As I wrote yesterday, Confederate artilleryman John Pelham was mortally wounded in the Battle of Kelly’s Ford and died 150 years ago on this date of March 18, 1863. It is more than a bit ironic that this young man – known for his rising stardom in artillery, and called the “Gallant Pelham” for his daring style of fighting – would be taken down in a cavalry event. This is a sort of “wrong place at the wrong time scenario.”
John Pelham was born September 7, 1838 in Calhoun County, Alabama as the third of seven children born to a doctor. The Pelham family in America dates back to the 1600s. An ancestor named Peter Pelham was the organist of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg. The family had members who fought in the American Revolution.
Pelham entered West Point in 1856 where he was an average student, though very much liked by everyone. Serving with JEB Stuart’s cavalry from 1st Manassas through to his death (about 60 engagements), he did much to advance the technique of using light artillery as a mobile arm of the cavalry. The highlights of his career occurred at Antietam and Fredericksburg.
Positioned on a rise north of Sharpsburg (and west of the Antietam battlefield) called Nicodemus Heights, Pelham’s guns maneuvered to terribly harass the Union advance in the cornfield area with an ENFILADING LINES (my favorite words!) fire into the flanks of the varied attacks. In Jackson’s battle report, he wrote, “It is really extraordinary to find such nerve and genius in a mere boy. With a Pelham on each flank I believe I could whip the world.” Jackson was also known to have said to Stuart on another occasion, “If you have another Pelham, I wish you would give him to me.”
At Fredericksburg, Pelham took two guns in advance of the Confederate right wing, and with those cannon completely held up the entire left wing advance of the Union army. In a JEB Stuart letter just five weeks before Pelham’s death, Stuart wrote:
I have already made several urgent recommendations for the promotion of Major John Pelham, my chief of artillery, which have not been favorably considered by the War Department. The battle of Fredericksburg, forming a fresh chapter in his career of exploits without parallel, I feel it to be a duty, as well as a pleasure, to earnestly repeat what I have already said on his behalf, and to add that, if meritorious conduct in battle ever earned a promotion, Major John Pelham of Alabama, should be appointed Colonel of Artillery. Not only this, but his function as Chief of Artillery of the Cavalry Division always, in battle, places him where they become those of a Colonel, because of the fact that such artillery is always accumulated on the flanks to enfilade and take the enemy in flank as was done with so much execution at Groveton, Sharpsburg, and Fredericksburg. Pelham’s known ability as an artillery officer has won for him the confidence of generals in command who unhesitatingly entrust to him the artillery thus brought together from various batteries. It has been alleged that he is too young. Though remarkably youthful in appearance there are generals as young with less claim for that distinction, and no veteran in age has ever shown more coolness and better judgment in the sphere of his duty.
Yesterday in Jacksonville, Alabama was held a memorial reenactment weekend in honor of Pelham and his exploits – including a funeral procession. He is buried at that place. Here is a link to an article about that event, and this picture is from that article in the Anniston Star Newspaper.