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John Pelham Historical Association

John Pelham, Spirit of His Age

The following address was given by Professor William D. Herrlerson of Richard Bland College at the 12Sth coomemorative cererocmy in Culpeper, Va., March 20, 1988.

Major John Pelham was born September 7, 1838 in what was then Benton County (now Calhoun), Alabama. The Pelham family in America dates back to the 1600's. He was related to Peter Pelham, the organist of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg. When I was a college student at William and Mary and worked part-time at the church, I was required to know this. His forebears fought in the American Revolution, beginning the family military tradition. John's father, Atkinson Pelham, was born in Maysville, Kentucky. He was a doctor, receiving his medical degree at the country's oldest medical school, Jefferson Madical College, in 1825. His mother was Martha Mumford McGehee; her mother was a first cousin to Henry Clay. Atkinson and Martha Pelham moved to Benton County only months before John was born. He was born in a log cabin and was one of six sons . The Pelhams were a family of standing and tradition. Dr. Pelham was also a cotton planter in Alabama's rich 'black belt."

When John Pelham was born, he was barely an Alabamian. Alabama was only 20 years out of the wilderness. In many ways, it was still a frontier life. He had little formal education, similar to Stonewall Jackson. As a youth he liked dancing, sang, rode horses well, and was fond of drawing.

Pelham entered West Point in 1856 during a five-year experimental program started by Jefferson Davis when he was Franklin Pierce's Secretary of War. Among his classmates were such notables as Thomas Lafayette Rosser, Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, Emory Upton, and Adelbert Ames, who died in 1933. George A. Custer entered the next year. At West Point, one of his classmates remembered him as very popular, very charismatic, and as being an excellent horseman. He was only a "C" student. He built up numerous demerits -- nothing really bad, but for things like a dirty room, unmade bed, and smoking a cigar.

Pelham was a virtuous man. Virtue is defined as everything which makes up a true man and a useful member of society. It is virtue, said the poet Lucilius for a man to know what is good, what is evil, useless, shameful and dishonorable. The virtuous man is the enemy of evil. He places his country first, next his family, and himself last. A virtuous man has an interest and devotion to the state. Heroism in war is one of the great virtues; not reckless heroism which only seeks self-promotion, but selfless heroism. Young Romans were taught that it was glorious to die in battle for the nation.

There were four Roman virtues. First, piety. Piety is defined as devotion to the family, reverence for the state, and patriotism. Second, faith. Faith is defined as being true to one's word, to pay one's debts, and to keep your promises. Gravity was the third Roman virtue; It is defined as absolute self-control and maintaining a dignified, serious , and unperturbed attitude towards both good and bad fortune. The last Roman virtue was constancy -- to persevere even under the most trying circumstances. It is clear that Pelham's contemporaries saw him as a man of virtue.

In battle, generals sought his advice and found favor with him. Stonewall Jackson said to Jeb Stuart, "If you have another Pelham, I wish you would give him to me. " Jeb Stuart, in a letter on February 10, 1863, wrote the following, recorrmending Pelham for promotion:

I have already made several urgent recommendations for the promotion of Major John Pelham, my chief of artillery, which have not been favorably considered by the War Department. The battle of Fredericksburg, forming a fresh chapter in his career of exploits without parallel, I feel it to be a duty, as well as a pleasure, to earnestly repeat what I have already said on his behalf, and to add that, if meritorious conduct in battle ever earned a promotion, Major John Pelham of Alabama, should be appointed Colonel of Artillery. Not only this, but his function as Chief of Artillery of the Cavalry Division always, in battle, places him where they become those of a Colonel, because of the fact that rruch artillery is always accumulated on the flanks to enfilade and take the enemy in flank as was done with so much execution at Groveton, Sharpsburg, and Fredericksburg. Pelham's known ability as an artillery officer has won for him the confidence of generals in command who unhesitatingly entrust to him the artillery thus brought together from various batteries. It has been alleged that he is too young. Though remarkably youthful in appearance there are generals as young with less claim for that distinction, and no veteran in age has ever shown more coolness and better judgment in the sphere of his duty.


In society, Pelham was known for his excellent manners and handsome physique. He was very witty and quick with a clever reply, repartee. He spoke gently. There was no look of hardness from battle or death in his face. He was an excellent dancer, and was highly popular with the ladies.

Why is Pelham remembered? He was only a Major (although he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel after his death); he commanded no more than a battalion; and he died halfway through the war.

Pelham is remembered because he was the head of artillery for the cavalry division. A romantic image is attached to cavalry. He was fearless and even had a love of battle. His men respected and obeyed him -- he created high morale. He was an excellent troop trainer and proved administrative ability when he raised a battalion on his own. He had a sure eye for terrain. Pelham wrote the rule book. He had no West Point training in horse artillery. Horse artillery had every man mounted and went with the cavalry. Light artillery, of course, traveled with the infantry. He saw war as position, movement and advance and fought his aritllery accordingly. He was an offensively-minded soldier. He was quick to change tactics to meet changing conditions, and even anticipated orders from his superiors.

Pelham is remembered also for his tragic end. He died young; he died in battle, charging; and he died before he knew defeat. Arourd him is the aura of the Lost Cause. He is an example for others, like a Roman hero, like Cincinnatus.

In conclusion, I want to end with a poem:

OVER THEIR GRAVES
Over their graves rang once the bugle's call,
The searching shrapnel and the crashing ball;
The shriek, the shock of battle, and the neigh
Of horse; the cries of anguish and dismay;
And the loud cannon's thunders that appall.

Now through the years the brown pine¬needles fall,
The vines run riot by the old stone wall,
By hedge, by meadow streamlet, far away,
Over their graves.

We love our dead where' er so held in thrall.
Than they no Greek more bravely died, nor Gaul --
A love that's deathless! -- but they look to-day
With no reproaches on us when we say,
"Come, let us grasp your hands, we're b

 

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