Symposium Fallout: Is Leading from the Front All that Bad?

This weekend’s symposium gave me a lot to think about on my drive home from the Jackson Shrine on Sunday. The thought bubbles did not stop popping up when I got home either. There was a lot to think about regarding turning points–they come on the battlefield as well as the homefront and in various shapes, sizes, and iterations.

Do we think Jackson’s decision to reconnoiter in front of his lines on the night of May 2, 1863, was a poor decision because it led to his death?

But there was one strain of thought I could not get out of my head, dealing with the important actions (perhaps turning points) of three leaders: Albert Sidney Johnston on April 6, 1862, Stonewall Jackson on the night of May 2, 1863, and John Reynolds on July 1, 1863. All received some criticism over the weekend for not being in their proper places when they were shot. Surely, Johnston was too close to the front lines to direct his army on April 6, Jackson was wrong to ride out in front of his lines on the night of May 2 and Reynolds made a poor decision on the morning of July 1, my fellow conversationalists reasoned. But, with the gift of hindsight, do we view their actions negatively because, in the end, they are mortally wounded or killed?

Examples abound of leaders commanding attacks or rallying troops that we also view as heroic, that are the stuff of battlefield legend. James Longstreet and D.H. Hill after the collapse of the Sunken Road position at Antietam, Stonewall Jackson rallying his troops at Cedar Mountain, William T. Sherman at Shiloh (though he was wounded), and George Meade on Gettysburg’s second day, are just a few examples that come to mind. These actions, which required commanders to put themselves on the front lines and in harm’s way, often come out in a more positive light. Again, none of them resulted in the death of these commanders.

Part of being an effective battlefield leader is not just having a good strategy or knowing tactics well. It’s also about inspiring your troops to carry out one’s tactical prowess, especially in trying times. John Reynolds, a native Pennsylvanian, no doubt sought to inspire his soldiers when he led them into the Herbst Woods on July 1, 1863. There are numerous examples of Albert Sidney Johnston trying to do the same with his green soldiers on April 6.

Winfield Scott Hancock’s famous words on July 3, 1863 sum up this concept best. With Confederate artillery shells sailing over his head and over his troops, an unnerving phenomenon no doubt, Hancock mounted his horse and rode up and down the lines so that his soldiers saw him. His men lay huddled behind a stonewall, some scraping into the ground to create as much cover as possible. An officer soon implored Hancock to dismount and head to the rear for safety. “There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count,” Hancock replied.

Hancock’s July 3 ride has become the stuff of legend. This Dale Gallon painting portrays it and it is heroically shown in the movie “Gettysburg.”

Hancock did not mean that his life did not count. What he meant was at that trying time for his troops, his role as a corps commander was defunct. As a corps commander, he should have been behind the lines, directing the movements of his corps. Instead, Hancock adopted the other part of being an effective battlefield commander, of being a leader and setting an inspiring example, of promising to not send his troops into a place where he would not accompany them and showing that.

Getting shot while out on the front lines does not make an army or corps commander a bad one or necessarily make their decision to ride along the front lines a poor one. With hindsight, we can pick and choose what moments on Civil War battlefields where generals placed themselves at the decisive point of action were a good decision or a bad one based on the known outcome. Regardless, as was discussed multiple times at the symposium, a general inspiring his soldiers to stand firm in stressful situations or one becoming a casualty under fire can be a true turning point on a battlefield.

Polk’s Resting Place

An altar image of Polk

Leonidas Polk remains something of an elusive figure to military historians. He owed his high rank to his friendship with Jefferson Davis. But Polk could have risen up the officer ranks on his own. He was charismatic, well-connected, wealthy, and a darling of New Orleans society, where he preached secession in the antebellum years as Louisiana’s Episcopal Archbishop. Politically reliable and a fire-eater and Southern nationalist for years before the war, he proved during the conflict to be stubborn and selfish, mostly noted for his long feud with Braxton Bragg, who commanded the Army of Tennessee. Yet he was brave and beloved by his men. He was easy to talk to and eschewed harsh discipline. He also showed some improvement as a commander. In the Atlanta Campaign he transferred a corps to Georgia and ably commanded it at Resaca.

