The strident notes of “Boots and Saddles” roused young Private Peter Pelham out of his blankets on the frosty ground at Lavergne, Tennessee, on 7 October 1862. Scrambling to his feet, he gathered his sword, its wooden scabbard made in his home state of Alabama, and his muzzle-loading shotgun, and raced for his horse.
Pete had defied his father’s direct order not to enlist in Confederate service. He was in delicate health, and Dr. Atkinson Pelham tried pleading with him, citing the hardships that accompanied camp life and campaigning. Then he tried ordering him. But Dr. Pelham couldn’t keep 21-year-old Pete home. A senior at Oglethorpe College, Pete discarded his books and enlisted in the Alabama Partisan Rangers, a short-lived organization of self-equipped young men eager to defend the South from the invading Union army.
The rangers were soon decimated and survivors sent to other commands. Pete, like his brothers Charles, William, Thomas and Samuel, ended up in the 1st Alabama Regiment, Partisan Rangers, commanded by Colonel John T. Morgan.
The Gallant Major John Pelham
This early fall morning Pete’s other brother, Major John Pelham, was embarrassing the Union army by touring around it with troops led by Brigadier General J.E.B. Stuart. Already recognized as a gifted artillerist, Major Pelham would rocket to fame within two months for brilliantly holding at bay the entire flank of the Union Army of the Potomac, enabling the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to repel its strong attacks.
For several hours, Pelham would enfilade the entire Federal lines of battle with only two serviceable guns, enduring with unflinching courage direct fire from multiple Union batteries. In his battle report, General Robert E. Lee would bestow the name by which the 24-year-old would be known thereafter: the Gallant Pelham.
People who knew John, even those who fought for the Union, universally testified that he was self-effacing and modest, easy to blush, never promoting his achievements and eschewing pride. That didn’t change after Lee’s accolade elevated him to fame. Had he lived to see it, it is certain John would have been chagrined that future references to his brothers would always mention their relationship to him, a sort of reflected glory that might have gotten old with repetition over the years.
In October 1862 John Pelham would have been thought a valuable asset to the Confederate war effort because of his West Point training and his bravery on the battlefield.
But it was not John’s education or even his military giftedness that younger brother Pete would prize in days to come. It was John Pelham’s unimpeachable character that would keep Pete from an early death before a Union firing squad.
Skirmish at Lavergne
That cold October morning Pete and the other Rangers hastily mounted up while members of an Alabama infantry regiment camped nearby ran through their camp, Union troops right behind them and shooting. The newly formed infantry regiment, who had not yet received their weapons, was looking to put the Rangers between them and a Federal foraging party that included a brigade of infantry, a regiment of cavalry, and a battery of six or eight guns.
It was up to the Rangers to defend them.
Pete, in Company C with brothers Thomas and Charles, deployed along with the other Rangers, taking up a position in a cedar thicket near the Murfreesboro pike. Their orders were to fire at close range with both barrels loaded with buckshot. Pete was confident they could repel the Federals.
Lieutenant William Pelham, second from the oldest, and Samuel, the youngest brother, were in Company A. Will had charge of the Rangers’ only cannon, a little 6-pounder.
Pete heard Will open up with the gun. The Federals began throwing shells that direction, blowing up the caisson, dismantling the cannon and wounding Will. Pete recalled it was Dudley Bush who came to tell him Will was wounded and had lost his horse.
Quickly, Pete got his captain’s permission to find his brother and remove him from the field.
“When I got to where the Nolensville pike comes into the Murfreesboro pike, I looked down the Nolensville pike and saw a regiment coming my way and another regiment or two, both infantry, come from toward Nashville,” Pete remembered.
“They were covered with pike dust and looked gray, and that was before we began using battle flags. Our flag looked like the United States flag, and having no idea the Yankees were on the Nolensville pike, I felt sure it was my regiment, so I held my position, thinking my regiment would reinforce me and that we could whip that brigade in front: result, my horse killed, I was captured, and they took me to be a ‘bushwhacker.’
