John Pelham and Miss Belle Boyd
Following his resignation from West Point, John Pelham's first assignment in the Confederate States Army was to be in charge of an ordnance depot at Lynchburg, Virginia. A young man of John Pelham's temperament chafed at desk duty when a field army was being formed near Harpers Ferry. Apparently, Pelham contacted General Joseph E. Johnston, commander of that army. Lieutenant Pelham was soon ordered to command the Henry A. Wise Battery of artillery and told to take charge of the unit and get them ready for combat as soon as possible. The unit had just gone into bivouac with the Army of the Shenandoah at Charlestown when Pelham joined them in June 1861. Commanded by Captain Ephraim C. Alburtis, it consisted of men from the Martinsburg area. It was organized under the sponsorship of Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise in November 1859 during the John Brown raid, but it was a battery in name only when Pelham joined it.
Captain Alburtis was a middleaged businessman of Martinsburg, apparently not in the best of health. He may have been a little annoyed when a baby-faced lieutenant from West Point joined his unit with orders that, in effect, pushed the Captain in the background. Pelham won his respect promptly with a charming deference and the tactful appeal, "I've been assigned to help you if you'll let me."
For some thirty days, in June and July, 1861, they trained between Winchester and Martinsburg. Battle was imminent and they all felt it. The Valley women came, bringing food, clothing, presents and their own sweet selves to the training areas. Among them was Belle Boyd, the famous Confederate spy; the Dandridge sisters, Sallie and Serena, and their cousin Lillie. The ladies made much over young John, the stranger who was no stranger at all! The beauty of the Shenandoah and Opequon must have reminded him of the valley, rivers and creeks in far away Alabama. He would fight hard with these sturdy people to defend their homes! Belle Boyd loved her Valley and her people, and she took very personally the Federal threat to destroy them.
Like Pelham, she never thought of defeat, only victory for her cause. Belle was not a typical young lady of her time. Though of a good family and possessing a good education, she was self-willed and highly strung, with a flair for the dramatic. To the average young lady of her acquaintance she was doubtless considered forward, maybe even fast.
Here is the excellent description given of Belle by Louis A. Sigaud, in Belle Boyd, Confederate Spy: "At seventeen Belle, physically and mentally, was a woman grown. Tall, slender, well proportioned and graceful, her figure is the only point on which all her observers of both sexes have been unanimous. In their carefully considered judgment it was nothing less than perfect." Her face was not pretty as we judge beauty today. I find, on looking at photographs of her, that the word exotic best describes her face. It appears that the use of her attributes is what charmed the men she knew: a low musical voice, wit and intelligence, a daring and accomplished horsewoman, a tireless dancer. Using her expressive gray-blue eyes, full mouth and beguiling smile she contrived to carry her point, whether it was harmless flirting with young Confederates or cold calculations with the hated Yankees.
Now, on the scene comes young John Pelham, as good-looking a fellow as she ever saw, put into a position of considerable authority over men she knew well. There were things Belle Boyd needed to know about him, chief among them: Was this good-looking young man worthy and able to defend her Valley? She must meet him.
Let us review some of the comments about Pelham: tall, handsome, charming, witty, well-proportioned, an excellent dancer and the best horseman at West Point. According to Milham, he affected a shyness that was an act designed to draw the young ladies' attention to him. And W.W. Blackford, a close friend, described him as "grand a flirt as ever lived" and "as brave as Julius Caesar." When these two met there in the Shenandoah the vibrations must have been constant and intense between them!
That she was attracted to the young lieutenant is obvious. On November 1, 1861, she presented Pelham with a Bible and wrote this revealing verse:
I know thou art loved by another now,
I know thou wilt ne'er be mine,
But take from me still my heart's pure vow,
I ask thee not now for thine...
The other woman was Sallie Dandridge of "The Bower." Undoubtedly, Pelham learned that Belle knew Jackson and Stuart, and she may have confided to him her intelligence activities on behalf of the Confederacy.
After First Manassas their friendship had an opportunity to ripen in the fall of 1861. Belle came down to Centreville and spent considerable time as a nurse in the hospital. She and the newly-acclaimed hero who had won his spurs at the great battle must have seen much of each other then. He was marked for promotion and advancement. He accepted the opportunity offered to him to organize and command the light artillery unit which would become the magnificent Stuart Horse Artillery. Although experienced officers took Pelham's measure and found him worthy, his lady friend, who knew Stuart and Jackson well, may have added a dainty fillip to the matter! It would be a touch that would have intrigued the warm-hearted Jeb Stuart.
Pelham's unit was ordered in the spring of 1862 to the Peninsula, there to defend Richmond. About the time Belle was being imprisoned in Washington, Stuart's cavalry and Pelham's Horse Artillery were re-equipping after the Seven Days. They were fighting Second Manassas in August when she was released and went to Richmond. He and Belle Boyd never saw each other again.
Then came Chambersburg, Fredericksburg, Kelly's Ford...On March 17, 1863, Pelham rode out with his comrades, joyful as ever, to the defense of Culpeper. In the thick of the battle he was hit by a shell fragment, mortally wounded. Belle was far away -- in Pelham's home state of Alabama! She had left Virginia on the advice of General Jackson, who feared her re-capture by the Federals. After a long visit to relatives in East Tennessee she went on to Georgia and Alabama. On a sort of triumphal tour she visited Montgomery and Mobile.
Pelham's friend, John Esten Cooke, has written of him: "He had the courage of his race and clime." Can we not say the same for the maid of the Shenandoah, who gave all she could for her beloved Valley?
This article first appeared in Volume 2, No. 2 of The Cannoneer.
Charles H. Hooper, "John Pelham and Belle Boyd," Berkeley County (W.Va.) Historical Association Bulletin.
Charles G. Milham, Gallant Pelham: American Extraordinary.
Louis A. Sigaud, Belle Boyd, Confederate Spy (Richnond, The Dietz Press, Inc., 1944).