John Pelham’s Account of the Battle

8 12 2008

A letter from Lt. John Pelham to his father first appeared in the Jacksonville, AL Jacksonville Republican on August 8, 1861.  This excerpt appeared in the newsletter of the John Pelham Historical Association, The Cannoneer, Vol. 2, No.1 (see here)

MANASSAS JUNCTION,
July 23, ’61

I just write to let you know that we have had one of the most desperate battles ever fought on American soil. It was the most desperate — the enemy fought long and well, but victory is ours; it was a splendid victory too. Jeff Davis made his appearance on the field, just as the last of the Yankees were in full retreat. I was under a heavy fire of musketry and cannon for about seven hours, how I escaped or why I was spared a just God only knows. Rifle balls fell like hail around me. Shells bursted and scattered their fragments through my Battery — my horse was shot under me, but did not give out till the fight was almost over. I was compelled to take one of my Sergeant’s horses and ride through. At one time I dismounted and directed the guns — one of the gunners asked me to dismount and shoot the Federal’s flag down. I did so — you ought to have heard the cheers they gave me. I directed all my guns three or four times apiece. My men were cool and brave and made terrible havoc on the enemy. They fought better than I expected they would. The highest praise is due them. We shot down three U.S. flags and dislodged the enemy from several positions. I was complimented several times on the field of battle by general officers and a great many times after the battle was over by other officers.

You may want to know my feelings — I felt as cool and deliberate under the shower of lead and iron as if I had been at home by our fireside — I did not feel fear at any moment; I can’t see how I escaped — a merciful Providence must have been watching over us and our cause. We slept on our arms last night but were not disturbed. The battle began about 8 o’clock but did not become general until 10 o’clock. We fought desperately about 9 1/2 hours, but I was under fire only about 7 1/2 hours; the enemy attacked our left flank and then tried to turn it. We had to change our line of battle and fight them on their own ground.

We whipped old Scott on Sunday — his great fighting fortunate day on ground of their own choosing in open field. They poured down overwhelming numbers on us. I firmly believe they had three to our one — but I don’t know positively how many they had — certainly between 50,000 and 100,000 men. A great many prrisoners told us, they expected confidently to whip us here and then go to Richmond. We have got about 1000 prisoners and the cavalry are bringing them in continually. We took the celebrated Rhode Island battery of rifled cannon, also Sherman’s great battery of the same kind of guns — also the West Point battery that I have drilled with so often.

They say we have taken 90 pieces of Artillery — I have not seen all of them, but I have seen a great many. They had the best Artillery trains and equippage I ever beheld, but We have them now: I have no idea how many small arms we took, a great many. The victory was splendid and complete. Col. Forney’s Reg’t was not engaged — but the 4th Ala. Regt. was cut all to pieces. They fought desperately. The Col., the Lieut. Col., and Major were all shot down but neither of them are mortally wounded. I don’t know what the intention of our General is but I hope I will be able to write to you from Washington City before many weeks. Johnston’s forces were encamped at Winchester, but we all moved down here on getting a dispatch from Beauregard. We got here the evening before the fight — Beauregard repulsed them with considerable loss a few days ago.

I have seen what Romancers call glorious war. I have seen it in all its phases. I have heard the booming of cannon, and the more deadly rattle of musketry at a distance — I have heard it all nearby and have been under its destructive showers; I have seen men and horses fall thick and fast around me. I have seen our own men bloody and frightened flying before the enemy — I have seen them bravely charge the enemy’s lines and heard the shout of triumph as they carried the position. I have heard the agonizing shrieks of the wounded and dying — I have passed over the battle field and seen the mangled forms of men and horses in frightful abundance — men without heads, without arms, and others without legs. All this I have witnessed and more, till my heart sickens; and war is not glorious as novelists would have us believe. It is only when we are in the heat and flush of battle that it is fascinating and interesting. It is only then that we enjoy it. When we forget ourselves and revel in the destruction we are dealing around us. I am now ashamed of the feelings I had in those hours of danger. The whistling of bullets and shells was music to me, I gloried in it — it delighted and fascinated me — I feared not death in any form; but when the battle was won and I visited the field a change came over me, I see the horrors of war, but it is necessary: We are battling for our rights and our homes. Ours is a just war, a holy cause. The invader must meet the fate he deserves and we must meet him as becomes us, as becomes men.