On June 14, 1864, Polk was killed at Pine Mountain during an artillery barrage. As with many generals, he was not given a burial in a place of his choosing or a place dear to him. Central Tennessee and New Orleans, the two areas where he owned land and was a respected figure, were occupied by Union forces. Augusta, Georgia became his resting place. He received an elaborate funeral in Saint Paul’s Church, presided over by Bishop Stephen Elliott of Georgia. He was buried in a location under the present-day altar.

After the Civil War, Polk fit into the Lost Cause mythology. He was dead and, given the religious iconography of the Lost Cause, fit perfectly into its symbols. Yet, he was not part of the Virginia dynasty. He was also not a particularly successful battle commander. Commemoration of Polk mostly revolved around his faith and positive personal anecdotes. For example, he makes periodic appearances in Sam Watkin’s Company Aytch, where is is depicted as a warm and approachable commander.

Polk’s second grave

In 1945 Polk’s body was brought to New Orleans and re-interred at Christ Church Cathedral on St. Charles Avenue. The congregation had an interesting history. During the war, it was pro-secession, and Benjamin Butler closed it for refusing to offer prayers for Abraham Lincoln’s health and success, a common convention in the Episcopal Church. The current cathedral was constructed in 1886-1889. Polk’s old church Trinity Episcopal Church, on Jackson Avenue, still stands and honors the general.  Yet, Christ Church is the archbishop’s seat for Louisiana’s Episcopal Church, and therefore the headquarters of Polk’s successors.

On a quiet Saturday after I finished a Garden District tour, I went over to check out Polk’s resting place. I was let in by Reverend Travers C. Koerner. He showed me Polk’s grave, which is to the right of the pulpit. A mourning altar for Jefferson Davis, dating back to his death in New Orleans in 1889, is nearby.

Polk’s bishop chair

Polk’s bishop’s seat, crafted by the slaves on his plantation, also stood nearby and is roped off to prevent people from sitting in it. In another room a piece of altar art featured Polk looming above one of the many churches he built. Close at hand, another piece of art featured St. George slaying the dragon. Crafted in 1939, the dragon is laced with swastikas. It is another reminder of the falsity of presenting the Confederacy and Nazi Germany as equivalences. The person who crafted this art certainly did not think so in 1939.

As I left, I spied a simple picture of Polk in his robes. It was not the the old magisterial photograph that adorns many books but rather a simple piece, showing a younger Polk. It reminded me of the several postwar photographs of P.G.T. Beauregard. Unlike his wartime photos, where he is erect and formal, Beauregard was more relaxed in his postwar pictures taken. The images undermine our concrete views of historical figures, who themselves changed as surely as the times they experienced.

“To save the further effusion of blood”: Major General John S. Bowen and the Surrender of Vicksburg

John S. Bowen as an officer in the pre-war Missouri Volunteer Militia. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Kristen M. Pawlak

On July 3, 1863, Major General John S. Bowen and Lieutenant Colonel Louis Montgomery entered the Union siege lines surrounding Vicksburg to deliver a message from Army of Mississippi Lieutenant General John Pemberton and discuss the upcoming surrender of the Army of Mississippi. Himself stricken with dysentery, Bowen commanded a division of Missourians and Arkansans who were slowly dying of starvation and disease within the blockaded river town. Bowen hoped that through his personal connections with Army of the Tennessee commander Major General Ulysses Grant, he could somehow negotiate reasonable terms of surrender to save the army – and his own men.

Though Grant refused to meet with his former St. Louis, Missouri neighbor and friend initially, Bowen at least loosened the tension between the two warring armies positioned in and around the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” A veteran of the Camp Jackson affair, Shiloh, Corinth, Iuka, Champion Hill, and the entirety of the campaign to defend Vicksburg, Bowen was considered one of the best division commanders in the Confederacy. His reputation and performance on the battlefield was commended by many of his fellow officers, including General P.G.T. Beauregard, who called him a “meritorious officer.” [1]

After returning to the Confederate lines, Bowen delivered Grant’s message to Pemberton. “The useless effusion of blood you propose stopping by this course can be ended at any time you may choose,” Grant wrote, “by an unconditional surrender of the city and garrison.” Though disappointed with Grant’s stubbornness for an unconditional surrender, Bowen stated that Grant would be willing to meet the defeated Southern general to discuss the terms of surrender. The ball was once again in the Rebels’ court to end the bloodshed.

