John Pelham (September 7, 1838 – March 17, 1863) was an artillery officer
who served with the Confederate cavalry under J.E.B. Stuart during the
American Civil War. Dubbed "The Gallant Pelham" for his military prowess
and personal courage, Pelham revolutionized the usage of light artillery
as a mobile arm of the cavalry.
Pelham was the third of seven children, with five brothers and a sister
Betty, born to Dr. Atkinson and Martha Pelham at his
grandparents' home along Cane Creek near Alexandria, Alabama. He grew up
on the family's 1,000-acre plantation, and learned to raise
horses at a young age.
In 1856, local Congressman Sampson Willis Harris secured an appointment
for Pelham to the United States Military Academy at West Point,
at the request of A. J. Walker.
Already in 1860, rumblings of Southern secession were affecting Pelham,
his concerns that he would not be able to graduate expressed in letters
he wrote home.
In 1861, with graduation approaching and war breaking out, Pelham wrote
to the new leader of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, inquiring as to
whether he should leave West Point. Ultimately, Pelham resigned from West
Point, just a few weeks before his planned graduation, in order to accept
a commission in the militia of his home state of Alabama. He soon went
to Virginia, where he joined the army of Joseph E. Johnston as a
lieutenant in the artillery. Pelham's well-drilled and disciplined
battery caught the eye of J.E.B. Stuart, who provided horses for the men
and transformed the battery into "horse artillery", more mobile than
Pelham was involved in every major military engagement of Stuart's
cavalry from the First Battle of Bull Run to Kelly's Ford, more than
60 encounters. He particularly distinguished himself as the Chief of
Stuart's Artillery in the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) and Battle of
Fredericksburg. At Sharpsburg, Pelham's guns, positioned on a rise known
as Nicodemus Hill, repeatedly harassed the flanks of oncoming Union
lines, causing numerous casualties and breaking up battle formations.
Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson said of him in his report on the battle, "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."
At Fredericksburg, Pelham's guns, positioned well in advance of the main
Confederate lines, held up the entire flank of the Union Army of the
Potomac for several hours, enabling the Confederates to repel a series
of strong attacks. General Robert E. Lee commended Pelham in his official
report for "unflinching courage" while under direct fire from multiple
Union batteries. Pelham was, at the time, commanding only two guns
that were in service, but with those batteries for a time enfiladed the
entire advancing Federal lines of battle.
At Kelly's Ford on March 17, 1863, Pelham participated in a cavalry
charge, his artillery not being engaged. Standing up in his stirrups,
he urged his men to "Press forward, press forward to glory and
victory!" Not long afterward, he was struck in back of the head by a
fragment of an exploding Federal artillery shell. Appearing dead, his
body was draped across a horse and borne six miles from the battlefield
to a home near Culpeper Courthouse. Incredibly, he was an onlooker
noticed that he was breathing. The effort to save his life proved futile
however as he died the following morning without having regained
Stuart said of his death, in a general order to the rest of his division:
"The major-general commanding 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... His eye
had glanced on every battlefield of this army from the First Manassas
to the moment of his death, and he was, with a single exception, a
brilliant actor in them all. The memory of the gallant Pelham, his
many manly virtues, his noble nature and purity of character, are
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." (—J.E.B. Stuart, General Orders #9, March 20, 1863, Official Records)
Maj. Harry Gene Beck III, a fellow officer and tentmate of Pelham's,
wrote: "He is the bravest human being I ever saw in my life."
The Confederate Senate approved Lee's recommendation that Pelham receive
a posthumous promotion to lieutenant colonel. Pelham's body was returned
home and buried at City Cemetery in Jacksonville, Alabama where a statue
erected downtown in 1905 commemorates the fallen officer.
In 1863, Stuart named his third child Virginia Pelham, in honor of the
cannoneer he had admired.
The John Pelham Historical Association seeks to maintain his memory and
preserve his archive of papers and memorabilia. In 1955, he was named to
the Alabama Hall of Fame. The cities of Pelham, Alabama, and Pelham,
Georgia, are named in his honor. In 2004, the state of Georgia designated
the section of State Highway 300 that passes through Pelham as the John
Pelham Memorial Parkway.
The United States Field Artillery has honored Pelham with artillery
camps named for him, such as the former Camp Pelham which housed
artillery battalions of first the 1st Cavalry Division and then later
the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea.
The County of Culpeper, Virginia, built Lake Pelham in the 1970s in
honor of the Boy Artillerist.
The states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama
have towns and/or communities named in honor of Pelham.
During and after the Civil War Pelham's 1858 photograph, taken in the
Mathew Brady studio, was well known in the South. While many copies were
made, the original was long thought lost. It was held by Pelham's sister,
Betty, and kept by her descendants at home in a fireproof safe. In 2010
Pelham's great-great grand-nephew consigned the piece for auction. It
sold for $41,825.
The Original Pelham Photo that Sold for $41,825