Glorious Courage in One So Young
A fine example of a brave and audacious American military veteran was John Pelham, a 24 year-old Major of artillery who with two cannon kept Northern General William Franklin’s 16,000 invading infantry hugging the ground near Fredericksburg.
Bernhard Thuersam, Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Glorious Courage in One So Young:
“Stonewall” then calmly reached into his dispatch case and…wrote the following note to “Jeb” Stuart: “General, order Major Pelham to open fire against the advancing enemy.” “Jeb” passed the order to Pelham, who asked excitedly, “General, I would like to have permission to take two guns half a mile along a hidden path to a gully perpendicular to the Richmond Stage Road. Here I can pour an enfilading fire on the flank of [General William B.] Franklin’s troops and knock them down like ninepins.”
Sending two guns to stop three regular Federal divisions unquestionably seemed foolhardy. The enemy most surely would quickly overpower this tiny island of resistance and kill or capture Pelham and his gunners. General Stuart placed such confidence in his young artillerist’s judgment that he replied, “Go ahead Major, but be careful to withdraw in plenty of time.”
Grinning confidently, Pelham saluted and rode off with a Blakely gun and twelve-pounder Napoleon…[and] managed to get into position without being detected. Without delay the Creoles [crew] loaded the cannon with solid shot and aimed them so as to enfilade the Yankee front line only 500 yards away. Startled by this flank fire, the enemy halted, and many infantrymen hugged the ground to escape the next salvo. While Pelham continued to rake General Franklin’s divisions with a devastating fire that toppled the blue ranks like rows of falling dominoes, the Federal commanders ordered their batteries to wheel around and silence Pelham whom they believed must have unleashed at least an entire battery on their flank. Ere long, sixteen Yankee guns were raining shot and shell on Pelham’s two guns.
For a full hour Pelham exchanged a raging fire with the enemy [and] Pelham, flushed with excitement at the sight of his two guns stalling the advance of Franklin’s Left Grand Division, resolutely directed the operation of his guns. But the enemy retaliated with a deadly vengeance by exploding a shell squarely on the Blakely…while the other crew redoubled the Napoleon’s fire. General Franklin…reinforced the fire of four of his own batteries on Pelham with the firepower of long-range guns on Stafford Heights.
Not only did Pelham maintain his position, but his rapid, shifting fire completely halted the enemy’s advance. All along the Confederate right admiring eyes watched unbelievingly as Pelham with his single Napoleon dueled with a hundred guns and checked the advance of 16,000 blue-coated infantry. General Lee, observing the spectacle through his field-glasses, turned to an aide and exclaimed, “It is glorious to see such courage in one so young.”
(Colonel John Pelham, Lee’s Boy Artillerist, William Woods Hassler, Garrett & Massie, 1960, pp. 145-148)