Around 3:00pm along the Confederate defense works, flags of truce rose and the firing was silenced. Pemberton, Bowen, and Montgomery rode out on horseback towards a swale along the Jackson Road between the siege lines, where Grant, James McPherson, and  A.J. Smith were waiting. After dismounting, the enemies shook hands and reminisced on the fond memories of their Mexican War days before discussing the heavy matter at hand.

Grant and Pemberton discuss the terms of surrender. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Recalling what Bowen told him, Pemberton said to Grant that it was his understanding that the Federal commander wished to interview him regarding Vicksburg’s surrender. Grant, with a puzzled expression, denied that he ever said that to Bowen. Embarrassed, Bowen admitted to making it up in hopes of instigating negotiations. Just like before, Grant refused anything but unconditional surrender. Pemberton thought it was hopeless. “I can assure you, you will bury more of your men before you enter Vicksburg,” he threatened.

To prevent further destruction and death between the two armies, Bowen suggested that Grant and Pemberton leave their four officers to negotiate the terms of surrender. Soon, Bowen, Montgomery, McPherson, and Smith were left to determine the fate of the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg.

At 8:00am on July 4, 1863 – Independence Day – Grant’s victorious troops began to march into Vicksburg. All of Pemberton’s Confederate troops were to be paroled and to march east to a location designated for exchange. Just under 30,000 Rebel troops surrendered. The siege of Vicksburg was finally over.

Bust of John Bowen at Vicksburg National Military Park. Courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Though many Confederate soldiers were exchanged and able to continue their fight in the war, Bowen’s service was about to come to an end, just like the thousands of his fellow Rebels who perished at the hands of disease during the Vicksburg Campaign. The day of the surrender, Bowen’s health took a dark turn. He was cared for in Vicksburg until he could recover. On July 11, 1863, his physician and chaplain decided that he needed better medical care in Raymond and departed that day by ambulance. Bowen’s wife Mary and newborn baby spent the siege in nearby Edwards, Mississippi and they joined the entourage there.

Just six miles outside of Raymond, on July 12, the caravan was forced to stop at the small wooden home of John Walton. The heat and humidity took a tremendous toll on Bowen, and he could not survive the rest of the journey to Raymond. In the morning of July 13, Bowen passed away. Using a coffin built by a local carpenter, the fallen Rebel general was buried in the backyard of the Walton home. Later, Bowen’s body was re-interred with a military headstone at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Vicksburg, where many of his men are buried today.

Though hardly known beyond historians and students of the campaign, Bowen’s role at Vicksburg and its surrender to the Federals was tragic, but quite important. Through his negotiations with the Union high command, he sought peace to end the bloodshed and inglorious deaths suffered on both sides. Bowen’s legacy can be seen at Vicksburg National military, where a bust of him stands today.

Kristen M. Pawlak is the Development Associate for Stewardship at the Civil War Trust. She also sits on the Board of Directors at the Missouri Civil War Museum, and actively volunteers with the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2014 with a BA in History and Civil War Era Studies, and is currently pursuing her MA in Nonprofit Leadership and Management at Webster University. From St. Louis, Kristen has a fond interest in the Civil War in Missouri, Civil War medicine, and the war experiences of soldiers.

Sources:

Ballard, Michael. Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Shea, William L. & Terrence Winschel. Vicksburg is the Key: The Struggle for the Mississippi River. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

Tucker, Phillip Thomas. The Forgotten “Stonewall of the West”: Major General John Stevens Bowen. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997.

[1] Report of P.G.T. Beauregard, April 11, 1862, in War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, ser. 1, vol. 10, pt. 1, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1880), 390.

Challenging an Assumption About Stonewall Jackson’s Death

David_Lloyd_GeorgeThose of us who tell the story of Stonewall Jackson’s death are often asked to share our thoughts on what might have happened had Jackson lived. (I usually respond by challenging the basis of the question, as I’ve explained here and here.) While often fun, speculating on counterfactual history is nearly impossible, so many of us try to avoid it, at least in a professional capacity. Instead, many of us dodge the question using a variety of sidesteps. One of the most common is to whip out a quote from former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

During a 1923 visit to the United States, George made a point to visit the building where Stonewall Jackson died—today known as the Stonewall Jackson Shrine. “That old house witnessed the downfall of the Southern Confederacy,” George said. “No doubt the history of America would have to be rewritten had ‘Stonewall’ Jackson lived.”

