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The Perfect Lion

The Life and Death of Confederate Artillerist John Pelham

Written by Jerry H. Maxwell

Publication Year: 2011

The South has made much of J. E. B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson, but no individual has had a greater elevation to divine status than John Pelham, remembered as the “Gallant Pelham.” An Alabama native, Pelham left West Point for service in the Confederacy and distinguished himself as an artillery commander in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lee is reported to have said of him, “It is glorious to see such courage in one so young!” Blond, blue-eyed, and handsome, Pelham’s modest demeanor charmed his contemporaries, and he was famously attractive to women. He was killed in action at the battle of Kelly’s Ford in March of 1863, at twenty-four years of age, and reportedly three young women of his acquaintance donned mourning at the loss of the South’s “beau ideal.”
Maxwell’s work provides the first complete, deeply researched biography of Pelham, perhaps Alabama’s most notable Civil War figure, and explains his enduring attraction.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

In twenty- seven years of teaching Civil War history my earliest hero, who remains so to this day, was Stonewall Jackson. Gradually, I took on a second idol, Jeb Stuart. My extended readings on these two brought my attention to an artillerist in his mid- twenties: John Pelham. I found that Pelham and Stuart were so completely intertwined during the Civil War that they seemed inseparable. Furthermore, the...

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pp. xiii-xv

Perhaps the most gratifying phase in the completion of writing a book is the author’s chance to thank those who in some fashion assisted or inspired the endeavors in that work. I am indebted to so many scholars, associates, and historians, as well as a variety of institutions where help was always available. Friends and family were ever present, persistently inquiring about the book’s status. To all of them I submit...

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pp. 1-2

Fannie Lewis Gwathmey, a young girl of nearly fifteen years of age, resided at Hayfield, a beautiful colonial plantation home approximately ten miles below Fredericksburg, Virginia, on the south side of the Rappahannock River. Fannie lived with her widowed mother and her older sister Bessie. On numerous occasions the family was visited by some of the Confederacy’s most illustrious military personnel.

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1. “The Most Adventuresome Member of That Adventurous Group”

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pp. 3-11

John Pelham was the third son born to Dr. Atkinson and Martha McGehee Pelham on Tuesday, September 7, 1838, in Benton County (now Calhoun County), Alabama.

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2. “We Are a Class beyond the Common Ones”

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pp. 12-21

To a country boy from Alabama, the one- thousand- mile trip northward to New York must have seemed like traveling to the end of the world. Disembarking from the vessel with his scant luggage, Pelham walked up the steep pathway to his new home. Entering the grounds of the famed campus, one was awed by its solemn, spectacular beauty and prestigious history. Established by President Thomas Jefferson...

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3. “Fear God and Know No Other Fear”

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pp. 22-32

Thus, the second year of John Pelham’s West Point service began. No longer a lowly plebe, he was now considered a cadet. During the summer encampment of 1857, Tom Rosser became embroiled in an altercation that nearly resulted in his expulsion from the academy. Two cadets were involved in a squabble; one of them refused an order and even raised a sword in defiance.¹ Impulsively, the hotheaded...

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4. “Madness and Fanaticism”

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pp. 33-45

One month shy of his twenty-second birthday, John Pelham began his last year at West Point. His class was scheduled to graduate in early June 1861. First, however, came the substantial and grueling classroom studies in such courses as engineering, ethics, and ordnance and artillery. Shortly after his return, John wrote his father on August 13 and reported that he was “Officer of the Day.” His duties entailed making the rounds and inspecting...

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5. “We Predict for Them a Brilliant Future”

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pp. 46-52

The trip home for Pelham and Rosser was fraught with perils and often tested their mental skills. On occasion, Pelham’s talent for amateur theatrics and quick thinking helped their trek through the North. A steamboat carried them from West Point to New York City where a friend, Ben Wood, aided them in escaping the city. Before leaving Pelham and Rosser stopped in a photographer’s studio to have...

