The Gallant Pelham Series

Synopsis (Pelham’s viewpoint)

John Pelham is a young artillerist fighting under Confederate General Robert E. Lee during the American Civil War. Although Pelham, often called “the grandest flirt who ever lived” and “the stud of the Confederacy” in Civil War mythology, is remembered by history as a hardcore rebel fighter, here he is portrayed as a deeply conflicted abolitionist who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for fame, glory and sexual conquest. A poorly cast and unlikely “prince of the South,” the boyishly handsome “gallant Pelham” (as dubbed by Lee) is actually a severely flawed young man struggling with his demons—the same demons from which modern America cannot escape.

Growing up a slave owner’s son in the antebellum “Cotton Kingdom,” two things distinguish Pelham from his brothers: his innate aversion to slavery and his abnormally large sex organ. Pelham has difficulty understanding why black people work for white people and rejects the notion that bondage is the only way for Negroes to live in the civilized world. Pelham’s bizarre “affliction” is more than a symbol of perversion and machismo; his unspeakable, if admittedly absurd, burden represents the evil of slavery, the undeniable wrong from which the Southern Prince cannot escape. Given that sexual exploitation is at the core of the plantation system, the two interpretations are intricately bound as one—and may be viewed literally or as a vulgar metaphor for the “peculiar institution.”

Thousands of black men were lynched in the decades following reconstruction because of irrational white paranoia over their supposedly rampant lust and enormous sex organs. Pelham’s story, that of a white macrophallic monster whose quest for manhood depends on his ability to rape a slave, turns the myth of the stallion-like black man on its head. In truth, the Southern Prince is a master who became a monster, and then turned the black man into the physical embodiment of his own evil.

As a boy with an especially inquisitive mind, Pelham’s desire to escape the unpleasant and perverted reality of the cotton farm manifests itself in a fascination with astronomy, most especially how the return of Halley’s Comet proved Newton’s law of universal gravitation: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If Pelham is drawn to artillery as a Freudian substitute for his useless sex organ, his extraordinary aptitude for the huge guns is based on a unique appreciation of gravity and motion, principles essential to an artillerist.

Pelham’s two sadistic older brothers, who deeply resent his empathy for the Negroes, dub his absurd organ the “Dragon Squash” and enjoy comparing it to his telescope. His father, a cotton planter who is also a doctor, believes John’s affliction to be caused by a flaw in his cerebellum and refers to him as a “centaur,” the half man, half horse of Greek mythology. In an effort to hide the inescapable, unspeakable reality of the Dragon Squash from civilized society, and spare John from being condemned to the attic, his father forces him to wear a painful, corset-like harness.

Pelham’s psyche is damaged further when he learns that his first friend and childhood love, Aryanna, a beautiful mulatto who lives on the cotton farm, was purchased expressly as a sexual surrogate for him and his brothers when they reached adolescence. His brothers abuse her unmercifully, and for the rest of his life Pelham is haunted by the fear that he might have done the same if God hadn’t made him a centaur. Of all his brothers’ heinous acts, none is crueler than when they force him on Aryanna, this being the “unconsummated violation” for which he never forgives himself. A part of him, however, will always believe that manhood is synonymous with sexual brutality, something he can only achieve using guns on the battlefield.

Destined to be a master and a monster in the Cotton Kingdom, and deemed unsuitable for civilized society, Pelham dreams of serving in the cavalry on America’s western frontier and in 1856 obtains an appointment to West Point. Initially ostracized as a freak, Pelham soon earns the respect of his fellow cadets and thrives as a soldier. Despite his hatred for the Cotton Kingdom, Pelham owes a good deal of his social acceptance at the “Point” to his status as a wealthy planter’s son; as if a microcosm of the South’s dilemma, his newfound identity as a soldier, and a man, is dependent upon land and slaves. When in 1859 John Brown raids the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, and war begins to seem inevitable, Pelham’s fragile identity is threatened. Unable to reconcile his true self, and what he knows to be right, with his need for acceptance as a man, Pelham joins the Confederate Army.

The war casts Pelham the centaur as commander of the “Horse Artillery,” a highly mobile force that travels with the cavalry. The boy who once used his telescope to study the heavens now uses his huge guns and special genius on behalf of the Confederate cause. At Manassas, the first major battle of the war, Pelham’s artillery helps to turn the tide against the Federals. At Antietam his fearless aggression contributes to the greatest number of American casualties ever experienced in a single day. And at Fredericksburg his heroics inspire General Lee to dub him “the gallant Pelham.”

Incapable of normal sexual relations, Pelham’s increasing expertise at cunnilingus mirrors his growing accomplishments as an artillerist. When Pelham discovers that his unspeakable sexual practices often bring his conquests great pleasure, he mistakenly believes that his lifelong dilemma, the inescapable wrong from which the Southern Prince cannot escape, has been resolved.

The horrors of slavery and the plantation system are as plain as day, but remain invisible to a Richmond society (the wartime embodiment of civilized society) that is oblivious to the affliction harnessed under Pelham’s Confederate uniform. It is absurd to think that the reality of slavery and the plantation system could be kept hidden indefinitely, and “the gallant Pelham” is the toast of the town until he can no longer bear to hide his macrophallis or his innate revulsion for the Southern cause. At Fredericksburg the same gallantry that brings General Lee’s praise is responsible for the death of a young cannoneer who, for Pelham, embodies all the common soldiers whose lives have been sacrificed on behalf of the Cotton Kingdom’s slaveholding class. Like a fatal chink in Pelham’s armor, it prompts the realization that he is fighting for an awful cause that offers only an illusion of manhood.

No longer content to hide his true self, Pelham unintentionally mutilates a Richmond whore and becomes a fugitive. Forced to confront the reality of slavery and the cause for which he fights, he deserts the army to seek out Aryanna, the only girl he ever truly loved. But when he hears the Federals are planning to attack, he is consumed with guilt for leaving his men, the common soldiers fighting for a cause that isn’t their own, and returns to lead the fight. Before he can join his men, however, while only observing the battle, he is struck by shrapnel at the base of his skull, near his cerebellum, and mortally wounded.