- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 1999

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. Robert E. Lee summed up John Pelham’s character in one sentence: “It’s glorious to see courage in one so young.”
The man the South would revere as “the Gallant Pelham,” the name given to him by Lee himself at the conclusion of the Battle of Fredericksburg, was 23 when he entered the Civil War. He is credited with holding off advancing Union troops with a single cannon for nearly two hours during the battle, which was fought 137 years ago this week.
Now, a piece of Pelham’s legacy will be preserved amid encroaching development. The Central Virginia Battlefields Trust has bought a half-acre in Spotsylvania County where Pelham and his men made their defiant stand.
“It’s not the best land, but beggars can’t be choosers,” says Enos Richardson, a co-founder of the Fredericksburg-based preservation group.
Mr. Richardson drove past the property, consisting of two lots, a few months ago and noticed a for-sale sign. The nonprofit trust snatched up the sites just in time. A parcel across the street is under contract for 250 houses.
For decades, Pelham’s exploits there have been marked only by two wayside signs and a stone monument.
The trust paid $15,500 for the wooded lots, which it plans to clear and make accessible to visitors. Trust members say Pelham’s deeds should not be forgotten as the area develops.
“He held the whole Union Army off with one gun,” Mr. Richardson says. “Their whole advance came to a halt.”
It was the morning of Dec. 13, 1862. The temperature that day was steadily rising, though the ground was frozen. As a result, a heavy mist hung in the air.
Nearly 60,000 Union soldiers had crossed the Rappahannock River and bivouacked at a site near what is today the Fredericksburg Country Club. On that morning, reserve regiments from Pennsylvania, under the command of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, advanced in columns across Tidewater Trail to attack Stonewall Jackson’s position at Prospect Hill.
Pelham, newly promoted to major and commanding Jeb Stuart’s Horse Artillery, asked for permission to launch the surprise attack. Pelham called “Sallie” at West Point for his refined facial features and slight build positioned his Napoleon 12-pounder a mere 400 yards away from the Federal troops.
The fog and mist, which along with a hedgerow shrouded Pelham’s gun, worked to his advantage.
“He also took the low ground,” says John Hennessy, assistant superintendent of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. “That’s the opposite of what artillery men usually do, which is take the high ground.”
Union soldiers were caught unaware as the shells from Pelham’s artillery exploded overhead, raining shrapnel down on them. In fact, the firing came from such an unexpected position that some of the Union infantrymen thought they were being attacked by their own artillery troops, whom they suspected were drunk.
“Pelham’s goal was to disrupt and confuse them,” he says. “He did that, and some substantial damage to the Union.”
The Federals also had a difficult time responding. “He was such a tiny target that the Yankees were never able to hone in on him, although they tried with several batteries of artillery,” Mr. Hennessy says.
Stuart eventually sent another cannon to help Pelham, but it was quickly spotted by the Union and destroyed. Pelham withdrew.
Today, the John Pelham Historical Association in Williamsburg is made up of women who regard the gallant Pelham as either a son or as a man who would have been an ideal mate. The historian Douglas Southall Freeman described Pelham, who was blond, blue-eyed and devilishly handsome, “as grand a flirt as ever lived.” Shy and modest, he was the beau ideal of the Confederacy.
“He was the Confederate poster boy, if you will,” Mr. Hennessy says.
On hearing of an impending attack upstream on the Rappahannock River in March 1863, Pelham, always eager for a good scrap, persuaded Stuart to let him join a cavalry charge at Kelly’s Ford. He joined the attack and was shot and killed at Kelly’s Ford.
Mr. Freeman quotes this observer at the Pelham funeral: “I was in the [Pelham home] the night his body was brought in its casket… . The news of his death had gone all over his native county, and they came, old men [the young ones were all in front] and women, young ladies and children from all over that country to meet and honor the remains of one so loved and admired. It was a beautiful moonlight night the last of March and as the casket, covered with white flowers … was borne by white-haired old men, followed by girls with uncovered heads, to us who stood in the porch at his home, waiting … it seemed a company, all in white … and I heard a voice near me say, made white by the blood of the lamb,’ and I knew it to be the voice of his mother. The father and sister were crushed and in sorrow kept to their rooms, but that Spartan mother met her beloved dead on the threshold as she would have done had he been living, and led the way into the parlor and directed that he be laid where the light would fall on his face when Sunday came.”
The gallant Pelham was promoted posthumously to lieutenant colonel. Three young women in the neighborhood put on mourning.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide