Historical Marker Text
Here Major John Pelham, commanding Stuart’s Horse Artillery, executed a stunning flank attack on advancing Union troops during the Battle of Fredericksburg on 13 December 1862. Reduced to one cannon, the 24-year-old Pelham halted the Federals for almost two hours by employing the flying artillery tactics that he had perfected. Observing from a nearby hilltop, Lee exclaimed, “It is glorious to see such courage in one so young!” Lee’s battle report commended the “gallant Pelham.” The Alabamian was fatally wounded three months later at Kelly’s Ford on the upper Rappahannock River. (1992)
Major John Pelham, born September 14, 1838, dropped out of West Point April 22, 1861, to return to his home state of Alabama and join the army of the Confederate States of America (Mercer 35). The boyish-looking young officer saw every battlefield of the Army of Northern Virginia from First Manassas in July of 1861 until his death, and was only twenty-four years old when he took action that would immortalize him in history (Mercer 167).
The morning of December 13, 1862, the Battle of Fredericksburg began. Major General J. E. B. Stuart’s Horse Artillery were among the Confederate troops on Prospect Hill, looking out over Union General George Meade’s troops at Smithfield.
Pelham begged Stuart to allow him to position a cannon against the Federal flank. Stuart assented, and Pelham promptly took a twelve-pounder Napoleon from Captain Mathis Henry’s Horse Artillery, with its crew, and was on his way. The crew unlimbered the gun at the intersection of Bowling Green Road and the road to Hamilton’s Crossing, brilliantly concealed from the view of the Federals (O’Reilly 143). They were hidden behind a row of hedge cedars, on lower ground than Meade’s troops, who were less than 400 yards away, and ready to surprise them. Although the morning fog was dissipating, Pelham and the cannon crew remained unnoticed. At 10:00, Pelham ordered the first shot fired against the Union flank, and the fight began (144). The shocked Federals were forced into action earlier in the day than they had planned for, and when their artillery returned fire, the guns shot beyond Pelham because he was too close to them. Only after thirty minutes of scoring hits against the enemy did Pelham order the cannon crew to stop, and then only to allow Confederate cavalry to advance upon the Union troops. When asked “how he was getting on,” Pelham replied “Go back and tell General Stuart [that] I am doing first rate” (147). Pelham continued until almost 11:00, having the crew fire, shift positions, and fire again. It was not until Stuart sent a third order for Pelham to cease that the young major chose to obey. Pelham’s gun had dropped countless Federals, while delaying them for over an hour.
Observing Pelham’s actions from higher ground, General Robert E. Lee remarked “It is glorious to see such courage in one so young.” In his official report of the battle, Lee commended the young major as “the gallant Pelham,” a name that has remained to this day (Mercer 137).
Young and gallant Pelham’s promising career in the army was cut short on March 17, 1863, when he was struck in the back of the head by a shell fragment at a cavalry battle at Kelly’s Ford. Pelham died early the next morning at a house in nearby Culpeper, an “irreparable” loss to those who knew him (Mercer 160-63). General Stuart said with the utmost sincerity that “The gallant Pelham—so noble, so true, will be mourned by the nation” (163).
For Further Reference
Hassler, William W. Colonel John Pelham: Lee’s Boy Artillerist. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1960.
The John Pelham Historical Association. http://www.gallantpelham.org
Mercer, Philip. The Gallant Pelham. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.
Milham, Charles G. Gallant Pelham: American Extraordinary. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1959.
O’Reilly, Francis Augustin. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.
Trout, Robert J. Galloping Thunder: The Story of the Stuart Horse Artillery Battalion. Mechanicsville, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002.
Wise, Jennings Cropper. The Long Arm of Lee: History of the Artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.