After 24-year-old Confederate States Maj. John Pelham was killed at Kelly’s Ford, Va., (aka Kellysville) on March 17, 1863, his body was removed to Richmond and prepared for conveyance back to his hometown of Jacksonville, Ala.
For several days while he lay in state at the Confederate Capitol thousands came by to pay their last respects to “The Gallant Pelham.” According to fellow Confederate horse artillerist Maj. Heros Von Borcke’s Memoirs of the Confederate War for Independence, “the majority of mourners were ladies.”
In his March 20, 1863, report on the action that took Pelham’s life, Gen. J.E.B. Stuart wrote:
“The Major-General commanding approaches with reluctance the painful duty of announcing to the division its irreparable loss in the death of Major John Pelham, commanding the Horse Artillery.
“He fell mortally wounded in the battle of Kellysville, March 17th, with the battle-cry on his lips, and the light of victory beaming from his eye... His eye had glanced on every battlefield of this army from the First Manassas to the moment of his death, and he was, with a single exception, a brilliant actor in them all.
“The memory of ‘the gallant Pelham,’ his many manly virtues, his noble nature and purity of character, are enshrined as a sacred legacy in the hearts of all who knew him. His record has been bright and spotless, his career brilliant and successful.”
Well, perhaps not all of it was brilliant. Pelham was a fair-to-middling student at West Point and secession arrived before graduation. Like many of his peers from below Messrs. Mason & Dixon’s line, Pelham immediately resigned and stole his way home to Alabama — he was subject to arrest and had to evade capture.
He was commissioned a lieutenant in Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah. By all accounts Pelham distinguished himself on the battlefield with his knack for artillery and in November 1861 he was commissioned a captain in General Stuart’s Cavalry Brigade, in the newly formed “horse artillery.”
Horse artillery, as the name suggests, was a hybrid of cavalry and artillery. It was not a new concept by the mid-19th century, having gained a foothold in Europe as early as the Thirty Years War. During the Napoleonic Wars, horse artillery would be used effectively in every major campaign.
Falling under the broad umbrella of cavalry, horse artillery units used lighter pieces than field artillery and were further distinguished by the crew riding on their own horses, rather than being pulled by horses with some artillerymen riding on the limber and caisson.
This provided a much more maneuverable and effective use of cannon as the battle progressed. New tactics using horse-drawn artillery weapons were developed during the American Civil War.
For example, “flying batteries” were effective in deluding the enemy into believing a greater artillery force opposed them than was actually present. Using a four- to six-gun battery, Pelham had his crews unlimber, fire, limber back up and quickly move to a new position to repeat the tactic.
The Confederate horse artillery under J.E.B. Stuart consisted of a variety of light ordnance that included howitzers, 3-Inch Ordnance Rifles, 12-pdr. Napoleons, 10-pdr. Parrott rifles and a few Blakely guns.
Given a choice, Pelham was known to favor the bronze 12 pdr. Napoleon, Model 1857. The Napoleon could wreak havoc using solid shot, shell and canister with equal enthusiasm.
In addition, it had an effective range of almost a mile. Confederate Napoleons were produced in at least six variations, most of which had straight muzzles, but at least eight survivors feature muzzle swells, according to Field Artillery Weapons of the American Civil War by Hazlett, Olmstead and Parks.
Pelham felt the Napoleon was ideally suited to the rolling terrain of Northern Virginia. The crew manning that versatile 12 pdr. was known as his “Napoleon Detachment.”
Pelham and his “flying artillery” were instrumental in almost every engagement leading up to Fredericksburg, including General Stuart’s humiliating cavalry ride around McClellan during June 1862, and General Stuart loved the attention.
Of Pelham’s efforts after Corbin’s Crossroads in November 1862, Stuart was effusive with his praise writing:
“…The Stuart Horse Artillery comes in for its share of the praise and its gallant commander, Major John Pelham, exhibited a skill and courage I have never seen surpassed…I was more than ever struck by that extraordinary coolness and mastery of the situation, which more eminently characterized this youthful officer than any other artillerist who has attracted my attention.”
