By the time of Gettysburg, "Parson" Pendleton's subordinates were snickering at his lack of battlefield acumen, even while he held the exalted status of Chief of Artillery in the Army of Northern Virginia. He looked remarkably like Robert E. Lee with his grizzled hair and beard, but represented one of the weak links in the Southern command once battle was offered.
A Richmond native, Pendleton was graduated from West Point in 1830 but served in the artillery for just three years--much of it lying in hospitals with fever, nausea, and paralyzed limbs from some strange illness--before he resigned to teach at Delaware College in Pennsylvania. Experiencing fits of depression and neurotic physical symptoms which tormented him throughout his life, he switched careers again in 1837 and became an Episcopal minister--to heal his "depraved and unsanctified heart," he said--eventually assuming the rectorship at Grace Episcopal church in Lexington, Virginia.
In the passion for arms which swept the south after the John Brown raid, some of the local Lexington young men formed a battery in 1860 and asked the aging artilleryman, then 50, to instruct them. When the war began the next year, they named themselves the Rockridge Artillery and on May 1, 1861 elected Pendleton their captain. He accepted the command, then excused himself and spent the rest of the day writing a memorandum to himself, attempting to rectify his new office as a death-dealer with his sacred calling. The battery (with its four cannon--"Matthew," "Mark," "Luke," and "John") was conspicuous from the beginning. In the first months of the war, Captain Pendleton's story was picked up by a press hungry for picturesque heroes. By early July, the reading public was already familiar with the warrior-minister who, so the story went, had loaded and aimed his gun at Federals in the Shenandoah Valley and then raised his hand in a blessing: "May the Lord have mercy on their misguided souls--fire!!"
After First Manassas on July 21, 1861, where he had his horse shot out from under him and was grazed by bullets in the ear and back, Pendleton was commended with "great praise" by Brig. Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson himself and was lauded in General Joe Johnston's report as well. He was promoted to Colonel without delay and, being the first artillerist to distinguish himself, acted as Johnston's Chief of Artillery that fall. Between preaching--which he continued to do every chance he got--and drilling, fitting and organizing the army's artillery, he kept himself in the public eye, and was soon rewarded for his conspicuousness. On March 26, 1862, he was made brigadier general.
Pendleton's deficiencies showed up as soon as there were battles to be fought. While he had thought at length about the theory and organization of the artillery, he showed no aptitude for actually directing them on the field. At the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, Pendleton had charge of the Reserve Artillery, more than fourteen batteries with about ninety guns. That day, when those guns were needed so badly, Pendleton never even managed to reach army headquarters. Of his fourteen batteries, he employed only one. The snide remarks began among his young officers (one remarked on "the great superabundance of artillery and the scanty use that was made of it") but no murmur came from Lee.
Pendleton's Reserve was next used when the army crossed the Potomac into Maryland in September 1862. The parson's moment came after the Battle of Sharpsburg on September 17, when Lee counted on Pendleton and forty-four of his guns to guard the rear of the army as it limped across the Potomac. Not long after midnight Lee was wakened in his tent by Pendleton himself. The Yankees had suddenly thrown a corps across the Potomac, Pendleton explained, driving off the cannoneers and their infantry supports. All the guns of the Confederate Reserve Artillery had been captured.
"All?" Lee said, starting bolt upright.
"Yes, General, I fear all."
When Jackson heard the story, he snorted in disgust, put a division in motion at once, and drove the Federals back across the river. In so doing, he found that an artillery major had safely withdrawn all the guns but four the previous night, after Pendleton had given them up for lost. Pendleton's prestige plummeted after this affair. One lieutenant wrote, ". . . Pendleton is Lee's weakness. He is like the elephant, we have him and we don't know what on earth to do with him, and it costs a devil of a sight to feed him." Again, though, Lee was mercifully silent.
Pendleton regained some of his reputation in his reorganization of the "long arm" that fall and again in February 1863. Then at Chancellorsville in May he was called upon, along with Early's augmented division of about 9,000 men, to defend the Fredericksburg heights with his batteries against an entire corps of 23,000 Union troops. Pendleton made things worse by sending most of his guns away prematurely. When the Federals finally struck, Pendleton lost eight guns before he withdrew (in panic, some said). Pendleton was denied commendation after the battle--Lee was careful to praise only "the batteries under" him for gallantry. Hearing that Lee was dissatisfied with his handling of the artillery in the Chancellorsville battle, the Reverend became disconsolate.
In the reorganization of the Army of Northern Virginia after Chancellorsville, the Reserve Artillery under Pendleton's direct command was disbanded. He reverted to his earlier status as General in Chief of Artillery, but the new arrangement was actually a demotion, since he acted now only as an advisor.
| Pendleton rode toward Gettysburg on the Chambersburg Pike on July 1,
arriving at Cashtown and hearing the sound of guns to the east about the same
time as Lee. When Lee rode rapidly toward the battlefield in the early
afternoon, Pendleton stayed near him for instructions. When they reached the
scene of the fighting on McPherson's Ridge, Lee sent Pendleton to the right
with some artillery, but the Reverend declined to open fire with them without
infantry support. He moved the guns forward to Seminary Ridge after the
Federals had been sent flying back to Cemetery Hill, but he declined to open
fire on the new Union stronghold, not being aggressive enough to renew the
battle on his own initiative, a problem pandemic among Confederate commanders
Pendleton's most significant contribution on July 2 was as a member of a scouting party which Lee dispatched to the Round Tops soon after sunrise. Although Pendleton himself probably rode no farther than Spangler's Woods, the rest of the riders continued to where they thought they were in the rear of the Round Tops. They met no Union troops--a mystery, considering the number and activity of Yankee soldiers aroung the Round Tops at the time--and Pendleton's report that an attack in that direction "might succeed" no doubt influenced Lee's decision to attack there that day. Pendleton himself stayed on the right during the afternoon, but the artillery were handled by Col. E.P. Alexander, the able First Corps artillery chief, and Pendleton had little chance to contribute.
Alexander was again employed to do the lion's share of the work preparing for Longstreet's assault on the Union center on July 3. Pendleton that morning rode along the line and raised no objections to any of Alexander's placements. He was far too complacent. In fact, the guns were posted too far away from the enemy on Cemetery Ridge to strike the crushing blow needed to disorganize the enemy line. Pendleton did make one valuable contribution--he rounded up nine short-range howitzers from Hill's corps where they could do no good and collected them into a mobile battery, which he placed where they could be rushed forward to blast away at the right moment during the infantry assault. When the Rebel bombardment was about to begin, however, Alexander could not find them--Pendleton had reconsidered and withdrawn four of them, and another nervous officer had withdrawn the remaining five, both without informing Alexander. Pendleton created a bigger problem later when, at the height of the cannonade, he moved the ammunition wagons farther to the rear, again without informing the gunners. As a result, the fire of the Rebel guns slackened while the caisson drivers searched for ammunition. Since Alexander wrote one of the best accounts of the battle of Gettysburg, these blunders by Pendleton became stories told and retold in the coming years.
Lee never removed the Parson. He remained Chief of Artillery for the remainder of the war, though it became more and more an administrative position, and Pendleton became more and more exclusively employed in his specialty--organization--and was seldom consulted when the armies clashed.
For further reading:
Lee, Susan D. Memoirs of William Nelson Pendleton, D.D. Harrisonburg, VA, 1991
Wert, Jeffry C. "'Old Artillery': William Nelson Pendleton." Civil War Times Illustrated 13, Jun 1974