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Confederate General William Dorsey Pender: The Hope of Glory

Brian Steel Wills, LSU Press

William Dorsey Pender’s reputation echoes across the century and a half since his death with hints of rich promise. After he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1854, his service as an artillery subaltern took him to the far Northwest, where he fought in conflicts with American Indians in  the Washington Territory. The Old Army artillery service earned Pender an 1861 commission with the Confederate long arm, but he quickly became colonel of a North Carolina infantry regiment. His performance during his baptism of heavy fire at  Seven Pines ensured promotion to brigade command. Pender carved out an admirable record at the head of a brigade in A.P. Hill’s Division.

The death of Stonewall Jackson, whose final battlefield commands  included those he gave personally to Pender, necessitated reorganization of the army. As a brand-new major general at age 29, Dorsey Pender took over four of Hill’s six brigades in a freshly aligned division. A shell fragment tore open his thigh at Gettysburg, resulting in the young commander’s death a fortnight later.

Pender’s letters to his wife reached print in 1965, edited by William W. Hassler. Aside from that, however, the general has remained relatively obscure. A thin and sere 2001 biography offered little new.

Biographer Brian Wills shows intelligence and great literary dexterity in weaving Pender’s story. His prose flows substantially above  the current norm, making his depiction of an interesting life decidedly worth owning and reading. Inevitably, the general’s letters to his wife form an invaluable basis for his story, however, the research beyond that does not reflect any special  diligence in Wills’ book. At one point, for example, 23 of 25 consecutive citations refer to letters to Mrs. Pender. Enriching that already-told tale with more primary sources would have made this a better work.

Because of its casual research credentials, The Hope of Glory is surely not the last word on Dorsey Pender, but it is unquestionably the best biography yet available.


Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.