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6. “War Is Not Glorious”

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pp. 53-61

With the arrival of Joseph E. Johnston’s army, Beauregard’s apprehensions seemingly were assuaged. Beauregard now awaited the arrival of the enemy, led by his former West Point classmate Irvin McDowell. His plan of battle had already unknowingly gone astray when Robert Patterson allowed Johnston’s army to escape— a fact McDowell was unaware of. Confidently, McDowell planned an at tack on...

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7. “An Honour to Be One of Them”

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pp. 62-74

The days following the opening battle at Manassas were critical for the Union. Severe criticism blistered the Lincoln administration. Formerly chastised by newspaper editorials for not sending his army into action sooner, Lincoln now suffered outright condemnation by the same hostile press for making war before his men were ready. Headlines labeled him an “Imbecile” and demanded an explanation...

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8. “Like a Duck on a June Bug”

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pp. 75-87

The persistent rumors involving the movement of George McClellan’s army proved to be true. Word of this reached General Joseph E. Johnston, encamped at Manassas with thirty-five thousand men, in early March. Knowing his position was less than tenable, Johnston decided to pull his forces back some thirty- five miles south west behind the Rappahannock River. With snow still powdery on the ground,...

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9. “We Are Going to Whip the Yankees Like the Mischief ”

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pp. 88-104

From his headquarters at the Dabbs house, at noon on Monday, June 23, Robert E. Lee summoned Generals James Longstreet, A. P. Hill, D. H. Hill, and Stonewall Jackson for a discussion of strategy. Longstreet was the senior officer of the foursome. Noted for his poker playing and occasional social drink, “Old Pete’s” personality had changed considerably when three of his children died early in 1862...

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10. “I Have Had My Revenge Out of Pope”

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pp. 105-117

Following the Seven Days Battles, Robert E. Lee divided the Army of Northern Virginia into two in fan try “Commands”—one under James Longstreet, the other led by Stonewall Jackson. Changes also occurred in Stuart’s cavalry, which now became an expanded division of two brigades. Leading Stuart’s brigades were Brigadier Generals Fitzhugh Lee and Wade Hampton, who presented an antithesis in...

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11. “Who Could Not Conquer with Such Troops as These”

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pp. 118-127

Robert E. Lee ventured to Stonewall Jackson’s headquarters on Sunday, August 24, with a new and audacious plan of attack. Separating his smaller army into two groups in the face of the enemy, thus violating a cardinal rule of textbook strategy, Lee suggested that Jackson march his twenty- five thousand men across the Rappahannock River, far beyond Pope’s right flank, and move through Thoroughfare...

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12. “The Lord of Hosts Was Plainly Fighting on Our Side”

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pp. 128-138

Just after dawn on Friday, August 29, Federal skirmishers began moving on Jackson’s left flank in a feeling- out process with possible thoughts of outflanking him. With skirmishing beginning up and down the Con fed er ate line of entrenchment, Jack son knew a large Federal attack would soon commence. At 8:00 a.m. the anxious Jack son ordered Stuart and part of his cavalry to locate Longstreet and guide him...

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13. “The Lord Bless Your Dirty Ragged Souls”

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pp. 139-154

Encamped approximately thirty miles northwest of Washington, D.C., near the town of Leesburg, the Army of Northern Virginia awaited Robert E. Lee’s call to action. During the brief interim between battles, fresh troops had been added to Lee’s command. From Richmond came Daniel Harvey Hill with two divisions of infantry. Also Wade Hampton’s brigade of horsemen became a permanent fixture...

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14. “Put on the War Paint!”

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pp. 155-173

As they awakened on the morning of Wednesday, September 17, the 1,300 civilians who lived in and around the sleepy town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, must have realized that their attractive countryside would soon harvest a grisly battle. Two opposing armies, only a few thousand yards apart, sat poised to clash in the surrounding woodlands and fields. Robert E. Lee had meticulously placed his lines in...

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15. “An Exile from His Own Land of Alabama” [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 174-193

Dawn, September 19, exposed a hideous sight around the town of Sharpsburg. As far as the eye could see, scores of silent, bloated forms littered the landscape. The joint burial from the preceding day had interred many bodies in temporary grave sites, but the hours of exhausting labor failed to complete the task. “When we marched along the turnpike on the morning of September 19 the scene was indescribably...

