If there are only 24 years…

John Pelham, 1860 or 1861

24 years. That’s all John Pelham had on this earth.

On March 17, 1863, during the Battle of Kelly’s Ford, the young artillery major and commander of the Stuart Horse Artillery was mortally wounded. After he tumbled off his horse, he never regained consciousness — according to eyewitnesses — and he died in the early morning hours of March 18 from the effects of the head wound. Pelham’s age, brief but decisive military service for the Confederacy, and plenty of romantic rumors contributed to his rise to heroic status.

This past winter I finally sat down at my desk, put hands to keyboard, and started writing the nonfiction biography for the ECW Series that has been rattling around in my head for a couple of years now. (Thanks, Covid pandemic, for closing libraries and archives for so long!) One of the things I’ve found intriguing through the process of “re-finding Pelham” is how short his life was.

Eighteen years of his life played out in Alabama.

Five years of his life were drilled away at West Point.

Barely two years of his life exploded in the history of the Civil War.

And then it was over.

The part of his life that comes under the magnifying glass is the war years, and maybe some of his West Point decisions. I have created charts detailing his life, his movements, where he ate, where he slept, who he wrote to, etc. etc. for two years of his life. Sometimes as I’ve worked on the research and writing, I’ve wondered if it’s fair. Is it fair to make judgments on his life which by human standards was cut short far too soon?

I think about what I knew and didn’t know at age twenty four. I think about the mistakes I made that I had a chance to correct and learn from as time went on.

I think about how other biographies are written. Take Union General Winfield S. Hancock for example. At age twenty-four, he was living it up in Mexico City, carousing with his buddies, enjoying flirtations every night, and likely participating in a few “indiscretions.” If he had died at twenty-four and someone tried to write a biography about him, would we call him a brave junior officer and a party animal? I don’t know because he lived. He settled down. He got married, raised a family, helped save California for the Union, and then went east and became a famous Civil War general. His Mexico City days are a little section of his life, just a few sentences in the biographies.

Back to Pelham. I keep struggling how to define his so short life. How to look at it through context without falling into justification. How to strip away the legends while recognizing and making clear that he was a remarkable young man. How would he have wanted to be remembered? What do the sources say?

Sometimes, I close the working files and just wonder. What if? Ultimately, if he hadn’t been mortally wounded at Kelly’s Ford, the odds are that he would have been killed on another battlefield. But, what if he had lived just one more year. Would he have been married? Would his promotion to colonel have gone through at last? And if he had survived the war, what then? How would he have reacted to defeat and Reconstruction?

But it’s useless. I’ve been to Kelly’s Ford. I’ve been to the site of the Shackelford house in Culpeper where he died. His grave is in Alabama. John Pelham died, and he was twenty-four years old.

The fragments of his papers, the pieced together reminiscences of his friends and enemies, a handful of artifacts, a whole bunch of myths, and a couple of photos. That is what’s piled on my desk as I try to make sense of less than a quarter century of life. I want to tell his story well, but maybe I need to loosen the grip on the magnifying glass. Would some of these details actually be remembered if he had lived longer? I’m not giving him a free pass. Actions are actions. But twenty-four years is an awfully short time to stack up the successes and the mistakes.

If there are only twenty-four years, how does one live them well? And how does someone else write them? I am learning Pelham’s answer to the first question and it is guiding the path of the second…I hope.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?
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8 Responses to If there are only 24 years…

  1. gustav speed says:

    You could read the biography that was published around ten yrs ago.

  2. You might look into Thomas Chatterton, the brilliant young English poet who died at 17, yet whose work influenced the later major Romantic poets, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, etc. Also, the major English poets John Keats who died at 26 and Percy Shelley who died at 27. Might give you some ideas…

  3. Chris Kolakowski says:

    Very well stated. These questions swirl around any life cut short, be it Simon Buckner Jr (58), George Patton (60), Orde Wingate (41), Stonewall Jackson (39) or others who died of unnatural causes. The questions are magnified the younger the person.

  4. Meg Groeling says:

    REMEMBER ELLSWORTH!

  5. Karen Connair says:

    One can do a lot in 24 years. Consider one of the most well known saints in the Catholic Church, St Therese of Lisieux. Died at age 24, wrote a spiritual memoir, Story of a Soul, that became a classic, wrote poetry and other spiritual writings. Declared Doctor of the Church, a title usually reserved for those theologians who are much older and wiser. Declared Patron of the Missions even though she never left her native France and her cloister after becoming a Carmelite nun. What did she do to be so remembered today? It was the little things, her demeanor, her treatment of others, her actions in everyday life—the example she set for others; she inspired them. Pelham had such a personality. He was a leader at an early age. He set a high standards for himself and his men. He was admired by others. With his handsome good looks, a favorite of the ladies and no doubt envied by men, perhaps he had a God like presence on the battlefield. He was not afraid to take risks; he was not afraid to die. St Therese was not afraid to die after she found out she had TB. I’m sure Pelham may not have expected to die at such an early age, but I expect he always knew it was inevitable that he would lose his life on the battlefield fighting for a cause he strongly believed in. Little things can add up to great things. Yes, one can accomplish a lot by age 24.

  6. William T. Anderson says:

    “Five years of his life were drilled away at West Point.” ?? I hope you are not saying those years were wasted. They were not.

  7. Kate McCloskey says:

    I can’t wait to read this. I’ve been to Kelly’s Ford but not the shackelford house. I’ll have to get down there sometime.

    • Karen Connair says:

      I’m eager to read the book too! Also been to Kelly’s Ford; don’t know if the Shackelford House is still standing, and if so, it is probably privately owned. Certainly Pelham’s story is worth telling. So sad that so many fine young men were cut down in the prime of their youth.

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