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Major John Pelham by Richard Barksdale Harwell

Major John Pelham
by
Richard Barksdale Harwell



The "gallant Pelham," as he was styled by his commanding general, was a native of Alabama, and commanded the horse artillery attached to the cavalry division of General J. E. Stuart. He entered the army at the commencement of the war and was engaged in every battle fought in Virginia from the first Manassas, in 1861, to the battle of Keysville, March 17, 1863, where he fell mortally wounded, with the battle-cry on his lips and the light of victory beaming from his eye. The army correspondent of the "Illustrated News" thus notices the sad event:
On the morning of the 17th of March, Averill's Federal cavalry, three thousand in the saddle, crossed the Rappahannock at Kelly's Ford and attacked about eight hundred of General Fitzhugh 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—pinking 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 hiin. His dead men and horses strew the road."
No harder battle has been fought during the entire war; and never have the enemy reeled back in greater confusion before the Southern steel than here. Our heroes 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 toward 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 ball from a carbine struck him on the head, mortally wounding him. He lingered until 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.
In a general order issued on the occasion, General Stuart said:
"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 strippling 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, to whose glorious service he had dedicated his life from the beginning of the war.
"In token of respect for his cherished memory, the Horse Artillery and division staff will wear the military badge of mourning for thirty days; and the senior officer of staff, Major Von Borcke, will place his remains in the possession of his bereaved family, to whom is tendered, in behalf of the division, the assurance of heartfelt sympathy in this deep tribulation.
"In mourning his departure from his accustomed post of honor on the field, let us strive to imitate his virtues, and trust that what is loss to us, may be more than gain to him."
When killed, Pelham was but twenty-four years of age, but he had made for himself a, " great immortal name."
The correspondent of the " Illustrated News," above alluded to, furnished that paper with the annexed particulars in regard to his short but brilliant career:
A son of the great State of Alabama, and descended from an old and honorable family there, he had more than 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. He 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 obstinate and daring courage which afterwards rendered him so famous. He speedily attracted the attention of the other 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 now 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!" 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 purely; 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 General 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 name of the young man became noised abroad as one of the most desperate fighters of the whole army. He was rightly regarded by General 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 our 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 next 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 General 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," as they were then called. After that work in the Peninsula, the young man was famous.
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 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 be had command of nearly all the artillery on our left, and directed it with the hand of the master. When the army crossed back into Virginia he was posted at Sheppardstown, and guarded the ford with an obstinate valor, 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 country house, whither the tide of war bore him for a time, that the gay, 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 favorite 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 old "bower" I think he regretted it. But work called him.
The fiat had gone forth from the imperial closet at 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, hurling destruction upon the ranks of General Bayard.
Thenceforward, until the banks of the Rappahannock were reached by the cavalry, falling back in order, as was designed—from that instant the batteries of the Horse Artillery disputed every step of ground. The direction of the artillery was left with unhesitating confidence to the young officer; and those 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 four batteries in front, and a heavy enfilading fire from 30-pound Parrots across the river. But this did not daunt him. 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 and heroic—to see a beardless boy sternly standing in that horrible hurricane of shell, with iron resolution and a soul as immovable as rock. 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 were admirable. He advanced hie guns steadily, and at nightfall was thundering on the flank of the retreating foe, 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 forever 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 Pelhatn." 
Supreme tribute to his courage—immortalizing him in history! To be the sole name mentioned 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 had 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 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 honors of the great soldier; and having finished his task, the gentle spirit took its flight, promoted by the tender hand of death to other honors in a brighter world.
"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 tract of the ground, no movement of the enemy, ever escaped his eagle eye. With an inborn geuius for war which West Point had merely developed, and directed in its proper channels, he had that rapid comprehension—intuition almost—which counts for so much in a leader. Where the contest was the 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 torn and scattered. Often he waited for no orders, took the whole responsibility, and opened his batteries where he saw that they were 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. Many foes had felt it, and the knowledge that Pelham, with his Horse Artillery, was in front, did not give them much heart for the encounter. They knew that the announcement was another manner of informing them that skill, daring, stubborn courage was to be dealt with—that wounds, disaster and death awaited them from the hands of the well-known young leader. What terrified the foe was the guage of success to our own men. 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. At Manassas, "Williamsburg, Cold Harbour, Groveton, Oxhill, Sharpsburg, Sheppardstown, Kearneysvillc, 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 contempt of danger! One day, when I led him to speak of his cax-eer, he counted up something like sixty battles, great and small, which he had beeu 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 his guns about, and fought them, as before, with his "French Detachment," singing the loud, triumphant Marseillaise, as that same Napoleon gun broke their ranks and 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, as he was of the hot contest on the right at Fredericksburg. Any other chief of artillery might have sent his men in, 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'!'"
Modest, brave, loving and beloved—the famous soldier, the charming companion, passed away from the friends who cherished him, leaving a void which no other being can fill. Alabama lent him to Virginia for a time; but, alas I the pale face smiles no more as he returns to her. Many mourn his early death here where his glory was won, as in the southern land from whence 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 land. The "breed of noble minds" like his is not numerous, and, when such forms disappear, the gap is hard to fill—the struggle for our liberties is 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.

Richard Barksdale Harwell, The War and Its Heroes, First Series (Richmond: Ayers & Wade, 1864), 60-66.

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