Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 38/Major John Pelham, Hero
MAJOR JOHN PELHAM, CONFEDERATE HERO.
General Lee Called Him "the Gallant Pelham"—Records Prove His Bravery.
Editor of the Times-Dispatch:
Sir,—There appeared in the Times-Dispatch of February 16th over my signature a few words of tribute to Major James Breathed, of the Stuart Horse Artillery, Army of Northern Virginia. The Times-Dispatch very kindly gave me space in their widely circulated paper and published the above mentioned tribute. I come before you again asking that I be granted the same courtesy, that I may place upon the grave of the gallant Major John Pelham (the organizer and first captain of the celebrated Stuart Horse Artillery) a few forget-me-nots and sprigs of laurel, that those who did not have the great privilege of knowing the gallant boy-major may read in a measure of what manner of man he was and how he was esteemed by all of those whom he came in contact with, from the immortal R. E. Lee to the most humble private in the ranks. Pelham and Breathed were in the same battery; kindred spirits indeed; loyal to the cause of the South; terrible hard fighters, with a stubbornness that would not yield; an aggressiveness that was irresistible. The gallant Pelham (as he was called by General R. E. Lee) was born in Calhoun county, Ala., near Alexandria, September 7, 1838. His father, Dr. Atkinson Pelham, came to the county from Kentucky in 1837, and was for many years a prominent physician. His mother was a Miss McGehee, whose family came from Person county, N. C, to Calhoun county about 1832.
John Pelham was appointed to the United States Military Academy from Alabama July 1, 1856, aged seventeen years and nine months, through the influence of the representative of his district, the Hon. S. W. Harris, at the request of Hon. A. J. Walker. His standing in the class was low, but his commission was passed on, and he would have received it had he remained a week longer. But his love for the South, and especially for his State, called him home; consequently he crossed the line in April, disguised as one of General Scott's couriers. Repairing at once to Montgomery, Ala., he reported for duty, and was commissioned first lieutenant of artillery, regular army, and ordered to take charge of the ordnance at Lynchburg, Va. He was only there a few days when he was ordered to Albertus's (afterwards Imboden's) Battery, at Winchester, Va. He handled a section of this battery in such a masterly manner at First Manassas July 21, 1861, as to attract the attention of Brigadier-General T. J. Jackson (Stonewall) and J. E. B. Stuart. When General J. E. B. Stuart conceived the idea of organizing a battery of horse artillery to operate in conjunction with his cavalry, his eyes naturally turned towards the young artillery officer that had displayed so much gallantry and knowledge in the handling of his pieces at Manassas. In November, 1861, the battery of Stuart's Horse Artillery, consisting of eight guns, was organized, and the young officer, a mere boy in appearance, Lieutenant John Pelham, was commission its first captain. This battery under his leadership and command became famous and was second to none in the Confederate States Army. The battery became as celebrated as the name of its commander. I do not know a spot among the hills and dales of the Confederacy that has not heard of the Pelham-Breathed Battery, Stuart's Horse Artillery. Its deeds of valor has been written of by poet and historian; even the men who opposed it on the Federal side sing its praises in no unmeasured tributes. The official records of the war are replete with the daring of this gallant officer and his men. He handled, in addition to his own battery, the artillery of General T. J. Jackson, at Fredericksburg, Va.; was with him at Second Manassas, where he was given discretionary power to place his battery where his judgment dictated. No such privilege had ever been given any other of General T. J. Jackson's subordinates. He was with him at Mechanicsville, Va., receiving praise and thanks from the great commander for the skilful handling of his guns against the superior forces of the enemy's artillery, holding in check with one Napoleon gun two of the enemy's full six-gun batteries. We find him again with him at Sharpsburg, Maryland., where shell and minie ball rained like hail around us, but he never quailed, but kept his battery in position, returning shot for shot with the enemy's artillery until his battery became so crippled that General J. E. B. Stuart's quartermaster had to supply horses to remove the battery from the field. He and his celebrated battery flashed like a meteor from battlefield to battlefield; always in the advance, fighting on the skirmish line until it seemed at times that nothing but Providence would save that devoted band of heroes from capture or certain death, but just as the overly confident Federals were certain of the prize, Pelham's ringing voice would be heard, "Limber! rear! Gallop!" and away we would go, laughing at the disappointment of the enemy. I could enumerate many instances of this character, but lack of space forbids. General R. E. Lee commended him for promotion as Lieutenant-Colonel of Artillery only a few days prior to his death. General Pendleton, General R. E. Lee's Chief of Artillery, had vainly tried to persuade General J. E. B. Stuart to allow him to be transferred to the infantry-artillery c jrps, but without any success. The successful resistance whicli General Stuart was enabled to oppose the Federal Cavalry was in a great measure due to the skilful handling of his artillery. Two spirits more congenial than Stuart and Pelham never met on the field of battle. Stuart's fondness for artillery was a craze with him. Pelham's skill in its management amounted to genius. Stuart, Pelham and the peerless Breathed imparted to the horse artillery an independency of action and a celerity of moment which characterized it to the end of the war, and which was nowhere equalled or imitated. But in the Providence of God he was not allowed to remain with us very long. No one knows what his record would have been if he had lived until the close of the struggle—brilliant, matchless, no doubt; an example for the whole world to have followed. But this was not to be. On March 17, 1863, he fell while leading the Third Virginia Cavalry in a charge against the enemy's cavalry (Averill's), who had crossed the Rappahannock River at Kelly's Ford, and was making for Culpeper Courthouse. Fitz Lee's brigade was resisting the advance of Averill's forces, consisting of 2,100 men, successfully. The Horse Artillery, then under command of Captain James Breathed (Pelham having been promoted Major), arrived on the scene and at once opened on the enemy's cavalry and Martin's Independent Horse Battery of New York, six guns.
