Portraits of Privates

John Pelham – The “Infernal Gallant Fool”

There are some soldiers and officers in the war that deserve a high-five. Whether for witty comebacks, for outstanding victories, or totally outlandish acts of bravery that somehow turn out all right in the end. John Pelham’s single-gun face-off with the Union army at Fredericksburg is one of those times. Dude had balls.

John_Pelham_16Born on September 7, 1838, John Pelham was the third son of Dr. Atkinson and Martha McGehee Pelham of Benton County, Alabama. He was the typical boy. Going to school, helping on the farm, and causing mischief. His neighbors and family friends all said he would wind up in jail someday for the pranks he pulled. Despite this, he found a position at West Point in 1856. At the military academy, his grades were about average and he got into trouble now and again, as all students do. But he was loved by many and made fast friends with his natural charisma.

Like Robert E. Lee, Pelham followed his state into the Confederacy and had to sneak his way out of the increasingly violent north to get back home. Once there, having left West Point a little too early for graduation, he enlisted in the Confederate Army and was awarded the rank of first lieutenant with the Alburtis Battery in Johnston’s army in the Shenandoah Valley. He spent those first few weeks and months of the war drilling the other artillerymen. Seven hours a day, he ensured that those beneath him would be ready for battle.John_Pelham_in_West_Point_uniform_with_hat

His first taste of real war came at Manassas on July 21st, 1861. Joseph Johnston was called from the Valley to assist Beauregard in deflecting this Union advance under McDowell at the critical railroad junction. But Alburtis fell ill that morning and was unable to lead his battery into battle. Pelham was instantly thrust into a command position and maneuvered his six outdated guns to the right of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s line near the Robinson House. By the end of the day, Pelham had accomplished far more than what might have been expected of him as a mere lieutenant. He personally shot down three Federal battle flags, dueled with the batteries of Griffin and Ricketts upon Henry House Hill, and did what Johnston and Hood couldn’t do in 1864 by halting William Tecumseh Sherman’s infantry assault.

Pelham was praised by his superiors and caught the attention of another glittering star in the Confederate high command. J.E.B Stuart had been wanting to create a light artillery to accompany his cavalry command for some time and snatched up Pelham to join him. Confederate Special Orders No. 557 – the one that attached Pelham to Stuart’s services – was the start of a beautiful friendship. The cavalry commander was only five years older than him, but they got along instantly. Pelham even dined with the other staff officers at cavalry headquarters, which would certainly ruffle the feathers of some staunch, orthodox military men who didn’t think Pelham belonged with other higher-ranking officers.

Before his promotion to captain in May of 1862, Pelham tirelessly drilled his newly recruited light artillery unit until they could man the eight-piece attachment with remarkable swiftness and accuracy. He maintained a reputation for keeping his gear and equipment in immaculate shape, and his limber chests always full in preparation for any engagement. His rapid-fire style and maneuvering made him infamous on the battlefield, never losing a gun and sustaining minimal casualties. Again, he exceeded everyone’s expectations. He further proved his mettle at the various battles in 1862 like Seven Days and gunning down the USS Marblehead. He rose in the esteem of General Jacksons at Second Manassas when he protected the wagon train at Groveton, pursued the Union army at Chantilly, assisted General A.P Hill at South Mountain, and practically saved the Confederate left flank at Antietam under no higher supervision than his own gut-instinct and refined skills. By the time the Confederate Army had fully pulled out of Maryland, Pelham earned the rank of major.

921_2-e1530345969957Throughout the subsequent campaigns and movements, Pelham would receive more praises in officer reports, but his greatest feat was to come on Prospect Hill just outside Fredericksburg.

The Federal I Corps, comprised of Gibbons, Meade, and Doubleday, advanced upon Jackson’s line that made up the entire right flank of the Confederate defenses. The fog had been heavy on the morning of December 13th, 1862, but as the battlefield cleared, soldiers could practically count the regiments that were marching toward them. The artillery on Stafford Heights threatened the Confederate position, as well as batteries attached with Reynolds’ columns.

Pelham, now twenty-four years old, saw all of this and asked Stuart if he could take a couple of guns out to harass the enemy – as he always did. Stuart gave him the greenlight, trusting the man who had become like a little brother to him. Pelham took a single 12-poun Napoleon onto the field and found the perfect spot for it. In the southwest corner of the field, obscured by a line of cedar trees along a road, was a deep depression just big enough for his gun and caissons.

Pelham brought his gun up just enough to make it poke out from the trees above the depression. He fired and the kick-back rolled the gun back into the hollow, completely hiding it from the view of the enemy. It was freakin’ brilliant! The system operated in the same way as the later “disappearing guns” atop coastal fortresses. This, coupled with his rapid-fire techniques, allowed him to pour down a devastating enfilading fire upon the Union division. Cannonballs tumbled through the three columns, making the enemy think they were being attacked by a full battery, while Pelham was using just ONE gun!

This completely halted the Union advance upon Prospect Hill. The guns on Stafford Heights couldn’t depress their guns enough to even get a lock on Pelham, but six Union batteries upon the field could. He managed to destroy the guns of Battery B with the 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery, but not a single artilleryman could nail him in that hollow. Residual fog and carefully placed cavalry units also screened his position. But for a while, it was just Pelham against the whole left Union line.