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16. “Stuart Has Euchered Us Again”

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pp. 194-211

On into Maryland rode Stuart’s raiders. Ahead lay another ten miles before reaching the Pennsylvania border. The troopers galloped on to the old National Road, which connected Hagerstown to Hancock. Near this location an important Federal signal station atop Fairview Heights was seized by Wade Hampton and twenty of his men. From a few captured bluecoats Jeb learned that six regiments of enemy infantry...

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17. “Like Some God of Battle”

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pp. 212-233

Before dawn on October 16 the troopers at the Bower awakened to the staccato sounds of “Boots and Saddles.” Only moments before a courier had arrived to inform Jeb Stuart of a large movement of Federal soldiers south of the Potomac River. These columns, led by the talented Brigadier Generals Andrew A. Humphreys and Winfield Scott Hancock, contained divisions of in fan try, regiments of cavalry, and...

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18. “We Have a Magnificent Position . . .”

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pp. 234-246

McClellan’s days as head of the Army of the Potomac had long been numbered. His inactivity and constant bickering with President Lincoln caused an irreparable rift with the administration. Thus, Lincoln decided McClellan must go. At nearly 11:30 p.m. on Friday, November 7, McClellan was presented with the orders for his removal. Later that night McClellan finished a letter to his wife: “They have made a...

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19. “You Men Stand Killing Better than Any I Know!”

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pp. 247-267

Although sunrise occurred at 7:17 a.m. on Saturday, December 13, little could be seen by either army as a dewy mist rolled in, shrouding the countryside. Eyes squinted painfully to see little more than fifty yards ahead. Nearly two hours would pass before the fog burned off enough to offer a clear view from the hills surrounding Fredericksburg. In the predawn the temperature stood at a chilly thirty-four...

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20. “A System of Irritation”

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pp. 268-282

Sunday, December 14, 1862, was like no other Sabbath in Fredericksburg’s 135-year history. No church bells chimed anywhere in the city. Nowhere was there any evidence of townspeople gathering up their gaily dressed families for the stroll or ride to worship services. In fact, little or no sign of residents appeared anywhere in the town. Instead, Fredericksburg resembled an armed camp as two huge monsters,...

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21. “One Could Never Forget Him”

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pp. 283-296

With the Federals still within striking distance across the Rappahannock River, the Confederate high command continued its diligence with precautionary measures through out January. Longstreet’s corps stayed solidly positioned along Marye’s Heights while Jack son had established his head quarters eleven miles farther down the Rappahannock. Stuart meticulously spread his cavalry forces between the infantry...

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22. “Such Is the Fortune of War”

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pp. 297-312

Sometime in the early afternoon of Monday, March 16, a locomotive, carrying a few of Fitz Lee’s cavalrymen, arrived in Orange Court House. These men brought information that a large body of Federal cavalry had pushed its way toward the vicinity of Kelly’s Ford, thus threatening the Confederate lines of communication. Consequently, Fitz Lee had dispatched these Rebels by rail from Culpeper to obtain...

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23. “I Want Jimmie to Be Just Like Him”

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pp. 313-327

The tragic news of John Pelham’s death reached Camp No-Camp approximately an hour before daybreak when a courier sent by Jeb Stuart galloped in with the painful information.¹ With little fanfare and “much agitation of manner,” according to Heros von Borcke, the rider sadly stated that Pelham was dead. Some of the details were given to the startled onlookers. For many the announcement...


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pp. 329-330


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pp. 331


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pp. 333-386


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pp. 387-401

Index [Includes Back Cover]

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pp. 403-419

E-ISBN-13: 9780817385484
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817317355

Publication Year: 2011

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Subject Headings

  • Pelham, John, 1838-1863.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Artillery operations.
  • Confederate States of America. Army -- Biography.
  • Soldiers -- Confederate States of America -- Biography.
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