The Perfect Lion: The Life and Death of Confederate Artillerist John Pelham
By Jerry Maxwell
(July 2012 Civil War News)

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Illustrated, photos, maps, notes bibliography, index, 440 pp., 2011. University of Alabama Press, www.uapress.ua.edu/, $49.95.

 

It was through Douglas Southall Freeman’s remarkable pen that I discovered John Pelham. Lee’s Lieutenants started it all for me, a bit more than a decade younger than was Lee’s “gallant artillerist” when he fell at Kelly’s Ford in early 1863.

Back then, there was little to choose from on the subject. The most readily available book was William Woods Hassler’s Colonel John Pelham. My standards then were not so high as today, but even that long-gone teenager was disappointed at how little this book offered (10 very general pages on his youth followed by generalized battle scenes, all based upon 14 secondary sources).

With the publication of Jerry Maxwell’s outstanding The Perfect Lion, the Civil War community finally has the biography it has waited for more than half a century to enjoy.

The general backdrop of Pelham’s short life is well known and easily discoverable. He was born in Alabama in 1838 and, with the sectional crisis about to erupt, resigned from West Point in 1861 just before graduation to join an Alabama militia unit.

Once in Virginia he was commissioned a lieutenant in Joe Johnston’s Virginia army, where his obvious leadership abilities caught the eye of cavalryman Jeb Stuart, who set about transforming Pelham’s battery into a more mobile outfit (“horse artillery”) that set Pelham on a path from which he would gain immortality but would never return.

The young gunner lived up to every expectation, fighting in every major battle and minor skirmish with the Southern cavalry from First Manassas to his final combat at Kelly’s Ford. His two largest stages arrived back-to-back in 1862 at Sharpsburg (Nicodemus Heights) and Fredericksburg (Hamilton’s Crossing), where the universal praise for the manner in which he handled his guns earned him undying fame in the annals of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Stonewall Jackson mentioned the young officer’s “nerve and genius” in the former battle, while the commanding general himself named the Alabamian in his official Fredericksburg report, described Pelham’s “unflinching courage,” and labeled him “the gallant Pelham.”

The gunner was cool under fire, humble, brave to a fault, and handsome in a dashing, breathless sort of way. But it was his proclivity to seek out combat that led to his death during a cavalry charge in which his own guns were not engaged.

The exact circumstances of his demise are, as author Maxwell keenly writes, “clouded and even muddled since various eyewitnesses, there on the battlefield, all reliable sources, dispute, or possibly distort, the details.” He concludes that resolving these differences “is virtually impossible …. But one undeniable fact stays constant: John Pelham was mortally wounded.”

Unlike Hassler’s former study, Maxwell’s The Perfect Lion is grounded in exhaustive new research that transforms Pelham from cardboard cut-out on a table-top game to the flesh-and-blood officer, leader, son and friend he surely was in real life.

We finally know enough about his formative prewar years to understand who he was about to become. Thankfully, most of Maxwell’s ink is spent not on strategic discussion, but on the tactics of his subject — what Pelham did and why, whom he did it with, and what he and his comrades thought, wrote, hoped and dreamed.

The notes and bibliography are extensive, the maps workmanlike but useful for a work of this nature, and the index complete and accurate.

There is little to quibble with in this fine effort. In fact, the only issue I noted arrived early in the book regarding whether Pelham’s horse was killed beneath him at First Manassas. A newspaper story noted the event, which “although dramatic,” concludes Maxwell, “appears to be false.”

Three pages later in the book, however, is an entire letter Pelham wrote to his father recounting the incident (“my horse was shot under me …”)

Writing good biography grounded in firsthand accounts is an art form, and Maxwell’s effort is a standard against which others should be measured. Alas, the steep price tag will keep many from reading it (and as of this writing it is not available as an e-book). If you do have a few disposable dollars, however, this is a title to own, read and shelve.

Reviewer: Theodore P. Savas

 

Theodore P. Savas is an attorney by training. He is a partner and managing director of Savas Beatie LLC, a publisher of military and general history titles. He teaches law and business-related evening classes and is the author or editor of 15 books on a wide variety of historical topics, published in eight languages.