleared away and the men from the South saw moving toward them steadily, swiftly, with measured tread, a long, compact blue line. On swept the fierce men in blue, their bayonets glistening in the streams of sunshine that stole through the fog. There was a flash, a boom, the earth shook—Pelham's Napoleon had bellowed. Then there was a shrill, hideous, indescribable shriek of a shell as it swirled in the air and went crashing through the charging lines of blue. The surging mass recoiled, halted, hesitated, then with a demoniacal yell, pressed forward toward the single gun. The yell ceased and for a moment there was a ghastly hush, and then, there came thundering through the chilly, December air from across the Rappahannock boom on boom. From southeast to east, from east to northeast. Then from the north came huge shells whirling death in their arms. Pelham had drawn upon himself the concentrated fire of half a dozen batteries twenty four guns. Yet his gun continued to roar, and roaring never failed to slaughter. No other gun on the Confederate side had yet opened, but the lone war-dog howled on. And in the half lull between the boom of the cannon there floated above the noise a sound that seemed strange on that day of multitudinous terrors—the Napoleon detachment singing the Marseillaise as they fought their gun. Like infernal imps of Tophet they flitted about in the smoke of battle. Two armies looked on while the Mobile Frenchmen wrote history with blood. Arms, legs, heads were whirled off, and the ground around torn as by Titan plows. No other Confederate gun had opened, but the fierce Federals could not pass the bellowing Napoleon. Time wore on. Still the gun roared and the sound of its roaring thundered through the air in breaths of battle to the ears of General Robert E. Lee, as he viewed the red revel from the heights. "It is glorious," he exclaimed, "to see such courage in one so young." And in his report of the battle he spoke of no one but Pelham below the rank of major-general, terming him "the gallant Pelham."
Once, twice, three times, Pelham drove back the Federal columns and delayed the battle an hour. When his ammunition was spent he retired, in obedience to a peremptory order, and was assigned to the command of all the artillery on the Confederate right.
Amid shot and shell he had opened the great battle of Fredericksburg and had become immortal. The part played by Pelham at that fight is history that will survive with General Lee's report He was a major of artillery then. His commission as lieutenant-colonel was issued soon after, and only awaited confirmation when he was killed. This was at Kelly's Ford, on the Rappahannock, March 17th, 1863. He had gone to visit some ladies in Culpeper county when he heard the cannonading and hurried to the scene. His artillery had not come up, but he galloped to a regiment that was wavering and shouted: "Forward, boys! Forward to victory and glory!" and at that moment was struck by the fragment of a shell that penetrated the brain and he died shortly after midnight. He died as he had wished amid the roar of battle.
General Stuart telegraphed to Hon. J. L. M. Curry, at present trustee of the great Peabody fund and well known in Louisville, who then represented Pelham's Alabama district in the Confederate Congress:
"The noble, the chivalric, 'the gallant Pelham' is no more. He was killed in action yesterday. His remains will be sent to you to-day. How much he was beloved, appreciated and admired, let the tears of agony we shed and the gloom of mourning throughout my command bear witness. His loss is irreparable."
His remains were taken to Richmond and lay in state at the capitol, viewed by thousands. He was buried at Jacksonville, Ala., amid the scenes of his childhood. General Stuart's general order to the division announcing his death concluded:
"His eyes had glanced over every battlefield of this army, from the first Manassas to the moment of his death, and, with a single exception, he was a brilliant actor in all. The memory of 'the gallant Pelham,' his many virtues, his noble nature and purity of character is enshrined as a sacred legacy in the hearts of all who knew him. His record has been bright and spotless, his career brilliant and successful. He fell the noblest of sacrifice on the altar of his country, to whose glorious service he had dedicated his life from the beginning of the war."
He was calmly and recklessly brave, and saw men torn to pieces around him without emotion, because his heart and eye were upon the stern work he was performing. Such is the brief but resplendent career of the "boy artillerist."
The deeds of Pelham's nephew, who was a private in Terry's Texas regiment, caused the Texas Legislature to enact that as he, "a hero in more than a hundred battles," had fallen while charging the enemy at Dalton, Ga., leaving no issue, the name of a certain child, a nephew, should be changed to Charles Thomas Pelham, to perpetuate his memory.