John Pelham was 23 years old when he joined the Confederate Army, but by the time he died at age 24, he had fought in some 60 engagements and become one of the South’s most admired figures. Robert E. Lee called him “The Gallant Pelham.” Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson said, “With a John Pelham on each flank I believe I could whip the world.”
Born in Benton County, Ala., on September 14, 1838, Pelham was blond, blue-eyed and athletic. Enrolling in the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 1856, he became one of the best-liked students. His horsemanship was legendary, he was a keen boxer and swordsman and though a mediocre student overall, he excelled in cavalry tactics. Just days before graduation in 1861, war broke out between the states, and Pelham went home to join the Confederate forces.
After enlisting in Montgomery, Ala., he was sent to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. First Lieutenant Pelham had no experience with artillery, but was assigned as a battery drill instructor. His “raw material” comprised 60 recruits from half a dozen states. His four ancient smoothbore cannons came without limbers, caissons or horses, but later a good-natured cavalry officer, Lt. Col. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart, presented him with some horses he had “liberated” from the Union Army. Pelham worked with his men to fashion the rolling stock they required from scrap lumber.
Pelham had trained his men long and hard by the time he was given command of his battery and shipped by railroad to Manassas with General Joseph E. Johnston’s army on July 21, 1861. During the battle, Pelham observed a wave of Northern infantry descending on a position held by Brig. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Rushing his battery between the two lines without hesitation, Pelham stalled the Union advance, giving Jackson time to reach the high ground of Henry Hill. When Federal troops threatened Jackson’s unprotected flank, Pelham’s gunners cut them down.
Promoted to captain on March 23, 1862, Pelham was given command of Jeb Stuart’s Horse Artillery. Mounting all of his 12 officers and 150 soldiers, Pelham trained them to overcome the Union’s overall superiority in artillery with mobility and rapid, skillful gun handling.
For eight months the two armies rested. Then, on May 5, 1862, Stuart clashed with Union pickets near Williamsburg. Pelham, on his own initiative, moved out to block a Federal cavalry charge. Running low on ammunition, he had his three guns fire sequentially to develop a continuous barrage that stemmed the Yankee tide. Stuart later wrote, “I consider the most brilliant feat of the battle to have been a dash of the Horse Artillery to the front.”
Stuart and Pelham were among many officers who came fully into their own after Lee assumed command of Confederate forces outside Richmond, forged them into the Army of Northern Virginia and launched his Seven Days campaign. At Mechanicsville on June 26, when Union artillery barred Stuart’s advancing column, Pelham, armed with but one mountain howitzer, neutralized two Federal batteries and shattered the ambush. When Stuart engaged Union sharpshooters supported by the gunboat Marblehead at White House Landing on the York River on June 28, Pelham scored a hit on Marblehead’s deck and then sent the ship fleeing with his howitzer in sporadic pursuit, a sight that Stuart later said left him laughing so hard he couldn’t ride.
As the campaign continued, Pelham managed to move his howitzer to a concealed location overlooking the James River and the massive encampment of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Firing as rapidly as possible and changing positions quickly, Pelham spread panic in the Union camp and aboard gunboats along the bank. Slipping downriver to Harrison’s landing, he dug in six of his guns and waited for Union troop transports to reach his concealed position. At 100 yards’ range he opened fire, sinking one, damaging another and raking the decks of the other three with canister shot.
At Stuart’s recommendation Lee promoted Pelham to major and placed two additional batteries under his command. By then Pelham’s fame had spread, particularly among the ladies and, although still given to blushing when introduced, a friend noted that he had become “as grand a flirt as ever lived.”
Meanwhile, a new Union force, the Army of Virginia under Maj. Gen. John Pope, was advancing toward the Rappahannock River. On August 5, Stuart’s cavalry ambushed a large troop and supply column near Massaponax Church, with Pelham’s guns firing on both enemy flanks.
Leading a 25,000-man force, Stonewall Jackson, screened by Stuart’s cavalry, skirted the Army of Virginia’s flanks, derailed two Union troop trains and burned a key railroad bridge. At Manassas Junction, on August 27, Jackson’s troops took hundreds of rail cars and warehouses full of supplies, burning what they could not carry off. When a Northern brigade tried to interfere, Pelham’s guns drove it off.
At the Brawner Farm on August 28, Jackson positioned his men in woods paralleling a road along which a Union formation was advancing. Pelham, sitting calmly on his horse, directed his guns against determined Union soldiers, who came within 50 yards of him before being driven back by his gunners. It was a monumental battle, with Jackson’s Stonewall Brigade matched against the Union’s Iron Brigade. At the end of the day, the South had lost a third of its men and the North somewhat less than 40 percent. Still, Jackson faced 50,000 Yankee veterans that night. Pope planned to divide his force, sending half against the Rebels’ front and the remainder, simultaneously, against their rear.
