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'A Stupid Old Useless Fool'

By Robert K. Krick 
Originally published by Civil War Times magazine. Published Online: April 30, 2008 
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 One dreadfully humiliating episode best illustrates Brigadier General William Nelson Pendleton's reputation in the Army of Northern Virginia. In 1864, as General Robert E. Lee rode past a marching column, his troops cheered him vociferously. But when "Old Mother Pendleton," the chief of artillery who was riding a bit farther back in the cavalcade, approached those same men, a lone soldier yelled "three cheers for Genl Pendleton"—to which not a soul responded. The embarrassed trooper "then very faintly cried Oh! whereupon the whole column broke out in a laugh."

Pendleton was an Episcopal minister, and early in the war Southerners relished the notion of a highly placed cleric becoming a Christian soldier of sorts. Tales about Pendleton's prayers for the Yankees at whom he was shooting circulated among avid audiences. "He fights with the sword in one hand and the bible in the other," a correspondent wrote admiringly. An impressed soldier-worshipper loved to see Parson Pendleton in the pulpit: "large and tall…with rough, shaggy irongray beard, dark complexion, rich, full, sonorous voice, fertile imagination, rapid utterance, easy flow of language…fine effect." More than one observer mistook the dignified, gray-bearded Pendleton for General Lee.

Numerous missteps on the battlefield quickly tarnished Pendleton's military reputation, however. In his three-volume Lee's Lieutenants, Douglas Southall Freeman's magisterial history of the leadership of Lee's army, he generally passed judgment on the performance of Confederate leaders without displaying much subjective fervor. General Pendleton, however, had stumbled often enough in discharging his considerable responsibilities to earn straightforward mention of those gaffes in Freeman's narrative.

Freeman remarked in his private diary precisely what he thought of Pendleton in an entry dated December 8, 1939. He wrote of that day's labors: "Worked on that pompously-pathetic old fraud, Pendleton." An examination of the Southern artillery chief's military career confirms the validity of Freeman's judgment.

The Pendleton patrimony ran back through a succession of notably distinguished Virginians of the Colonial and Revolutionary eras. The family had roots in Caroline County, just south of Fredericksburg, but William was born in Richmond on the day after Christmas 1809. Plans to secure an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy for a slightly older brother, Francis Walker Pendleton, foundered on the boy's lack of interest. William went to West Point in Francis' stead in June 1826.

Higher education changes everyone's life, but young Pendleton's West Point years surely affected him even beyond the expected norms. Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston graduated a year ahead of Pendleton, which meant he spent three years with those later-famous individuals on the banks of the Hudson River. Jefferson Davis finished in the class just before Lee and Johnston. John B. Magruder, also destined for Confederate generalship, graduated with Pendleton in 1830; the two Virginians, who shared a Caroline County background, roomed together. The next younger class included Lucius B. Northrop and Andrew A. Humphreys; the former would serve as the Confederacy's commissary general, while the latter became a Union corps commander.

Pendleton's youthful association with Lee seems to have been particularly pivotal to his military career. It is difficult to imagine the Episcopal clergyman of Pendleton's later life having the chance to become Lee's chief of artillery, and even harder (despite Lee's characteristic loyalty) to envision the Confederate leader putting up with Pendleton's repeated fumbling during the war except for their previous friendship. In addition, his youthful association with Jeff Davis also probably served the militarily maladroit Pendleton in his time of need.

Pendleton coped quite capably with West Point's rigorous curriculum. He stood seventh among 63 cadets at the end of his first year, advanced to third place at the end of each of the next two years, and finally ranked fifth among 42 graduates in the class of 1830. In that era, the U.S. Military Academy ranked cadets on conduct, based on demerits, across all four classes. Cadet Pendleton did not fare as well in conduct as he did academically. His standing in conduct dropped a bit each year: from 72nd in his first year to 74th, then 98th. At graduation he stood squarely in the middle of the West Point conduct register: 107th out of 215 cadets. During Pendleton's third year, Robert E. Lee graduated with a rank of fifth in conduct—not first, as has often has been reported.

After graduation Brevet 2nd Lt. Pendleton, assigned to the 2nd U.S. Artillery, went on duty at Fort Moultrie in South Carolina's Charleston Harbor, where some of the Civil War's opening shots would be fired three decades later. Within a few weeks of arriving in the swampy environs of Charleston, the freshly minted lieutenant became so seriously ill with a fever that the Army arranged his prompt transfer to a healthier zone, the arsenal at Augusta, Ga.