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9 responses

9 12 2008
John Hennessy

Harry, I have always felt that Pelham’s description of his feelings in battle, and his shame at having felt as he did, was one of the more vivid revelations about the human condition as it relates to combat. Clearly his reaction to battle was not universal. Is there something about the makeup of true warriors that in the moment renders battle appealing rather than horrific? I don’t know….

Thanks for sharing this….

9 12 2008
Harry Smeltzer

John,

Yes, I found the letter striking for the same reason. I view his closing sentences as essentially a rationalization in light of what preceded them.

Thanks for stopping by – knowing you’re out there reading this stuff at least every now and again helps keep me honest!

9 12 2008
Pelham’s Letter « Bull Runnings

[...] 2008 NPS historian and Civil War author extraordinaire John Hennessy stopped by to comment on the Pelham Letter.  Here’s his note: [...]

10 12 2008
Pelham Monument « Bull Runnings

[...] Pelham Monument 10 12 2008 Before John Pelham (left) became “Gallant”, before he gained fame – and death, in March 1863 -  at the head of JEB Stuart’s horse artillery, he was a lieutenant in Capt. E. G. Alburtis’s Wise Artillery, attached to Col. Francis Bartow’s brigade of Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah.  By all indications, Capt. Alburtis was not with the battery on the day of the battle, and it was commanded by Pelham.  He wrote about his experience at Bull Run in this letter. [...]

22 08 2009
James G. Flanagan

Most loyal historians and friends of John Pelham.
I live very near Kellys Ford and help keep the Pelham Monument near the Rappahannock River clean and free of briars/weeds. I am quite a Pelham fan and served as V-P of The Brandy Station Foundation for 2 years.
I have the requested likeness (carte de viste) of Pelham claiming it to be the one sent from Dr. Pelham to Jeb Stuart, after his fall at Kelly’s Ford 3/17/1863. My best friend has one with a text on the back listing Pelham as Chief of Jackson’s Horse Artillery. (Before he achieved that rank under Stuart.)
I note the similarity in Pelham’s letter concerning his perception of battle ( Calm, Cool, Collective) to that of the “Stonewall demeanor” in that described battle. I am sure that Jackson must have noticed this as he too had been trained at the POINT.
I will gladly post these two cdv’s if permitted. I commend you on keeping alive the spirit and commentation of this great artillerist. His actions and not his words, made him Gallant.

James G. Flanagan
Education Coordinator
The Liberty Heritage Society
Warrenton, Va. 20186

22 08 2009
Harry Smeltzer

James,

If you’d like me to post the photos here, I’ll be happy to do so. Send the images to me at hjs21 at comcast dot net.

Thanks for reading!

15 02 2010
Sbrinkley

Sir,

Thank you for the great blog entries of “Bull Runnings” – I have enjoyed perusing your work. The banter between yourself and your readers is revealing. Again – thanks for the honesty, and thorough research.

Would you have any insight or information as to any “organization / society” that I should (for courtesy’s good sake) contact prior to my group’s writing about the brave Pelham? And perhaps prior to using the available photographs of Lt. John Pelham as posted ubiquitously across the Web? Is the photo that you have used copyrighted?

We would like to follow the best course – not only legally – but, certainly … respectfully.

Any email clues or further contact information would be very much appreciated.

I am a fan of the writing style you offer.

With all the best regards- Sincerely,
SBrinkley

15 02 2010
Harry Smeltzer

S,

Any photographs of Pelham are in the public domain. While it’s courtesy to give attribution to your source, you’re not leagally bound to do so, as far as I know.

If there is any society you might want to contact, it would be the John Pelham Historical Association at http://www.gallantpelham.org

9 07 2010
Pelham Picture Sells at Auction « Bull Runnings

[...] Read Pelham’s account of his experience at First Bull Run here. [...]

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