1861 Confederate West Point Graduates: John Pelham and Thomas Rosser

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series Military Academies of the United States
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John PelhamThe several classes of 1861 at West Point had some significant members who served on both sides. Several went on to become generals in the Union and Confederate armies.

Perhaps the most beloved officer was John Pelham of Alabama. Pelham entered West Point in 1856 at the age of eighteen. At that time the term at the military academy was five years. He resigned from the academy just a few weeks before graduation in early 1861 when his state seceded from the Union.

He accepted a commission in the militia of his home state of Alabama. He soon went to Virginia, where he joined the army of Joseph E. Johnston as a lieutenant in the artillery. Pelham’s well-drilled and disciplined battery caught the eye of J.E.B. Stuart, who provided horses for the men and transformed the battery into “horse artillery”, more mobile than conventional artillery.

He served under Stuart in every major military engagement of Stuart’s cavalry from the First Battle of Bull Run to Kelly’s Ford, more than 60 encounters. He particularly distinguished himself as the Chief of Stuart’s Artillery in the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) and Battle of Fredericksburg.

At Kelly’s Ford on March 17, 1863, Pelham participated in a cavalry charge, his artillery not being engaged. Standing up in his stirrups, he urged his men to “Press forward, press forward to glory and victory!” He was struck in the head by a fragment of an exploding Federal artillery shell. He was carried six miles from the battlefield to Culpeper Courthouse, and died the following morning without having regained consciousness.

Maj. Harry Gene Beck III, a fellow officer and tentmate of Pelham’s, wrote: “He is the bravest human being I ever saw in my life.” After his death Stuart said in part:

The memory of “the gallant Pelham,” his many manly virtues, his noble nature and purity of character, are enshrined as a sacred legacy in the hearts of all who knew him. His record has been bright and spotless, his career brilliant and successful.

Pelham’s roommate at West Point was Thomas Rosser. Rosser also roomed with George Armstrong Custer. Born in Thomas Lafayette RosserCampbell County, Virginia and was appointed from Texas. He too entered the academy in 1856 and resigned before graduation in April 1861. He was commissioned a first lieutenant and became an instructor to the famed “Washington Artillery” of New Orleans.

He commanded its Second Company at the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861. He was noted for shooting down one of George B. McClellan’s observation balloons, a feat that won him promotion to captain. He commanded his battery during the Seven Days Battles, and was severely wounded at Mechanicsville. Rosser was promoted to lieutenant colonel of artillery, and a few days later to colonel of the 5th Virginia Cavalry.

He commanded the advance of J.E.B. Stuart’s expedition to Catlett’s Station, and was notable in the Second Battle of Bull Run, where captured Union commander John Pope’s orderly and horses. During the fighting at Crampton’s Gap at the Battle of South Mountain, his cavalry delayed the advance of William B. Franklin’s VI Corps with help from John Pelham’s artillery. At Antietam, his men screened Robert E. Lee’s left flank. He temporarily assumed command of Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade during the subsequent fighting against Alfred Pleasonton.

He was again badly wounded at the Battle of Kelly’s Ford, where “the gallant” Pelham was killed. Rosser was disabled until the Gettysburg Campaign, where he commanded his regiment in the fighting at Hanover and the East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg.

He was promoted to brigadier general of the “Laurel Brigade.” During one of his October – November West Virginia raids near Chancellorsville, Virginia, in November, Rosser seized a Federal wagon train containing much of the ammunition reserve of the I Corps and V Corps of the Army of the Potomac.

He was distinguished again in the 1864 Overland Campaign, driving back a large force of Union cavalry and artillery at the Battle of the Wilderness. Rosser was yet again wounded at Trevilian Station, where his brigade captured a number of prisoners from former West Point classmate and close personal friend George Armstrong Custer. The Federal rout at Trevilian Station became known to the Confederate forces as the “Buckland Races.”

His brigade later gallantly fought against Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, and he efficiently commanded Fitzhugh Lee’s division at Cedar Creek. A rare defeat where Custer overran Rosser’s troops at the Battle of Tom’s Brook allowed Custer to repay Rosser for Trevilian Station.

For no tactical reason, Custer chased Rosser’s troops for over 10 miles and the action became known as the “Woodstock Races” in Union accounts. Custer had also captured Rosser’s private wardrobe wagon at Tom’s Brook.

Rosser became known in the Southern press as the “Saviour of the Valley,” and was promoted to major general in November 1864. He conducted a number of successful raids in West Virginia in late 1864 and early 1865.

Rosser commanded a cavalry division during the Siege of Petersburg in the spring, fighting near Five Forks. It was here that Rosser hosted the “infamous” shad bake (fish feast) 2 miles north of the battle lines preceding and during the primary Federal assault. Guests at this small affair included George Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee.

Shelby Foote states that “Pickett only made it back to his division after over half his troops had been shot or captured..”. It is said that Lee never forgave Pickett for his absence from his post when the Federals broke the Confederate lines and carried the day at Five Forks.

Rosser was conspicuous during the Appomattox Campaign, capturing a Union general and rescuing a wagon train near Farmville. He led a daring early morning charge at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, and escaped with his command as Lee surrendered the bulk of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Under orders from the secretary of war, he began reorganizing the scattered remnants of Lee’s army in a vain attempt to join Joseph E. Johnston’s army in North Carolina. However, he surrendered at Staunton, Virginia, on May 4 and was paroled shortly afterwards.

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