Confederate General William Dorsey Pender – Book Review
In September 1863 Robert E. Lee wrote to Confederate President Jefferson Davis that the war was costing him his best men: “Jackson, Pender, Hood.” Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, John Bell Hood—but who was this man, Pender, who figured so prominently in Lee’s estimation that he listed him between two of his famous subordinates?
William Dorsey Pender, a North Carolinian, was the youngest major general in the Confederate Army. Brian Steel Wills, in a new biography based on contemporary accounts, historical records, and Pender’s own correspondences, tells an in-depth and fascinating narrative of the life of Lee’s Fighting Carolinian, delving deeply into the thoughts, beliefs, and motivations of this man. The book is aptly subtitled “The Hope of Glory”; this phrase captures the essence of Pender, who felt his duty on earth was to do his best and receive what Providence would provide him—and that Providence seemed to see fit to provide Pender the means and opportunities to advance far in his chosen career.
His decision to go to West Point and his family’s ability to help him secure a nomination are well chronicled by Wills. At West Point, Pender graduated 19th out of 46 in the class of 1854, which also was the class of J.E.B. Stuart, Oliver Howard, and Custis Lee. There, Pender met Samuel Shepherd, whose friendship would have the most influence of any of Pender’s classmates on his life. Compatriots in thought, Shepherd and Pender often checked out the same book from West Point’s library after the other one had finished reading it. However, Shepherd was known for stretching the bounds of West Point’s discipline and amassed a triple-digit total of demerits two years in a row. Pender’s record was not unmarred by such black marks, but his friend Samuel easily outpaced him in this regard. Although cut short by Shepherd’s untimely death from illness after graduation, this friendship had one extremely important outcome: the introduction to Pender of Samuel’s sister, Mary Frances Shepherd, known as Fanny, who became Pender’s wife.
It was with his beloved Fanny that Pender shared his innermost thoughts, motivations, and self-assessments. Although known among his peers as a man of few words, his voluminous personal correspondence belies that. It is through these personal letters to his wife, first presented by William Hassler in his 1962 book, The General and His Lady , that we gain much of our insight into Pender and the complexity of his personality. Although Wills’ book does not reproduce the letters in their entirety, it sheds some new light by revealing parts of letters that were left out of Hassler’s earlier work—which explains one of Fanny’ s most strident replies, which began with “Read this to the end.” With this new insight, it is easier to see how Pender aroused this reaction from his wife. Intended to present Pender in “an unvarnished fashion,” this new addition really illuminates the youth of Pender and his new marriage, which was to only last little more than four brief years.
Pender’s ambition or drive for glory is clear from the beginning of his army career when he transferred from his initial assignment to artillery to join the cavalry, where he experienced his first military action with the 1st Dragoons on the frontier. His decision to leave the US Army after Lincoln’s inauguration, but before the secession of North Carolina, was motivated primarily by loyalty to his home state, but also could be viewed as a decision calculated to allow him quicker advancement in his chosen career. His initial doubts about his own abilities are foremost even as he earns the coveted colonelcy of a volunteer regiment. His devotion to duty as a drillmaster and disciplinarian helps explain his meteoric rise through the Confederate ranks, but it was his actions on the battlefield that garnered the notice of his superiors—even those like “Stonewall” Jackson, whom Pender thought was critical of him but who opined that Pender was his “best brigadier [general].”
Pender was 29 when he was mortally wounded on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg while commanding a division in the newly formed Third Corps. It was not his first wound, but it would be his last. As with most Confederate officers, Pender led from the front and had previously been wounded at Glendale, Gaines’s Mill, and Fredericksburg. At Gettysburg he was wounded around noontime on July 2, which prevented him from leading his troops further that day and for the rest of the battle. Some writers have said this was another cause of Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. Though the wound shattered his leg and required amputation Pender himself did not believe this would prove serious.
By the time of this death, Pender had become profoundly influenced by his Christian faith, though his upbringing hadn’t been religious. His faith had grown since his time at West Point and was increased by his wife’s example. On October 6, 1861, he formally joined the church and was baptized publicly in front of his regiment.
His faith was sorely tested when he had to court-martial deserters. Noted for his adherence to discipline and rigid acceptance of duty, he considered court-martial a means of battling a scourge within the army. But its most drastic remedy was summary execution, which challenged his sense of compassion and Christian forgiveness.
These contradictions are explained and assessed by the author in his thoroughly footnoted text where many contrasting opinions are presented, with evidence offered to support alternative views as well as Wills’ own conclusions. The thorough footnotes and cited sources enhance the opportunity for readers to learn more about Pender and differing viewpoints concerning him.
Maps are included that show an overview of each of Pender’s major battles, with the starting troop positions, the location of his command, and the axis of advance. Tactical details are covered in situations where Pender was personally involved, but the focus of the book is on the man and the reasons behind his actions. This book appeals as a character study of leadership and faith and is a fresh, balanced look at William Dorsey Pender.
The American Civil War has been likened to Homer’s Iliad as a story of nations at war. Many times, Homer offered up scenes of young men bemoaning their fates as they died in battle. A parallel to Pender’s life could be drawn with Union Major General James McPherson, who was one class ahead of Pender and also died of wounds (during the Atlanta Campaign, 1864). Both were leaders whom their superiors, Grant and Lee respectively, thought very highly of, yet who had their lives cut short by fate.
As a man of deep faith, William Dorsey Pender did not bemoan his fate but embraced it as his destiny and provided an enduring example of what is engraved on his tombstone, “Patriot by nature, soldier by training, Christian by faith.” Brian Steel Wills does an excellent job of presenting the man with all his vices and virtues and offers us lessons in what faith can do for a leader.
Tim Tow has studied the history of military intelligence and writes on technology and military affairs.