Tucked away in an unlikely corner of the National Archives is a file containing the records of two transactions documenting the beginning and end of the heroic career of Confederate Lt. Col. John Pelham. Ironically, they are filed under “citizen,” meaning “civilian.” Although Col. Pelham was most certainly a citizen, the South’s celebrated artillerist was definitely not a civilian.
I came across the records while looking for color to enhance the authenticity of my historical fiction series Before the Civil War. The “citizen” folder made me doubt this was the John Pelham who held the flank of the Union army at bay with only one gun at Fredericksburg.
But I looked at it anyway and there was The Gallant Pelham, going about his everyday business with no thought that 155 or so years later a writer would find his recordkeeping of interest. These records are of interest because it is possible to add details to our understanding of the young hero’s life by gleaning clues from those scraps of paper.
Near Yorktown, Virginia, April 24, 1862
Twenty-three-year-old John Pelham sat in his damp tent on an overturned cracker box, trying to keep warm as he filled out paperwork. There was an uncomfortable, limp clamminess about the uniform he wore, as if the wool was in league with McClellan’s miserable troops who were enjoying their bivouacs on the Virginia Peninsula about as much as Pelham was his.
Incessant rain, snow and sleet had plagued the armies throughout April, leaving the troops wet to the skin and shivering as temperatures hovered in the mid-40s. As Confederate troops marched through Richmond, the girls had given them daffodils, which they stuck under their hat bands. But those cheery signs of spring had grown crunchy under the influence of sleet and had been discarded. There were no signs now of the spring for which Pelham and Stuart’s Horse Artillery hoped.
But the weather eventually would break and bugles would sound “To Horse” in earnest. John Pelham believed in being prepared, so he sat in his tent ordering provisions instead of warming himself by the fire in front of headquarters near Yorktown, Virginia.
Just a year ago, Pelham, having submitted his resignation from the U.S. Military Academy on April 17, 1861, was making his way home to Alabama with West Point roommate Tom Rosser. Now, as Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s handsome chief of artillery, he was too busy to contemplate the past. He had recruits he needed to feed as well as train.
Artillerists Must Eat
Pelham took out a damp sheet of writing paper, wrote “Th” with his pencil and then realized he needed to observe form. He wrote “Cavy Brigade April 24, 1862.” It didn’t matter that the errant two letters headed the requisition; he wasn’t there to make paperwork look pretty.
We have to suppose John Pelham had the same fondness for paperwork that characterizes active men of every age. Yes, it must be done, but, no, it’s not fun. Yes, it is critical to the success of the military mission, but, no, it’s still not fun.
The young captain had been taught by somebody, probably at the academy, that good officers had to keep a close eye on the back-office minutia if they were to be great officers. So, he planned ahead and filled out the paperwork, as tedious as it was, while the rain dripped off the tent and the enemy lobbed shells at the Confederate lines.
Time has left its mark on Voucher 70, but you can still read the requisition Pelham gave the commissary. He wrote it out himself, apparently because he had no quartermaster sergeant. None is listed in the slate of officers elected in April.
There was much Pelham did himself, rather than delegating duties. His men were just learning to be soldiers and were unfamiliar with anything military they had not experienced in the state militias. Pelham even demonstrated personally how to serve a gun and specifically chose the men for each position.
He was a perfectionist with West Point firmness about how things should be done. So he assumed quartermaster duties along with recruiting, training, disciplining and record-keeping.
I immediately noticed the young captain said “please.” The courtesy stands out because the rest of the wording is as spare as Pelham was himself (he didn’t carry an ounce of extra weight, 150 pounds on his almost-6-foot frame).
Don’t you think his mother would have been pleased? It is universally acknowledged by those who knew him that Pelham was unfailingly polite. I wonder how many other requisitions received by the commissary included that telling word?
The Cupboard Was Bare
Pelham specified the provisions were “for my own us (sic),” presumably to differentiate his command from others under Stuart.
