Symposium Spotlight: John Pelham

In this week’s Emerging Civil War Symposium Spotlight  Sarah Bierle previews her presentation on fallen leader John Pelham. Continue reading to see what Sarah will be examining during her presentation in August.

John Pelham in West Point uniform

John Pelham was twenty-four years old when he toppled backwards off his horse at Kelly’s Ford, mortally wounded with a sliver of an artillery shell in the back of his skull. An ending no one had foreseen for the young man who helped revolutionize light artillery tactics in American military history.

But why is Pelham one of the junior officers who entered the legends of the Confederacy and the Lost Cause? His life ended abruptly just a few hours after his wounding at Kelly’s Ford on that March day in 1863.

Two years before, he had been a cadet at West Point, eager to graduate but eventually leaving the academy during the secession crisis. Once within the Confederacy, Pelham left his homestate—Alabama—and found an opportunity for military service in Virginia, moving from logistics to drillmaster of an artillery battery. His actions during the First Battle of Bull Run caught the attention of Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart.

Stuart tasked the young Alabamian with organizing a light artillery battery that would move quickly and accompany the cavalry. When the Stuart Horse Artillery officially mustered, Pelham was given command. From the Peninsula Campaign to Seven Days Battles, Second Manassas, Antietam, Chambersburg Raid, Loudoun County Campaign, and Fredericksburg, the young artilleryman skillfully handled his guns, boldly pushed his luck, innovated the tactics to suit the situation, and exhibited remarkable leadership with his men.

Major Pelham’s short life had many moments of risk, daring, and courage that was “glorious to see”, in the words of Robert E. Lee. He loved life, but with his death, Pelham’s legend and memory saga began. It started within hours of his passing and grew through the following decades. Did Pelham die at the “perfect moment” in Confederate military history and his own personal life story, allowing him to enter memory in a certain way?

When looking at Pelham’s life, it’s important to recognize and divide his twenty-four years of living from the legends and perspectives that grew after his death. Yes, oftentimes, the life and post-death stories are closely intertwined, but sometimes they vary greatly and the doubled-edge sword of memory has struck Pelham’s biographies and legacy. In her presentation, Sarah will be sharing about Pelham’s life, death, and memory and pointing out why it’s important to evaluate each individually to gain a better understanding and clearer picture of this junior officer who gloried in the fight and pushed tactics to a new level.

You can find out more information about the 2019 Emerging Civil War Symposium by clicking here. Don’t forget to take advantage of our special rate for hotel accommodations in the area!

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