Henry Heth — The Confederate General Who Started the Battle of Gettysburg

December 16, 1825–September 27, 1899

Henry “Harry” Heth (1825–1899) was a General in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. Heth is most well known for sending some of his men into the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on the morning of July 1, 1863, initiating the Battle of Gettysburg.

General Henry Heth, CSA, Civil War

General Henry Heth. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Who was Henry “Harry” Heth?

General Henry “Harry” Heth was born on December 16, 1825, in Chesterfield County, Virginia. After graduating from West Point in 1847, he served in the U.S. Army until joining the Confederate States Army at the onset of the Civil War. Heth quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a Major General. In July 1863, his division inadvertently initiated the Battle of Gettysburg. Contrary to popular belief, it is unlikely Heth sent his men into the town in search of shoes. Wounded during the battle, Heth later led his division through the Overland Campaign, the Siege of Petersburg, and the retreat to Appomattox Court House, where he surrendered with General Robert E. Lee in April 1865. Following the war, Heth worked in insurance and served the government as a surveyor and in the Office of Indian Affairs. He died in Washington, D.C., on September 27, 1899.

Battle of Gettysburg, Pickett's Charge
Picketts Charge, as viewed from a position on the Confederate lines, looking toward the Union lines. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Henry Heth Facts

  • Date of Birth: General Henry Heth was born on December 16, 1825.
  • Parents: His parents were John Heth and Margaret L. Pickett.
  • Birthplace: He was born in Chesterfield County, Virginia.
  • Death: He died on September 27, 1899.
  • Place of Death: He died in Washington, D.C.
  • Fun Fact: His last name is pronounced as “Heeth.”
  • Nickname: As a boy, he was called “Jack.” As an adult, he was called “Harry.”

Henry Heth History and Overview

Henry Heth was born to John Heth and Margaret Pickett Heth in Chesterfield County, Virginia. He received his education at Georgetown College — now Georgetown University — before being appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Graduating last in his class of 1847, he was sent to Matamoros, Mexico to serve as part of the U.S. occupation force. After the Mexican-American War, Heth served in several frontier posts and fought in battles against Indians, and also participated in the Utah Expedition under the command of Albert Sidney Johnston. In 1858, he wrote a manual for the War Department titled A System of Target Practice after participating in test trials for a new rifle.

When Virginia seceded from the Union, Heth resigned from his position in the U.S. Army. Initially, he served in the Virginia forces and commanded the Virginia Quartermaster Department in Richmond, until it was taken over by the Confederate Army. Heth joined the Confederate Army and quickly rose through the ranks to become the colonel of the 45th Virginia Regiment under Brigadier General John B. Floyd. Heth planned and organized the Western Virginia Campaign of 1861 and fought in the Battle of Carnifex Ferry on September 10. He used his regiment to guard Floyd’s retreat from western Virginia and remained in Virginia to command near Lewisburg.

In January 1862, Heth was promoted to Brigadier General and continued fighting in Western Virginia until the spring of 1862. After being transferred to the command of Edmund Kirby Smith in East Tennessee, he fought in the Perryville Campaign. Heth was later given command of the Department of Eastern Tennessee. In January 1863, he worked to suppress Unionist sentiment in East Tennessee. In February 1863, he and his brigade were transferred to the Army of Northern Virginia, A.P. Hill’s Division, Stonewall Jackson’s Corps.

Heth participated in the Chancellorsville Campaign in May 1863, where he was wounded. Soon after the Battle of Chancellorsville, he was promoted to Major General and commanded a division in Hill’s Corps. During Lee’s Second Invasion of the North in June 1863, Heth’s Division approached Gettysburg in search of supplies. After entering the town, they encountered Union cavalry forces, under the command of John Buford.

General John Buford. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Heth’s men opened the battle on July 1, 1863, with an attack on Buford’s position west of the town. Heth’s Division suffered heavy casualties, and Heth was wounded. His injuries forced him off the battlefield for the next two days of the Battle of Gettysburg. Command of Heth’s Division was passed to Brigadier General James Johnston Pettigrew. On July 3, Pettigrew led what was left of Heth’s Division in the attack on the Union position known as Pickett’s Charge. After his recovery, Heth returned to command his division for the rest of the war.

Heth and his division fought at Bristoe Station in October 1863, where the division suffered heavy losses. They also fought in Spotsylvania the following spring and protected the line of the Weldon Railroad during the siege of the Wilderness and Petersburg. Heth surrendered with Lee at Appomattox.

After the war, he became a Richmond businessman and worked as a civil engineer and in the Office of Indian Affairs for the U.S. government. Heth also served as one of a group of ex-Confederate officers who helped compile The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. He died in Washington, D.C.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Henry Heth — The Confederate General Who Started the Battle of Gettysburg
  • Date December 16, 1825–September 27, 1899
  • Author
  • Keywords Henry Heth, Harry Heth, General, Confederate States of America
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 30, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 12, 2024