George’s comment certainly frames Jackson’s death as a major turning point of the war, and many people who share that view use George’s comment to reinforce that perspective. However, I’ve had reason of late to reconsider George’s words. 

If we unpack George’s comment a little, we can see that it’s quite literally true: “the history of America would have to be rewritten had ‘Stonewall’ Jackson lived.”

However, the same exact thing could be said of virtually any major historical figure. You could say, “No doubt the history of America would have to be rewritten had Abraham Lincoln lived.” It doesn’t even have to even be a live-or-die scenario, either. No doubt the history of America would have to be rewritten had Abraham Lincoln never moved to Illinois, or had Abraham Lincoln never learned to read, or had Abraham Lincoln never been born.

Pick anyone. Pick any event, big or small, in their life. Had that event turned out differently, the person’s life would have turned out different; if that person’s life turned out differently, the story of American would have turned out differently.

So, George’s statement carries a sense of gravitas, but it’s actually a statement of the blindingly obvious. In that regard, it serves as a useful bit of rhetorical sleight of hand because it sounds so good.

Quoting George carries a particular weight. After all, as the former British prime minister during World War I, George knew a thing or two about war and the factors that impact it. He had a strong sense of history and understood the sorts of things that affected its ebbs and flows. So, perhaps his judgment about Jackson’s death did come from a place of particular insight.

That’s the logic, anyway—but I’ve come to wonder about that, too.

Recently while reading a biography of Winston Churchill—Thomas E. Ricks’ Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom—I came across a passage that made me reconsider the wisdom and insight I’d also given George credit for. Specifically, George called Adolph Hitler “a remarkable man” whose good sense “has not been turned by adulation.”

George would not have been the only person snowed by Hitler, by any means. But if David Lloyd George had such remarkably good insight about the flow of history, yet he got Hitler wrong, then perhaps I should not automatically assume he had special insight into Stonewall Jackson, either.

To be clear, I am not comparing Hitler to Stonewall Jackson. Rather, I’m challenging one of my own long-held assumptions—something we all should so once in a while. Perhaps David Lloyd George did not speak with the authority I always I assumed he had.

————

We’ll be exploring Jackson’s death as a turning point of the Civil War at this year’s Fifth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge. Our Sunday tour on Aug. 5th will concentrate on Jackson’s wounding and death. Tickets are still available for the weekend for $155.

Artillery: John Pelham – Artilleryman, Gallant Fool, Splendid Boy

Advancing Union troops were convinced a full battery raked their flank as they moved toward the Confederate position at Prospect Hill near Fredericksburg. Multiple Union batteries opened fire from Stafford Heights, trying to drive out the artillerymen delaying General Meade’s progress toward the Rebel lines.

General Lee occasionally turned his field glasses in the direction of the artillery duel. General Jackson watched the progress and wished for this flank defense in every battle. General Stuart dispatched multiple messengers to the gun’s commander, asking him to withdraw to safety.

At the center of it all – receiving the messages and in Union crossfire – the major directed his artillerymen manning the gun which temporarily stalled a Union corps attack with rapid, enfilading shots. Lying on the ground between duties to try escaping the Union projectiles, Pelham’s men swabbed, loaded, and fired while their command worked alongside them, encouraging, directing, and pitching in to keep the gun firing. Another message arrived from his commander – J.E.B. Stuart – “Get back from destruction, you infernal, gallant fool, John Pelham!”[i]

Who was this “gallant fool” who stalled Union attacks, won the admiration of army commanders, and even praise from his enemies? Just twenty-four, John Pelham probably would not have imagined his life the way it turned out. After-all, according to his neighbors, he was supposed to hang for a crime, and according to the papers he signed in 1856, he was supposed to be a United States Army officer. How did he arrive on the field at Fredericksburg, defending the Confederate right flank?

John Pelham, age 16

Born on September 7, 1838, John Pelham was the third son of Dr. Atkinson and Martha McGehee Pelham of Benton County, Alabama. He spent his youth attending local schools, terrorizing the teacher, and playing pranks with his five brothers and sister. The neighbors predict the Pelham boys would hang for crimes because of their wild childhood, but John started studying in his teen years, began running one of the family farms, and eventually applied for West Point. On March 18, 1856, he wrote to Jefferson Davis – secretary of war – accepting cadetship at West Point, and on July 1, he reported to the military academy.

