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John Pelham Historical Association

John Pelham: An Appreciation

The following speech was given by Dr. David T. Childress, Professor of History at Jacksonville State University on the occasion of the commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of John Pelham's birth, at the Presbyterian Church, Jacksonville, Alabama, September 4, 1988.

We do appreciate you all coming down here and bringing this rain. We needed it so much. John Pelham would have appreciated this rain because he was the son of a farmer, the son of a farming family from here in the Alexandria valley. The farmers around here need rain badly. On the other hand, John Pelham the artillerist would have hated this rain. You really need to try to push an artillery limber through the mud to fully understand how badly a soldier could hate rain; not only because it affects your ability to perform your mission, but also because it affects the health and well-being of the men entrusted to your command.

I had a professor from Virginia who taught the Civil War course when I was an undergraduate and it was he who first introduced me to John Pelham -- I figured he had known him personally; he was old enough. We had no air conditioning in those days. It was quite warm and they brought in one of those large floor-mounted fans to try to cool us down a bit. As the professor said, " ...and Stonewall went up the Valley," he stuck his thumb through the fan guard and cut it off. And we were really introduced to the blood and gore he had been describing. Now, I've always made sure that when I describe Jackson's Valley campaigns I am far away from fans.

The Civil War attracts a lot of interest, and Pelham is a very popular figure. I never thought that I would come to teach the Civil War in the town where Pelham lies buried, but since I have, I have come to know Pelham a little better. I know he was raised in a Christian family, a Christian environment. He didn't attend this particular church because the structure was not yet in place, but he attended the Presbyterian Church of Jacksonville of his day. His mother most particularly -- she was a Scotch-Irish Southern lady -- made certain that the family was here on Sundays, except when it rained like this. The Pelharns were a close-knit family. They lived in and on the soil. His father was a physician but he was also a farmer. Physicians often have some difficulty collecting for their services, and it always helped to have something to fall back on. They raised cotton and the year before John left for West Point, he ran a cotton plantation all by himself. This provided John with some experience and a certain measure of maturity.

Then he secured his appointment to the Military Academy and went north to New York, where he was to spend the next five years. Most of us think of a college course as being four years, but Pelham's lasted five because of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who was himself a graduate of West Point. The branch schools to which graduates had been assigned had ceased to be funded by Congress and were closed. Davis had realized the importance of these schools to young officers and when he failed to retain the branch schools, he decided to extend the course of study at West Point for an additional year. Now, that sounds great unless you happen to be one of the cadets -- you are going to be held at West Point an additional year. At one point it looked like the Davis scheme would fall through and the cadets were jubilant, but it proved to be only another barracks rumor, and so Pelham and his classmates became five-year men. It was "very important to John Pelham to graduate from West Point. He had leamed much there. Five years is a long time to spend in any place, particularly when you are in your late teens and early twenties -- it seems like a lifetime.

It is difficult for me to describe for you what it is like to be a cadet. One becomes a cadet at such an early age -- one is so impressionable. Four years, or in his case, five years, closed up in a very restricted environment, but Pelham toughed it out. One hates it! When I was a cadet I hated being a cadet. I hated the academic side; I hated the military side. But there is something about being a cadet, though--nobody voluntarily gives it up once they have put on the uniform and have taken the oath. You have to force people out, you have to literally run them off, or something catastrophic has to occur.

Pelham was within weeks of graduation when his country came apart. On the insignia of the United States Military Academy is the legend "Duty, Honor, Country." These words were inculcated in cadets then, as they are now, and he knew the full meaning of those words. Earlier we repeated the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States. Pelham, in one of his letters home, said that he didn't see why the North had to keep the flag. It belonged to all Americans, and the South had as much right to it as Northerners did. But in the course of things, the North kept the flag, and the South had to start over. It hurt Pelham, as did Lee, and every other professional soldier who resigned his commission. With his country falling apart Pelham was faced with a crucial decision: which country should he choose? You heard Miss Vogtsberger read Pelham's letter asking for guidance and advice, but when it came down to the last minute, there was no one to make the decision but John Pelham. And he made his decision based on his training, his upbringing, and his experiences. He decided to come home to Alabama.

Pelham wanted to be a cavalryman, but he was appointed to the artillery. His first assignment was in ordnance duty. The Ordnance Department deals with weapons and ammunition: their production, storage, and transportation. For John it was a very valuable tour. Although he was only on ordnance duty for a few months, he learned enough so that he was always very careful once he joined the artillery to insure that his limbers and battery wagons were fully loaded with armunition, food, and equipment, and that his animals were always in good condition. Had it not been for that short but instructive ordnance assignment in Lynchburg, we might never have heard of John Pelham.

He did not begin his career as a commander. He was first given another officer's battery to train. Later he would receive his own command, and he would prove his skills. Now, every young officer is taught that he has two primary responsibilities: accomplishment of mission and providing for the welfare of the troops. There were many leaders, such as fellow West Pointer George A. Custer, who might be expected to consistently accomplish the mission but who, in the process, often sacrificed the welfare of the men. John Pelham took care of his men the best he could. He made sure that they ate before he ate, that their facilities were the best available. He kept them warm in the winter and dry in the rain, and he filled their bellies when he could because he realized that the accomplishment of the mission would rest with his men.

As an artillery officer Pelham had no peer. One of the most outstanding field artillery officers in the Mexican War was a young lieutenant named Thomas J. Jackson. As a general, now called "Stonewall," he abdicated control of his artillery by giving Pelham discretionary orders: take my artillery and put it anywhere you de
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