Just a year after his graduation, Pendleton returned to West Point for a stint as an instructor in mathematics. In the fall of 1833, he resigned to accept a professorship in a small Episcopal College in Pennsylvania. The man destined to head the artillery of one of the most famous armies in American military history had accumulated only three years of experience before switching to a career as a pedagogue and cleric. He spent virtually none of that short early period with troops or in the field, and never saw any hint of action. After shedding his lieutenant's frock coat and donning a surplice, William Nelson Pendleton saw nothing of military life for nearly 30 years.

After five years of teaching in Pennsylvania and Delaware, Pendleton was ordained as an Episcopal priest. With that credential, he became principal of the new, and destined to become renowned, Episcopal High School of Virginia in Alexandria. Later he taught in Baltimore. For six years, beginning in 1847, he served as rector of All Saints Church in Frederick, Md. When Pendleton accepted a call to Lexington, Va., in 1853, he made his final relocation. For the next 30 years he would fill the Episcopal pulpit there, excepting only his stint in Confederate uniform.

The post of Episcopal rector in Lexington proved wonderfully congenial to Pendleton. He doubtless shared the sentiment of his soon-to-be-famous fellow townsman, Thomas J. Jackson, who wrote in an 1852 letter: "Of all places which have come under my observation…this little village is the most beautiful." As a leading figure in the Rockbridge County hierarchy, Parson Pendleton created a printed testimonial for a mathematics text written by the superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, joined the town's prestigious Franklin Society and even played a prominent role during an 1859 smallpox epidemic.

From his cozy perch in Lexington, Pendleton also made something of a name for himself in pious circles. In an article titled "The Philosophy of Dress," which appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger, a popular periodical, he called for a dress code based on "dignity…moderation…neatness…above all of true penitence and celestial faith." In a substantial book (350 pages) issued by a major publisher, Science a Witness for the Bible, the Rev. Pendleton urged piety on the nation, else "this entire planet shall one day be the funeral pile of all that is consumable." Devout Southerners embraced the book as well as its author. A visitor to Pendleton's church on Christmas Eve 1860 marveled at the elegantly decorated sanctuary and credited the rector with having "gained quite a hold upon the affections of the people of the village."

When the Rev. Pendleton exchanged these peaceful scenes for an army commission a few months later, he brought no hint of military experience or prowess to his new undertaking. In the spring of 1861, his brief stint as a subaltern in the U.S. Army lay more than a quarter-century in the dim past. He parlayed that slender experience into the command of a local artillery company, the Rockbridge Artillery, as a captain on May 11. Two months later, six days before the First Battle of Manassas, Pendleton was commissioned as a colonel in the Provisional Army of the Confederate States. On July 2 he and his battery had performed capably at Falling Waters in a skirmish that seemed important in those innocent days. At Manassas, his artillery did well in supporting the command of fellow Lexingtonian, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. On March 26, 1862, Pendleton advanced to the rank of brigadier general. Nine weeks later, on the same day that Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he appointed Pendleton chief of that army's artillery.

The war's first year, however, had begun to expose Pendleton's rigidity and pompous outlook, perhaps a natural extension of decades of speaking as God's representative without anyone to contradict him. In one revealing episode, Colonel Pendleton wrote to General Joseph E. Johnston on New Year's Day 1862 insisting that the camp correspondent of the Richmond Dispatch, who wrote under the nom de plume "Bohemian," obviously was "a cunning spy & villain." Those articles, Pendleton believed, included so much accurate detail that they "can hardly mean anything else." Johnston had the good sense to ignore this paranoid judgment. "Bohemian" in fact was the irre­proachable Dr. William G. Shepperson, whose patriotic book War Songs of the South, issued soon thereafter, became a Confederate favorite.

In similar high-handed spirit, Pendleton reacted to the accidental food poisoning suffered by members of a Georgia battery by presuming there had been some sort of conspiracy and arresting the Virginia farmer who had supplied the men with tainted milk, together with "his entire family and slaves." Fortunately, two days later a judge in Petersburg, Va., quickly acquitted the farmer, as well as the women, children and the servants.

The Seven Days' battles around Richmond brought Pendleton neither shining accolades nor any serious criticism. Two days after the debacle at Malvern Hill, an artillery mule kicked the general viciously in the leg, seriously injuring him and by one account breaking a bone. Lee responded to Pendleton's absence by ignoring rank and succession and directly issuing orders for artillery movements to the brilliant, though still low-graded, Lt. Col. E. Porter Alexander. It was not the last time Lee would assign artillery roles to Alexander out of proportion to his rank. By that time the commanding general must have been aware that Alexander constituted a monumental upgrade over Pendleton.