Though his academics stayed mediocre and he racked demerits for minor infractions, Pelham excelled at horsemanship, fencing, boxing, and making friends. One of his classmates – Adelbert Ames – wrote that Pelham was “the kind of man whom you felt instinctively, ‘Here is a friend.’”[ii] His friendships and good sense steered him away from the sectional conflicts espoused and promoted by some cadets as reports from Bloody Kansas and Harpers Ferry rocked the nation and the academy. Pelham stayed busy with his studies, sports, debate club, color guard, and religious activities, hoping to graduate in 1861. (At that time, cadets studied for five years.)

However, national events and his homestate’s choice created a dilemma for Pelham. He wanted to graduate, believed in America and the Constitution, and felt allegiance to his state. When Alabama seceded, Pelham offered his services but waited to leave West Point, desperately hoping conflict might be avoided. “Although I am a most ultra Secessionist, I am still proud of the American Flag,” he wrote to his family, trying to make sense of the situation and what he should do.[iii] In the end, on April 17, 1861, John Pelham became one of the last Southern cadets to resign from West Point; he started his sneaky journey back to Alabama on April 22nd, traveling with his classmate and friend Tom Rosser, a future Confederate cavalry commander.

John Pelham, 1860

By May 15, 1861, Pelham received a commission as first lieutenant in the Confederate army with orders to report to Virginia and assist with ordinance. Assigned to Alburtis Battery with Johnston’s army in the Shenandoah Valley, Pelham spent weeks teaching the new recruits how to drill, handle cannon, and prepare for battle while Alburtis, the commander, figured out how to command this new unit. Training seven hours per day paid off when the battery arrived on the battlefield near Manassas in July. Unexpectedly, Alburtis fell ill on the morning of July 21, 1861, leaving command to Lieutenant Pelham who maneuvered the batteries six outdated cannons into position on the far right of “Stonewall” Jackson’s line, near Robinson House. By the end of the fight, Pelham had personally shot down three United States flags with his artillery skill, dueled with Griffin and Ricketts’ Union batteries, maneuvered forward to halt Sherman’s infantry advance, and secured the praise of his superiors. He had also – unknowingly – caught the attention of a Confederate cavalry commander, James Ewell Brown Stuart.

JEB Stuart

Stuart dreamed of creating a light artillery battery to accompany his cavalry – copying the idea from Napoleon. On November 11, 1861, he got permission to form a light battery; eighteen days later, Confederate Special Orders No. 557 directed John Pelham to report for duty to J.E.B. Stuart. It was the beginning of a relationship which lasted the remainder of these officers’ lives. About five years older than Pelham, Stuart regarded the artilleryman as a younger brother, promoting, teasing, and looking after him in true sibling style. To keep an eye on him and keep him close for immediate deployment, Stuart invited Pelham to lodge and dine at cavalry headquarters, even though he was not an official staff member.

Although Pelham’s promotion to captain did not arrive until May 1862, he set to work immediately, forming this battery of light artillery. He went on a short recruiting tour, enlisting men from across the Confederacy to man his original eight field pieces, which were different weights and styles – whatever was available for service. Through the winter and early spring, Pelham drilled his artillerymen and horses incessantly, developing skills and strategy to fire rapidly, move swiftly, and keep up with the regular cavalry. His skills as an organizer exceeded expectation and throughout his services, he famously kept his ammunition chests full, carriages and gear in repair, and was always on the lookout for new cannons.

The campaigns and battles of 1862 proved Stuart’s innovative idea and Pelham’s organizational skills and leadership were worth the effort. In the Peninsula Campaign and Seven Days Battles, Pelham and his light battery often defended the army’s rear or secured important battlefield points, winning commendation in many military reports. One of the more famous incidents in this period involved an artillery duel with the USS Marblehead near White House Landing; Pelham’s guns fired, moved rapidly, and chased the Union ship down river.