“There were many in the section at the time. Our regiment had nothing but the homemade uniforms. Most of us had citizens’ clothes, no brand on our horses, equipment, or anything else. We had to furnish our own horses and saddles and all equipment.”
Besides the fact that he didn’t look like a soldier, Pete was all alone, not the usual case for troops. There was every reason for Union troops to believe he was a bushwhacker and nothing but his word to indicate his Confederate service.
Facing Execution as a Bushwhacker
Initially, Pete didn’t understand the gravity of his situation.
“I was taken to Nashville and put in a dungeon in the Federal prison. I was tried by a court-martial, with two others captured that day, one of whom was sentenced to be shot.
“When taken before the court, I made my statement, telling absolutely the truth; I could not understand how I could be a bushwhacker. I knew nothing of that part of war until I heard the damaging testimony against me. I had shot at the Yankees when entirely cut off from my command, but did not know it when I shot.
“On this court was Colonel Gilham, of East Tennessee, who was afterwards a general. [Who was the mystery man who saved an adversary’s life?] He asked my full name and where I was from, my age, etc., and he kept looking in my face, and finally asked if I knew John Pelham. He then asked me to describe him, give his age, where he was educated, and all about him.
“I told him all, and that he was my older brother. He asked me where he was. I said he was under General J.E.B. Stuart, that he was in command of Stuart’s Horse Artillery, etc. Colonel Gilham then turned to the other members of the court and said: ‘I believe this boy is telling the truth. I know John Pelham; we were together at West Point last year, and I know John Pelham would not tell a lie under any circumstances; this boy describes him perfectly and looks like him.’
“They voted me not guilty of bushwhacking and sent me to prison with others. Before I was sent off, Colonel Gilham said to my guard: ‘Turn him over to me, I will be responsible for him.’ He then told me to go with him down into the basement of the capital building, where the court had been held, where I found a lot of Confederate uniforms, all new and made of splendid cadet gray
Insurance Against Mistaken Identity
“I fitted myself out with coat, vest, and pants. The colonel told me to take the best, saying they had been captured from Morgan’s command and would be burned, ‘so, take your choice.’
“The suit selected fitted me exactly. It was an officer’s coat, so we pulled the stars and braid off, and I had a splendid suit for winter.”
Within two weeks, Pete had been paroled, and soon he was back with his unit, which eventually became the 51st Alabama Cavalry.
“The prison was outside of the city,” he remembered. “General Forrest was in command of the Confederate troops around Nashville, and I understood that the Federal commander in Nashville at that time became uneasy for fear Forrest would make a raid on the prison and release all the prisoners, so they paroled all of us, some two or three hundred.”
When Pete walked out of the Federal prison, he owed a great deal to his brother John and the honor exhibited by a Union officer.
The Pelham brothers and Colonel Gilham lived in a time when a man considered it dishonorable to tell a lie, to break his word, to be unjust, to cheat a friend or foe, even in war times.
Men didn’t care about honor because of the consequences of getting caught doing something wrong. They cared about honor because it defined a man. Being dishonorable was as low as a man could get.
The code of honor pervaded the armies, too, with some notable exceptions.
But John Pelham’s character was superior, even when honor was the rule of the day, so much so that a man — now an adversary — could say with complete certainty that he would not tell a lie “under any circumstances”. When Colonel Gilham was observing this display of character, nobody’s life was on the line. John Pelham was just living, being what he was: a man incapable of telling a lie.
Confederate and Union Virtue
Believing that the home that produced John Pelham would produce others with equal integrity, Colonel Gilham was convinced Pete was a truthful man, too. What’s more, he staked his reputation on it, and the colonel had a reputation of value. Otherwise, the other members of the court would not have been convinced.
Colonel Gilham even went a step further: he ensured Pete would never be mistaken for a bushwhacker again by providing him with a uniform.
The 51st took part in fighting at Murfreesboro, Shelbyville, Chickamauga, Knoxville, Decatur and Jonesboro. It aided in the defense of Savannah and the Carolinas.
