The Death of the Gallant Pelham
March 17 marks 150 years since the death of Confederate artillery officer John Pelham at Kelly’s Ford, Virginia.
Young men from both sides of the conflict hurried toward the war, that they might fight and achieve the glory they had sought so desperately since they first read Ivanhoe, perhaps, or Morte d’Arthur. Some left farms, some left shops in the city, many left wives and children, and a few left school, in an age when eighteen, nineteen, and twenty year old men were more likely to be employed than still about their studies.
The class of 1861, West Point, was a different case altogether. Some were sons of the Confederacy, others sons of the Union, but they all wanted to enter the fray and make their mark immediately. The choice to leave or to finish their studies at the United States Military Academy was not an easy one. The West Point education—an automatic ticket to the upper echelon of American military leadership— was not an opportunity to forego lightly.
John Pelham of Alabama was one of the young men forced to make such a difficult choice. Pelham was to graduate West Point with the class of 1861 when the Confederacy fired upon Fort Sumter. Among Pelham’s classmates was George Armstrong Custer, a brave if not excessively vain young fighter who would rise through the ranks quickly, only to be outmatched and cut down at Little Big Horn. Of those in that class of 1861, Custer did not have a monopoly on bravery and flair. John Pelham was certainly Custer’s equal, if not in many ways his better.
Pelham had been one of the wonder cadets at West Point, excelling in many areas of study. He also brought with him no small amount of charm. In his history of that famous academy class, Sacred Ties, From West Point Brothers to Battlefield Rivals: A True Story of the Civil War, Tom Carhart notes, he was “an excellent horseman… and was quite the dancer.”
Leaving the military academy without waiting for graduation, Pelham joined the rebel army; his service was duly noted, especially his performance at the battle of Fredericksburg in December, 1862. Fighting an overwhelming number of oncoming federal forces, Pelham, himself, with the aid of his few surviving artillery men, successfully held the ground and stalled a Union incursion. At the site of the battle, Robert E. Lee stated, “It is glorious to see such courage in one so young.”
Fredericksburg was a great victory for Lee; it was the first of two of Lee’s successive strikes against the greater Union army. The fight at Chancellorsville, in late April and early May of 1863, would be Lee’s second successful initiative against Union opposition during this phase of the war. In the larger battle at Chancellorsville, Lee would lose one of his key advisors and strategists, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Before that battle, in a bit of a less tempestuous fray at Kelly’s Ford, Virginia, on March 17, Lee would also lose one of his significant operatives.
Carhart describes the scene of John Pelham’s final fight:
When Pelham arrived on the scene of the battle, his artillery had not yet come up, though he had sent for it. The most commonly told story of what followed has the 3rd Virginia forming up for attack, and Pelham staying by them or riding with them, standing up in his stirrups, waving his hat or his sword and cheering them on: “Forward! Forward!” But soon after those words left his lips, a Yankee shell exploded above and behind him, and a piece of shrapnel, later said to be the size of the end of one’s finger, pierced the back of his head at the hairline. The charge by the 3rd went on as Pelham fell from his horse.
The gallant Pelham never knew and never awakened. He would be mourned by thousands as he lay in state in Richmond, and from there he would be taken home to Alabama where he would be buried in his home town of Jacksonville. Young girls from Virginia and Alabama would weep at the loss of this brave and handsome southern officer, while the Confederate leadership would view this loss as a significant one. Major John Pelham’s star had burned brightly, but briefly for his cause.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Carhart, Tom. Sacred Ties, From West Point Brothers to Battlefield Rivals: A True Story of the Civil War. New York: Berkley Caliber (a division of Penguin Books), 2010.