Death of a Lieutenant Colonel

The battle of Fisher’s Hill pushed the Confederates under General Jubal Early into a panicked retreat up the Shenandoah Valley, leaving the lower and portions of the middle valley open to Union control and raids. The Rebels had attempted to make stand, but by the evening of September 22, 1864, their lines broken.

In his private journal, engineer and topographer Jedidiah Hotchkiss described the twilight scene:

Our men came back in a perfect rout, and so rapidly that the enemy was crossing the railroad before the head of the column got into the pike, even. It was then getting dark. I hastened back to try and stop the mass of fugitives on the top of hill near Mount Prospect. General Gordon, General Pegram, and Colonel Pendleton with others came up. Colonel Pendleton and myself had gotten a few men to stop near a fence, there, and also two pieces of artillery, which were opened on the enemy. By the combined efforts of all a few men were induced to stop The artillery was opened on the woods where the enemy was advancing and it check the for the moment, but most of our me went on, officers and all, at breckneck speed. Wharton came along parallel to the pike and on the left, and kept some of his men together. He checked the enemy some, and a rear guard was formed from his division which made a stand at Tom’s Brook, and gave the enemy a volley which made them disist from the pursuit. Battle’s brigade moved to the left and came out intact. Colonel Pendleton was mortally wounded soon after we made a stand on the hill.

Civil War officers died daily during the conflict, expiring from battlefield injuries or illnesses. Most under the rank of general were mourned by their comrades and in their hometown or perhaps mentioned in an official report, but most did not have their deaths significantly and personally noted by a host of generals and other other officers. Certainly, there are exceptions to this generalization on both sides of the conflict. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Swift Pendleton (called Sandie by his family and friends) died from a mortal wound received during the retreat from Fisher’s Hill, and his death sounded a knell for Shenandoah hopes and shattered a link between the Confederate Shenandoah defenders of 1864 and “Stonewall” Jackson.

Alexander “Sandie” Pendleton

By September 1864, Pendleton—just days from his twenty-fourth birthday—had a history in Shenandoah Valley military defense and the Confederate Second Corps. He had served under “Stonewall” Jackson since brigade organization days in April 1861, eventually rising to the unofficial role of acting chief of staff for Jackson. While other officers may have officially held that position under Jackson, everyone knew that Pendleton had the answers and knew the details of the command, order of march, and logistics. One one occasion, Jackson responded to an inquiry about some of his own infantry officers, saying, “Ask Sandie Pendleton. If he does not know, no one does.” Pendleton also had the skill of translating Jackson’s orders into clear and comprehensive communications for the other commanders.

After Jackson’s death in 1863, Pendleton oversaw the military aspects of his general’s funerals and burial. Then, he returned to the Second Corps, serving as official Chief of Staff of General Richard Ewell and General Jubal Early and promoted to lieutenant colonel. In late December 1863, Pendleton married Katherine Corbin, a young woman from the Fredericksburg area.

Sandie Pendleton had been a steady and stable figure for the Second Corps. He usually did not work in the spotlight though he was well recognized by the troops and had helped to place units or rally soldiers in previous fights. He had carried messages in firestorms, which at Gaines Mill in 1862, had caused General J.E.B. Stuart to fear for Pendleton’s life. At that time, Jackson had responded: “No, he will not be killed.” Stories had circulated among Jackson’s staff and other Second Corps officers that “Stonewall” had spoken and Pendleton was fated to survive the war. However, history had a different ending for this lieutenant colonel.

Henry K. Douglas, a former staff officer under Jackson, described Pendleton as “the dearest friend I had in the army” and gave a more detailed account of his wounding on the night of September 22:

In the rear, on the retreat, I was directed to give special attention to the rear guard skirmish line, an dremained with it in the dark and distressing march. Sandy Pendleton, General Early’s Chief of Staff, came back to enquire into the situation and remained with me a short time. He was riding a white horse, and I warned him against riding such a beast on such a night. He made some light remark about the “deadly white horse,” and rode along the skirmish line which was falling back very slowly. My orders were against unnecessary firing, but the enemy were practicing in the dark and at random. We had stopped for a minute, when Pendleton gave a groan and tottered forward on his horse. I dismounted, called a man or two; he fell gently into my arms and was taken from his horse. He tried to walk but could not get far and, just then, the man on the opposite side of him was shot and he sank to the ground. Several strong men helped to carry him to the rear as the enemy’s fire became more galling. I had sent for an ambulance and when it arrived he was placed in it. He was shot in the groin and through the body. He told me he was mortally wounded. He gave me his watch, pocketbook, prayer book, Bible, and haversack, and some letters from his wife, to be sent to her, and asked me to write and tell her of his death….

