How I became the “Gallant Pelham.”
I’ve been called one of the most romantic figures of the Confederacy: “His bravado and muted arrogance convey that lost cause kind of attitude.” But like I said, I always had a nose for bullshit!
A magnificent black horse, a veritable frothing charger, a creature with which he is so innately bound as to be the same living being. . . . It was almost certainly the same stallion that Major Pelham had been riding at Fredericksburg when he staved off the Yankee attack with a single Napoleon; the general hadn’t seen such a magnificent creature before or since. The artillerist had fired the battle’s opening shots on the far Confederate right, his saber flashing in the first ray of sunlight when the fog lifted. It had been hard to see at such a distance, but there looked to be something tied around his slouch hat that was flopping down on the side, echoing the horse’s motion. Sunshine had struck Pelham’s face as the horse reared, lighting the image of a perfect man, a Greek god who had descended to earth to fight for the Confederacy.
It doesn’t take an expert in Freudian psychology to understand what firing off cannons is all about. (Did I mention that Freud was born the same year I went off to West Point to start my career as a soldier?)
Quickly acknowledged for my talents as an artillerist, I was chosen by General Stuart to command the “Horse Artillery” (can you imagine what Freud would have said about that?), a highly mobile force that traveled with the cavalry instead of the infantry. As I intimated previously, that silly nance, Stuart, became well-nigh obsessed with me, treating me like a privileged staff member and demanding my company at every opportunity. To this day I wonder if acknowledging the truth behind his actions would have killed him.
In fairness, though, and as I also intimated previously, serving as Stuart’s “artillerist pet” wasn’t the first time my extraordinary boyish handsomeness came into play with other men. And despite already being close to meeting my maker at the age of 24, it wasn’t my last. Custis Lee, our commanding general’s son, who served as an aide-de-camp to President Davis, was a frequent visitor to General Stuart’s headquarters, and I gotta tell you, he took to me like a fly to a hogshead. Although it surely wasn’t my intention, I think I was so determined to enlist his help in getting transferred out of the Horse Artillery and into Stonewall’s corps that I inadvertently allowed the poor fellow’s romantic fantasies to flourish. Maybe it’s all too easy to do that when something’s unspeakable, like it was back then. And shame on me, because like I said, I wasn’t born yesterday, and I should have known better. It was Custis, in fact, who winsomely compared me to that famous literary rake, Tom Jones: “Handsome is that handsome does.” Yes, I deserve to be shamed for that; my friend Custis deserved better.
For the most part, no matter our differences, Northerners and Southerners got along perfectly well during my first few years at the Point, and I freely admit it took me a long time to figure out why. There may have been Northerners among us who were opposed to slavery, even some downright abolitionists (black Republican abolitionists of the corps, we called them), but whether Negroes lived in bondage in the South or as second class citizens in the North misses the point, which is this: Not a single cadet questioned the notion that ours was a white man’s country in a white man’s world, and it was our prerogative to determine everyone else’s fate, whether it was bondage, confinement to a reservation, out and out slaughter, or what have you. To our way of thinking, such determinations were a matter of benevolence on our part.
But our tranquil, harmonious existence ended when John Brown raided the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in the fall of 1859. Brown was a radical abolitionist who intended to start a slave insurrection throughout the South. Despite the raid being a colossal failure and Brown facing the gallows, it demonstrated just how vulnerable the South was. There’s some agreement among historians that it made war between North and South inevitable, and I tend to agree. After all, how could Southerners live with the threat of insurrection hanging over them? Imagine always having to worry that you might be murdered in your bed while you slept!
Leave it to me to be serving as President of the Dialectic Society just when all hell broke loose. Don’t laugh, but I was probably the most well-liked man in the corps, with a reputation as a diplomat who got along with both Northerners and Southerners alike. (Did I mention that Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” himself, was a not too distant cousin of mine?) Anyway, what had generally amounted to nothing more than trivial discussions and boring speakers suddenly became passionate arguments and physical altercations, including at least one duel (undoubtedly the most exciting thing that happened during my years at the Point!).
If there’s one thing, however, that just about everyone, man or woman, agreed on—their shock to learn that such an innocent-looking boy was such a ferocious fighter capable of killing so many enemy soldiers. I think it goes back to my anger toward my brothers and the Cotton Kingdom, but there I was, taking all my hostility out on the wrong side!
I don’t think it’s necessary to recount my fearless aggression at battles such as Manassas (both First and Second), Antietam, or the Seven Days, but there’s no avoiding further mention of the Battle of Fredericksburg, where my courageous heroics inspired General Lee to dub me the “gallant Pelham” in his report to President Davis. It was at Fredericksburg that my gallantry caused the death of little Jean, a young cannoneer in the Napoleon Detachment who, for me, embodied all the common soldiers whose lives were being sacrificed on behalf of the Cotton Kingdom and the rest of the South’s slaveholding class. Maybe it was the character in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, another book Cooke gave me, that led to my fixation on little Jean, it’s hard to say. In any event, I’d have to say that Jean’s death was the fatal chink in my fragile armor, the point at which I could no longer deny I was fighting for a terrible cause that offered nothing but an illusion of manhood and glory.
It’s hard to explain the peculiar series of events that led to my death (Civil War buffs continue to puzzle about it to this day), but I’ll do my best. Finally confronting the reality of my situation, and unable to endure another moment in the company of General Stuart, I decided to desert the army and seek out Aryanna. Under the pretext of a brief furlough to visit friends in a nearby town, I rode all night, trying to put as much distance between myself and the army as I could. But when I reached that very same town the following morning, I learned the Yankees had crossed the Rappahannock and were about to attack. Consumed with guilt for having abandoned my men, common soldiers like Jean who were fighting for a cause that wasn’t their own, I returned to lead the fight. But before I could rejoin my men, while merely observing the battle, I was mortally wounded by shrapnel. I didn’t suffer the slightest blemish other than a small wound to the base of my skull, but medical advancement being what it was in those days, the doctors pronounced the situation hopeless and I never lived to see the next sunrise. Alas, as General Stuart telegraphed across the South, “the noble, the chivalric, the gallant Pelham” was no more.
I lay in state in the Confederate Capitol’s rotunda as hundreds of mourners filed past my flower-draped casket. When Hetty peered through that glass window above my face, and saw the supposedly angelic smile on the boy soldier’s lips, she was the only one who understood how much I hated the Confederacy for wasting my life. She knew I was smiling at the satisfaction I would receive in taking my revenge. Hetty ran away in horror, through the crowd and down the Capitol steps. And when she later tried to explain herself, all her friends thought she was mad.
It was later that same year at Gettysburg, assisted by Autie’s dauntless tenacity and Stuart’s unspeakable sorrow, that I took my revenge. That dreadful defeat for the South was part of it, anyway. But back then, of course, I hadn’t the slightest inkling that, even if the North won the war, the South might still win the peace.