Colonel John Pelham
Confederate States of America
You might say I sold my soul to the devil.
I was dubbed the “gallant Pelham” by General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate States of America, and subsequently got myself killed fighting for that terrible cause, maybe the worst cause that ever was. We can all thank God it became known as the “lost cause.”
Like everyone else, I was born in a particular time and place, and like most people, I suppose, I eventually became a victim of both. For me the time was what historians like to call Jacksonian America, in the early fall of 1838 to be exact. And, fittingly enough, the place was just outside a town called Jacksonville in the hill country of northeast Alabama. The town was named for our country’s seventh President because, soon after he rose to fame as a hero in the War of 1812, he successfully “removed” the Indians from that part of the state. “Making it suitable for civilization” was what they called it back then, not the wholesale slaughter of indigenous people for the gain of moneyed interests.
If the truth be known, I was the vainest bastard who ever lived, and a bit of a ho to boot!
I’ve been called “the heartthrob of the Confederacy” (although I prefer “stud” myself), but that’s just romanticized Civil War mythology of the worst sort. As with a lot of things, the truth is more complicated. There’s no denying that I met my share of young ladies along the war’s path (“young ladies” is what we called members of the fair sex in those days), and I admit to breaking my share of hearts. In fact, I can honestly claim that three women donned mourning upon hearing of my death, not to mention all the hysterical tears shed over my casket when I lay in state in the Confederate Capitol. But the only girl I ever loved, a beautiful mulatto—I believe “bi-racial” is the term used in today’s parlance— was lost to me a long time before the war ever started. Her name was Aryanna, and she was a slave on my family’s cotton farm. I’ll tell you more about her later.
I’ve also been called “Lee’s boy artillerist,” and General Stuart’s “artillerist pet,” the latter of which I find especially objectionable. It’s true that I was boyishly handsome—that’s what some have termed my appearance, anyway—and fresh out of West Point when the war began, but I did everything I could to get myself away from Jeb Stuart, Lee’s Cavalry Commander and my commanding General. The man claimed to love me like a brother, and I’m sure in his mind his affection was nothing more than “brotherly love,” but it’s important to remember that some things were unspeakable back then, even unthinkable. In other words, fresh faced as I may have been, I’d already had my share of brotherly admirers at West Point, and I was never born yesterday.
The most important thing you need to understand about me, though, is that I wasn’t the hardcore rebel fighter that history makes me out to be. I won’t deny that I was a hardcore fighter—it’s no accident that General Lee dubbed me the “gallant Pelham” in his report to Confederate President Davis following the Battle of Fredericksburg. (I’ll have you know it was the only occasion on which he mentioned a junior officer by name during the entire course of the war.) And General Jackson, “Stonewall” as he came to be known, thought I was the perfect soldier. The man could be extremely critical of his officers, even had them arrested and court-martialed, but for me he only had praise. Well, he damn well should—I helped him earn his nickname at Manassas, that first terrible battle of the war where we whipped the Yankees. And after the Battle of Antietam, possibly the worst battle of all, when more Americans were killed than on any day in our history, you know what Stonewall declared? “With a Pelham on each flank, I believe I could whip the world.”
But despite doing a pretty good job of fooling the entire Confederate high command, not to mention a good deal of Richmond’s wartime society, I was no hardcore rebel. The fact is, you might say I was an abolitionist who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for fame, glory and, yes, a good deal of sexual conquest.
Flawed as I may be, I was born with a nose for bullshit.
I grew up on an Alabama cotton farm, the son of a slave owner, but I never understood why white people owned black people, why one group of people should work their lives away for the betterment of another. I out-and-out rejected the prevailing notion that bondage was the only way for Negroes—African Americans, they’re called today—to live in the civilized world. What a bunch of nonsense that was! What a convenient excuse to enslave people for your own betterment! I’m convinced that’s what it comes down to.
So, as you can see, I was a poorly cast and unlikely “prince of the South,” another label some fools enjoyed pinning on me in the years following the war, when Southerners made up all that romantic nonsense about their fallen “heroes.” Maybe it’s true I was as brave as Julius Caesar (do we really know that Caesar was brave?), but I was no hero. What hero fights for a cause he knows is wrong? What hero sells his soul for fame, glory and carnal pleasures?
General Lee dubbed me the “gallant Pelham” because I was an extremely audacious soldier, and if you ask me, there’s a strong connection between my boundless vanity and my incredible audaciousness. And given that, in his younger days, General Lee himself was considered the handsomest man in the army, I can’t help but wonder if his vanity didn’t help to make him one of the most audacious generals in history, invading the North not once but twice, and repeatedly challenging the Federal Army despite his considerable disadvantage when it came to manpower and resources. Historians generally agree that his audaciousness almost resulted in victory for the Cotton Kingdom’s Confederacy.