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Pelham “the gallant”


On the morning of the 17th of March, 1863, Averill's Federal Cavalry, three thousand in the saddle, crossed the Rappahannock at Kelly's Ford, and attacked about eight hundred of General Fitz Lee's command, who faced, without shrinking, these great odds, and fought them stubbornly at every point throughout the entire day.

When the sun set on that tranquil evening-sinking slowly down behind the quiet forest, unstirred by the least breath of wind — the long and desperate struggle was decided. The enemy was retiring, “badly hurt,” and General Stuart added in his dispatch: “We are after him. His dead men and horses strew the road.”

No harder battle was fought during the entire war. The Southern forces won the day by hard and desperate fighting, in charge after charge; but lost in the struggle some of the most valiant hearts that ever beat. Puller, Harris, and Pelham were among the number — the “gallant Pelham” of the battle of Fredericksburg. He was in the performance of his duty as Chief of Artillery, and was riding towards his General, when a regiment of cavalry swept by him in a charge. He was waving his hat aloft, and cheering them on, when a fragment of shell struck him on the head, mortally wounding him. He lingered until [117] after midnight on the morning of the 18th, when General Stuart telegraphed to Mr. Curry, of Alabama:

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 have shed, and the gloom of mourning throughout my command, bear witness. His loss is irreparable.

The body of the young officer was sent to Richmond, laid in state in the Capitol of Virginia, and we are told that “some tender hand deposited an evergreen wreath, intertwined with white flowers, upon the case that contained all that was mortal of the fallen hero.” His family received the soldier's remains; they were taken to his Southern home; Virginia, the field of his fame, had surrendered him to Alabama, the land of his birth.

“The Major-General commanding,” wrote Stuart, in a general order,

approaches with reluctance the painful duty of announcing to the Division its irreparable loss in the death of Major John Pelham, commanding the Horse Artillery.

He fell mortally wounded in the battle of Kellysville, March 17th, with the battle-cry on his lips, and the light of victory beaming from his eye.

To you, his comrades, it is needless to dwell upon what you have so often witnessed-his prowess in action, already proverbial. You well know how, though young in years, a mere stripling in appearance, remarkable for his genuine modesty of deportment, he yet disclosed on the battle-field the conduct of a veteran, and displayed in his handsome person the most imperturbable coolness in danger.

His eye had glanced over every battle-field of this army, from the first Manassas to the moment of his death, and he was, with a single exception, 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 sacrifices — on the altar of his country, [118] o whose glorious service he had dedicated his life from the beginning of the war.

Thus passed away a noble, lofty soul; thus ended a career, brief, it is true, but among the most arduous, glorious, and splendid of the war. Young, but immortal — a boy in years, but heir to undying fame-he was called away from the scene of his triumphs and glory to a brighter world, where neither wars nor rumours of wars can come, and wounds and pain and suffering are unknown; where

Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing
Can touch him further!


To him who writes these lines, the death of this noble youth has been inexpressibly saddening. It has cast a shadow on the very sunlight; and the world seems, somehow, colder and more dreary since he went away. It was but yesterday almost that he was in his tent, and I looked into his frank, brave eyes, and heard his kind, honest voice. There is the seat he occupied as we conversed — the bed where he so often slept with me, prolonging his gay talk deep into the night. There are the books he read — the papers which he wrote; at this table he once sat, and here where my own hand rests has rested the hand of the Dead! Every object thus recalls him, even as he lived and moved beside me but a few days ago. His very words seem still echoing in the air, and the dreary camp is full of his presence!

Nor am I the only one whose heart has bled for the young soldier. All who knew him loved him for his gay, sweet temper, as they admired him for his unshrinking courage. I have seen no face over which a sort of shadow did not pass at the announcement, “Pelham is dead!”

Pelham is dead!” It is only another mode of saying “honour is dead! courage is dead! modesty, kindness, courtesy, the inborn spirit of the true and perfect gentleman, the nerve of the [119] soldier, the gaiety of the good companion, the kindly heart, and the resolute soul-all dead, and never more to revisit us in his person!”

These words are not dictated by a blind partiality or mere personal regard for the brave youth who has fallen in front of the foe, in defence of the sacred liberties of the South. Of his unshrinking nerve and coolness in the hour of peril, the name of “the gallant Pelham,” given him by General Lee at Fredericksburg, will bear witness. Of his noble, truthful nature, those who knew him best will speak.

He had made for himself a celebrated name, and he was only twenty-four when he died!

