Dorsey Pender at twenty-nine was the youngest and the fastest-rising major general in the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg. He had just been placed at the head of "Powell" Hill's old Light Division, one of the two best divisions in the army. Along with Maj. Gen. John B. Hood, who commanded the only division which could match the Light Division, Pender was the man for whom Lee and others predicted a great future.
Pender was thin and handsome, with dark hair and an olive complexion; he wore his beard neatly trimmed, short and pointed. With soft brown eyes and a kindly expression, he combined a sweet and gentle disposition with a strict sense of discipline. "Firm, very courteous," was how one officer described his manner. Men who did their duty found him good-natured. Though he was modest and spoke little, when he did speak his voice was low and cultivated, a languid Carolina drawl. He was sensitive about his receding hairline, referring to himself half-jokingly in a letter to his wife as "quite bald," especially after a superficial head wound at Second Manassas. Pender was rather short--another sensitive point--but was "well formed and graceful," according to his brother. One exploit suggests he was powerfully built: Serving as a dragoon in the Northwest against the Indians, he was riding alone when he found himself face-to-face with an Indian chief at the Battle of Spokane Plains. With no time to draw his sword, he grabbed his attacker's arm as it was raised to strike him, then grabbed the man's neck. Thus holding the Indian powerless, he held on with both hands, then spurred his horse and galloped toward his dragoons. When he reached his men he threw the Indian down among them.
Pender's feelings about war were complicated--he wrote often that he was "sick of soldiering and especially the fighting part." Though his wife accused him of having a "cold, unfeeling nature," and he admitted to being an unusually earnest young man and one who did not much express emotion, Pender was simply one who expressed himself through heroic deeds. A doctor called Pender "a very superior little man though a strict disciplinarian . . . brave as a lion," who "seemed to love danger." One officer summed him up: "He was one of the coolest, most self-possessed and one of the most absolutely fearless men under fire I ever knew."
The son of North Carolina farmers, Pender received his early education in the county schools, and worked as a clerk in his brother's store before his appointment to West Point at the age of sixteen. There, he graduated 19th out of 46 in the Class of 1854. Afterward, he served until the Civil War on the West Coast, in the artillery and dragoons, participating in numerous Indian fights. Pender married Fanny Sheppard, daughter of a Congressman, in 1859; two sons, Turner and Dorsey, followed in the next two years. In 1861 he offered his services to the Confederacy even before most of the states, including his own, had seceded. He was given the job of training recruits, and so missed the Battle of First Manassas. He joined the Virginia army as colonel of the 3rd North Carolina Volunteers in August 1861, but like the rest of the army spent the remainder of that year and the first part of the next waiting for McClellan's Union army to make a move.
When it came, on the Peninsula in the spring of 1862, Pender's regiment did not see action until the battle of Fair Oaks on June 1. On that day President Davis had ridden out from Richmond to observe the battle and happened to stop where he could see Pender's regiment. Ordered forward, Pender found his command alone, without promised support. About to be surrounded by three Federal regiments, Pender shouted "the only possible combination of commands that could have saved us from capture," in the words of a lieutenant. Redeploying his men at right angles to their original line, Pender charged, stunning the enemy long enough for his beleaguered North Carolinians to withdraw to safety. Jeff Davis rode over and addressed him: "General Pender, I salute you." The young colonel had thus had the heady experience of being promoted to brigadier general on the field of battle by the President of the Confederacy.
Pender was assigned a North Carolina brigade in a newly formed division under Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill, one that would win immortality as the "Light Division." He soon had fashioned the most efficient brigade in that excellent organization. Pender and Hill shared a hard-hitting intensity in combat, and their friendship grew with every battle. The division fought first in the Seven Days' Battles, where Pender received a flesh wound in the arm at Malvern Hill. Then, transferred to Jackson's command facing Pope, they fought at Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas, where Pender was knocked down by the explosion of a shell, but refused to leave the field. Because his heavy felt hat provided some protection, he received only a small cut on the top of his head. However, some of his hair had to be removed.
The next month the Light Division performed their epic march after the capture of Harper's Ferry and launched their army-saving attack at Sharpsburg. At Fredericksburg, where the division held the Confederate right, a bullet passed through Pender's left arm, but no bones were broken. He continued to ride along the line with the injured limb hanging down and blood dripping from his fingers. Then at Chancellorsville came the famous flank march with Jackson on May 2, climaxing with the attack that crushed the Union Eleventh Corps. When Hill was wounded in the evening of that attack, Pender took command of the Light Division on the field. On May 3, attacking headlong into the Federal lines, Pender at one point grabbed a regimental flag and carried it himself on horseback, at the head of his men, straight into the Yankee trenches. The next day Pender was hit by a spent bullet while standing behind an entrenchment. The ball, which had killed an officer in front of him, produced only a slight bruise to his right arm near the shoulder. However, in a few days the arm was stiff. He became ill, but returned to his brigade on May 13.