The fact that Pendleton wasn't up to his assignment seemed obvious to the men in the ranks. A steady stream of complaints from soldiers about his military performance began early in the war and continued unabated. A Georgia soldier wrote of the general with unbridled scorn in 1862 diary entries: "Gen. Pendleton displayed an utter want of confidence & fearlessness…it was an absolute disgrace to the army….[Pendleton] succumbed like a whipped puppy." When Pendleton heard mutterings "that I had shrunk from my post and gone to the rear," he assiduously tracked them back to an artillery major, then complained bitterly about the rumors in a long letter to Stonewall Jackson.

The battlefield failure most often connected with General Pendleton concerns the affair at Shepherdstown, Va., on September 19, 1862. Lee assigned his artillery chief the apparently easy task of defending the Potomac River crossings after the army returned to Virginia following the Battle of Sharpsburg. As early as the 17th, with the main battle still raging, Lee had directed that Pendleton defend the crossings with artillery and "some infantry with it if possible." But the commanding general also asked that whatever artillery could be spared should be sent to Sharpsburg. On the 19th, with the Potomac behind his army, Lee instructed Pendleton to hold the river line until nightfall, and overnight if not pressed.

Major General J.E.B. Stuart's chief of staff described the strength of Pendleton's commanding position in a letter written the following week: "Pendleton had some guns on the tremendous cliff overlooking the Ford, which is a very bad & rough one." Despite that strategic position, Pendleton lost track of his forces and lost control of the situation. Entirely unfamiliar with infantry operations, and primarily an artillery bureaucrat instead of a fighting artillerist, "the minister-artillerist" (as Douglas Freeman called him in describing the fiasco) panicked. Pendleton assumed that all had been lost. He headed disconsolately rearward, finally reaching Lee's headquarters "past midnight." In Pendleton's own crestfallen words, Lee "was of course disturbed."

A member of Lee's staff who had been aroused by the hubbub described Pendleton's report much more vividly: "The first announcement was, that the enemy had taken the heights, and captured ALL of the guns. 'All,' said the General. 'Yes, General, I fear, all.' This announcement lifted me right off my blanket, and I moved away, fearful I might betray my feelings." To the aide's amazement, however, Lee "exhibited no temper, made no reproach."

To everyone's relief, the staff officer concluded, the gallantry of an unnamed subordinate officer "had saved the command, and [Pendleton] had been premature in his report." But before the true state of affairs became known in Lee's camp, the army seemed in imminent peril. A member of General D.H. Hill's staff saw Lee "pacing restlessly before his tent and showing great agitation" during the crisis, and said of the commanding general, "I never saw a man more confused."

Before the extent of Pendleton's exaggeration could be ascertained, Lee sent a worried dispatch to Jefferson Davis in Richmond on the morning of the 20th: "From General Pendleton's report after midnight, I fear much of his reserve artillery has been captured. I am now obliged to return to Shepherdstown…."

Obviously discomfited, Pendleton wrote an immensely detailed apologia by way of an official report. It runs longer than Jackson's report for his entire corps, nearly twice as long as Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's, and nearly as long as Lee's. Pendleton's pleading tone and flowery language at best sound embarrassed to a modern ear.

Despite Lee's magnificent poise in the face of apparent disaster, his chagrin over Pendleton's ineptitude is apparent in the wording of a letter he wrote two weeks later. In directing Pendleton to a routine position well away from danger, Lee explained punctiliously, "you will still be accessible to the points I have named, and perfectly safe by exercising care and attention." Having heard that Pendleton's health remained "indifferent," Lee told his subordinate that "relaxation might benefit you," and also suggested he might want to take a furlough for health reasons.

In a letter to his wife about the disaster, Pendleton displayed astonishing, and utterly inaccurate, optimism about the army's reaction. Although the letter hints at some personal embarrassment, the general insisted: "No blame that I ever heard of is attached to me by any body. On the contrary, it is felt, I think, that with the means at my disposal, a great deal was accomplished."

Another letter home a few weeks later, however, suggests that the general may have come to recognize his own incapacity in the field. In it he enjoined his wife and family to "join me in special prayer for divine guidance—as to what God would have me do. May not my mission as a soldier have been fulfilled in two campaigns? May it not be my sacred duty…to resume exclusively the sword of the Spirit?"

Other Confederate officers freely expressed their scorn at the artillery chief's plight. "Pendleton was dreadfully stampeded and almost in tears," one of Jackson's staff wrote. A Virginia cavalry colonel described Pendleton as "all day" being "in the rear in a well sheltered place, and entirely out of danger." A bright Virginia artillery captain wrote tartly that his chief had "managed…to lose four pieces."