A son of the great State of Alabama, and descended from an old and honourable family there, he had the courage of his race and clime. He chose arms as his profession, and entered West Point, where he graduated just as the war commenced; lost no time in offering his services to the South, and received the appointment of First-Lieutenant in the Confederate States army. Proceeding to Harper's Ferry, when General Johnston was in command there, he was assigned to duty as drill-officer of artillery, and in the battle of Manassas commanded a battery, which he fought with that daring courage which afterwards rendered him so famous. He speedily attracted the attention of the higher Generals of the army, and General J. E. B. Stuart entrusted him with the organization of the battalion of Horse Artillery which he subsequently commanded in nearly every battle of the war upon Virginia soil. Here I knew him first.

From the moment when he took command of that famous corps, a new system of artillery fighting seemed to be inaugurated. The rapidity, the rush, the impetus of the cavalry, were grafted on its more deliberate brother. Not once, but repeatedly, has the Horse Artillery of Pelham given chase at full speed to a flying enemy; and, far in advance of all infantry support, unlimbered and hurled its thunders on the foe. It was ever at the point where the line was weakest; and however headlong the charge of the cavalry, the whirling guns were beside it, all ready for their part. “Trot, march!” had yielded to “gallop!” [120] with the battalion; it was rushed into position, and put in action with a rush; and in and out among the guns where the bolts fell thickest was the brave young artillerist, cool and self-possessed, but, as one of his officers said the other day, “as gay as a schoolboy at a frolic.” He loved his profession for its own sake; and often spoke to the officers above alluded to of the “jolly good fights” he would have in the present campaign; but I anticipate my subject.

Once associated with the command of Stuart, he secured the warm regard and unlimited confidence of that General, who employed his services upon every occasion. Thenceforth their fortunes seemed united, like their hearts; and the young man became known as one of the most desperate fighters of the whole army. He was rightly regarded by Jackson and others as possessed of a very extraordinary genius for artillery; and when any movement of unusual importance was designed, Pelham was assigned to the artillery to be employed.

His career was a brief one, but how glorious! How crowded with great events that are history now! Let us glance at it:

When the Southern forces fell back from Manassas in 1861, his batteries had their part in covering the movement, and guarding the fords of the Rappahannock. During the campaign of the Peninsula, his Blakely was as a sentinel on post near the enemy; and at the battle of Williamsburg his courage and skill transformed raw militia into veterans. In the seven days battles around Richmond he won fadeless laurels. With one Napoleon, he engaged three heavy batteries, and fought them with a pertinacity and unfaltering nerve which made the calm face of Jackson glow; and the pressure of that heroic hand, warm and eloquent of unspoken admiration. Soon afterwards, at the “White house,” he engaged a gunboat, and driving it away, after a brief but hot encounter, proved how fanciful were the terrors of these “monsters.”

His greatest achievements were to come, however; and he hastened to record them on the enduring tablets of history. From the moment when his artillery advanced from the Rappahannock, to the time when it returned thither, to the day of Fredericksburg, the path of the young leader was deluged with [121] the blood of battle. At Manassas he rushed his guns into the very columns of the enemy almost; fighting their sharpshooters with canister, amid a hurricane of balls. At Sharpsburg he had command of nearly all the artillery on our left, and directed it with the hand of a master. When the army crossed back into Virginia, he was posted at Shepherdstown, and guarded the ford with an obstinate valour, which spoke in the regular and unceasing reverberation of his deep-mouthed Napoleons, as they roared on, hour after hour, driving back the enemy.

Of the days which succeeded that exciting period, many persons will long hold the memory. It was in an honest old countryhouse, whither the tide of war bore him for a time, that the noble nature of the young soldier shone forth in all its charms. There, in the old hall on the banks of the Opequon, surrounded by warm hearts who reminded him perhaps of his own beloved ones in far Alabama; there, in the tranquil days of autumn, in that beautiful country, he seemed to pass some of his happiest hours. All were charmed with his kind temper and his sunny disposition; with his refinement, his courtesy, his high breeding, and simplicity. Modest to a fault almost-blushing like a girl at times, and wholly unassuming in his entire deportment-he became a favourite with all around him, and secured that regard of good men and women which is the proof of high traits and fine instincts in its possessor. In the beautiful autumn forests, by the stream with its great sycamores, and under the tall oaks of the lawn, he thus wandered for a time — an exile from his own land of Alabama, but loved, admired, and cherished by warm hearts in this. When he left the haunts of “The Bower,” I think he regretted it. But work called him.

