What If…John Pelham Survived Kelly’s Ford?

John Pelham

He probably would’ve died somewhere else. The end.

Okay, but really, let’s talk about this. I don’t mean to come across flippantly about the subject of the young artillery officer’s life and death. A couple weeks ago, a colleague and I were poking fun at the age-old question, “What if Stonewall was at Gettysburg?” and I threatened to start a trend, “What if Pelham was at Gettysburg?” We laughed and made a couple comments on Pelham memory/myths and moved on.

Later, I started really thinking about the concept and Civil War memory, but decided to frame the question away from Gettysburg and simply: “What if John Pelham survived Kelly’s Ford?”

If you’re not familiar with Confederate artillery major, John Pelham, he was twenty-four when he fell mortally wounded at the battle of Kelly’s Ford on March 17, 1863. He had grown up in Alabama, attended West Point and would have graduated in 1861, but instead resigned from the military academy and took a commission in Confederate service. He eventually organized the Stuart Horse Artillery and spent the year of 1862 refining mobile artillery tactics and blasting enemy troops and sometimes ships. Many point to the battle of Fredericksburg as the high point of Pelham’s military service when he fired opening shots on December 13, 1862 and distracted the Union army for over an hour with a lone, advanced gun. A few months later, Pelham rode out to see the fighting near Kelly’s Ford on March 17, 1863. On that battlefield, he was mortally wounded and died in the early morning hours of the 18th. While Pelham skillfully led the Stuart Horse Artillery during his lifetime and directly contributed to Confederate victories in several campaigns, raids, and battles, admirers built the facts into legends that placed the young artillery in the pantheon with Lee, Jackson, and Stuart and he became a favorite “poster child” of the Lost Cause.

So…what if Pelham survived Kelly’s Ford? I think there are several possibilities based on his track record.

  1. He survives, but is invalided home

Let’s start with the most basic what if scenario, Pelham does suffer the head wound at Kelly’s Ford, but he lives. From the few medical and eye-witness notes of his injury, it seems like that bleeding and swelling in the brain probably killed the major. If he had survived, he may have had brain damage that would’ve put him out of the war and invalided home. Or he may have survived with minimal effects and continued to hold command, just dealing with splitting headaches for the rest of his life which – according to other veterans who lived – was a common long term effect of head injury.

2. He is wounded or dies elsewhere, possibly even in 1863

Given Pelham’s penchant for going into highly exposed and advanced positions with his artillery, it is almost surprising that he made it to March 1863 unscathed. (As far as I can tell, he wasn’t even wounded – at least not seriously enough that it was reported or he left his unit. He may have had an incapacitating illness in June 1862, but that is contextual speculation at this point.)

The battles of Kelly’s Ford and Brandy Station in 1863 are generally seen as the turning points for the Federal cavalry in the east. With Union troopers fighting back more consistently, it begs the question if Pelham and his tactics would have been as effectively from the spring of 1863 forward. While the Stuart Horse Artillery had a few more “high moments,” the Union cavalry didn’t usually scatter as predictably as they did in 1862. This means if Pelham had been with his artillery he would have been under a greater percentage of enemy fire; his chance of being wounded or killed would have gone up exponentially as both sides’ cavalry tactics changed effectiveness in the months after Kelly’s Ford. While Pelham doesn’t seem to have been a “bullet magnet” like some officers were, his “luck” likely would have run out at some point as the Union cavalry started fighting back more frequently.

3. He promotes but is unable to expand the Horse Artillery

If Pelham did live beyond Kelly’s Ford, one very real possibility would have been his promotion. General J.E.B. Stuart had already been lobbying Richmond for the young major’s promotion and he did receive a posthumous rank. But even if that promotion came through, that doesn’t mean Pelham would have necessarily been more effective during campaigns or battlefields. Just as Kelly’s Ford and Brandy Station mark the turning point for Federal cavalry, Confederate cavalry begins its unrecoverable decline.

Pelham had already had difficulties in 1862 with his horses. The Chambersburg Raid had allowed him to choose a new stock of animals, but Virginia winter, lack of forage, and Stuart’s grand raids took their toll. In the aftermath of Pelham’s death, the new commander of the Stuart Horse Artillery (Robert F. Beckham) had to address the horse problem and actually removed at least one cannon from the unit because he considered it too heavy for the horses to pull in campaign or battle operations.

