The Night They Drove Old Pelham Down


By Joshua Emmett Doggrell

John Pelham was born in a house four miles from my driveway in my hometown of Anniston, Alabama, about sixty miles northeast of Birmingham. The site of the house (which burned down many years ago) is probably three miles as the crow flies, and only a rock throw from the church where my family and I worship on Sundays. The site features an historical marker, and a century-old obelisk stood for 115 years downtown until city workers dismantled it after midnight on September 28.

Matthew Brady’s portrait of Pelham in his West Point uniform.

It never harmed anyone, but down it had to come, another casualty of the 2020 Social Justice Wars. That is the same reason we’ll probably have to rename Anniston’s surrounding Calhoun County. It is named for John C. Calhoun.

John Pelham came from a prominent family and, like many Southern boys, was a cadet at the U.S. military academy at West Point in April 1861 when the United States military invaded the South. He resigned just a few weeks before what would have been his graduation day to return to Alabama and defend his homeland. 

Pelham enlisted in the Confederate Army, where he soon caught the eye of General J.E.B. Stuart. He fought with Stuart’s famed cavalry in more than 60 battles or skirmishes in less than two years and distinguished himself at the battles of Sharpsburg (better known as Antietam) and Fredericksburg.

None other than Gen. Robert E. Lee dubbed him “The Gallant Pelham.” Lee’s “right arm,” Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, said this:

It is really extraordinary to find such nerve and genius in a mere boy. With a Pelham on each flank I believe I could whip the world.

On St. Patrick’s Day, 1863, during a cavalry charge at Kelly’s Ford, Virginia, a fragment from an exploding Yankee artillery shell struck him in the head. Pelham died at the age of 24, giving his life in the struggle for his country’s independence. 

One-hundred-thirty-eight years later, I read the marker detailing his death at Kelly’s Ford and walked the same ground Pelham died on just as I have walked the same ground upon which he was born and raised back home. 

Why was the Pelham monument removed? Because the Anniston city council, each member up for re-election, voted to remove it a couple of months prior. They actually voted to remove it twice, presumably to show they were really serious. We live in the 21st Century, you see. We are awash in a sea of injustice and, as prevailing logic goes these days, the best way to combat it is to target dead white men. Particularly galling are any monuments to those horrible creatures (“racists!”, “traitors!”) who fought for the Confederacy. So the honorables on the council voted to bring it down, saddling the taxpayers with the $25,000 fine for violating a State law prohibiting these very actions. 

Anniston is dying. Vacant houses, buildings, closed businesses dot its landscape along with the usual storefronts for check-cashing and payday loans. There is an extremely high crime rate, which has consistently ranked near the top nationwide in per capita rankings for decades. 

But what is the council worried about? Well, its members are notorious for name-calling, petty email exchanges, shouting threats at the relatives of other members, brawls on the floor of city hall during meetings, getting arrested, and drawn-out courts of inquisition against other government agencies and enemies that never uncover any wrongdoing. In August, they were consumed with virtue-signaling on the eve of elections. 

The valor and dedication that John Pelham possessed are alien qualities to the likes of BLM, Antifa, and the spineless cowards who compose the city council. The book of Hebrews tells us of saints “of whom the world was not worthy.” Perhaps it is fitting that the obelisk for Pelham was removed. We, as a community, have become a people not worthy of him anymore. 

He was better than us all. 

About the author

R. Cort Kirkwood

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  • I did a book report on John Pelham when I was a little girl. He was a fascinating character to me. I hope we don’t have to rename everything that carries his name.

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