When Hill was promoted to command a new corps after Chancellorsville, his first priority was to find a successor to lead the beloved Light Division. He was anxious to see that it preserved its "pride in its name . . . its 'shoulder to shoulder feeling' and good feelings between the brigades." With this in mind, he recommended his most intimate subordinate, writing, "Gen. Pender has fought with the Division in every battle, has been four times wounded and never left the field, has risen by death and wounds from fifth brigadier to be its senior, has the best drilled and disciplined Brigade in the Division, and more than all, possesses the unbounded confidence of the Division." Lee himself noted: "Pender is an excellent officer, attentive, industrious and brave; has been conspicuous in every battle." The promotion to major general and head of Hill's division came on May 27, 1863, just before the Gettysburg Campaign. Privately Lee was quoted as saying that Pender was the most promising of the younger officers of the Army.
The new major general continued to write extremely tender, emotional letters to his wife, right up to the moment he rode onto the battlefield at Gettysburg. There, for some reason, he wore a colonel's uniform, with three braid loops, three unwreathed stars, and the light blue trousers of an infantry officer. Pender was an intense, hard-hitting professional soldier at the peak of his ability. He was inexperienced as a major general, but had commanded the division before, at Chancellorsville. Having been with the division since the beginning, he knew its officers and its abilities intimately.
| Pender's division, camped on the northern side of the Chambersburg Pike
in the Cashtown Gap, got on the Pike at 8 o'clock in the morning on July 1 and
marched toward Gettysburg in the rear of Heth's division. Perrin's brigade was
in the lead, followed by Scales, Lane and Thomas. At 9:30, as Perrin reached
Marsh Creek, Pender heard the boom and crackle of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth's
Division's fight just ahead, and stopped to form a line of battle, with the
Pike in the center, about 2 miles to the east of McPherson's Ridge, where the
battle was being fought. The subsequent slow advance through the fields on the
hot morning fatigued the men and kept Pender's brigades from joining the
desperate fighting between Heth's men and the Union First Corps. Pender's
brigades finally reached Herr Ridge a little before noon, just as Heth's men
were being repulsed in their front. Instead of rushing into action, Pender
halted on the ridge. This was a distinct lapse in Pender's usual aggressive
style; perhaps he was being careful not to bring on a general engagement,
according to Lee's instructions--the same instructions Heth had just recklessly
Pender then took some time to redeploy on Herr Ridge, and there his brigades rested until around 2:30 that afternoon, when Heth's division renewed its attack in Pender's front. Although Pender was ordered to support Heth, Heth declined any assistance in the afternoon attack, so Pender merely advanced slowly at first, keeping within supporting distance of Heth's line. Heth, in fact, got more than he bargained for from the gritty First Corps defenders on McPherson's Ridge, and could have used the help of Pender's men, but he received a disabling wound at the height of the attack and could not request timely assistance. Corps commander Hill was evidently too sick to order Pender's men forward, and Pender himself did not consult with anyone or push forward on his own initiative when he saw the trouble Heth's men had gotten into.
It was not until about 4:00 P.M. that Pender got the order from Hill to launch his attack on the Union line, now withdrawn to Seminary Ridge, the last line of defense in front of Gettysburg. Pender plunged ahead with three of his brigades (Hill had requested that Thomas's men remain behind--another questionable decision by that troubled general), with Scales on the left with his left touching the Chambersburg Pike and Perrin in the center. (Lane on the right was diverted by Union cavalrymen.) By the time Pender's attackers reached the ravine 200 yards in front of Union line, Scales's brigade had been obliterated by a storm of canister fire from the blue gunners in their front, and Perrin's brigade continued the charge alone. After about a half hour of bloody fighting, Pender's men forced the Yankees off the ridge. Disorganized after their victory, they pursued the retreating blue masses into Gettysburg before halting for the day. Pender brought up Thomas that evening and posted the division on Seminary Ridge faced east with its left on the Fairfield Road.
Late in the afternoon of July 2, as the Confederate echelon attack was moving northward toward his position, Pender was riding down his line toward the right of his division when he was struck in the thigh by a two-inch-square piece of shell. Quickly taken to the rear, he experienced no more of the battle. He was placed in an ambulance and carried back to Virginia with the retreating army On July 18 in Staunton, the wound hemorrhaged. A surgeon made an emergency amputation of the leg, but Pender died a few hours later, saying quietly, "Tell my wife that I do not fear to die. I can confidently resign my soul to God, trusting in the atonement of Jesus Christ. My only regret is to leave her and our two children. I have always tried to do my duty in every sphere in which Providence has placed me."
For further reading:
Gramm, Kent. Gettysburg: A Meditation on War and Values. Indianapolis, 1994
Hassler, William W. "Dorsey Pender, C.S.A.: A Profile." Civil War Times Illustrated 1, Oct 1962
Pender, William D. The General to His Lady: The Civil War Letters of William Dorsey Pender to Fanny Pender. Ed. by William W. Hassler, Gaithersburg, MD, 1988
Sharp, Arthur G. "Christianity and Combat Mixed Uneasily for Newly Devout Confederate General Dorsey Pender." America's Civil War, Sept 1989