Rev. James Pelan


An interesting tale from the American Civil War, tells us of a Reverend James Pelan, a Presbyterian Minister in Macon, Mississippi. This story appears to originate from the 1905 book Tupelo by the Rev. John H. Aughey although it is retold in a number of works on the Civil War. Here follows an extract from Tupelo:

Rev. James Pelan had been called to the pastorate of the Presbyterian church of Macon. He was a Unionist. A committee was appointed by the citizens to examine his library. Many of his books were condemned by this committee as containing abolition sentiments. Rev. James Pelan was a man of excellent spirit--a ripe scholar and a worthy christian gentleman. His life was being embittered by his political enemies. Every sermon was misconstrued and tortured into teaching something contrary to the interests of the sovereign state of Mississippi and the Confederate States of America. Threats of lynching were freely made. The Unionists often conveyed secret information of plots against the life of this good man. Often his foes endeavored to impair his reputation by slander and calumny, but these as often recoiled upon their fabricators. Wearied of such a life of turmoil, he resigned his charge and removed to the country, but the malice of his enemies pursued him to his rural retreat. One evening, when walking on the lawn near his home, concealed assassins fired upon him, wounding him severely.

For a long time he lingered between life and death, but a naturally strong constitution, together with good nursing, triumphed, and he began to convalesce. But his enemies were on the alert, and ascertaining that he was likely to recover, three devils incarnate came armed to his house. Mr. Pelan was sitting in a chair eating some delicacy that his wife had prepared for him. These demons in human form asked Mrs. Pelan if they could have supper. She replied, "Certainly, I will order my servants to prepare supper for you". She left the room to give the order. These men then arose and one of them said, "All the supper we want is to kill you, you infernal Unionist and abolitionist." Instantly they all three fired upon their wounded and defenseless victim. Mrs. Pelan, hearing the report, rushed in and caught her husband in her arms. In ten minutes he was a corpse. Before losing consciousness the dying martyr said, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do." He also said, "Farewell, dear wife, I die, but the government still lives and will eventually subvert rebellion, for God is just." His last utterance was, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Rev. James Pelan was of English birth and parentage.

His brother, Rev. Wm. Pelan, was pastor of the Presbyterian church in Connorsville, Ind., for twenty years, now of Wells, Faribault Co., Minn.

Minutes of Tombeckbee Presbytery

While researching this in more depth, a forum post by someone called David Upton (or using this name as a handle) provided references to contemporary records [2] that tell a slightly different story:

Memoir of Rev. James Pelan

He was born in Kentucky in 1820. About the year 1845 he removed to Ohio, and there married Miss Jane Josephine Daugherty of Springfield. They had six children, three of whom died young, the other three lived a few years. In 1848, he was a member of Miami Presbytery [Ohio]. In 1849, he became Pastor of the Church at Milford Centre. In 1851 he traveled in Europe, or contemplated such a tour. In 1860, March 12th, Mrs. J. J. Pelan died in Tiffin City, O. In 1861 he came to Miss., and commenced in the month of April preach­ing to the Churches of Macon and Centre Point. In October of that year he was received by this Presbytery, from the Presbytery of Western Reserve. In 1862, he was transferred to the churches of Okolona & Friendship in Chickasaw County, Miss. In August of that year, he was tried by Court Martial in Okolona & in October, of the same year, by this Presbytery, at Starkville, on the charge of having written letters, over fictitious signatures, derogatory to the character of an Elder of the Church, who had been Provost Martial at Okolona. In the former case the charge was not sustained, and in the latter it was withdrawn, by consent of parties. In November of that year, he married Mrs. Sarah Atkinson of Friendship Church. In Decem­ber Mrs. Pelan’s mother, Mrs Irby, died, and Mr. Pelan was, by vague suspicion, charged with poisoning her. In 1863 the rumor was assumed by his brother in law Mr. Thomas Irby. Mr. Pelan offered to have the body examined; and demanded that this should be done, or the slander silenced; or that prosecution should be instituted against him for slan­der. Four days after the date of Mr. Pelan’s last letter to Mr. Thomas Irby, Mr. Pelan testified to Wm Atkinson, Mrs. Pelan and Mr Fitzgerald & Mr. Cook that Mr. Thomas Irby had waylaid him, and shot him, through the left breast. His physician said that if Mr. Pelan did not bleed to death his wound immediately, he might survive four or five days. Mr. Pelan and the wit­nesses to whom he testified, thought his death was immanent. He partially recovered and united with other Presbyters in requesting a called meeting of Presbytery, to investigate the charges against his character. Before Presbytery could meet, he was assas­sin­ated in his own house, by three men calling themselves soldiers, asking for refresh­ments. These assas­sins escaped undetected. Presbytery met, however, and although the court [as a] judicatory did not undertake a regular judicial trial. 27 witnesses were exam­ined, and after three days investigation adopted the following preamble and resolution, “Whereas it was not the in­tention of Presbytery, nor do we feel authorized to pronounce either sentence of acquittal or of condemnation upon a man, already in his grave

I. Resolved, that Presbytery simply recommend not only to its own members, but to all others in the community where these things occurred, to abstain from any reflection upon the memory of the deceased and from any unnecessary reference to these rumors.

