Pelham, who lived in Alexandria, left West Point Military School, just a few weeks shy of graduating, to fight for his South in the Civil War.
“I had hoped,” he wrote in a letter to his father, “fondly hoped, to graduate here.”
Pelham’s great-great-nephew, Pete Pelham, who attended the weekend’s events, along with other Pelham relatives, served four years in the Army’s 82nd Airborne. Thirty-two years after leaving the Army, after terrorists attacked his country on Sept. 11, 2001, Pete enlisted in the National Guard and served with the 2025th Transportation Company.
“I was 48 years old when I went in,” Pete said. “I just felt like it was a time when my country needed me, and I felt like I could do some good.”
Pete grew up in a military family. His late father, Charles Clay Pelham, made the Army his career.
“The way I look at it, from a soldier’s point of view, you want to keep your family tree alive, especially when they’ve served in the military,” said Pete. “That’s important and, in fact, it’s a responsibility. You need to pass that on to the younger generation.”
That younger generation includes Pete’s daughter, Sarah, who is fourth grade at Alexandria.
Her class recently studied Alabama history and a section in one of the textbooks mentioned her great-great-great uncle John Pelham. Sarah shared with the class that she was related to him.
Pete said when he and his siblings were young, they were made aware of their famous uncle by their mother and grandmother who tried to make sure the younger generation knew that part of their family’s history.
Pete remembers being present when a marker on Highway 431, just a stone’s throw from the Pelham home, was dedicated to John Pelham.
He also remembers when Pelham’s home in Alexandria burned back in the ‘60s. Although he was young, he was mature enough to realize the devastation of what had happened. Vandalism was suspected as the cause of the fire.
“I was very young, but I remember being in that house many times,” he said. “We traveled a lot with my father, but when we’d come home, we’d always stay there.”
Pete has a lawn care service and is married to the former Melody Landers.
Pete’s brother, Tom, also attended the ceremonies over the weekend. The brothers live next door to each other on part of what was the 1,000-acre Pelham estate. Tom said he feels fortunate to be part of the Pelham family.
“Sometimes people will ask me about John Pelham,” Tom said. “I’ve actually gotten more into history as I’ve gotten older.”
Tom said the weekend was great. He met relatives from places like Attalla and Birmingham that he didn’t know he had.
Tom, a retired banker who now works with security at McClellan, said he thinks it’s great the city honored his uncle.
“They wanted to educate the local people, let them know what John Pelham stood for and all the history that goes along with not only John Pelham, but Jacksonville as a whole. We have our own little slice of history here.”
Pete and Tom have a brother, Morris Pelham, who lives in Chevy Chase, Md. A sister, Penelope Boyanton, lives in Arlington, Va.
John Pelham was born Sept. 7, 1838, to Atkinson Pelham and Martha McGehee Pelham. He died March 17, 1863 at Kelly’s Ford, Va. While astride a horse, he was struck in the rear of his head by a bursting artillery shell. Appearing dead, his body was draped across a horse and rushed to a nearby home where an onlooker noticed that he was breathing. The effort to save his life was futile.
His body lay in state in Richmond, Va., before its transfer to Jacksonville. Thousands came to see the dead hero in Richmond, the majority, it is said, were ladies. The deeds of “the dear dead boy” as one of them called him, would never again cause hearts to flutter beneath the crinoline. The celebrated blond-haired, blue-eyed major was only 24. The Confederate Congress posthumously awarded him a promotion to lieutenant colonel.
Pelham was dubbed “the gallant Pelham” by Gen. Robert E. Lee and was said to have exhibited maturity beyond his age.
Thirteen monuments, including the one on Highway 431 in Alexandria, have been erected through the years to honor Pelham. Most are in Alabama and Virginia. Two are in Maryland.