150 Years Ago: The “Gallant” Pelham at Unison

On November 2, 1862, during the battle of Unison, Virginia, Major John Pelham, commanding the Stuart Horse Artillery, demonstrated the value of horse artillery. His commander, Major General J.E.B. Stuart was rather pleased with Pelham’s performance that day:

… About 8 o’clock, the enemy began to deploy in our front both infantry and cavalry, with six or eight pieces of artillery. Our dispositions were made to receive him by posting artillery advantageously, and the cavalry dismounted behind the stone fences, which were here very numerous, and, consequently, afforded the enemy as good shelter as ourselves. Having to watch all the avenues leading to my rear, my effective force for fighting was very much diminished, but the Stuart Horse Artillery, under the incomparable Pelham, supported by the cavalry sharpshooters, made a gallant and obstinate resistance, maintaining their ground for the greater part of the day, both suffering heavily, one of our caissons exploding from the enemy’s shot. It was during this engagement that Major Pelham conducted a howitzer some distance beyond support to a neighboring hill and opened a masked fire upon a body of the enemy’s cavalry in the valley beneath, putting them to flight, capturing their flag and various articles–their arms, equipments, and horses, as well as some prisoners–sustaining in this extraordinary feat no loss whatever. The enemy finally enveloped our position with his superior numbers, both infantry and cavalry, so as to compel our withdrawal; but every hill-top and every foot of ground was disputed, so that the enemy made progress of less than a mile during the day. The enemy were held at bay until dark at Seaton’s Hill, which they assailed with great determination, but were each time signally repulsed by the well-directed fire of the Horse Artillery. Major Pelham, directing one of the shots himself at the color-bearer of an infantry regiment, struck him down at a distance of 800 yards….(OR, Series I, Volume 19, Part II, Serial 28, page 142)

The color-bearer mentioned was likely that of the 7th Indiana Infantry. Lieutenant-Colonel J. William Hoffman, commanding the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, First Corps, wrote about receiving some of those rounds from Pelham’s artillery in his report:

… General Pleasonton soon arrived in person, and brought the artillery with him. He directed me to again move the brigade to the front, leaving’ the Seventy-sixth Regiment to picket the roads. As we advanced on the enemy they again opened on us with shell, one of which struck the line of the Seventh Indiana, killing the color-sergeant and 1 color-corporal, and wounding a number of others. We then took possession of’ a wood beyond the church, on the left of -the road, and awaited the arrival of the artillery. The enemy in the mean time continued throwing shell, causing a number of casualties. After our artillery had thrown a few shots at the enemy they again retired to a position three-fourths of a mile farther on, toward the turnpike leading to Upperville. We crossed the ravine in our front, and again advanced in line of battle upon the enemy, who soon reopened on us with shell. As we were crossing an open field, a shell struck the line of the Fifty-sixth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, killing 2 men of Company G, and mortally wounding 2 others…. (OR, Series I, Volume 19, Part II, Serial 28, page 130)

The “incomparable Pelham”, working often with only a light cavalry screen in support held off a combined Federal force of infantry, artillery, and cavalry. Given good placement, cool gunners, and solid leadership, horse artillery could hold an enemy at bay. And that’s what the “Gallant Pelham” did 150 years ago today just south of Unison.

Sadly, the 24-year-old artillerist had just over four months to live.