Bronze Guns & Iron Men, 1985 (oil on canvas)Lee and Jackson turned their spyglasses in Pelham’s direction and admired his spunk. Stuart, on the other hand was terrified to lose his best artillery commander and sent message after message, urging Pelham to seek safety. “Get back from destruction, you infernal, gallant fool, John Pelham!”. The young man’s only response was “I am doing first rate”, despite the heavy losses.

To help his cause, a Blakely rifled cannon was sent forward into the line of cedars. However, there was no room for the gun in the depression and it went nearly unprotected. As a result, it was quickly taken out by the Federal guns, leaving Pelham again with only one Napoleon. He worked beside his cannoneers to keep up the fire, not content to resign his position until the limber chests were completely empty. Only then did he order what was left of his command to fall back to Stuart. From start to finish, he held off the Union advance for over an hour.

Pelham would be nearly fought over after Fredericksburg. Jackson wanted him in his division, and Lee would remark that they needed more brave men like Pelham in his army. He was dubbed the “Gallant Pelham” by the Confederate General, earning him a place in the Civil War Hall of Fame (figuratively speaking, of course)

Unfortunately, stars can’t shine forever. John Pelham was wounded in May of the following year while leading a cavalry charge at the Battle of Kelly’s Ford. His good friend and second-in-command Captain James Breathed had taken the reins for his battery during the battle. A shell exploded over Pelham’s position, raining fragments down upon him. One struck the back of his skull. He wasn’t dead on the spot, but was taken to the Shackleford house in Culpeper – where he had been visiting before the battle with Stuart. After hanging onto life for twelve hours, his wound got the better of him.

John Pelham’s body, clad in his uniform, lay in state in Richmond before it was taken to his family for burial in Jacksonville, Alabama. Posthumously, Pelham received promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. It’s unlikely that Pelham would ever imagine the impact he had upon light artillery operations during the war and long after. His name became legendary, his modesty and humility notable, his reputation untarnished by fault or rumor.

Traveler Tidbits

3There are a couple of places you can visit to honor the memory of “Gallant Pelham”. The first is situated in Fredericksburg itself. At the intersection of Tidewater Trail and Benchmark Road sits a monument to Pelham’s efforts to repel the Union advance toward Prospect Hill. Now commonly called “Pelham’s Corner”, an artillery piece, seated monument, and two interpretive markers pay homage to what took place in the vicinity in December of 1862

Memorial to Major PelhamThe next place is where John Pelham was mortally wounded at Kelly’s Ford. Chris Mackowski of Emerging Civil War gives exact directions on how to get there: “The marker is located in the C. F. Phelps Wildlife Management Area on the south bank of the Rappahanock River. There’s a parking area just off Route 674, 0.9 miles from the intersection to Kelly’s Ford Bridge. From the yellow gate at the parking area, it’s .38 miles to the marker. My Fitbit told me I took 806 steps to get there. Past the yellow gate, a gravel road stretches into the woods. The remains of a stone wall are visible in the woods to the right of the path; this is the stone wall Federal troops hunkered down behind during the first phase of the battle. The gravel road eventually narrows to a pathway. Farther along, it will wind beneath a large fallen tree that leans over low enough to force hikers to crouch beneath it. The tree is crawling with poison ivy, so be careful not to brush against it as you duck under. About 0.05 miles farther, the path forks. The fork isn’t easy to see unless you’re looking for it. Go right. More fallen brush across the path forces a hiker to do a little weaving. And then suddenly, past the foliage of a fallen tree, there’s the marker, standing like a creature of the forest, still but vigilant, watching, waiting, wondering if you’ll see it.”

7407_119899553506And the last is where Pelham is laid to rest in Jacksonville City Cemetery in Jacksonville, Alabama. The address for the cemetery is 910 Church Ave SE, Jacksonville, AL 36265. While the cemetery doesn’t seem to have a website to help you find these markerts, it won’t be hard to find Pelham’s grave. It’s actually visible from the road on Church Street SE just before the stop sign at the intersection with James Street SE. A soldier stands atop the pillar with Pelham’s name carved into the marble. Turn onto James Street and park at the Veteran Memorial since it’s the closest. Cross the street carefully and walk around the stone wall to see his grave marker and monument. At a nearby tree is a wayside sign that gives the story of Pelham’s funeral. If you continue to walk further east in a straight line from Pelham’s marker, you’ll come across a memorial to the 5th Alabama Battalion, Company B, Calhoun Sharpshooters. These are just a few of the Confederate sites within the cemetery and I encourage you to roam around to discover some more.


At Kelly’s Ford – Emerging Civil War

Resources and Further Reading

Hassler, W.W. (1960). Colonel John Pelham: Lee’s Boy Artillerist. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

**Maxwell, J.H. (2011). The Perfect Lion: The Life & Death of Confederate Artillerist John Pelham. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press. (**Recommended Resource)

Mercer, P. (1929). The Life of Gallant Pelham. Kennesaw, GA: J.W. Burke Co.

Hassler, W.W. (1960). Colonel John Pelham: Lee’s Boy Artillerist. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Foote, Shelby. The Civil War, a Narrative, Volume 2, Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York City: First Vintage Books, A Random House Publisher, 1963. Print. (pg 20-45)

Mackoswki, Chris and White, Kristopher. (2017). Simply Murder: The Battle of Fredericksburg., El Dorado Hills, California. Savas Beatie Press.


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