The fiat had gone forth from Washington that another “On to Richmond” should be attempted; and where the vultures of war hovered, there was the post of duty for the Horse Artillery. The cavalry crossed the Blue Ridge, and met the advancing column at Aldie-and Pelham was again in his element. Thenceforward, until the banks of the Rappahannock were reached by the cavalry, the batteries of the Horse Artillery disputed every step of ground. The direction of the artillery was left, with unhestitating confidence, by Stuart to the young officer; and those [122] who witnessed, during that arduous movement, the masterly handling of his guns, can tell how this confidence was justified. It was the eye of the great soldier, the hand of the born artillerist, which was evident in his work during those days of struggle. He fell back neither too soon nor too late, and only limbered up his guns to unlimber again in the first position which he reached. Thus fighting every inch of the way from Aldie, round by Paris, and Markham's, he reached the Rappahannock, and posted his artillery at the fords, where he stood and bade the enemy defiance. That page in the history of the war is scarcely known; but those who were present know the obstinacy of the contests, and the nerve and skill which were displayed by the young officer.

That may be unknown, but the work done by Pelham on the great day of Fredericksburg is a part of history now. All know how stubbornly he stood on that day-what laurels encircled his young brow when night at last came. This was the climax of his fame — the event with which his name will be inseparably connected. With one Napoleon gun, he opened the battle on the right, and instantly drew upon himself the fire, at close range, of three or four batteries in front, and a heavy enfilading fire from thirty-pound Parrots across the river. But this moved him little. That Napoleon gun was the same which he had used at the battle of Cold Harbour — it was taken from the enemy at Seven Pines-and, in the hands of the young officer, it had won a fame which must not be tarnished by defeat! Its grim voice must roar, however great the odds; its reverberating defiance must roll over the plain, until the bronze war-dog was silenced. So it roared on steadily with Pelham beside it, blowing up caissons, and continuing to tear the enemy's ranks. General Lee was watching it from the hill above, and exclaimed, with eyes filled with admiration, “It is glorious to see such courage in one so young!” It was glorious indeed to see that one gun, placed in an important position, hold its ground with a firmness so unflinching. Not until his last round of ammunition was shot away did Pelham retire; and then only after a peremptory order sent to him. He afterwards took command of the entire artillery on the right, and fought it until night with a skill and courage which [123] were admirable. He advanced his guns steadily, and at nightfall was thundering on the flank of the retreating enemy, who no longer replied. No answering roar came back from those batteries he had fought with his Napoleon so long; he had triumphed. That triumph was complete, and placed for ever upon record when the great Commander-in-Chief, whom he loved and admired so ardently, gave him the name in his report of “the gallant Pelham.”

Supreme tribute to his courage-immortalizing him in history! To be the sole name mentioned beneath the rank of Major-General in all that host of heroes-and mentioned as “the gallant Pelham!”

Thenceforward there was little for him to desire. He had never cared for rank, only longed for glory; and now his name was deathless. It is true that he sometimes said, with modest and noble pride, that he thought it somewhat hard to be considered too young for promotion, when they gave him great commands --as at Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg-and called on him when the hardest work was to be done. But he never desired a mere title he had not won, and did his soldier's duty thoroughly, trusting to time. So noble and important, however, had been his recent services, that promotion was a matter of course. The President said, “I do not need to see any papers about Major Pelham,” and had appointed him a Lieutenant-Colonel; and it only awaited the formal confirmation of the Senate, when he fell on the Rappahannock. His fall was a public calamity to the nation, but none to him. It was fit that such a spirit should lay down his great work before the hard life of the world had dimmed the polish of the good knight's spotless shield. He wanted no promotion at the hands of men. He had won, if not worn, the highest honours of the great soldier; and having finished his task, the gentle spirit took its flight, promoted by the tender hand of Death to other honours in a brighter world.


In this hasty tribute to one whom I knew well, and loved much, it is hard to avoid the appearance of exaggeration. The [124] character of this young soldier was so eminently noble-his soul so brave, so true, so free from any taint of what was mean or sordid or little — that the sober words of truth may be doubted by some, who will only regard them as that tender and pious flattery which friendship accords to the dead.

