For those who are not familiar with the young Confederate officer John Pelham, I thought I’d do a short post on one of his actions in Fredericksburg, Va.
A Major of artillery at the age of 24, Pelham kept Union General William Franklin’s infantry (16,000 of them) hugging the ground with just two cannons. This is just one of the many stories from the Civil War that shows truth is stranger than fiction. If an historical fiction author wrote this actual series of events into a plot, I would venture to say that readers would call it “implausible.”
According to official records, Confederate General JEB Stuart received the following dispatch from General “Stonewall” Jackson: “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… 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 probably did not seem wise. The enemy most surely would quickly overpower this tiny island of resistance and kill or capture Pelham and his gunners. But 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.”
Pelham saluted and rode off with a Blakely gun and twelve-pounder Napoleon. His 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, 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. The enemy retaliated with a deadly vengeance by exploding a shell squarely on the Blakely, causing the crew to redouble 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 dueled with a hundred guns with a single cannon, checking 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.”
Information taken from the book Colonel John Pelham, Lee’s Boy Artillerist by William Woods Hassler.