General Dorsey Pender: the Rebel, the Christian

As I was reading Shelby Foote’s account of the battle of Gettysburg (Civil War, A Narrative, Vol. 2), I was struck by his description of the death of Confederate Major General Dorsey Pender.

[T]here still was Pender, whose division was to the Third Corps what Hood’s and Johnson’s were to the First and Second, the hardest-hitting and fiercest of the three. And yet Pender was not there after all: not Pender in person.

Like Heth and Hood, at about the same time yesterday and earlier today, he had been unhorsed by a casual fragment of shell while riding his line to inspect and steady his men for their possible share in the attack then rolling northward. The wound in his leg, though ugly enough, was not thought to be very serious, or at any rate not fatal. But it was. Two weeks later the leg was taken off, infection having set in during the long ambulance ride back to Virginia, and he did not survive the amputation.

“Tell my wife I do not fear to die ” the twenty-nine-year-old North Carolinian said in the course of his suffering, which was intense. “I can confidently resign my soul to God, trusting in the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ. My only regret is to leave her and our children.”

Confederate Maj. Gen. William Dorsey Pender

Confederate Maj. Gen. William Dorsey Pender

No tears for rebels!

Normally I shed no tears when I read of the battle death of a Confederate officer. To my mind, these were men who willingly involved themselves a cause that Ulysses S. Grant called “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

Grant likely was thinking mostly of the “cause” of tearing apart the United States in order to establish a separate Southern nation. But inextricably interwoven into the cause of Confederate independence was the underlying motivation of protecting the institution of slavery.

[See What Confederates Said Caused the Civil War]

And no man who willingly engaged himself in civil war on the side that had the perpetuation of human slavery as a clearly articulated war aim has any claim on my respect or sympathy.

So, ordinarily I would have passed right by the account of Pender being mortally wounded at Gettysburg with hardly a second thought.

But what about a brother in Christ?

Then I read what Pender said has he lay dying.

I can confidently resign my soul to God, trusting in the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For me, that changed everything!

With that one statement William Dorsey Pender was transformed in my mind from a man who was devoted to maintaining the worst kind of oppression one human being can visit on another, into a brother in Christ who died proclaiming his unshakeable faith in his Savior – and mine.

Suddenly Dorsey Pender became a real person to me, and not just a symbol of an evil with which our nation is still bedeviled to this day. I had to acknowledge him as, quite literally, a member of my own spiritual family. I can no longer simply dismiss his life – and death – with the judgment, unexpressed but hidden in the recesses of my heart, “he got what he deserved.”

Was Dorsey Pender evil because his cause was evil?

So, now I have to work my way through the question of just how I am to look upon this man who made a choice, in resigning his U. S. Army commission and casting his lot with the Confederacy, that I believe was not just unwise, but in a very real sense, evil. Yet, Christ commands:

Judge not, that you be not judged.   Matthew 7:1

Christ’s command is clear: I have no right to make moral judgments on Dorsey Pender as a human being, no matter how wrong I think he was in the choices he made.

I don’t think I’ll ever be willing to laud Pender for the excellent record he compiled in fighting for an evil cause. And I do judge his cause as evil. But can I also judge the man as evil because he fought for it? Can I withhold my sympathy from him and his devastated wife, and a child who would never know his father, because I hate what the man stood for?

What I’m having to face is the fact that, as much as I’d like to despise the men who voluntarily fought for the Confederacy, as a Christian, I can’t. “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone…” (John 8:7)

Ron Franklin

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About RonElFran

Ron Franklin is pastor of Covenant Community Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
This entry was posted in Generals, Slavery, The Confederacy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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