It is interesting to wonder how Pelham might have dealt with the increasing limitations to the Confederate cavalry. If he had lived, his units would have looked quite different than they did in 1862 and he would have had to alter some of the batteries and possibly his tactics just to keep up with the difficulties. Could he have made the tactical shifts? Or would his impetuosity have destroyed his batteries?

4. He survives the war…and is relatively unremembered

If Pelham had lived through the whole war, would he have entered the Lost Cause pantheon? Like many other Confederate artillery majors, would he have slipped into relative obscurity? Or would he have self-promoted his deeds and composed his own legends? Based on his known characteristics in 1861 and 1862, it would seem unlikely that Pelham would have been a self-promoter post-war. Unless forced, he rarely talked about his battlefield experiences to officers or civilians. Eye-witnesses writing in “real time” consistently described Pelham as reserved and humble. One civilian young woman even found him a little boring and unremarkable at one dinner. Stuart was the braggy promoter of his artillery protégé, much to Pelham’s frequent embarrassment.

It is entirely possibly that the Confederacy losing the war could have made Pelham find his voice and self-promote or self-justify in post-war publications and at reunions. (To some extent, one of his brothers did.) But it would be out of character up to the point of March 1863 and would have to be influenced heavily by outside circumstances and post-war emotions.

The other part to consider is that if Pelham had lived through the war, he would have been defeated on the battlefield at some point. He would not have ended the war with his 1862 record. While there were future chances for “glory” beyond Kelly’s Ford, defeats or at least association with defeats would have gone his battle record. How would that have influenced how he felt and how he was remembered in Civil War memory? A large portion of Pelham’s influence in Civil War memory comes from the timing of his death. If he lived, would he have achieved the same status? I’m inclined to think the answer is no.

Why spend an entire blog post theorizing on one person? I had reasons beyond the “what if” question.

First, when we make educated, reasonable guesses through the lens of “what if,” I think it’s important to look at the bigger picture. What’s happening with the armies? What’s the supply situation? Troop strength? How does this play into the “what if”? For example, Pelham after Kelly’s Ford would have been dealing with a declining Confederate cavalry, stronger enemy, and more limited resources. That is important to consider.

Second, as I’ve read and heard many “what ifs” over the last few months, I’m consistently remaindered that our theoretical questions are heavily influenced by Civil War memory. My colleague and I joking asked “what if” concerning Pelham because he is known and remembered. We did not ask “What if Robert Beckham had survived the war?” or “What if Willie Pegram had lived?” These other young Confederate artillery commanders have not captured the imagination to the same extant that John Pelham has. Of the young Confederate artillery officers in the east, Pelham won the memory war in both the 19th and 20th Century. (Name another artillery major who has the same number of monuments, markers, and name mentions on interpretive markers.)

John Pelham had many fine qualities in his character and his battlefield leadership. But so did other young artillery officers. If Pelham had not died with a close to perfect battle record, unmarried, unscathed-handsome, and publicly mourned in the Confederate capital in the spring of 1863, would he have been remembered as fondly as he has been in the historiography record? To me that is the larger “what if” related to John Pelham, and it connects to larger questions of Civil War memory.

6 Responses to What If…John Pelham Survived Kelly’s Ford?

  1. I won’t discuss any “what it”.

    However, one can visit the monument to the wounding of the Gallant Pelham. Here are the GPs coordinates.

    N 38 degrees 29.215 minutes
    W 077 degrees 47.384 minutes

    1. I look forward to a trip to visit some of the Culpepper battle sites, including Kelly’s Ford.

  2. I love the “what if’s”, because what did occur, often.as a result of conscious decisions, were also potential “what ifs” In the Gallant Pelham’s case, he obviously would have died taking a bullet Jennie Wade. And no doubt John Burns would have shot Stonewall, and in turn hung by an irrascible Jubal Early as a franc tireur. And the beat goes on!

  3. if this was a Harry Turtledove “what if” alternate history novel, Pelham would become the fifth President of the CSA, his wife would lead the fight for women’s suffrage in the south, his son would become 4 star general and win the alternate second world war, his daughter would lead the CSA Peace Corps, and his grandson would be the first man on the moon!!!!

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