He first listed provisions in generalities: flour, salt, hams, vinegar, beef, candles, sugar.
Then he went back — at a later time, it appears, because of the different writing instrument used — and specified the amount, crossing off all the items but two.
The line under “60 lbs Flour” is difficult to read. It says “Hams” and seems likely Pelham would have specified how many of what size. It appears to me to say “20 hams at 2″ (pounds),” but I could be wrong. If you have a different interpretation, I’m certainly open to hearing it.
But there’s no doubt about Pelham’s original list getting pared down to the absolute necessities. It wasn’t that he didn’t want the other provisions on his list. It was that the commissary had no beef. Or salt. Or vinegar. Or candles. Or sugar.
For Pelham’s artillerists, something to eat was a hit-or-miss proposition in April 1862. William A. Simpson wrote his parents and siblings on April 22: “We have been exposed to hard rains for the 2 or 3 days without the benefit of a tent more than pine brush & not very plentiful of provision while we were marching, but we got enough now except horse feed.”
Pvt. William P. Walters wrote his wife on April 30: “We don’t get our coffee and sugar. We had to eat parched corn and beef with out salt for 3 days, but we have provisions now.”
In early March, Pelham’s men had helped cover the withdrawal of Gen. Joe Johnston’s army as it moved to meet McClellan in the Peninsula Campaign. Part of their duties had been to burn huge stores of corn and bacon stored at Manassas because they couldn’t be moved. A month later, the memory of pounds of aromatic bacon sizzling in their wake must have made the artillerists groan.
Wagons, Shortages and Muddy Roads
The constant rain, poor communications and shortages of all kinds made the withdrawal of the army toward Richmond difficult and confusing. Confederate military correspondence from March to May 1862 reveals a desperate need for and lack of wagons necessary for transporting rations, ammunition and everything else. Horses were in short supply, as well, and the roads were a morass of mud as the rain kept coming down.
But while other commanders were calling for wagons that weren’t available, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was supplied. On April 24, the same day Pelham made out his requisition, Johnston wrote Gen. Robert E. Lee from Lee’s Farm, Virginia:
“In the event of our being compelled to fall back from this point it would be a great convenience to have a few days’ provision in wagons, which could meet the army on any road we might take. For this object I have above 100 wagons in Richmond, which the officer who bears this is directed to keep loaded and ready to move at a moment’s notice, provided you can have a sufficient guard furnished for the safety of the stores. I beg that this may be done if possible. My object is to reduce the size of the wagon trains of our divisions.”
So food was on the way.
A Signature to Remember
Contemporaries said Pelham grew too thin when campaigning. Perhaps, it was due in part to requisitions like this one that were short on variety and substance.
Pelham signed the requisition “Jno. Pelham, Capt. Lt. Horse Arty.” The men had chosen him captain in mid-March when enough had joined the ranks to warrant an election of officers. To Stuart’s consternation, Pelham’s official promotion to captain was delayed until May 1, retroactive to March 23.
There was great rejoicing by Stuart and the men in camp when the papers came making Pelham’s rank official. According to observers, Pelham blushed at the attention, as was his modest habit when being praised.
Don’t you know there were men who proudly told their pards around the campfire, “I knew him when he was just a lieutenant”? The captain of April 1862 became Major Pelham in October of that year. Promotions in the artillery came slow and Pelham was not promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel until 18 days after his death on March 17, 1863, despite endorsements by Stuart and Lee.
Making Do With Less
Pelham pocketed the requisition and buttoned on his great coat. It was going to be a wet, cold ride to the commissary. As he waited for his servant to bring up his horse, Pelham noticed the makeshift shelters the men had made from tree boughs, some more elaborate than others. The men’s eyes peered out at him, hoping he wasn’t going to call them to drill.
Pelham knew the look. He’d worn it once or twice himself at the military academy when the snow turned his ears the color of a ripe watermelon and his teeth chattered as he stood at his post. The appearance of an officer usually meant disagreeable duty was fixing to get worse.
