It had been three months since John Pelham of Alabama left West Point Military Academy under the cover of darkness and began his circuitous journey into the heart of the newly formed Confederacy. His months of waiting, asking for advice, and trying to define his personal stance on secession ended. On April 17, 1861, he had sent his letter of resignation to the Secretary of War and left the Academy five days later. He felt that he had done his duty and made a significant point of clarifying that he had not accepted any commissions until resigning his cadetship.
Once in Confederate Alabama, Pelham signed his commission and was quickly transferred to Virginia, arriving at Alburtis’s Battery at Harpers Ferry as a lieutenant. In the weeks leading up the First Battle of Manassas (July 21, 1861), he helped to organize and train the battery; on the actual day of the battle, Pelham took command of the guns and gunners after Captain Ephraim Alburtis became ill and had to stay behind.
Posting on the far right flank of the Confederate line on Henry House Hill and anchoring his battery somewhere near the Robinson House, Lieutenant John Pelham came under fire for the first time. He had drilled, heard the sound of rifles and cannon, and likely fired a few himself at targets while at West Point or Harpers Ferry. But on July 21, 1861, artillerymen and infantry on the other side of the field fired back.
In a post-battle letter to his father which was published in a local newspaper, Pelham described his feelings with remarkable details and an honest eloquence:
I just write to let you know that we have had one of the most desperate battles ever fought on American soil. It was the most desperate—the enemy fought long and well, but victory is ours, it was a splendid victory too. Jeff Davis made his appearance on the field, just as the last of the Yankees were in full retreat. I was under a heavy fire of musketry and cannon for about seven hours, how I escaped or why I was spared a just God only knows. Rifle balls fell like hail around me. Shells burst and scattered their fragments through my battery—my horse was shot under me, but did not give out until the fight was almost over. I was compelled to take one of my Sergeant’s horses and ride through. At one time I dismounted and directed the guns—one of the gunners asked me to dismount and shoot the Federals’ flag down. I did so—you ought to have heard the cheers they gave me. I directed all of my guns three or four times apiece. My men were cool and brave and made terrible havoc on the enemy. They fought better than I expected they would. The highest praise is due them….
You may want to know my feelings—I felt as cool and deliberate under the shower of lead and iron as if I had been at home by our fire-side—I did not feel fear at any moment, I can’t see how I escaped. A merciful Provident must have been watching over us and our cause….
I have seen what Romancers call glorious war. I have seen it in all its phases. I have heard the booming of cannon, and the more deadly rattle of musketry at a distance—I have heard it all near by and have been under its destructive showers. I have seen men and horses fall thick and flat around me. I have seen our own men bloody and frightened flying before the enemy. I have seen them bravely charge the enemy’s lines and heard the shout of triumph as they carried the position, I have heard the agonizing shrieks of the wounded and dying—I have passed over the battle field and seen the mangled forms of men and horses in frightful abundance. Men without heads, without arms, and others without legs. All this I have witnessed and more, till my heart sickens; and war is not glorious as novelists would have us believe. It is only when we are in the heat and flush of battle that it is fascinating and interesting. It is only then that we enjoy it. When we forget ourselves and revel in the destruction we are dealing around us. I am now ashamed of the feelings I had in those hours of danger. The whistling bullets and shells were music to me, I gloried in it—it delighted and fascinated me—I feared not death in any forms; but when the battle was won and I visited the field a change came over me, I see the horrors of war, but it was necessary.
We are battling for our rights and homes. Ours is a just war, a holy cause. The invader must meet the fate he deserves and we must meet him as becomes us, as becomes men….
The contrasts in these letter excerpts are vivid as the young artilleryman struggled with his feelings from the battle and the realities of the death he had both seen and helped to create on the high ground at Manassas. In the end of his letter, he justified his actions and rooted that justification in his beliefs of states rights. Then he went a step further, stating his belief that the war was a holy cause which would call manly men to battlefield where no romantic glory waited, but instead hurling death would usher many of them into eternity.
Unfortunately, the majority of Pelham’s war letters to his family have disappeared from his relatives’ possessions and from archives, leaving researchers to wonder how his feelings may have continued to evolve as the war progressed. He went on to spend the next year and ten months of his life “dealing destruction” as the commander of the Stuart Horse Artillery until March 17, 1863 when he was mortally wounded at the Battle of Kelly’s Ford, becoming one of the “mangled forms” taken from that cavalry battlefield.
J. H. Maxwell, The Perfect Lion: The Life & Death of Confederate Artillerist John Pelham. (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2011) 59-61.
Bierle research note files.