Dr. Hunter McGuire

The ambulance hauled the wounded lieutenant colonel along the Valley Pike to the village of Woodstock. There, at the home of Dr. Murphy, Pendleton found refuge from the fighting retreat and relief from the jolting pains of ambulance transportation. Dr. Hunter McGuire—long time medical director for the Confederate Second Corps and Pendleton’s friend—found him at Dr. Murphy’s home and examined and bandaged the injuries. McGuire confirmed Pendleton’s mortal injury and offered to stay with him. But Pendleton refused, insisting that his friend should not remain away from his “post of duty” or risk capture by staying with him.

In later years, McGuire wrote a medical paper about abdominal injuries which may give insight into Pendleton’s condition that night:

As Chief Surgeon for four years of a large and actively engaged army, I have probably seen and treated as many cases of gun-shot wounds of the abdomen as any surgeon of my day, and I do not remember one instance of penetrating wound of the abdomen with visceral injury, where there was not marked reduction in the force of the pulse, great and persistent diminution of temperation, and an expression of face indicative of serious injury…

More specifically, Pendleton remained conscious during McGuire’s time with him, but other doctors attending him later on, reported that he “wander[ed] in his talks” and “constantly craved ice.” Mrs. Murphy and her daughters took turns at Pendleton’s bedside, trying to ease his suffering. Union troops advanced to Woodstock, followed by Union surgeons who visited the doctor’s home and offered aid to the dying officer.

However, no medical skill from that era could save Pendleton’s life. During the evening of September 23, he died quietly and resignedly, having often repeated throughout the painful day, “It is God’s will; I am satisfied!” His body was laid in the local Lutheran Church cemetery, until news of his injuries and death could be sent through the military lines to his wife, parents, and sisters in Lexington, Virginia.

Sandie Pendleton’s death had a significant effect on the Confederate army and officers who had fought with him.

Sandie Pendletons grave in Lexington, Virginia

General Ewell wrote to Sandie’s father, saying, “I know the men of my old Corps said it is not Ewell but Sandie who commands the second corps; but I never felt a pang of jealousy.” In a report, the general had added: “It would be difficult, without personal knowledge, to appreciate Lt. Col. Pendleton’s great gallantry, his coolness and clearness of judgment under every trial, his soldier-like and cheerful performance of every duty. One one occasion I expressed a wish to recommend him a vacant brigade, but he declined, thinking his service more valuable on the staff.”

General Jubal Early kept his remarks simple in his post-war writings, calling Pendleton “a gallant and efficient young officer” who had been mortally wounded while serving with “his accustomed gallantry and his loss was deeply felt and regretted.”

Others like Jefferson Davis and the Lee Family offered their condolences to the Pendleton Family. Civilians who had known Sandie Pendleton or believed in his ability to guide and direct army affairs also mourned his death; numerous tributes appeared in newspapers and other publications offering the typical language of heroic deaths and gallant fallen.

Henry K. Douglas spent time privately eulogizing his friend, praising his character and courage and emphasizing the days spent together on Jackson’s staff. It was though Pendleton’s death severed a final connection to Jackson. He was not the only one to suggest this idea or to realize the significant influence Pendleton had held behind the scenes in division and corps command.

James P. Smith, another former staff officer from the “Jackson days,” penned this tribute: “His fall was not unheeded. Many a soldier of this army felt more than usual sorrow when he saw the dying form of this noble leader borne away. Many a heart sank with sadness to learn that the cheerful voice of the sanguine, hopeful officer would be heard no more. Many a war veteran dropped a tear to think that the face which had become familiar amid the storm of a hundred battlefields was gone forever.”

