Daily Archives: April 22, 2015

Pious and Conflicted: General Dorsey Pender


Major General Dorsey Pender C.S.A.

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am continuing to periodically intersperse and publish short articles about various commanders at Gettysburg on the site. These all are drawn from my student text and may become a book in their own right.  The reason is I am going to do this is because I have found that readers are often more drawn to the lives of people than they are events. As I have noted before that people matter, even deeply flawed people, and we can learn from them.

Today’s article is about Major General Dorsey Pender who commanded A.P. Hill’s old “Light Division” in Hill’s Third Corps at Gettysburg. Pender is interesting, young an pious, but often conflicted in his faith. His questions are similar to those asked by those who want to believe but struggle with believing. His relationship with his wife, a very strong believer was often marred by differences in belief. I hope you enjoy.


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Dorsey Pender was a “pious, serious North Carolinian” [1] born in Edgecomb County in 1834 who received “his early education in the common schools of the county” [2] before he was appointed to West Point. He graduated with the class of 1854, a class that included Custis Lee, Oliver O. Howard, J.E.B. Stewart, S.D. Lee, John Pegram, and Stephen Weed. He graduated nineteenth of the forty-six cadets in that class.

He married his wife Fanny in 1859. She was the sister of one of his academy classmates Samuel Shepperd who died a year after graduating from the academy. She accompanied Dorsey to the Pacific Northwest where he was serving at the outbreak of the war. They had been married two years when he volunteered to serve the Confederacy, he was just twenty-seven and she just nineteen and already a mother expecting a second child when he went to war. Like many young couples separated by war theirs was often plagued by misunderstandings and highly emotional, something that is evidenced in their correspondence.

Pender is often described as devout in terms of his religious beliefs but his devoutness was in large part due to the spiritual conflict that he was going through. Pender was a tremendously proud man but felt the need for some kind of salvation and while he “sincerely tried to be a good Christian” but could not understand why good works did not earn salvation.” [3] The young general sought the counsel of a chaplain, but this did not ease his mind. Eventually he was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church, but even this brought conflict with his wife who was not able to be with him. Despite these attempts he still doubted and months later still “considered himself a “perjured” sinner, having made vows that he could not keep.” [4] This type of religious experience, that of men who question their faith was not unique to Pender and is not unusual today.

Prior to the war he served on the frontier and in California with the artillery and dragoons. During the secession crisis he “offered his services to the Confederacy even before most of the states, including his own, had seceded.” [5] He was appointed to command the 6th North Carolina where he “earned the everlasting respect and admiration” of his men. [6] After the Battle of Seven Pines he was made an acting Brigadier General and given command of Johnston Pettigrew’s brigade. [7]

As he gained more experience Pender became a favorite of Robert E. Lee who admired him for his competence as well as forthrightness. “At Harper’s Ferry and Shepherdstown Pender had shown himself qualified to handle more than one brigade.” [8] Pender was “only seven years out of West Point” [9] in May of 1863 when he was promoted to Major General and given command of his division. He was only twenty-nine years old, and the “youngest of that rank in the army.” [10] The young general was deeply loyal to Powell Hill and a partisan of the Light Division which he now commanded. Though he was young he had risen “on first rate ability, steadfast ambition and a headlong personal leadership in battle which gave a driving force to his brigade” [11] which he considered “the best brigade of the best division” [12] in the army.

Lee praised him as “a most gallant officer” and was deeply sensitive about keeping Pender with the troops that found him so inspiring, noting “I fear the effect upon men of passing him over in favour of another not so identified with them.” [13] Pender was an “intelligent, reflective man, deeply religious and guided by a strong sense of duty.” [14]

When the army marched north into Pennsylvania had to write to “relieve the concern of his young wife that the Lord will not bless the Southern cause if the Confederacy does more than defend its own territory.” [15] Fanny was not convinced by her husband’s attempts to justify as she believed that such an endeavor “was unjust and illegitimate, and tempted God.” [16]

Pender’s four veteran brigades were commanded by three experienced officers and one new to brigade command. However, the young general would not get to lead them into action for long as he was mortally wounded by a shell fragment before the division was to go into action on July 2nd at Gettysburg. Though surgeons believed he would recover he succumbed to his wound during the Confederate withdraw from Gettysburg. “In his dying moments, he asked that Fanny be told that he had no fear of dying.” [17] He continued and said “I can confidently resign my soul to God, trusting in the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ. My only regret is to leave her and our children.” [18]Evidently, he finally found a measure of peace in the faith that had eluded him in life. Fanny never remarried and became an independent women serving as the head of a school and as Postmistress of Tarboro North Carolina where she died in 1922 at the age of eighty-eight.


[1] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.23

[2] Ibid. Warner Generals in Gray p.233

[3] Rable, George C. God’s Almost Chosen People’s: A Religious History of the Civil War The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 2010 p.244

[4] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples p.244

[5] ibid. Tagg The Generals of Gettysburg p.325

[6] Ibid. Glatthaar General Lee’s Army from Victory to Collapse p.196

[7] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.146

[8] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.387

[9] Ibid. Dowdy. Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.85

[10] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.47

[11] Ibid. Dowdy. Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.85

[12] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.45

[13] Ibid. Sears Gettysburg p.47

[14] Ibid. Dowdy. Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.85

[15] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.45

[16] Ibid. Guelzo. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.66

[17] Ibid. Wilson and Clair They Also Served p.113

[18] Ibid. Dowdy Lee and His Men at Gettysburg p.226

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