There were many heroes at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December of 1862. But John Pelham, known as “The Gallant Pelham” for his bravery, was one of the most celebrated. He commanded J.E.B. Stuart’s Army of Northern Virginia’s horse artillery at the tender age of 24.
The blonde haired and blue eyed Pelham was a favorite of the ladies because of his handsome features and winning personality; his fellow soldiers admired his bravery and modesty. Pelham was attending the U.S. Military Academy when the Civil War began. Leaving West Point, he traveled south and enlisted in a Confederate artillery battery. There, he became a favorite of J.E.B. Stuart, the Army of Northern Virginia’s chief of cavalry.
John Pelham’s fame reached its zenith at Fredericksburg. Pelham was with Stuart on the far right of Lee’s line, near Massaponax Creek, when the Union army began to deploy on the plain ahead. The troops belonged to Gen. George G. Meade’s Pennsylvania Reserves. Earlier in the day, Meade had received orders from his commander, Gen. John F. Reynolds, to attack Confederate forces occupying a wooded ridge south of town. John Pelham watched the Union deployment with growing excitement. Meade’s troops faced west, toward the wooded heights, placing Pelham directly on their left flank.
Seeing an opportunity to do the enemy some damage, Pelham received permission from Stuart to advance one gun to the intersection of the Richmond Stage Road and the road that led to Hamilton’s Crossing (modern Benchmark Road). Once there, he opened fire with solid shot. The iron projectiles bounded down the length of the line, creating havoc in the Union ranks. One shot struck a Northern cannon; another exploded an ammunition chest. Meade’s foot soldiers threw themselves face down in the muddy field for cover. One Pennsylvanian remembered pressing down hard … and flattening out that I might not interfere with any of the flying iron. For a minute or two, Pelham had things his own way, but Northern artillerists quickly recovered from their surprise and fought back. Eighteen cannon on the plain showered the Confederate major with shot and shell. Across the Rappahannock River, Union cannon on Stafford Heights added their weight to the bombardment. Young Pelham had stirred up a hornet’s nest.
Stuart sent a second gun forward to assist his young Colonel, but it no sooner joined the action than a solid shot struck it, knocking it out of action. Pelham would have to go it alone. That was just to the dashing young Alabamian’s liking Pelham concealed his gun from sight by placing it behind intervening hedgerows. When Union cannons began zeroing in on his position, he would shift position and continue firing. Despite his dodging, the Union fire began to have its effect. Men and horses began to fall at a frightening rate. Three times, Stuart sent couriers to Pelham, ordering him to retreat. Each time, the messages were ignored. “Tell the General I can hold my ground” he gamely told one courier.
Finally, Pelham exhausted his ammunition and retired to the safety of his own lines. He had successfully fought against long odds, delaying Meade’s assault by more than half an hour. Witnessing Pelham’s exploit from Prospect Hill, Gen. Robert E. Lee remarked: “It is glorious to see such courage in one so young” Lee praised his brave subordinate in his report of the battle and recommended his promotion to lieutenant Colonel.
Pelham himself did not survive the war. He died on March 17, 1863, at Kelly’s Ford, near Culpeper, impetuously leading a cavalry charge. It was a fitting, if tragic, end for the young man known throughout the army as the gallant Pelham.