“The Strangest Race” by Mort Kunstler (https://www.mortkunstler.com/html/art-american-spirit.asp?action=view&ID=921&cat=144)

Throughout the year, Pelham often slipped away with one or two guns and those crews with orders or permission to harry the Union troops. His rapid movements, frequent location changes, and fast-paced firing became signatures of his artillery style. Pelham never lost a cannon in battle, and usually his casualty losses were minimal due to the frequent position changes which made it difficult for Union guns to fire back with accuracy.

Promoted to major in mid-August 1862, Pelham operated with Stuart through the summer. In the Second Manassas Campaign, though, he started working closely with General Jackson. Surprisingly, Jackson – who rarely took “unknown” officers into his confidence – entrusted right flank defense to Pelham and later gave him permission to go anywhere on the Manassas battlefield to provide artillery support. Pelham repaid the confidence with successes, helping to save Jackson’s ambulances and wagon train on at Groveton, backing up A.P. Hill’s men, and finally pursuing the Union army to the fields of Chantilly and beyond.

During the Antietam Campaign, Pelham moved with Stuart, then joined General Hill to defend South Mountain. He employed delaying tactics through Keedysville, slowing the Union advance and gaining time for the Confederates to assemble at Sharpsburg. Stuart and Jackson posted Pelham’s batteries – which now included Chew’s Battery and sometimes other artillery additions – on the Second Corps far left flank, Nicodemus Hill. Here, Pelham directed hot artillery fire on Union General Hooker’s men advancing to the attack and dueled with Henry J. Hunt’s big guns. Startlingly, neither Jackson nor Stuart supervised this young commander, who had just turned twenty-four earlier that month, leaving him to make important decisions about flank defense. Jackson did send Pelham more cannon, and eventually, he had nineteen big guns to oversee at the Battle of Antietam. Endangered on Nicodemus Hill, Pelham pulled the artillery batteries back to Hauser Ridger (behind West Woods) and helped prevent a lasting break through in the Confederate lines near Dunker Church. Later on, he reoccupied Nicodemus Hill and tried to take the offensive toward the Union right flank but called off the mission when the enemy’s firepower was too strong.

Sarah “Sallie” Dandridge

John Pelham’s promotion to major came through on September 22, 1862, and in the days following the retreat from Maryland, he and Stuart’s staff rested near the civilian home called “The Bower.” Here, with his new rank and growing confidence, Pelham started to emerge from the shadows in the evening gatherings, taking a more active part in the hilarity and entertainments at cavalry headquarters. Always shy and humble, he was an easy target for Stuart’s friendly teasing but joined in jokes and adventures with the Prussian officer, Heros Von Borcke. At The Bower, Pelham found a new interest beyond his guns and military friends: a serious girlfriend. Miss Sallie Dandridge and Major Pelham spent their spare time together, and by the time the cavalry left for the Chambersburg Raid, they were a couple, according to friends. Some accounts suggest, they were engaged to be married, and notes on their actions support the suggestion.

Stuart’s Chambersburg Raid and second ride around the Army of the Potomac brought new challenges for the horse artillery. The fast pace wore down the horses, and Pelham’s defense of the river fords ensured the cavalry’s crossing back to Virginia. In the later fall, Pelham said a final good-bye to Miss Dandridge, riding into battle again, fighting off Union attacks and probes ridge by ridge, giving the Confederate infantry time to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains and head east toward Fredericksburg. Moving quickly and firing faster, Pelham’s guns decimated the cavalry, infantry, and artillery sent against them, and Stuart heavily credited him in the battle report.

In the days before the Battle of Fredericksburg, Pelham harassed the Union ships at Port Royal on the south flank of the Confederate line. He also found time to hitch up the wagon and trot out to Chancellor House with other officers on the eve of battle for a country dance. Back on the battle lines and ready for a fight on December 13, 1862, Pelham asked Stuart if he could take a gun or two mid-field and fire on the advancing Union troops, headed for Jackson’s positions near Prospect Hill. Stuart agreed, trusting his younger officer’s judgment.

“Bronze Guns & Iron Men” (1985); Painting by Don Troiani.

