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The gallant Pelham

Part 15 of a series on the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg

 
ëBehind the Linesí

Don PfanzA weekly series, ëBehind the Lines.î An anecdotal narrative tells the in-depth story of the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburgóthe action, the major players, the behind-the-scenes intrigue and the effect on the town. Writing the series is Donald C. Pfanz, staff historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. A native of Gettysburg, Pa., Pfanz graduated from the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg in 1980, then joined the National Park Service. He served at Petersburg National Battlefield and Fort Sumter National Monument before joining the Park Service here. He has written two books: ëAbraham Lincoln at City Pointí and ëRichard S. Ewell: A Soldier's Life.í

THE BATTLE OF FREDERICKSBURG produced many heroes, but none more celebrated than blond-haired, blue-eyed Maj. John Pelham. At age 24, Pelham commanded the Army of Northern Virginiaís horse artillery, the light guns that traveled with the Confederate cavalry.

Young ladies liked Pelham 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 caught the eye of J.E.B. Stuart, the Army of Northern Virginiaís chief of cavalry.

Stuart took an instant liking to the young man (who was scarcely five years younger than himself) and appointed him to command the horse artillery. At the Seven Days Campaign, at Antietam, and at countless smaller actions in between, Pelham harassed the Union army with his cannons.

The young manís fame reached its zenith at Fredericksburg. Pelham was with Stuart on the far right of Leeís line, near Massaponax Creek, when the Union army began to deploy on the plain ahead. The troops belonged to Gen. George G. Meadeís 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.

Meade led his division to a point opposite Smithfield plantation (now the Fredericksburg Country Club), then wheeled right to cross the Richmond Stage Road (now known as the Tidewater Trail). Thick hedgerows and deep drainage ditches bordered the road, delaying Meadeís progress. Pioneers with shovels and axes quickly removed these impediments, however, and by 10 a.m., Meade was ready to begin his assault. His line stretched across the fields now occupied by the General Motors Powertrain factory.

John Pelham watched the Union deployment with growing excitement. Meadeís 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 Hamiltonís 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. Meadeís foot soldiers threw themselves face down in the muddy field for cover. One Pennsylvanian remembered ìpressing down hard ... and flattening out that I might not interfere with any of the flying iron.î

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 hornetís nest.

Stuart sent a second gun forward to assist his young protÈgÈ, 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 Alabamianís 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. ìTell the General I can hold my ground!î 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 Meadeís assault by more than half an hour.

Witnessing Pelhamís exploit from Prospect Hill, Gen. Robert E. Lee remarked: ìIt is glorious to see such courage in one so young!î Lee praised his brave subordinate in his report of the battle and recommended his promotion to lieutenant colonel.

Pelhamís greatest praise, however, came from George Meade, who later insisted that he came under attack from an entire four-gun Confederate battery rather than Pelhamís solitary piece. As a result of Pelhamís actions, Gen. Reynolds detailed Gen. Abner Doubledayís division to guard his left flank, thus immobilizing 6,000 men that might have been used to advantage elsewhere.

Today, a state historic marker and a small granite monument at the intersection of the Tidewater Trail (Routes 2 and 17) and Benchmark Road mark the site of Pelhamís gallant exploit. In addition, the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust has purchased a small plot of ground nearby in order to preserve it for future generations of Americans.

Pelham himself did not survive the war. He died on March 17, 1863, at Kellyís 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.

NEXT: Union artillery pounds Prospect Hill

DONALD C. PFANZ is staff historian with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He is author of ìAbraham Lincoln at City Pointî and ìRichard S. Ewell: A Soldierís Life.î