Many of Pelham’s men were from milder climes in the South and were not yet hardened to Virginia winters. Many of them were sick or just recovering. Some with the measles were occupying beds in a Richmond hospital. Two of those had died of the highly contagious disease. Almost everybody else was trying to get over the effects of drinking bad water.
Take your ease, boys, Pelham thought, looking at the men. I won’t call you out until I get this chore taken care of.
He mounted up and rode away in the rain.
Life was considerably more comfortable at the regimental quartermaster’s camp. There were tents, for one thing. Pelham dismounted and walked under the fly of the largest one, shaking the water off his hat and coat before going inside.
The man behind the makeshift counter gave Pelham a cheery salute.
Don’t say it, Pelham thought. It’s all right with me that you’re dry. But just this once, don’t say it.
“Wet enough for you?” the man asked, grinning.
“It is,” Pelham said. He handed him the paper.
The man in the dry uniform shook his head.
“Can’t help you…” He glanced down at the paper. “…Captain. Wish I could. But all I’ve got is flour and ham.”
Pelham just looked at him with those blue eyes.
“It’s God’s truth,” the man said. “I don’t have any of that. You can ask anybody. They’ll tell you. We’re supposed to get provisions in tomorrow. But Richmond’s been telling us that for days. It’s this dad-blasted weather. You can see for yourself how bad the roads are. I wouldn’t count on getting any of those things you got listed there until you see the wagons.”
The man handed Pelham his pen and turned the paper around to face him.
“Just cross everything out except the flour and ham. We’re flush with ham at the moment. Just write down how much you need and I’ll get it for you.”
Pelham dipped the pen in the ink bottle, drew lines through most of the things on the list and wrote in “60 pounds” by the word “Flour” and “20 hams at” by the word “Hams.” He handed the pen back to the man, turned the paper around and pushed it toward him.
“How soon can I expect these?” Pelham asked. He had been hearing Federal artillery pounding away at Yorktown for days. He wanted to be ready for any eventuality.
“Today. I’ll send ̕em over soon as my wagons get back,” the man said. “Could I offer you some coffee before you go? There’s a new pot on the fire.”
“Thank you, no. Good day.” Pelham saluted and walked out into the dreary rain again.
At least, it’s better than parched corn, he thought riding back to camp. The beef’s not all that good anyway.
He recalled the famously unpalatable dishes set before the cadets at West Point and the undrinkable coffee that smacked of soap.
I’ll do the best I can for you, boys, but you’re soldiers and privations are part and parcel of a soldier’s life. The sooner you adjust your sites, the better it’ll be for you. After all, we didn’t come down here for a tea party. We’ll make those Yankees regret having inconvenienced us!
Part II — Major Pelham Buys a Horse coming soon
Image of John Pelham, made by Mathew Brady before Pelham resigned from the U.S. Military Academy. Courtesty of Heritage Auctions.
 Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
 Pl. XVII: Southwestern Virginia and Fort Monroe, Lee’s Mill (VA), section enlarged. United States War Department, et. al. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union nd Confederate Armies. Washington, Govt. Print. Off., to 1901, 1880. Online Text. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, loc.gov/item/03003452/.
 National Archives, Confederate Citizens File, Alabama, John Pelham. Fold3.com, Public Domain.
 Trout, Robert J. Galloping Thunder. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002. Robert J. Trout. p. 51.
 Maxwell, Jerry H. The Perfect Lion: The Life and Death of Confederate Artillerist John Pelham. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press. 2011, p. 69.
 United States War Department, et. al. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I, Vol. XI, Part III. Washington, Govt. Print. Off., to 1884. p. 461.
 Maxwell, p. 70.
 Adapted by Jan Nichols Batts from Waud, Alfred R., Artist. [Why the Army of the Potomac doesn’t move]. United States, 1862. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, loc.gov/item/2004660199/. (Accessed May 01, 2017.)