Touched by Fire - William Dorsey Pender

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Sunday, June 1, 2014 7 comments

by Michael Homula

On July 2, 1863 at Gettysburg, the promising career of Confederate General William Dorsey Pender would come to an end.

Pender commanded a Brigade in A. P. Hill's Division of the Army of Northern Virginia, and for five weeks prior to July 2, 1863, led one of the most celebrated commands, the famous "Light Division." In May of 1863, at the age of 29, Robert E. Lee re-organized his army by promoting Hill to command a newly formed Third Corps and Pender was promoted to Maj. General in command of a division in that corps.

[To learn more about Regiments, Brigades, Divisions and Corps - the organization of a Civil War Army - click this link for an easy to understand infographic]

During the fighting that started about 4 p.m. on 2 July, the men of Confederate General James Longstreet’s First Corps would attack the Union left through places still remembered for the ferocity of the fighting that occurred – Devils’ Den, the Peach Orchard, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield. Pender’s division was to continue the assault as it swung northward and attack the Union line on Cemetery Hill.

Pender, uncertain why his men were not yet engaged, moved to the right of his line to get a glimpse of the battle and he was wounded in the upper left leg by shrapnel. He was evacuated to Staunton, Virginia, where an artery in his leg ruptured on July 18. Surgeons amputated his leg in an attempt to save him, but he died a few hours later. Pender was only 29 and the youngest General in either Army at the Battle of Gettysburg.

If you were to visit Calvary Cemetery in Tarboro, North Carolina you will find these words adorning Pender’s tombstone: "Patriot by Nature, Soldier by Training, Christian by Faith." But Dorsey Pender had not always been a Christian.

Pender grew up on a 400 acre farm that utilized slave labor. Religion, much less a personal relationship with Jesus, was not given much room in the family home. Members of his family had fought in the Revolution and the War of 1812. Pender was appointed to West Point and entered the academy in 1850 where he became friends with the likes of James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart, Stephen D. Lee, and Oliver Otis Howard (the Christian General). He would either fight alongside or against these men during the Civil War. Too many would not survive.

Religion had no place in the young officer's life. That was to change when he married Mary Frances (Fanny) Shepperd on February 3, 1859. She was the love of his life and a devout follower of Jesus. I have often wondered why a Christian woman would be unequally yoked in marriage with someone who did not trust Christ but that is not for today. While living in the Washington Territory Pender began attending chapel services, though at first he remained outside the chapel most of the time.

The devotion of his wife stirred something in young Dorsey and she would encourage him to explore the Bible. In Scripture, he found a message of hope that lifted him from his daily routine on the frontier and helped the young officer find very practical meaning to life. He would learn from Scripture that he was not worthy of standing before a righteous God but he could make himself worthy of God and His grace by accepting Jesus Christ as his personal Savior and Lord.

Pender would struggle "working out" his new-found faith and would often find himself disappointed because of his failures. When the Civil War began in 1861 and he went south to join the Confederate Army, all the trappings of army life would cause him to battle with the “flesh”. He steadily read the Bible and attended regular services while constantly reading Christian literature.

Perhaps the most important aspect of his growth in Christ was the constant letter writing he maintained with his devout wife, Fanny. Among those letters are these words from September 1861,

"I feel sincerely desirous of doing what is pleasing in the sight of God. His image is continually in my mind, and wrongdoing grieves and worries me, and I sincerely try to do better. I love our Savior—not as I should, however. I desire to put away all covetousness and sin and I believe in the Apostle's Creed, and I feel that the connection with the church will be a great help to me."

[Click to see the box in which Pender’s wife stored his letters. Courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh]

God was chiseling Dorsey Pender, spurring him to live out his faith. Eventually he was obedient in baptism on October 6, 1861. Pender requested to have the 6th North Carolina, in which he served, present in order to enrich the unbelievers among its ranks. Following the regular Sunday morning service, the men of the regiment, along with two witnesses chosen by Pender, Stephen D. Lee and Col. Benjamin Alston of the 4th Alabama, observed Pender's confession and baptism. Though Dorsey Pender would live only for another twenty months and twelve days, he would diligently strive to be a firm example of his saving faith in Jesus Christ and that effort would be observed by all, officers and soldiers alike.

Under his leadership, Pender’s division would fight bravely and well on July 1, 1863 during the first days fighting and, as noted above, Pender would be mortally wounded on the afternoon of July 2nd. His untimely death cut short what certainly would have been a brilliant military career and a life of bold witness for Christ.

Before his final breath, William Dorsey Pender instructed his doctor to tell his 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."

When I think of William Dorsey Pender, or when I stand beneath the witness tree at Gettysburg where it is alleged he received his mortal wound, I instantly think of Hebrews 12:1-3. I believe these verses are emblematic of the spiritual development and maturation in Christ of William Dorsey Pender.

Christians today can take renewed courage from the life of one so young, so committed to his faith and so dedicated to Christ to also do their duty and persevere in every area in which God has placed them.


Anonymous said...

So the man became a devout Christian but still joins the Confederate to fight for the right of one human to own another?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for commenting. Your question is very common and, to be honest, one I wrestled with when I first committed my life to Christ as an adult in 2003.

First, it is very unfair to judge historical figures using the context of our time and place. While the Bible and God's word is timeless, completely consistent and infallible, the time in which Pender lived was very different from a socio-economic perspective and that must be taken into account when trying to unravel a question such as the one you pose.