The young officer also won praise for his actions from none other than “Old Blue Light” himself, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Jackson once said of Pelham, “It is really extraordinary to find such nerve and genius in a mere boy. With a Pelham on each flank I believe I could whip the world.”
At First Manassas, Gaines’ Mill, Second Manassas, Antietam and other engagements, Pelham had displayed both courage and skill in handling his batteries of flying artillery. However, if those battles set the stage, Fredericksburg was his best claim to fame.
None of Pelham’s previous exploits would compare with his actions there and with only his one 12-pdr. Napoleon in the fight.
Pelham and Capt. Mathias Henry were deployed that day with the 12 pdr. while Capt. John Cooke and his crew were put in position with the rarer Blakely gun.
There were a variety of Blakely guns and we cannot be sure exactly what model Cooke had in the field that day. It hardly matters as the rifled Blakely was immediately disabled by return fire after its first shot.
Undeterred, Pelham and Capt. Henry continued rapidly shifting position with the Napoleon until the crew was too low on ammunition to continue. Pelham had lost enough of his detachment that he had to help man the gun himself.
There is no other known instance recorded during the Civil War of a single gun crew immobilizing an entire wing of Union infantrymen for the better part of an hour and discouraging their advance for even longer.
Less impressed than Stonewall Jackson was with this achievement, Lee gave more modest praise. He, oddly enough, felt Pelham had opened up on the Union forces too soon.
Perhaps Lee felt Major Pelham was already getting too much credit? In fact, Pelham was not one to share the limelight and rumors persisted years after the Civil War that much of the credit for staying in the fight with that lone Napoleon at Fredericksburg belonged to his subordinate, Capt. Mathias Henry.
Pelham’s death at Kelly’s Ford is considered somewhat ironic given that he was there as a spectator and none of his flying artillery was deployed at that battle with him.
A more casual student of Civil War history might have assumed that Pelham as struck down while commanding his familiar artillery battery there. However, it was actually a large-scale cavalry engagement between Confederate Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee and Union Brig. Gen. William Averell.
Pelham began the day in Culpeper with Jeb Stuart, heard the sounds of battle six miles away and left on a borrowed horse to watch the grudge match between Lee and Averell.
On a whim Pelham and Stuart both decided to enter the fray more or less uninvited. One story goes that some time during the battle, Pelham stood up in his stirrups to yell out a command and then waved his hat to comrades in the 2nd Virginia.
Upon that same instant, a Federal Light Artillery battery let loose in his direction and Pelham was struck in the head by an exploding shell fragment. He never knew what hit him and never regained consciousness.
There is, of course, some dispute among historians as to the exactly when Pelham was hors d’ combat, and where he was located at the time. Eyewitness accounts seem to vary, which is not unusual.
An interesting statement given by a 1st Rhode Island Cavalry officer reports that Pelham fell near the end of the battle near a crossroads about two miles from the point of the current historical marker.
Supposedly this piece of intelligence originated with “a minute-by-minute account provided to him by Confederate prisoners.” Or it could be that Pelham was struck down some hours earlier, but only discovered unconscious later on and taken to the rear.
Who knows? It really does not matter too much in the final analysis. Although not all who “live by the sword, die by the sword,” enough do so to keep that old proverb in the realm of conventional wisdom.
Injury or death from artillery fire was a legitimate hazard in most large-scale battles. It was not as though Pelham was struck by lightning or kicked by a mule. The irony here lies with Pelham meeting his end from an artillery shell while fighting as a cavalryman on horseback rather than from his usual position commanding his artillery battery.
Maj. John Pelham’s body was returned home and buried in Jacksonville, Ala., where a statue was finally erected downtown in 1905 commemorating the fallen Confederate artilleryman.
The Confederate Senate approved Lee’s recommendation that John Pelham receive a posthumous promotion to lieutenant colonel for his commendable actions at Fredericksburg.
About the author: Craig L Barry is a member of the Stones River National Battlefield Park artillery crew. He is editor of The Watchdog a column which runs in Civil War News.