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The first book I ever read which mentioned "the gallant Pelham" was Burke Davis' Jeb Stuart: The Last Cavalier. His bibliography contained a reference to Philip Mercer's biography, The Gallant Pelham, first published in 1929 and reprinted in 1958. Bill Hassler's and Charles Milham's biographies of John Pelham had not yet been published.
Naturally, I became interested in these authors. Our own Bill Hassler I know, and there is biographical information about Charles Milham, but information about Philip Mercer was elusive. Picking up a clue from a sentence in the Preface of The Gallant Pelham, I wrote to the State Teachers College of St. Cloud, Minnesota for information. That institution, now part of the University of Minnesota, had nothing to report.
I was happy to own a 1958 edition of Mercer's book, but longed for an original. In 1989 in the city library at Fairhope, Alabama, I found an original Mercer with a bonus. Pasted on the flyleaf in front was a typed request from the author, which read: "This book, THE GALLANT PELHAM, goes to your library with the compliments of the author, Philip Mercer. Please make acknowledgement of its receipt to him, Box 210, Alton, Ill." Here was my second clue -- an address! But where was Alton, Illinois? Shortly I found that it was located near Scott Air Force Base. And guess who lived there -- a descendant of John Pelham and JPHA member, Penelope Pelham Boyanton.
A note to her brought me names and addresses of historical societies in that area. I wrote to them all. One reply gave me the third clue. The Madison County Historical Society, Iric., Edwardsville, in which county Alton is located, sent me a page from the 1933 City Directory of Alton. Thereon was the following listing: "Mercer Philip Reverend, pastor First Unitarian Church r 319 E 4th."
A letter to this church brought information from Mr. John J. Dunphy, Secretary. Later, I obtained more information from the headquarters, Unitarian Universalist Association of Churches in Boston. I have not been able to find a photograph of Philip Mercer, but from the above information, here is the story of his life:
Philip Mercer was bom on May 6, 1886, in Kensington, England. At age 18,
he came to the United States and settled in St. Louis, Missouri, where he
worked on railroads. He spent much of his free time in the library reading.
At age 28, Mercer graduated from the Chicago Theological Seminary in 1918.
He was ordained into the ministry of the Congregational. Church at Berthold,
North Dakota in October of that year. He held pastorates at: Detroit Lakes,
Minnesota (Congregational), 1919-21; Two Rivers, Wisconsin (Congregational),
1922-23; Oshkosh, Wisconsin (Congregational), 1923-26; St. Cloud, Minnesota
1926-28; Crookston, Minnesota (Congregational), 1928-29; and finally, Alton, Illinois (Unitarian), 1929-34.
I looked in vain for some mention of literary activity such as research and writing, as it seems logical to assume that it was during this time that Philip Mercer created his biography of John Pelham, copyrighted in 1929. In the Preface to The Gallant Pelham Mercer mentions that his primary sources were the Official Records, the writings of John Esten Cooke and Heros von Borcke; he visited the battlefields of Virginia; he also visited Calhoun County, Alabama, where he received information from Mr. Fred R. Martin and Professor Samuel Clay Pelham, as well as the Alabama Department of Archives and History. He thanks Miss E.O. Wiggins for a picture of von Borcke and Mr. George E. Douglas for erecting a monument in honor of Pelham near Kelly's Ford. One must look with wonder and some awe at how this young man born in England, who lived mostly in the northwest, somehow encountered the story of a young Confederate soldier from Alabama, became fascinated with his subject and wrote a biography. Did he encounter articles about Pelham in England before reaching our shores? He begins his first chapter about the Pelham family in England. Whatever the case may be, we must be grateful to this English-born American for his beautiful story, the first biography of "the gallant Pelham."
Reverend Philip Mercer applied for admission into the Fellowship of the Unitarian Ministry on December 30, 1929. Just prior to accepting the Alton, Illinois pastorate, Mercer took an extended trip to England where he visited his father. One wonders if he brought a copy of his new book with him.
As pastor of the Alton church Mercer was a popular figure, well-liked and respected by all. He was a man of keen intellect and studious habits. His sermons were interesting and well-researched and constructed; his delivery was pleasant. He enjoyed the symphony and often went to St. Louis to attend musical concerts. Correspondence revealed that he was engaged to a young lady who lived in Minnesota.
After returning to Alton after an extended trip west, Reverend Mercer complained of being concerned about his health. He had gained weight and began dieting. Friends cautioned him about losing too much weight too fast; but otherwise, they felt no real alarm about his health. However, it was noticed by his congregation that the last Sunday that he preached he seemed upset and read more rapidly than usual.
On Tuesday, November 20, 1934, tragedy struck. Reverend Mercer, apparently suffering from a nervous breakdown, took his own life. His landlord, concerned about his absence from home the previous night, went out looking for him. About 5 p.m., seeing lights on in the church, the landlord went inside. There he found Philip Mercer hanging from a door frame in the Sunday School area.
On Thursday, November 22nd, in the church crowded with parishioners and friends,
funeral services were held for the pastor. Dr. George Dotson, pastor of the
Church of the Unity in St. Louis, conducted the service. Afterward, Mercer
was placed in the Grandview Mausoleum, Alton City Cemetery (West side of East
Corridor, Tier 13, Crypt H).
In a letter dated March 9, 1933, addressed to "Dear friends all" the Reverend Philip Mercer wrote: "...the test of the vitality of any living organism is its power to reproduce itself generation after generation. And if the past has had this vitality , all the more reason why the future should have rrore of it -- and better." These are the words of an optimistic man.
It is interesting to apply these thoughts to the life of Philip Mercer, to the life of the brilliant young Confederate soldier he memorialized in his biography, and how biographer and subject are "reproduced" in our day as our Association membership goes about the business -- such a beautiful business -- of reproduction. How true the old Indian belief: "The dead are not powerless."
This article first appeared in Volume 10, No. 4 of The Cannoneer.