150 Years Ago This Week: ‘The Gallant Pelham’ dies

March 1863

During the night of Saturday, March 14, Adm. David Farragut in his flagship USS Hartford led his Union naval squadron up the Mississippi River past the Confederate artillery batteries at Port Hudson, La. The Hartford and the USS Albatross succeeded in getting through but the Monongahela and Richmond were heavily damaged and had to withdraw.

The USS Mississippi ran aground and was under severe fire from the Confederate batteries; she was set ablaze and abandoned, and soon exploded in the river. The Confederate guns were accurate and threatened the entire naval flotilla. On the land side of Port Hudson, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ troops carried out demonstrations against the Confederate fortifications.

In San Francisco on March 15, Federal authorities seized the schooner J.M. Chapman, about to depart the port with 20 alleged secessionists and six Dahlgren guns. On the east coast, the British vessel Britannia successfully ran the blockade into the port of Wilmington, N.C. the same day.

Another Federal effort to take Vicksburg, Miss., by Federal troops commanded by Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant, was made by passing through nearly 200 miles of tortuous, swampy, twisting bayous from the Yazoo River to Steele’s Bayou, and then marching behind the city’s fortifications.

Eleven naval vessels commanded by Adm. David Porter were supported by Union infantry under Maj. Gen. William Sherman. The Southerners had anticipated such a move, and had obstructed the narrow waterways with felled trees. It was slow going.

In Virginia on Tuesday, March 17, some 2,100 Federal cavalry and six pieces of field artillery commanded by Gen. William Averell crossed the Rappahannock River at Kelly’s Ford, near Culpeper, and were met by a fierce Confederate cavalry attack led by Brig. Gen. Fitz Lee in the brush-covered country.

After a day of severe fighting, Gen. Averell withdrew his mounted troops in late afternoon, suffering a loss of 78 troopers, and unable to complete his objective of a complete ride around the Confederates to determine their strength.

Confederate casualties at the Battle of Kelly’s Ford numbered 133, including the 24-year-old Maj. John Pelham, of Alabama. The artillerist, graduating from West Point in 1861, was the darling of the Southern army.

Called “The Gallant Pelham” by Gen. Robert E. Lee for his fine artillery work during the Battle of Fredericksburg the previous December, Maj. Pelham fought in 60 engagements during his brief career and defined the concept of flying artillery – guns that could be moved from place to place with great speed to maintain an effective concentration of fire on enemy forces.

At Kelly’s Ford that Tuesday, simply out of curiosity, Maj. Pelham and his cavalry corps commander, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, rode out from Culpeper to watch the spirited cavalry engagement. Without orders to do so, he joined in a spirited charge with the 3rd Virginia Cavalry and was struck in the neck by an exploding shell. Pelham was taken to the Culpeper home of his fiancee, Bessie Shackleford, where he died that day. Gen. Stuart especially mourned his loss, and had Maj. Pelham’s body laid in state at the George Washington monument near the Capitol in Richmond.

In Paris on March 18, the House of Erlanger opened a loan of three million pounds to the Confederacy based on seven-percent bonds for 20 years.

On the Mississippi River on March 19, Adm. Farragut’s Hartford and Albatross successfully ran past the Confederate batteries at Grand Gulf, Miss., just south of Vicksburg. The next day, President Lincoln wired Maj. Gen. Stephen Hurlbut at Memphis: “What news have you? What from Vicksburg? What from Yazoo Pass? What from Lake Providence? What generally?” Gen. Hurlbut told him of the various unsuccessful Union attempts to reach Vicksburg.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.