Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Confederate Hero Pelham Honored

Paying homage to Pelham

Historians Frank O’Reilly and Eric Mink, veterans of many a Civil War tour, did something Friday they’d never done before. Encouraged by the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, they dedicated a full day to delving into the world of one lower-ranking officer: Maj. John Pelham. But Pelham was no ordinary man. He is, long after the battle he began, still “the gallant Pelham” that Robert E. Lee nicknamed in his post-Battle of Fredericksburg report—the only non-general officer Lee mentioned by name.

Friday morning, 151 years to the moment, CVBT honored the 24-year-old Confederate artillerist by dedicating a replica of his Napoleon cannon at the spot where Pelham’s daring battlefield actions earned his sobriquet. The site, at Benchmark Road and Routes 2 and 17 in Spotsylvania County, has been drawing visitors since before the first historical marker was placed there in 1903.

There, the Alexandria native—already noted for his innovations with “flying” or horse-drawn artillery—led gunners who pinned down part of the Union army for an hour, delaying its attack on Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s defenses along the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad. Their fire, coming from well in front of Jackson’s line, surprised and shocked the Federals massing at Smithfield plantation to assault Prospect Hill. Men were mown down like bowling pins; one shot killed seven soldiers.

Pelham’s barrage neutralized 6,000 men, as commanders sent soldiers—needed to attack Jackson’s troops—careening off to “baby-sit” Pelham’s one bit of the battlefield, O’Reilly said. He did it by picking the perfect place, a low bowl hidden by a hedgerow and fog from the enemy’s sight, to lob shot down the Richmond stage road toward Gen. George G. Meade’s troops, 800 yards north around Smithfield.

Jackson and Lee, watching from atop Telegraph Hill, marveled at the sheer audacity of Pelham and his men. Their actions were “an allegory of Southern resolve and defiance in the winter of 1862,” O’Reilly told a crowd of about 100 who gathered to respect the man and the moment. “One gun pitted against the largest army of the republic—the largest army in the Western Hemisphere—and Pelham single-handedly dared it to attack—dared to attack it—and held his own for an hour right here, 151 years ago right now.”

 Through most of the shelling, Pelham was “like a boy playing ball,” one witness recalled.His commander, J.E.B. Stuart, had to send three messages before Pelham, whose gunners had emptied their limber chest of its solid shot, pulled back. The success came at some sacrifice: two men killed outright, one mortally wounded, eight wounded and 14 horses killed, O’Reilly noted.“Pelham won a colonelcy on the field last Saturday,” Stuart wrote Custis Lee, eldest son of the army commander. Cavalryman John Esten Cooke later said: “This was the climax of his fame, the event with which his name will be inseparably connected. On that great day, [Pelham] covered himself with glory—but no one who knew him felt any surprise at it.”

But three months later, Pelham was dead—killed in the Battle of Kelly’s Ford upriver in Culpeper County.

On Friday, Pelham’s most famous deed was saluted by two deafening blasts from “Matilda,” a bronze Napoleon wielded by staff and volunteers with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, and a three-shot rifle volley fired by members the Maury and Lacy camps of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The ceremony took place at Pelham’s Corner, the name of an acre on Tidewater Trail preserved by CVBT as well as a neighboring retail center, which let trust members use its parking lot. The historic site is compromised by highway noise, neighboring warehouses and stores and a large shopping center across State Route 2.

 Dr. Mike Stevens, president of the Fredericksburg-based trust, noted the incongruity.“To be honest, this land represents the best and the worst of our preservation efforts,” Stevens said. “Having preserved this ground, we can stand in the footsteps of the gallant Pelham and his brave men. But open your eyes and look around Why did we allow this special place to be almost completely destroyed by modern development and commerce? Why is there only this 1 acre of hallowed ground remaining?”

The Pelham cannon dedication was only part of the day’s devotion to the young hero. Traveling by bus, about 70 CVBT members visited sites linked to Pelham. Among them were Smithfield, now the clubhouse of Fredericksburg Country Club; Hayfield, a private mansion in Caroline County where Lee and Pelham vied for the ladies’ attention in the weeks before the Battle of Fredericksburg; and Skinker’s Neck, a peninsula on the Rappahannock where a full-blown Dec. 5 battle by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s forces was averted when Pelham’s battery fired on a Union naval flotilla headed upriver and he alerting superiors to the Federal incursion into the area.