Jackson permitted Pelham to place his guns at his own discretion, and his young subordinate did not disappoint him. Choosing Jackson’s unsupported left wing, he arrived there just in time to face Union troops pouring out of a nearby wood. In spite of his devastating fire, the Yankees plunged into Pelham’s position and were only driven back after vicious hand-to-hand fighting, with Pelham in the thick of it.
On the night of the 29th, Maj. Gen. James Longstreet arrived, undetected, with 13 divisions and struck the Army of Virginia in the flank the next morning. The Second Battle of Manassas cost Pope 14,000 of his men, vast stores of supplies and his command. The taciturn Jackson praised the role played by Pelham, “who dashed forward on my right and opened up the enemy at a moment when his services were much needed.” To Stuart he commented, “If you have another Pelham, please give him to me.”
In September Lee marched into Maryland, only to be confronted at Antietam Creek outside Sharpsburg by McClellan and the Army of the Potomac. During the early hours of the battle on September 17, Pelham’s guns were at Jackson’s far left, trading fire with Union artillery when women and children poured out of a farmhouse lying between the lines. Both sides ceased firing, and Pelham led his staff out to escort the terrified civilians to safety. Then the battle resumed.
Heavily outnumbered, Jackson’s troops slowly gave ground. Additional batteries were placed under Pelham’s command until he had 19 guns pouring murderous fire into the blue ranks. The attack faltered and Pelham dashed off to another position, where all his guns could sweep the Union line as it advanced.
“I have never seen a more skillful handling of guns,” Lee remarked. “It is really extraordinary to find such nerve and genius in a mere boy.”
Fortunate to extricate his surviving forces from the Antietam bloodbath, Lee rested around Winchester for a month and reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia. Then, when McClellan finally crossed the Potomac River and marched south, Lee moved Longstreet’s First Corps to Culpeper, while Stuart’s cavalry screened the movement. Pelham was given the honor of leading the column of 1,800 cavalry and his Horse Artillery in a second ride around McClellan’s army on October 10-12. During the fast, quiet ride from Virginia through Maryland, Pennsylvania and back, the raiders seized 1,200 fresh horses, 5,000 weapons and hundreds of new (albeit blue) uniforms. Not a man was lost, and the column was not overtaken until it reached the crossing points on the Potomac. There, Pelham held off his pursuers for more than two hours while his troopers crossed into Virginia.
At Panther Skin Creek in Loudoun County, Va., soon afterward, Pelham found his battery firing in two directions at Union cavalry that had surrounded it. Again, it took hand-to-hand fighting to drive the Yankees off. Pelham’s delaying actions in Loudoun County so stymied McClellan’s advance that on November 8 an impatient President Abraham Lincoln relieved him of command and put Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside in charge of the Army of the Potomac.
Back at the Rappahannock, the Horse Artillery revived its “naval war.” When its fire sent four gunboats fleeing, one of two concealed guns that Pelham had placed downriver put a clean shot through one vessel and the little fleet hurried off to the Chesapeake Bay.
At Fredericksburg on December 17, a heavy fog lifted to reveal 46 regiments of Union infantry and 11 artillery batteries advancing on the Confederate positions. Lee watched as two horse-drawn guns dashed out from his lines to within 500 yards of the blue line and swiftly began lobbing shells into the Northern flank from a position that concealed them from direct observation. It was, of course, Major Pelham, whose fire halted an attack by 18,000 men. Union batteries disabled one gun, but Pelham rode off with the other, firing from various points until his ammunition was exhausted. Lee later remarked, “It is glorious to see such courage in one so young,” a sentiment echoed in the London Times, which noted of Pelham, “No one of equal age has won an equal reputation.”
As opportunities permitted, Pelham spent much of the time with Bessie Shackelford and was with her on March 16, 1863, when word came that Union cavalry was gathering at Kelly’s Ford. He and Stuart rode out the next day, in time to participate in a daring charge on Federal sharpshooters firing from behind a stone wall. Standing in his stirrups, Pelham had risen to urge his followers on when a shell burst nearby. His horse went down, and Pelham lay in the grass. He seemed to be unhurt, but a small shell fragment had entered the back of his skull. He was dead by morning.
Pelham’s body lay in state at the Confederate capitol and was carried by funeral train to his home in Jacksonville, Ala. He was posthumously promoted to lieutenant colonel. Shortly afterward, his cavalry commander named his newborn daughter Virginia Pelham Stuart. A friend spoke for many who had fought beside him when he said that John Pelham “was the bravest man I ever saw.”
Originally published in the March 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.