One witness to Pendleton's fumbling battlefield efforts drew wide attention when he disgustedly described the affair in a Richmond newspaper a few weeks later. The artillery chief, he wrote: "withdrew in confusion, losing four guns. Gen. P. thought he had lost almost all his guns, but such was not the case….Gen. P., it seems, retreated without sufficient cause." A rejoinder in the same paper under the pen name "Justice"—apparently Pendleton himself—offered a complicated and wordy defense, complaining of "ten hours' stern endurance, without food, water or respite." The controversy subsequently degenerated into mutterings throughout the army, but also in at least one official Court of Inquiry.

No difficulty equivalent to the Shepherdstown affair befell Pendleton through the rest of the war, mostly because he was thereafter relegated almost exclusively to bureaucratic roles. It is tempting to assign Pendleton part of the blame for the Confederate artillery's failure to bring converging fire on the Federals' fishhook line at Gettysburg. Such fire—an artillerist's ideal—might have offset to some degree the tremendous Northern advantage of compact interior lines; it surely ought to have been attempted vigorously, at a minimum. An energetic chief of artillery responsibly discharging his tactical duties would have undertaken such an attempt. But Pendleton simply did not function in any such capacity on the battlefield.

In the winter of 1863-64, rumors spread that Lee had decided to replace Pendleton as chief of artillery, and had even picked out a suitable candidate. Colonel Thomas H. Carter, one of the smartest gunners in the army and among the highest ranking, told his wife: "It would be an advantage to the Artillery of this Army should he do so." The brilliant Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes wrote of a "premium on imbecility" in the army's artillery. Although Carter did not specify Pendleton, he obviously could not have been referring to the bright young cadre of Confederate gunners.

Early in 1864, Lee decided to send Pendleton west on detached duty to inspect the artillery of the Army of Tennessee. It is hard to avoid speculation that Lee embraced the idea as a means to be rid of his inept artillery chief. The "send them elsewhere" solution to personnel problems always appealed to Lee, and he had a stable of superb gunners at hand in Virginia. Confederate Adjutant and Inspector General Samuel Cooper issued the orders on March 6, but Pendleton apparently did not wish to go. After the artillery chief had dragged his feet for a full month, Cooper reissued the edict, adding a stern "without delay."

Back in Virginia, Pendleton (perhaps still irked by the spring orders) engaged in a snarling match with Cooper. When he visited the War Department in Richmond, Pendleton had not met with the cordial acceptance befitting his rank, he complained in a letter to Cooper. The "exclusive & extremely invidious obstruction placed at the door of your Dept." subjected the general to "the indignity of seeking admittance through permission circuitously obtained." Cooper wrote on the back of that missive, "I cannot permit myself to reply to so intemperate & insubordinate a letter as this."

Widespread recognition of the general's military shortcomings probably affected the soldiers' response to his preaching. Some enlisted men who heard Pendleton late in the war remained impressed—"noble" and "dignified" one auditor observed—but others scorned even his performance in the pulpit. A First Corps staffer described him as "a stupid old useless fool." Robert E. Lee's chief of staff reportedly felt sorry when he heard officers make Pendleton the butt of jokes.

After the war, again serving as Lexington's Episcopal rector, Pendleton joined most other former Confederates in a scramble for some kind of livelihood. He and his wife took in paying boarders to help balance a sparse budget. A local investigator for R.G. Dun & Co. (predecessor of the familiar modern credit-rating firm, Dun & Bradstreet), assessed Pendleton's status as: "Pays v[er]y badly but occupies high social position…poor & proud….always 'Hard Up.' "

Pendleton's public image suffered even more following the war, were that possible. During the postwar controversies of the late 1870s, he said things that were palpably untrue—though perhaps due to senility rather than dishonesty. For instance, he blamed James Longstreet for ignoring a direct order from Lee to attack at dawn on July 2 at Gettysburg, a wholly fabricated assertion. The parson's friends found it impossible to defend him, and his detractors ratcheted up their disdain.

After his death on January 15, 1883, most former Confederates remembered him without favor. One of the army's last surviving battalion commanders, Colonel David G. McIntosh, wrote of him early in the 20th century, "He and his ponderous staff was regarded in the army as a sort of joke."

In his later years, however, Parson Pendleton kept his eye fixed on the immortal prize. Not long before he died, he wrote to Jefferson Davis that there could be no enduring good government in America until the dawn of "a far more thorough and prevailing influence of the blessed gospel."

Following his death, Pendleton's vestry paid glowing tribute to his religious career: "The last day, and almost the last hour, of his earthly existence found him still employed in the active service of his Divine Master, and he fell, as he desired to do, with his Christian armor on."

 

For more about William Nelson Pendleton, go to "Resources," P. 71 of the June 2008 issue of Civil War Times.

 



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