General J. E. B. Stuart and Major John Pelham were in Culpeper Courthouse attending a military court, when the firing of Breathed's guns announced the attack of Averill's force upon Fitz Lee. They mounted their horses and immediately rode to the scene of the conflict rapidly. Major Pelham, on reaching the field, came up quickly to the battery (Breathed's), and finding that Breathed was working his battery to great advantage, and the fire of the enemy's battery seemed to be slackening, he said to Breathed: "Captain, do not let your fire cease; drive them from their position." These were the last words I ever heard him utter. He then rode off in the direction of the Third Virginia Calvary, who were on our right, and who were forming to charge the enemy's cavalry on the other side of the stone wall. The Adjutant of the Third Cavalry writes:
"At the moment a regiment of Federal cavalry swept down upon us. Pelham's sabre flashed from its sheath in an instant. At that moment his appearance was superb. His cheeks were burning; his bright blue eyes darted lightning, and from his lips, wreathed with a smile of joy, rang, 'Forward!' as he cheered on the men. He looked the perfect picture of a hero, as he was. For an instant he was standing in his stirrups, his sabre flashing in his grasp; for a moment his clarion voice rang like a bugle that sounds the charge, and then I saw him hurled from his saddle under the tramping hoofs of the horses. With a single bound of my horse I reached him. He lay with his smiling face turned upward; his eyes closed. A shell had burst above him, a fragment of which had struck him on the head. He was gone, and his young blood, sacred to the men of his battery and the entire command, had bathed Virginia's soil."
He was placed tenderly across his faithful horse and conveyed most tenderly by Lieutenant McClellan, the Adjutant of the Third Virginia Cavalry, and some men to the house of Judge Shackelford, at Culpeper Courthouse, Va. When he reached the Courthouse he was just breathing, and in a short while the soul of the gallant soldier winged its flight to the God that gave it. That night the men of the battery bade good-bye to their gallant and idolized commander as he laid in the parlor of Judge Shackelford's house. General Stuart also came. With measured step, his black plumed hat in hand, he approached the body, looked long and silently upon the smiling face, his eyes full of tears; then stooping down he pressed his bearded lips to the marble brow. As he did so the breast of the great Stuart was shaken, a sob issued from his lips, and a tear fell on the pale cheek of Pelham. Severing from his forehead a lock of the light hair, he turned away, and as he did so there was heard in low, deep tones, which seemed to force their way through tears, the single word, "Farewell." It was Stuart's last greeting on this earth to the spirit of Pelham, soon to meet each other where the roar of battle never comes.
The next day General Stuart sent to Mr. Curry, his representative in the Confederate States Congress, the following dispatch:
"The noble, the chivalrous Pelham, is no more; he was killed in action; his remains will be sent you to-day. How much he was loved, appreciated and admired let the tears of agony we have shed and the gloom of mourning throughout my command bear witness. His loss is irreparable."
Afterwards, in a general order to his command, he says: "He fell mortally wounded with the battle-cry on his lips and the light of victory beaming in his eyes. His eye had glanced over every battlefield of this army, from the First Manassas to the moment of his death, and he was, with a single exception, a brilliant actor in them all. The memory of the gallant Pelham, his many victories, 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 sacrifices on the altar of his country."
Such is a brief but resplendent record of this boy hero, the American "La Rochejaquelein." One who loved him from his old State of Alabama writes:
"In person he was of ordinary statue and light build, but remarkably sinewy. He was considered the best athlete at West Point, and he was there noted for his fondness for fencing, boxing, etc. The Prince of Wales (now Edward VII) was struck with his horsemanship when he visited the Academy in 1860. He had a boyish appearance; erect and neat address. Modest as a maiden in the social circle, he shone with the mild effulgence of a Pleiade, but the battlefield transformed him into the fiery meteor with its dazzling glare. He was calmly and recklessly brave, and saw men torn to pieces around him without emotion — his heart and eye were on the stern work he was performing. Even in early youth he fought a larger schoolfellow till he fainted with exhaustion."
Well might old Stonewall say: "If you have another Pelham, General Stuart, give him to me."
His mind was of a pious turn, his language was chaste, and his bearing courteous. He never spoke of himself, and seemed to be unconscious of his own merit. Like his dear friend and comrade, Major James Breathed, his body rests in a little unpretentious graveyard at Jacksonville, Ala.
Such is the imperfect picture I have attempted to draw and present of my old friend and commander. March 17th being the anniversary of the death of that brilliant soldier, I could not fail in my duty as a member of the original battery of Stuart's Horse Artillery, in a small measure, at least, to say a word on this, the forty-fifth anniversary of his sad removal from this earth. I know it is presumption on my part to attempt the task of paying in the smallest degree tribute to Pelham and Breathed; but my sense of duty and the great love I hold their memory in prompts me to pen these lines that I have submitted to the paper for publication. I realize that men like Pelham and Breathed never die ; their names will go thundering down the decades of ages a household word in the American nation, not only in the South, but in the confines of this boundless continent of ours. I cannot cease to return thanks that it was my good fortune and great privilege to have been in close touch with these two heroes ; to have known them, and been under their command ; to have sat at the same camp fire and been inspired by their loyalty and love for the starry cross banner of the Southland.
- Very sincerely,
H. H. Matthewe,
Pelham-Breathed Battery, S. H. A.
Pikesville, Md., March 10, 1908.