On July 2, at Gettysburg General William Dorsey Pender was riding among his lines to familiarize himself better with the lay of the land before him. His troops were now all up, and he expected at any time to receive orders to engage the enemy. While dismounted he was struck by a Federal shell, the wound would prove mortal. He died July 18, 1863.
When news of Pender’s death circulated through the army he had left behind, the universal response was grief tinged with regret. Everyone who knew him, and many of those who only knew of him, realized that the Confederacy had lost one of its ablest and, at the same time, one of its most promising officers. Pender’s achievements were well known; in time they would take on almost legendary proportions. Yet his loss was made more painful by the widespread belief that when he went down, greater things lay in store before him. He had transitioned easily from regimental to brigade to divisional command. There was no doubt in the minds of Lee or any of his senior subordinates that Pender was destined for fame and glory as a Corps commander, if not a higher position.
The eulogies that poured in after his passing praised both his accomplishments and his potential. Colonel (later General) Perrin believed that, although new to the rank, Pender “was the best Major General in the Army…He was brave, energetic, a thorough disciplinarian & in fact everything that a soldier should be. His place will be hard to fill…” A.P. Hill, whose sense of loss was personal as well as professional, assessed Pender’s value with mournful eloquence: “No man fell during this bloody battle of Gettysburg more regretted than he, nor around whose youthful brow were clustered brighter rays of glory.”
Pender’s importance to his army was such that in postwar years grandiose praise was attributed to his army commander. Brigadier General Gabriel C. Wharton, who never served in the Army of Northern Virginia, declared that sometime in 1864 or early 1865, Lee admitted to having erred in invading Pennsylvania but expressed confidence that “we would have succeeded had Pender lived.” And in 1893, Pender’s friend William Gaston Lewis quoted Lee to the effect that “General Pender was the only officer in the army that could completely fill the place of ‘Stonewall’ Jackson.”
Wharton’s and Lewis’s memories may not have been fully accurate, or may have been subject to exaggeration. A more reliable postwar epitaph was rendered by Captain Ashe of Pender’s staff, who regretted that his commander’s name was not better known. However, had Pender survived Gettysburg, “he, too, would have attained a world-wide fame, and would have taken his place among the great Generals of his age.”
Of the scores of tributes paid him in death, it is likely that William Dorsey Pender would have preferred the most succinct. Engraved on his tomb in Calvary Cemetery, Tarboro, North Carolina, are nine words that go far toward summing up his life and career: “Patriot by Nature, Soldier by Training, Christian by Faith.”