Charles Pelham (1835-1908) was a judge, attorney, and one-term representative of Alabama’s Third Congressional District from March 1873 to March 1875. Pelham served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War but identified as a Republican in the post-war Reconstruction period. Pelham also practiced law in Washington, D.C., and worked for the U.S. Department of the Treasury there.
Pelham was born in Person County, North Carolina, on March 12, 1835, to Atkinson Pelham and Martha Montford McGehee Pelham; he was the oldest of seven children (an eighth child who died in infancy is mentioned in some sources). Pelham was from a prominent North Carolina family: his grandfather was a major during the American Revolution, and his father was a doctor who ran a respected medical practice. The family relocated to Alabama in 1838 and settled in Benton County (present-day Calhoun County), where the father later purchased 1,000 acres from Martha’s father, built a house, and established a cotton plantation. Both parents owned slaves who worked the family’s land.
As a youth, Pelham attended his county’s public schools before being encouraged to study law by his uncle Thomas Walker, an influential Jacksonville lawyer and circuit court judge. Pelham passed the bar exam at the age of 23 and opened a practice in Talladega, Talladega County, in 1858. In January 1861, Pelham married Margaret Johnston, the daughter of Judge George Johnston. The couple would have two children.
John Pelham Pelham’s father is reported to have strongly opposed secession. All six of the Pelham boys fought for the Confederacy, though the youngest two would have been in their teens. Notably, John Pelham would become a prominent Confederate artillery officer killed in the Battle of Kelly’s Ford in Virginia; the town of Pelham is named for him. Charles Pelham enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1862. He served ably, becoming first lieutenant of Company C of the Fifty-first Alabama Cavalry, known as the Partisan Rangers, in which his brother Peter also served. After the war, Pelham resumed his career in law, gaining support from Lewis E. Parsons, who was appointed provisional governor of Alabama in June 1865. Pelham also made his first foray into politics in his efforts to found the Alabama Republican Party. Shortly after reopening his practice in 1868, Pelham become a judge of the Tenth Judicial Circuit of Alabama, serving until 1873, and was a member of the State Republican Executive Committee in 1872.
Pelham took an interest in serving in Congress during Reconstruction, when Republicans temporarily won control of the state. Leaving his position as judge to run for Alabama’s Third Congressional seat as a Republican (these southern-born party members were known in the former Confederacy as scalawags), he won the seat held by Democrat William Anderson Handley. Pelham served on the District of Columbia Committee and was remembered for being assertive in introducing and supporting liberal legislation for the city. In 1874, Pelham became entangled in a dispute related to Alabama’s Middle District Court when fellow Alabama congressman Alexander White sought the impeachment of Judge Richard Busteed, a New Yorker who headed Alabama’s U.S. Middle District Court. Busteed was considered corrupt at the time (and by historians since) and suspected of being a frequent collaborator of Alabama Democrats. In addition to the suspected corruption, Busteed was charged with failing to maintain a residence in his district. The press speculated that White, Pelham, and other Alabama Republicans hoped to replace Busteed with Parsons. Prior to impeachment, Busteed resigned, but neither Parsons nor any other local Republican ally was willing to take his place. Busteed’s nephew arrived in Washington, where the dispute was playing out, to help defend his uncle, and a confrontation occurred between the nephew and Pelham that resulted in both men appearing in court. Pelham was accused of striking Busteed’s nephew in the face and then attempting to pull a revolver, leading to a struggle between the two men and an additional judge who was present. Pelham’s entanglement in the dispute earned him the nickname “The Fighting Alabamian” after he emerged from the dispute politically and legally unscathed.
Pelham again made headlines following an alleged attempt on his life for his support for the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that protected racial equality in public accommodations. (The act was later struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1883.) While traveling in his district, Pelham was warned by an African American supporter that a posse was forming to hunt him down and fled under cover of darkness, following a supporter roughly ten miles through the woods to the nearest train station. He served only one term and was not a candidate for re-election in 1874. His seat went to Democrat Taul Bradford, who was part of the Democratic resurgence that also signaled the demise of the Republican Party in Alabama until after the middle of the twentieth century.
After leaving Congress, Pelham remained in Washington, D.C., and resumed practicing law. In 1887, he published Hints and Helps to Lawyers, Applicants for Positions in the Civil Service, and All Others Having Business of Any kind with the Government at Washington City, a 200-plus page legal compendium. He later received an appointment as a clerk for the Treasury Department.
Pelham retired to Poulan, Georgia, in 1907 and died the following year on January 18th. He was buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery, where his brother Peter is also buried. His son, John, practiced law, served as a court of appeals judge, and directed a bank in Anniston, Calhoun County. His daughter, Martha Rose, married Republican politician Col. Samuel Taylor Suit of Maryland who constructed Berkeley Castle in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a noted tourist attraction.
Powell, William. Dictionary of North Carolina Biography. Vol. 5, P-S. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
Wiggins, Sarah Woolfolk. The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865-1881. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1977.
Woolfolk, Sarah Van. “Carpetbaggers in Alabama: Tradition Versus Truth.” Alabama Review 19 (April 1962): 133-44.