In the case of Pender, as with many others who joined the Confederate ranks, they did so not to preserve the institution of slavery but to protect their homes and lands and states from what they deemed to be a growing, overly powerful central government in Washington. It is not all that unlike the arguments debated today over a large and intrusive government vs. a smaller and less intrusive government. Many of the men who fought for the Confederacy did so out of a sense of honor and defending their State. To them, their State was their country and that is how they believed the Founding Fathers intended it to be - that State and individual rights trumped the rights of the Federal government. While we can debate that today, we can't mistake that this is exactly what they believed and why most of them fought.

Pender did not hold to the typical Southern precept that slavery was a social good. Many officers in the Confederate Army felt the same (Jackson, Lee for example). Pender read Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery book, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and informed his bride of 1859, Mary Frances “Fanny” Shepperd that he and Mrs. Stowe agreed on the slavery subject. At an early age he seemed to doubt the morality of the institution of slavery and was never comfortable with the sale of slaves, particularly when that meant the severing of families. He believed that such activity was a cruel practice and should make anyone an abolitionist. Oliver Otis Howard, classmate of his at West Point and devout Christian whom he would later fight during the war and at Gettysburg specifically, was endeared to Pender for such opinions. During his time with the Confederate Army he would employ only free blacks and would negotiate a monthly salary, which was not common among Southerners, soldiers or civilians.

Pender, like many Christians in the Confederate Army, actively lived a life opposed to slavery in their actions while engaging in a fight they believed to be just based on a perceived threat by a growing Federal government. Certainly, one could argue that the fight against the growing power in Washington was also a fight for slavery to remain intact it takes great liberty with the facts, the evidence and the context of the time to make that case hold up under scrutiny.

I too struggle with people like Pender fighting for the south. It is a difficult question to wrestle with and one we can't fully understand or appreciate because we did not live through what these men lived through. Our nation was torn apart in a way it has never seen before or since and viewing the people of that time, and their actions, through a lens of modern day perspective is not only unfair but also historically irresponsible.

Kevin Lopez said...

"First, it is very unfair to judge historical figures using the context of our time and place." Michael, sorry if this sound wrong to you if you believe in absolute morality. Do you know that as of today African-Americans have 30% white DNA. Even to the people by then, it was widely known that slave owners raped their female slaves. Among this list we can find Thomas Jefferson, who has confirmed black descendants through Y-chromosomal DNA testing. How do you have the courage to preach to African-Americans after having endorsed this guy. This soldier's only good action was devotion for her wife. Matthew 5:46 says, "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?"
Jesus also preached against nationalism in John 18:36 "Jesus said, 'My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.'"
Michael, I am not accusing you of racism, but rather I am pointing out the fact that you are failing to use empathy, which is the most complex cognitive skill that defines human beings. Imagine you are trying to preach to people in other countries with the example set up by this confederate soldier. Please, provide quotes from William Pender which prove he was opposed to slavery.

Anonymous said...

Kevin, thanks for posting.

First, I assure you I am not preaching to anyone. Second, you are correct, many slave owners raped their family slaves as you described. A horrific crime that is often brushed aside as we study this period of our history.

The paragraph I wrote in my previous comment relative to Pender's view of slavery is taken from his personal writings, letters, his actions and what others who were close to him have written about him. His love for others is established by having employed and paying African Americans, allowing them to negotiate their own salary, teaching them to read, leading them in Bible studies etc. at a time when that was punishable by death in the South. Would you risk your life doing the same? If so, why?

Having studied the Civil War (specifically Gettysburg) for the last 28 years, I have had the great privilege of gaining access to some of his personal effects and writings but most of it is in the public domain. The best insight into Pender can be found in his letters to his beloved wife Fanny. In these letters, Pender shared his innermost thoughts, motivations, and self-assessments - and his wife held him accountable. It is through these personal letters to his wife, which are compiled in the book The General and His Lady, that we gain much of our insight into Pender and the complexity of his personality. I provided a link in the post to the book at Amazon. I believe the paragraph in my comment above more than provides the evidence of Pender's position on slavery in a summary way. You can access the information easily if you are looking for the truth about Pender.

Notable among those who wrote in detail of Pender and his views on slavery etc. was his very close friend and classmate at West Point, Oliver Otis Howard. Howard was a Christian, known as the Christian General, and would later found Howard University - an historically black college. Howard wrote and spoke of Pender, both during and after the war, as a man whose position on slavery unquestionably took the side of God and placed him in the camp of an abolitionist.

In the end it is a complex issue and I recognize why many might struggle with someone who trusts Christ and holds God's word as THE authority in their life also fighting for the Confederacy. I wrestled with it as well. However, if we use the evidence we have (writings, actions, letters and contemporary testimonials) about these men we find the true character is revealed. It is tedious work but if we are in search of the truth we put forth the effort.

Kevin Lopez said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin Lopez said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin Lopez said...

Sorry if I was harsh in the last comment. I need evidence of a change in actions as well as in thought. I could only find a letter in which he said that after reading uncle Tom, he could whip his child slave no more than three times. This is not the radical change I expected. Also this was someone's child!Also about the claim that for slave owners directing bible studies with their slaves was banned. The law said the opposite. After several slave revolts, Virginia passed laws that banned black preachers to meet without the permission or company of a white slave owner.Slavery is a sensitive topic for Latinos because our ancestors were enslaved and rapped by the Spaniards. We have today 45% white DNA; therefore, you can imagine the degree of violence and misery that my great great great great grandmother had to suffer. I would not have told this to anyone in the street, but this is what minorities think when they see a southerner proud of the modern equivalents of the Nazis.