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  • The Perfect Lion: The Life and Death of Confederate Artillerist John Pelham
  • Brett J. Derbes
The Perfect Lion: The Life and Death of Confederate Artillerist John Pelham. By Jerry H. Maxwell. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2011. xv, 472pp. $49.95. ISBN 978-0-8173-1735-5.

The Civil War plunged the United States into four years of brutal conflict from which heroic soldiers emerged. A generation of young military academy graduates was eager to test their skills to achieve glory on the battlefield. Alabama native John Pelham became regular company of Generals J. E. B. Stuart, Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, and Robert E. Lee, who stated, “in battle he is a perfect lion” (1). Jerry H. Maxwell earned his masters degree from Eastern Michigan University, and passed away on October 29, 2011, just six months after the publication of The Perfect Lion.

John Pelham was born September 7, 1838, in Benton County, Alabama, but matured and received a modest education in Jacksonville. Pelham’s youthful appearance, pleasant demeanor, and remarkable eyes were noted throughout his life. In March 1856, he received an appointment from Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to attend the Military Academy at West Point. Adelbert Ames recalled, “he was the most popular man in his class,” selected to the Color Guard, and served as President of the Dialectic Society (27).

John Brown’s Raid, President Abraham Lincoln’s election, and the secession winter encouraged the early departure of several southern cadets. Alabama left the Union on January 11, 1861, and President Davis appointed Pelham First Lieutenant of the Alabama Artillery. He resigned from West Point five days after the attack of Fort Sumter just two weeks shy of graduation.

Pelham initially served in the Alburtis Battery at the Battle of First Manassas. Joseph Wheeler praised him as, “a fearless officer and skilled artillerist” (59). On May 1, 1862, Pelham was promoted to Captain, and reassigned to Stuart’s Horse Artillery. He was “determined to forge the horse artillery as a powerful and integral cog in Stuart’s fighting machine,” and recruited over forty men from Alabama (67).

The horse artillery first engaged Union forces at the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862. Following an artillery duel at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, Jackson met Pelham and, “extended his hand in a gesture of respect and congratulations” (93). In mid-August he earned the rank of major, and performed admirably during the Battle of Second Manassas. Lee praised the young artillerist, and Jackson asked Stuart, “If you have another Pelham, please give him to me” (132) [End Page 254]

At the Battle of Antietam Pelham skillfully commanded cannons on Hauser’s Ridge and Nicodemus Hill. Jackson proclaimed, “I have never seen more skillful handling of guns . . . With a Pelham on each flank, I believe I could whip the world” (165). At the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, he commanded eighteen cannons at Hamilton’s Crossing frustrating nearly 16,000 Union soldiers for over an hour. The London Times reported, “No one of an equal age in either army has won an equal reputation” (271)

Pelham eluded a quiet confidence and an unparalleled charisma that earned the devotion of his men. He was an incredibly capable artillerist with an eye for terrain and gun placement. Stuart urged further promotion and Lee agreed, “No one deserves promotion more than Major Pelham” (287). At the Battle of Kelly’s Ford on March 17, 1863, he courageously charged alongside the Fifth Virginia Cavalry until a Federal Hotchkiss shell exploded overhead. When Stuart was informed of the incident he openly wept, “Our loss is irreparable!” (307). Surgeons removed the piece of shrapnel that mortally wounded him, but early on March 18, he opened his eyes took a final breath and died peacefully.

Pelham’s casket was escorted to Richmond, Virginia, where a female onlooker called him, “Alabama’s noblest tribute of the whole war” (316). His coffin traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, where it was displayed on the second floor of the Supreme Court Chamber draped in the state flag. Lee lamented, “I do not know how I can replace the gallant Pelham” (321). His funeral occurred on March...


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