William Nelson Pendleton (1809–1883)


William Nelson Pendleton was an Episcopal priest and chief of artillery for the Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War (1861–1865). No Confederate officer in the East generated less heat on the battlefield and more away from it than Pendleton. As Robert E. Lee‘s chief of artillery, he was responsible for hundreds of guns and thousands of cannoneers, but he never fully utilized the potential of the army’s “long arm” in battlefield to merit his high standing. Pendleton’s efforts usually resulted in controversy, the most scandalous occurring when he abandoned his command at the Battle of Shepherdstown on September 19, 1862. Yet Pendleton did make a few important contributions in reorganizing the artillery into the more efficient and effective battalion system that enabled battery commanders to maximize their limited firepower. Pendleton was also a man of the cloth and his attention to the spiritual needs of the rank-and-file must have endeared him to the pious Lee.

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 and Jefferson Davis before 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 its Ordinance of Secession Pendleton was elected, on May 1, 1861, to the captaincy of the Rockbridge Artillery, a Lexington-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, Joseph E. Johnston confirmed Davis’s recommendation and named Pendleton his chief of artillery at the rank of colonel. Despite rumors of cowardice at the First Battle of Manassas 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 Battle of Antietam—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 newspaper, “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 of Christianity in camp. 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’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, Pendleton returned to his parish in Lexington, where he helped persuade Lee to accept the presidency of Washington College (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 Jubal A. Early, Pendleton joined other ex-Confederates in advancing a Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War, often at the expense of others. For instance, Pendleton horribly distorted former Confederate general James Longstreet‘s performance at the Battle of Gettysburg (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 Alexander Swift “Sandie” Pendleton, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson‘s famous staff officer.

December 26, 1809
William Nelson Pendleton is born on a plantation near Richmond.
William Nelson Pendleton enters the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, soon becoming close friends with Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.
William Nelson Pendleton graduates from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, finishing fifth out of a class of forty-two cadets.
William Nelson Pendleton enters the U.S. Army as a 2nd lieutenant in the artillery.
William Nelson Pendleton resigns from the Regular Army.
William Nelson Pendleton is ordained as an Episcopal priest.
William Nelson Pendleton moves to Lexington, where he becomes the rector of Grace Episcopal Church.
May 1, 1861
William Nelson Pendleton is elected captain of the Rockbridge Artillery.
July 13, 1861
William Nelson Pendleton is promoted to colonel and assigned to the staff of Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston as chief of artillery.
March 26, 1862
William Nelson Pendleton is promoted to brigadier general, a rank that he held for the remainder of the war.
September 16, 1862
Confederate reserve artillery under William Nelson Pendleton protects Boteler's Ford near Shepherdstown. If Confederate general Robert E. Lee were forced to retreat from his invasion of the North, this would be his only route south across the Potomac River.
September 19, 1862
Confederate general William Nelson Pendleton nearly loses the Army of Northern Virginia's Reserve Artillery to a Union attack at the Battle of Shepherdstown
October—December, 1862
Confederate general William Nelson Pendleton helps reorganize the Army of Northern Virginia's artillery into a battalion system.
April 9, 1865
Along with Confederate generals James Longstreet and John B. Gordon, William Nelson Pendleton helps arrange the details for the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House.
William Nelson Pendleton receives the degree of doctor of divinity.
January 15, 1883
William Nelson Pendleton dies in Lexington.
  • Carmichael, Peter S. “‘We Don’t Know What on Earth to do with Him’: William Nelson Pendleton and the Affair at Shepherdstown, September 19, 1862,” in Gary W. Gallagher, ed., The Antietam Campaign. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
  • Driver, Robert J., The 1st and 2nd Rockbridge Artillery. Lynchburg, Virginia: H. E. Howard, 1987.
  • Foster, Gaines, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command, 3 vols. New York, New York: Scribner’s, 1942–1944.
  • Lee, Susan P., Memoirs of William Nelson Pendleton, 1893; reprint, Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications, 1991.
  • Wise, Jennings C. The Long Arm of Lee; or, The History of the Artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia. 2 vols. Lynchburg, Virginia: J. P. Bell, 1915.
APA Citation:
Carmichael, Peter. William Nelson Pendleton (1809–1883). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/pendleton-william-nelson-1809-1883.
MLA Citation:
Carmichael, Peter. "William Nelson Pendleton (1809–1883)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 23 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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