This sentiment will be experienced only by strangers, however. Those who knew him will recognise the true portrait. His modesty, his gentleness-his bearing almost childlike in its simplicity-made his society charming. This modesty of deportment was observed by every one, and strangers often referred to the singular phenomenon in a youth bred in the self-sufficient atmosphere of West Point, and whose name was already so famous. He never spoke of himself; you might live with him for a month, and never know that he had been in a single action. He never seemed to think that he deserved any applause for his splendid courage, and was silent upon all subjects connected with his own actions. In his purse was found folded away, after his death, a slip from a United States officer, once his friend, which contained the words, “After long silence, I write. God bless you, dear Pelham; I am proud of your success.” But he had never even alluded to the paper. Distinguished unmistakably by the affection and admiration of his immediate General-rendered famous by the praise of the Commander-in-Chief at Fredericksburg-he never exhibited the least trait of self-love, remaining what he had always been, as modest, unassuming, and simple as a child.

This and other winning traits come to my mind as I write, and I could speak at length of all those charming endowments which endeared him to every one around him. I could dwell on his nice sense of honour-his devotion to his family — on that prisca fides in his feeling and opinions which made him a great, true type of the Southern gentleman, attracting the attention and respect of the most eminent personages of his time. But with the recollection of those eminent social characteristics comes the memory always of his long, hard work in the service. I have often seen him engaged in that work, which gave him his great [125] fame; and this phase of the young officer's character obtrudes itself, rounding and completing the outline.

With what obstinate and unyielding courage he fought!-with a daring how splendid, how rich in suggestion of the antique days! He entered upon a battle with the coolness and resolution of a great leader trained in a thousand combats, and fought his guns with the fury and elan of Murat at the head of his horsemen. No trait of the ground, no movement of the enemy, ever escaped his eagle eye. With an inborn genius for war which West Point had merely developed, and directed in its proper channels, he had the rapid comprehension-intuition almostwhich counts for so much in a leader. Where the contest was hottest and the pressure heaviest, there was Pelham with his guns; and the broken lines of infantry, or cavalry giving ground before irresistible numbers, heard their deep voices roaring and saw the ranks of the enemy scattered. Often he waited for no order, took the whole responsibility, and opened his batteries where he saw that they were most needed by the emergencies of the moment. But what he did was always the very best that could be done. He struck at the right moment, and his arm was heavy. To the cavalry, the roar of Pelham's Napoleons was a welcome sound. When the deep-mouthed thunder of those guns was heard, the faintest took heart, and the contest assumed a new phase to all — for that sound had proved on many a field the harbinger of victory.1

Beside those guns was the chosen post of the young artillerist. The gaudium certaminis seemed to fill his being at such moments; and, however numerous the batteries which he threw into action, he never remained behind “in command of the whole field.” He [126] told me that he considered this his duty, and I know that he never shrank — as he might have done — from performing it. He was ever by the guns which were under the hottest fire, and, when the enemy shifted their fire to other portions of the field, he proceeded thither, riding at full speed, and directed the fresh batteries in person. His men will remember how cheering and inspiring was his presence with them-how his coolness steadied them in the most exciting moments-and his brave, cheerful voice was the herald of success. “He was the bravest human being I ever saw in my life,” said one of his officers whom I conversed with recently; and all who have seen him under fire will bear similar testimony. His coolness had something heroic in it. It never deserted him, or was affected by those chances of battle which excite the bravest. He saw guns shattered and dismounted, or men torn to pieces, without exhibiting any signs of emotion. His nature seemed strung and every muscle braced to a pitch which made him rock; and the ghastliest spectacle of blood and death left his soul unmoved-his stern will unbent.

That unbending will had been tested often, and never had failed him yet. At Manassas, Williamsburg, Cold Harbour, Groveton, Oxhill, Sharpsburg, Shepherdstown, Kearneysville, Aldie, Union, Upperville, Markham, Barbee's, Hazel River, and Fredericksburg-at these and many other places he fought his horse artillery, and handled it with heroic coolness. One day when I led him to speak of his career, he counted up something like a hundred actions which he had been in-and in every one he had borne a prominent part. Talk with the associates of the young leader in those hard-fought battles, and they will tell you a hundred instances of his dauntless courage. At Manassas he took position in a place so dangerous that an officer, who had followed him up to that moment, rode away with the declaration that “if Pelham was fool enough to stay there, he was not.” But General Jackson thanked him, as he thanked him at Cold Harbour, when the brave young soldier came back covered with dust from fighting his Napoleon — the light of victory in his eyes. At Markham, while he was fighting the enemy in front, they made a circuit and charged him in the rear; but he turned [127] his guns about, and fought them as before, with his “Napoleon detachment” singing the loud, triumphant Marseillaise, as that same Napoleon gun, captured at Seven Pines, and used at Fredericksburg, drove them back. All that whole great movement was a marvel of hard fighting, however, and Pelham was the hero of the stout, close struggle. Any other chief of artillery might have sent his men in at Fredericksburg and elsewhere, leaving the direction of the guns to such officers as the brave Captain Henry; but this did not suit the young chieftain. He must go himself with the one gun sent forward, and beside that piece he remained until it was ordered back-directing his men to lie down, but sitting his own horse, and intent solely upon the movements and designs of the enemy, wholly careless of the “fire of hell” hurled against him. It was glorious, indeed, as General Lee declared, to see such heroism in the boyish artillerist; and well might General Jackson speak of him in terms of “exaggerated compliment,” and ask General Stuart “if he had another Pelham, to give him to him.” On that great day, the young son of Alabama covered himself with glory-but no one who knew him felt any surprise at it. Those who had seen him at work upon other fields knew the dauntless resolution of his brave young soul — the tough and stern fibre of his courage. That hard fibre could bear any strain upon it and remain unmoved.

