Richard Brooke Garnett was born on November 21, 1817, probably at “Rose Hill,” one of his family’s three plantations in Essex County, Virginia. Garnett was one of twin boys and six girls born to William Henry Garnett and Anna Maria Brooke. His father was a wealthy planter who served with the Virginia militia during the War of 1812.
As a youngster, Garnett attended the Norfolk Academy. On September 1, 1837, he entered the United States Military Academy, along with his cousin, Robert, who later became the first general officer killed during the American Civil War. Among Garnett’s classmates at the Academy were future Union generals Don Carlos Buell, John F. Reynolds, Nathaniel Lyon, and Horatio G. Wright. In 1841, Garnett graduated twenty-ninth in his class of fifty-two cadets.
U.S. Army Officer
Following his graduation from West Point, Garnett received a commission as a brevet second lieutenant on July 1, 1841 and joined the 6th U.S. Infantry Regiment in Florida during the Second Seminole War (1835–1841). Garnett remained with his regiment for the next twenty years, serving in the West, where he campaigned against American Indians and helped to settle territorial disputes. From September 6, 1845 to March 9, 1851, Garnett served as aide-de-camp to his uncle, Brevet Brigadier-General George Mercer. During that period, he attained the rank of first lieutenant on February 16, 1847. Garnett further advanced to the rank of captain on May 9, 1855.
Like his cousin Robert, Garnett’s anti-secessionist beliefs did not prevent him from resigning his commission in the United States Army when his home state of Virginia left the Union. Following his resignation, on May 17, 1861, he traveled from California to Virginia to accept an assignment as a major in an artillery unit. By September, Garnett had advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel of Cobb’s Georgia Legion. On November 14, he received a promotion to the rank of brigadier-general in command of the 1st Brigade of the Valley District of the Confederate Army of the Potomac, otherwise known as the famous “Stonewall Brigade.”
Controversy at the First Battle of Kernstown
Garnett’s rapid rise in the Confederate Army stalled in March 1862 at the First Battle of Kernstown, during General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862. Before the battle began, Jackson deployed Garnett’s brigade in a defensive position along ridge opposite a Federal division of approximately 8,500 men. The Confederates possessed the better ground, but the Federals had far more men. The Rebels held their position against an afternoon Union assault until they began to run out of ammunition. Faced with the possibility of being overrun, Garnett ordered his men to abandon the ridge. As Garnett’s men fell back, other Confederates joined the withdrawal, and the retreat became a rout.
On April 1, Jackson arrested Garnett for “neglect of duty” and relieved him of his command for ordering the retreat without Jackson’s authorization. A court-martial convened on August 6, 1862, for one day—long enough for Jackson and his aide to testify. The next day, Jackson set out for Culpeper, Virginia to prepare for the Battle of Cedar Mountain (August 9, 1862). The court-martial never reconvened nor did it render a verdict. On September 5, Robert E. Lee reinstated Garnett and assigned him to General James Longstreet’s Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Battle of Antietam
Garnett commanded the injured George Pickett’s brigade at the Battle of Antietam (September 15, 1862). He assumed permanent command of the brigade on November 26, after Pickett became a divisional commander. Garnett was eager to restore his reputation on the battlefield, but his unit did not take part in the next two major engagements of the Army of Northern Virginia. His brigade stood in reserve at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862) and was not present at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863).
Apparently, Garnett harbored no hard feelings toward Stonewall Jackson for his mistreatment after Kernstown. Following Jackson’s death at Chancellorsville, Garnett served as a pallbearer at the stricken general’s funeral. Reportedly, he had tears of grief running down his cheeks.
Death at Gettysburg
When General Lee began his second invasion of the North (June 1863), Pickett’s division, which included Garnett’s brigade, served as the army’s rearguard. As a result, Garnett did not arrive at Gettysburg until the afternoon of July 2. Because Pickett’s division was fresh, Lee selected it to take part in the ill-fated assault on Cemetery Ridge, commonly known as Pickett’s Charge, on July 3. Garnett was suffering from a fever and an injured leg that prevented him from leading his men on foot. Despite his condition, Garnett viewed his assignment as the long-awaited opportunity to restore his reputation. Thus, Garnett led his brigade into battle on horseback, making him an easy target. As the brigade neared the stone wall at the top of Cemetery Ridge, Garnett received a mortal wound, probably from grapeshot.
Even though Garnett wore a Confederate general’s uniform, his body was never identified after the fighting. Almost certainly, Garnett was buried in a mass grave that Union soldiers dug for the Confederates who died at the Battle of Gettysburg. In 1872, the remains from that grave were removed to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, presumably Garnett’s final resting place.