During the Atlanta campaign, Pete was placed under arrest for foraging against orders by his brother Charles, who had been promoted to lieutenant. Pete was wild with rage until he heard that Charles was wounded, whereupon he rushed to his brother’s side, cared for his wounds and assumed command.
Pete would not believe it when he heard the Army of Northern Virginia had laid down its arms. When 51st surrendered with the Army of Tennessee in North Carolina, Pete struck out on his own to find a unit that was still fighting. He couldn’t find one, but he never surrendered or took the oath of allegiance to the U.S.
When Pete made application for a Confederate pension in 1919, he answered a series of questions. Asked, “Where was your command when you left it?” Pete wrote “Surrender in Greensboro, North Carolina.” Asked “When did you leave your command?” He answered, “Never did.”
How Peter Pelham Lived His Life
After the war, Pete managed a sheep raising concern begun by General John B. Gordon in Worth County, Georgia. When it failed, Pete remained in Georgia. He married Emma Frances McAuley in 1869 and became the father of six children, three of whom died in infancy. After Emma died, he married Mrs. Sally Jackson in 1917.
Pete always said the war had been unnecessary because the South would have freed the slaves eventually. His father was a Unionist until Alabama voted to secede, after which time he and his sons stood in defense of their state.
A devoted Presbyterian, Pete was an elder of the Poulan (Georgia) Presbyterian Church and in 1882 organized the Worth County Sunday School Association. Every Sunday he read the Bible to chain-gang prisoners in their camp, visiting them the last Sunday of his life. He died in Poulan, Georgia, on 3 April 1924.
He was eulogized in the Confederate Veteran by his friend Chase S. Osborn, former governor of Michigan, as a “Southern gentleman of the old school, a citizen above reproach, and a Christian whose humbleness before God was as real as was his abhorrence of all things artificial.”
The Irreparable Loss of Major John Pelham
Less than six months after Pete’s capture, Major John Pelham was hit in the back of the head by shrapnel at the battle of Kelly’s Ford, Virginia. He died the next morning, 17 March 1863, without having regained consciousness. He was promoted posthumously to lieutenant colonel.
Major General J.E.B. Stuart announced his death to the division as an “irreparable loss.” Lieutenant Colonel Pelham revolutionized the use of light artillery as a mobile arm of the cavalry, and his genius as an artillerist is acknowledged worldwide. He is buried in Jacksonville City Cemetery in his hometown of Jacksonville, Calhoun County, Alabama.
Stuart’s description of John Pelham as a man reenforces the judgment of Colonel Gilham in vouching for Peter: “The memory of ‘the gallant Pelham,’ his many manly virtues, his noble nature and purity of character, are enshrined as a sacred legacy in the hearts of all who knew him. His record has been bright and spotless, his career brilliant and successful.”
Chase S. Osborn, Governor. “Maj. Peter Pelham – A Tribute.” Confederate Veteran, Vol. XXXII, No. 6,June 1924: p. 236-237.
J.E.B. Stuart. General Orders #9, 20 March 1863, Official Records.
Peter Pelham. “An Unfortunate Shot.” Confederate Veteran, Vol. XXX, No. 5, May 1932: p. 171-172.
Peter Pelham, Confederate Pension Applications, Georgia Confederate Pension Office, RG 58-1-1, Georgia Archives.
The Capital in Nashville, Tennessee. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-4697.
“Desperate hand to hand combat between Union Cavalry, commanded by Gen. Averill (i.e. Averell) and Stuart’s Rebel Troop, at Killey’s Ford (i.e. Kelly’s Ford), on the Rappahannock, Va., March 17 (1863).” Illustration in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1863, p. 17. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZ62-62758.
Drawing: Alfred R. Waud. “A Jerilla.” Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-10792.
Major Peter Pelham in Late Years: Chase S. Osborn, Governor. “Maj. Peter Pelham – A Tribute.” Confederate Veteran, Vol. XXXII, No. 6,June 1924: p. 236-237.
Portrait of Cadet John Pelham, Portrait of Peter Pelham from Bettie Pelham’s photograph album: Courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
© Copyright 2016 Jan Nichols Batts