In all those hard combats, no ball or shell ever struck him. The glance of the blue eyes seemed to conquer Danger, and render Death powerless. He seemed to bear a charmed life, and to pass amid showers of bullets without peril or fear of the result. It was not from the enemy's artillery alone that he ran the greatest danger in battle. He was never content to remain at his guns if they were silent. His mind was full of the contest, pondering its chances, as though he had command of the whole army himself; he never rested in his exertions to penetrate the designs of the enemy. Upon such occasions he was the mark at which the sharpshooters directed their most dangerous fire; but they never struck him. The balls passed to the right or left, or overhead-his hour had not yet come. [128]

It came at last in that hard fight upon the Rappahannock, and the famous youth lies low at last. He fell “with the battle-cry on his lips, and the light of victory beaming from his eye.” In the words of the general order which his beloved commander issued, “His record had been bright and spotless; his career brilliant and successful; he fell the noblest of sacrifices on the altar of his country.”

The theme grows beneath the pen which at first attempted a slight sketch only, and my paper is growing too long. A few words more will complete the outline of this eminent young soldier.

The name of Pelham will remain connected for ever with great events; but it will live perennial, too, in many hearts who mourn bitterly his untimely end. All who knew him loved him; I believe that no human being disliked him. His character was so frank, and open, and beautiful-his bearing so modest and unassuming — that he conciliated all hearts, and made every one who met him his friend. His passions were strong; and when he was aroused fire darted from the flint, but this was seldom. During all my acquaintance with him-and that acquaintance dated back to the atumn of 1861-I never had a word addressed to me that was unfriendly, and never saw him angry but twice. “Poor boy!” said Stuart one day, “he was angry with me once,” and the speaker had known him longer than I had. He had rare self-control, and I think that this sprang in a great measure from a religious sense of duty. He would sit and read his Bible with close attention; and, though he never made a profession of his religious convictions, it is certain that these convictions shaped his conduct. The thought of death never seemed to cross his mind, however; and he once told me that he had never felt as if he was destined to be killed in the war. Alas! the brief proverb is the comment: “Man proposes, God disposes.”

Thus, modest, brave, loving, and beloved — the famous soldier, the charming companion-he passed away from the friends who cherished him, leaving a void which none other can fill. Alabama lent him to Virginia for a time; but, alas! the pale face smiles no more as he returns to her. As many mourn his early death [129] here, where his glory was won, as in the southern land from which he came. To these — the wide circle who loved him for his great qualities, and his kind, good heart-his loss is irreparable, as it is to the whole South. The “breed of noble minds” like his is not numerous, and when such forms disappear the gap is hard to fill — the struggle more arduous than before. But the memory of this great young soldier still remains with us, his name is immortal in history as in many hearts which throbbed at his death!

Poor colourless phrases!-faded flowers I try to strew on the grave of this noble soul! But the loss is too recent, and the wound has not yet healed. The heart still bleeds as the pen traces the dull words on the page.

Mourn for him! Let him be regarded
As the most noble corse that ever herald
Did follow to his urn!

Strange words!-it may be said — for a boy little more than twenty! Exaggerated estimate of his loss!

No, the words are not strange; the loss is not exaggeratedfor the name of this youth was John Pelham.

1 The rumour has obtained a wide circulation that Major Pelham lost one or more of his guns when the cavalry fell back from the mountains. The report is entirely without foundation. He never lost a gun there or anywhere else. Though he fought his pieces with such obstinacy that the enemy more than once charged within ten yards of the muzzles of the guns, he always drove them back, and brought his artillery off safely. He asked my friendly offices in making public this statement. I neglected it, but now put the facts on record, in justice to his memory.

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