At Ease - Who Was Robert Beckham?
Robert F. Beckham
Central Virginia Battlefields Trust has named a new tract of land at Chancellorsville the "Beckham Tract." So...who was Beckham? Today's email explores the life of Robert F. Beckham and some of his decisive artillery moments on Civil War battlefields.
(Adapted from a Civil War News article written by Sarah Kay Bierle. Used with permission)
Four days before his twenty-sixth birthday, Major Robert Beckham sighted his artillery pieces from the high ground along the Orange Turnpike. After firing shots, he ordered the cannons to be limbered and moved to the next rise, racing alongside the Confederate infantry and helping to clear the road as panicking Union soldiers retreated or hastily formed defensive lines. Commanding the Stuart Horse Artillery was a new role for Beckham, but on May 2, 1863, as the Confederate Flank Attack rushed Federal lines in the late afternoon, his guns played a crucial role and even won the notice of a lieutenant general.
Robert Franklin Beckham grew up near Culpeper, Virginia — approximately twenty miles to the west of the Flank Attack Fields at Chancellorsville Battlefield. He graduated from West Point in the Class of 1859, ranking sixth of twenty-two. For the next two years, he served in the U. S. Engineers, and then in 1861, left to return to Virginia and enter the Confederate military. At the Battle of First Bull Run/Manassas, Beckham commanded an artillery battery. He later joined General Gustavus W. Smith’s staff and fought during the Peninsula Campaign. The Jeff Davis Artillery elected him to be their captain, but he declined the position, preferring to keep his rank of major and work with ordnance. His promotion to commander of the Stuart Horse Artillery arrived on April 8, 1863, and he followed General J.E.B. Stuart’s request to lead that unit.
The Stuart Horse Artillery had been organized in the autumn and early winter of 1861 and commanded by Major John Pelham of Alabama. Rising to new levels of artillery effectiveness with almost every battlefield encounter in 1862, they were known for their swift maneuvers, startling attacks, accurate shots, and the ability to defend or carry out a defensive cover by moving rapidly from high ground to high ground. Pelham’s mortal wounding on March 17, 1863, at Kelly’s Ford left the horse artillery without a commander, and to the surprise of some, Stuart brought in Beckham, rather than promoting a battery captain from the unit’s ranks. James Breathed and others would get their chance at higher command later in the war, but Beckham ably stepped into his new role in the spring of 1863.
In the midst of the attack, Beckham caught “Stonewall” Jackson’s attention. That officer had commanded artillery during the Mexican-American War in the 1840s, taught artillery tactics and drill at Virginia Military Institute, and had an abiding fondness for cannon, particularly in the hands of the Stuart Horse Artillery. Somewhere along the road, Jackson rode up to Beckham, extended his hand, and said “Young man, I congratulate you.” The high praise capstoned Beckham’s success at Chancellorsville and was one of the last battlefield recognitions from Jackson as the sunset and he rode into the darkening woods hours before the friendly fire that would take him from command.
Proud of the commendation and his artillery tactics in his first major battle, Beckham went on to other artillery successes with the Stuart Horse Artillery, including a commendation for his actions during the Battle of Brandy Station (June 9, 1863). He also helped to rebuild and refit the batteries, keeping them in the field. In February 1864, Beckham was promoted to colonel and went west to take command of the artillery in the Second Corps of the Army of Tennessee. He was mortally wounded on November 29, 1864, and died on December 5.
Where at Chancellorsville?
After firing the opening artillery shots of the Confederate Flank Attack and moving two cannons with the infantry, Beckham pushed forward to the intersection of Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road. This map shows his cannon position near the intersection (and the piece of land that CVBT is fundraising to save!).
According to Von Borcke...
According Confederate cavalry staff officer Heros Von Borcke in his Memoirs of the Confederate War for Independence, Beckham and his cannon noisily started the Flank Attack: “Jackson’s veterans...bounded forward towards the astounded and perfectly paralysed enemy, while the thunder of our horse-artillery, on whom devolved the honour of opening the ball, reached us from the other extremity of the line….”
Central Virginia Battlefields Trust's mission is to preserve, protect, and educate about Civil War hallowed ground at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, The Wilderness, and Spotsylvania.