Thursday, January 19, 2012

"The Perfect Lion: The Life and Death of Confederate Artillerist John Pelham"

[The Perfect Lion: The Life and Death of Confederate Artillerist John Pelham by Jerry H. Maxwell (University of Alabama Press, 2011). Hardcover, photos, maps, notes, bibliography, index. 440 pp. ISBN:9780817317355 $49.95]

Civil War battery commanders are not often the subject of thick biographical tomes, but few would argue that John Pelham is undeserving of the honor. A handful of books trace the short life of "The Gallant Pelham", but John Maxwell's The Perfect Lion should be regarded as the first and only truly scholarly full length biography.

Raised on a large Alabama plantation, John Pelham went to West Point for his education, where he resigned and returned home on the cusp of graduation. As a Confederate battery commander in Virginia, Pelham's abilities caught the attention of his superiors, ensuring his rise would be rapid.

Major Pelham reached his greatest fame as commander of JEB Stuart's horse artillery battalion. Maxwell recounts in fine detail the pair of battlefield performances that comprised the signature moments of the Alabamian's brief but illustrious Civil War career -- his skillful direction of Stuart's artillery enfilading the Union right flank from Nicodemus Hill at Sharpsburg and Pelham's even more famous handling of a pair of guns on the Confederate far right flank at Fredericksburg. As Maxwell demonstrates, in addition to his substantial tactical acumen, personal bravery was the hallmark of Pelham's conduct under fire. While many modern biographers find that truth and myth often intersect only obliquely if at all, Maxwell's dutiful examination of the evidence finds that Pelham's career was one of those rare ones that fully lived up to the hype. Tragically, Pelham could be a bit too impetuous at times, and the 24-year-old officer was killed by a federal shell fragment while charging the enemy at Kelly's Ford in March 1863.

Maxwell's depth of research is exemplary, and the level of detail and analysis present in his narrative should fully satisfy even the most demanding Civil War students. My only complaint is a minor one pertaining to the maps. While they do trace the position of Pelham on various battlefields in general terms, and are present in sufficient numbers, one might have wished for a more close-in scale. Again, this is only a minor quibble. The Perfect Lion completely blows away all previous efforts, worthily assuming the mantle of the standard biography of John Pelham. Every student of the operations of the Confederate long arm in the eastern theater during the first half of the war, especially those most interested in Stuart's horse artillery, will benefit substantially from reading this volume.

CWBA reviews of other UA Press titles:
* Trailing Clouds of Glory: Zachary Taylor's Mexican War Campaign and His Emerging Civil War Leaders
* A Small but Spartan Band: The Florida Brigade in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia
* Columbus, Georgia, 1865: The Last True Battle of the Civil War
* Engineering Security: The Corps of Engineers and Third System Defense Policy, 1815-1861
* Battle: The Nature and Consequences of Civil War Combat
* Camp Chase and the Evolution of Civil War Prison Policy
* Blockaders, Refugees, and Contrabands: Civil War on Florida's Gulf Coast, 1861-1865 (Fire Ant)
* Civil War Weather in Virginia
* From Conciliation to Conquest
* Like Grass Before the Scythe
* Navy Gray
* Sherman's Mississippi Campaign
* Confederate Florida (Fire Ant)

1 comment:

  1. Hello Drew

    Thanks for the review. Seems like a book worth having. I wish the price was a little less. Perhaps Univ. Ala. Press will have it on sale.

    Don Hallstrom


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