II. Resolved that the Stated Clerk be authorized to allow copies of the testimony in the case of Mr. Pelan. A copy of the testimony was taken by the author of this report, and a man­uscript digest of the case prepared in which the writer and others think, it is shewn to the sat­isfaction of considerate readers, that Mrs. Irby died of paralysis, and not by poison as alleged. The publication of this digest has been deferred by the peculiar embarrassments of the country; and it will probably be committed to the discretion of Mr. Pelan’s brother, Rev George Pelan of Connersville, Indiana.

At the time of his death Rev. James Pelan was in the 42nd year of his age, and had been an intelligent respected, and useful minister of the Presbyterian Church for more than fifteen years. He was a tall, spare man, of dark com­plex­ion, black eyes and hair, wore side whiskers. His eyes were sunken, his brow, cheek bones, and nose were prominent, his mouth and chin were broad, and he was of bilious, sanguine tem­p­erament. He was a benevolent man in his disposition and apparently free from any tend­ency to excess of pride, vanity, avarice or vindictiveness. His mind was marked by scope & symmetry, rather than by richness or gravity of sentiment. He was respectful, patient & tender in his domestic relations, fond of children, and they were easily attracted to & taught by him. He had a clear understanding of the doctrines and polity of the Presbyterian Church, and was a discreet presbyter, characterized by steady and conserva­­tive views in political affairs. He was a member of the General Assembly which met at Nash­ville. He came to the South at the beginning of the late war for permanent resi­dence, for the express purpose of meeting & enduring God’s providence among the people & in­sti­tu­tions of his choice. His remains lie buried in the Methodist Cemetery near his late res­i­dence in Chickasaw County, Miss., 12 miles west of Okolona.

Note. The historic memorials are obtained mostly from letters found by the writer among Rev. James Pelan’s papers. J. W. K.

So in this account Rev. Pelan was shot initially by his brother-in-law and his murder later was by people claiming to be soldiers. There is no clear statement regarding assassination by Confederate sympathisers, although the author's own knowledge of events may be limited or biased.

Third Account - Marion Presbytery

Another account can be found in a book charting the history of the Marion Presbytery [5]:

" Born in England. Became a preacher in the Methodist Protestant Church in this country; united with the Presbytery of Miami, from which he joined Marion Presbytery (Old School) and was pastor of Milford Center Church, 1849-1852. He afterward preached in Tiffin, McCutcheonville and Green Spring; went south in the spring of 1861; married his second wife and settled on a farm in Alabama. Being a northerner, and suspected of being a Union man, and of "disloyalty" to the south, he was cruelly murdered in his own house by the "vigilance committee" amid the disturbances and horrors of the late Rebellion, in the fall of 1861. The justice of God will not sleep forever. "

This is reasonably consistent aside from settling in Alabama and dying in 1861.


There is a find-a-grave record for the Rev. James Pelan at Asbury Cemetery, Van Vleet, Chickasaw County, Mississippi.

    • Birth: Jun. 20, 1820

    • Death: Jul. 21, 1863

The grave records would suggest that he lost many children and his wife by 1860 which is consistent with the Minutes above. This would likely account for him leaving for another US state at that time.

Official Biographical Records

Let's see what we can extract from these stories and compare with official records. The first account claims he was English but the above memoir says he was born in Kentucky in 1820.

    • The 1850 US Federal Census has James and his wife Jane J. living at Milford Center, Union, Ohio which is consistent with the above. It says he was born in England and his wife was from Ohio.

    • He can be found on a February 1852 passenger list for the ship Caledonia arriving in New Orleans from Liverpool, England - compare this with the memoir saying he traveled in Europe in 1851. It is also confirms he is a minister and is English.

    • Records [3] show his first wife Jane J. died in childbirth in March 1860 aged 36.

    • There was indeed a Rev. William Pelan in Connersville, Indiana in 1860 [4], but no sign of a George. This is presumably an error.


    1. Clergy Dissent in the Old South, 1830-1865, David B. Chesebrough

    2. Minutes of Tombeckbee Presbytery Vol. VII (1859-1868)

    3. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Archive Collection: T1159; Archive Roll Number: 30; Census Year: 1860; Census Location: Tiffin, Seneca, Ohio; Line: 11

    4. Census Year: 1860; Census Place: Connersville, Fayette, Indiana; Roll: M653_256; Page: 694; Image: 694; Family History Library Film: 803256.

    5. History of Marion Presbytery : its churches, elders, ministers, missionary societies, etc. by Crist, A. C. (Ashahel Clark), 1845-1911 (pp 184-185)