In another year of the Civil War, Sandie Pendleton’s death might have been less noticed. Certainly, his family, closest friends, and fellow officers would have deeply mourned his loss, but his death in autumn 1864—combined with his military record—created a deeper sense of bereavement. A sense of loss that was beginning reverberate across the South.

The Shenandoah Valley was being lost to Union control with Fisher’s Hill marking a significant victory for the Yankees. As Confederates ran up the Valley Pike, officers and men alike sensed that their days of glorious victories and unprecedented successes in the that Valley drew to a close. Here—like other locations in the South—war pressed back the Confederate military and turned attention to the civilian population.

Sandie Pendleton’s Uniform at Museum of Virginia (detail photograph)

Pendleton’s death may symbolize two types of loss. First, his fall represented the loss of young leadership within the Confederacy. He had been trained by “Stonewall” and successfully controlled armies, leading to triumphs for his generals. Jefferson Davis called Pendleton’s death “a loss to the country as well as to [his family].” Others echoed the sentiment, lamenting the end of a young, promising life for further military service (or civilian pursuits after the conflict).

Second, Pendleton’s death, combined with the loosing efforts in the Shenandoah Valley, signaled an end to the idea of “Jackson’s undefeated men.” Pendleton visibly represented a leader who had blasted invaders out of the Valley, accomplished seemingly impossible marches, and pressed for victory no matter the cost. Because he had served with Jackson in so many campaigns and battles, Pendleton had a reputation as Jackson’s protege, even though he had forged his own success and staff officer image. Perhaps Joshua Peterkin, a pastor in Richmond, summed it up clearly when he wrote: “Next to the loss of Jackson, [Pendleton’s death] seems to me Virginia’s greatest loss.”

When Pendleton collapsed off his horse and later took his final breaths, his passing created a wave of mourning that extended beyond his wife, family, and immediate acquaintances. His death symbolized other endings in the minds of Confederate soldiers and leaders. The ending of a Jacksonian legacy and legend that had bolstered the Second Corps units on numerous battlefields. The poignant reminder that this war was taking some of the South’s brightest youth.

However, he probably had no idea of these far reaching effects of his death. His final concerns had centered on duty, the retreating army, his family, his wife and unborn child, and a resignation to God’s sovereignty. Pendleton had spent nearly three and half years in the Confederate army, but—in his own words—he did “not love fighting. Far from it; I get horribly frightened every battle I go into…but I…would like to be off again after the Yankees, to hear again the shout of victory go up from a glorious field…. And if the prospect of separation consequent on a battle is saddening, we must submit to suffer somewhat…” Perhaps his own words serve as the reminder that though his death symbolized much and evoked a wave of emotion across Virginia, in the end, he was just a young man five days from his twenty-fourth birthday who had no wish to die in battle and every reason to live. But fate had a different ending…

Sources:

Official Records, Volume XLIII, Part 1, Jedidiah Hotchkiss Journal, Page 575.

W.G. Bean, Stonewall’s Man: Sandie Pendleton. (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina, 1959). Pages 69, 219-222.

Douglas, Henry K. I Rode With Stonewall: The War Experience of the Youngest Member of Jackson’s Staff. (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1968.) Pages 312-313.

Library of Congress: Jedediah Hotchkiss Papers: Writings File, circa 1846-1899; Writings by others; McGuire, Hunter: “Gun Shot and Other Wounds of the Peritoneum”, 1873.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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5 Responses to Death of a Lieutenant Colonel

  1. John Pryor says:

    It seems that a disproportionate number of the South’s best young men, black and white, wewre consumed in this tragic contest. Love Sarah’s posts from the Valley.

    • Todd Berkoff says:

      This is a strange comment. Southern black men lost in the war? I’m confused. As for the South’s soldiers who were lost, they did so fighting in a rebellion against their government for some pretty ridiculous causes. Tragic.

      • Carl Dozier says:

        For Southern men the war was for Southern Independence much like their forefathers fought the British for independence. The nature of the war depended on what side of the Mason-Dixon Line one hailed from. The Confederacy had declared its independence form federal authority and saw themselves as the upholders of the Constitution.

  2. David Corbett says:

    Thanks for the interesting article.

  3. Pingback: Week In Review: September 23-29, 2019 | Emerging Civil War

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