Positioned in a hollow, Pelham enfiladed the advancing Union soldiers. The storm of cannon shot and shell from Union artillery threatened Pelham’s position, drew admiration from Lee and Jackson, and terrified Stuart. Though Pelham’s men took heavily casualties than usual, their commander refused to withdraw until he had used all the ammunition, prompting Stuart to label him a “gallant fool.” When he finally returned, Jackson’s chief of artillery, Stapleton Crutchfield, loaned Pelham more artillery batteries, leaving the defense of Jackson’s flank to the younger artilleryman. Jackson begged Stuart to give him Pelham, saying according to legend, “With a Pelham on each flank, I could whip the world.” Stuart refused to give up his artilleryman, though, taking him on the Christmas Raid after a holiday dinner.

Winter quarters provided time to rest, repair, and retrain, and Pelham prepared his batteries for another season of heavy fighting. He had no idea that he prepared the units for someone else to command. Through a strange series of events, Pelham reported to J.E.B. Stuart at Culpeper on March 16, 1863, returning from inspecting and instructing an artillery battery near Orange. His own batteries were not at Culpeper, but he stayed the evening, visiting the friendly Shackelford family with the general and other officers.

The next morning – March 17, 1863 – the Battle of Kelly’s Ford exploded, catching the Confederate cavalry units by surprise. Pelham and Stuart headed for the fighting, and, at some point, Pelham departed to hurry along one of his batteries which was en route to the fighting. Captain James Breathed commanded this battery, and since he was Pelham’s long-time second-in-command and friend, the major gave a few hints and backed away, allowing Breathed to command. Unable to stay out of the fight, Pelham rallied with some cavalrymen for a charge. A Union artillery shell exploded above his location, and Pelham toppled from his horse as tiny fragments of the projectile rained down and pierced the back of his skull. Initially thought dead, Pelham still lived and was eventually hauled by horse and later ambulance to the Shackelford house in Culpeper. There, about twelve hours after his wounding, John Pelham died. In his dress uniform, his body lay in state in Richmond before it was taken to his family for burial in Jacksonville, Alabama. Posthumously, Pelham received promotion to Lieutenant Colonel.

John Pelham’s short life and military service reflects the challenges of the era. As a West Point cadet, he faced a serious and difficult decision. As a young officer, he seemed initially nervous to find his place and leadership role as he trained and commanded older men. As an artilleryman, he faced and rained death on numerous battlefields and skirmish grounds, reacting fearlessly until one day the shell fragments struck him.

A comrade remembered Pelham, giving a glimpse of this young artilleryman as his friends knew him:

I never knew a human being of more stubborn nerve, or shrinking modesty… His color never faded in the hottest hours of the most desperate fighting but a word would often confuse him, and make him blush like a girl…it was impossible to know him and not love him… Quick to resent an insult, or to meet defiance with defiance, he was never irritable, and had the sweetness and good-humor of a child…. His modesty did not change after Fredericksburg…. He was still the modest, simply, laughing boy – with his charming gayety…his sunny smile. He never spoke of his own achievements.[iv] 

His own achievements were many. Training raw recruits. Almost single-handedly organizing a light artillery battery. Dueling enemy batteries with unlikely odds. Driving back Union gunboats. Supervising flank defense for one of the most particular commanders in the Confederacy. Fearlessly dominating battlefields with foolish gallantry. Winning the admiration of superior officers in almost countless conflicts. John Pelham helped to reinvent light artillery, using his innovative ideas to score victories. The fast-moving, rapid fire tactics he employed were copied and expanded by others during the Civil War and in future conflicts. Though legendary, John Pelham did not seem to want the fame and glory. Humble almost to a fault, he started and ended his Confederate service as “a boy – a splendid boy”[v] who played with cannons, defied the odds, and filled pages of history that he never lived to read.

Sources:

Hassler, W.W. (1960). Colonel John Pelham: Lee’s Boy Artillerist. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

**Maxwell, J.H. (2011). The Perfect Lion: The Life & Death of Confederate Artillerist John Pelham. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press. (**Recommended Resource)

Mercer, P. (1929). The Life of Gallant Pelham. Kennesaw, GA: J.W. Burke Co. (Accessed at The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.)

[i] Hassler, W.W. (1960). Colonel John Pelham: Lee’s Boy Artillerist. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press. (Page 254)

[ii] Ibid, Page 11

[iii] Ibid, see pages 39-44 for Pelham’s choice about secession.

[iv] Ibid, Page 272

[v] Ibid, Page 294; Bessie Shackelford quote