Pendleton was born on December 26, 1809, in Richmond, Virginia, spending his youth on a nearby plantation where he was educated by private tutors. In 1826 he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, and formed close friendships with Robert E. Lee andbefore graduating fifth in his class four years later. He received a second lieutenant’s commission in the Fourth Regiment of Artillery, an assignment that took him at various times to forts Moultrie, Hamilton, and Monroe, before he resigned on October 31, 1833. A religious awakening caused Pendleton to exchange the sword for the cloth, and four years after leaving the army he became an ordained Episcopal priest. He then shuttled among a number of colleges and private schools until 1853, when he finally settled at Grace Episcopal Church in Lexington, Virginia, in a position he occupied until his death.
Shortly after Virginia passed itsPendleton was elected, on May 1, 1861, to the captaincy of the , a -based unit composed of four guns that Pendleton aptly named after the early Christian figures Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Promotion quickly followed, and on July 13, 1861, confirmed Davis’s recommendation and named Pendleton his chief of artillery at the rank of . Despite rumors of cowardice at the on July 21, 1861, Pendleton was retained as Johnston’s artillery commander, receiving a brigadier general’s commission on March 26, 1862. In a debacle at Shepherdstown, Virginia, Pendleton—who was defending the army’s rear guard as it retreated across the Potomac after the —nearly lost thirty-three cannon to a minor Union attack. Pendleton fled the scene, leaving his troops to fend for themselves. The fallout from his questionable behavior consumed the army in public controversy. One of his subordinates wrote in a Richmond , “By the way Pendleton is Lee’s weakness. Pn is like the elephant, we have him & we don’t know what on earth to do with him, and it costs a devil of a sight to feed him.”
It is somewhat mystifying why Lee would retain Pendleton in such an important role as chief of artillery when that branch of service was extraordinarily disadvantaged in both ordnance and arms in comparison to its Union counterparts. Pendleton probably avoided a humiliating transfer or dismissal because of his close ties to President Davis and Lee’s kindly feelings toward his old friend. Still, knowing people in high places did not alone save Pendleton. He was a useful administrator away from the battlefield and an energetic promoter ofin . Even these achievements, however, could not change public perceptions. The soldiers made him a frequent target of ridicule, expressing their low regard for Pendleton in the nickname “Old Mother Pendleton.”
After Lee’sat Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, Pendleton returned to his parish in Lexington, where he helped persuade Lee to accept the presidency of (later Washington and Lee University). For the next five years, the two men worked together on a variety of church and educational matters. When Lee died in 1870, Pendleton spoke at his funeral and then spent the remainder of his life canonizing his former superior. As a sidekick of the influential , Pendleton joined other ex-Confederates in advancing a interpretation of the Civil War, often at the expense of others. For instance, Pendleton horribly distorted former Confederate general ‘s performance at the (1863), in part to protect Lee from blame for the defeat. Carrying the shield of a Lost Cause crusader protected Pendleton from tough questions about his own spotty record in the Army of Northern Virginia. He died on January 15, 1883, and is buried in the Lexington Cemetery, next to his son , ‘s famous staff officer.