Robert Selden Garnett, Jr., was born on December 16, 1819, at his family’s plantation, “Champlain,” in Essex County, Virginia. He was one of seven children born to Robert Selden Garnett, Sr., and Olympia Charlotte DeGouges. Garnett’s father represented Virginia for five terms in the United States Congress. His mother was the granddaughter of French playwright and feminist Olympe de Gouges, whom the Jacobins guillotined in 1793 during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution.
As a youngster, Garnett attended the Norfolk Academy. On September 1, 1837, he entered the United States Military Academy, along with his cousin, Richard (who later became a Confederate general and died during Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg). 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-seventh 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 4th U.S. Artillery in upstate New York. On January 31, 1842, he attained the rank of second lieutenant and transferred to perform garrison duty at Fort Monroe, Virginia. From July 5, 1843 to Oct. 17, 1844, Garnett served as an assistant instructor of infantry tactics at the U.S. Military Academy. After serving briefly as a recruiting officer, Garnett joined the staff of Brigadier General John Wool at Troy, New York, from January 1, 1845 until September 30, 1845. He then rejoined the 4th U.S. Artillery and deployed to Texas, where trouble was brewing with the Mexican government.
Like many of his West Point contemporaries, Garnett served in the Mexican–American War (April 25, 1846–February 2, 1848). He took part in the Battle of Palo Alto (May 8, 1846) and the Battle of Resaca de la Palma (May 9, 1846) with General Zachary Taylor’s Army of Occupation. On June 29, 1846, Taylor appointed Garnett as an aide-de-camp. A few weeks later, Garnett earned the rank of first lieutenant on August 18. On September 23, brevetted to captain for gallant and meritorious conduct at the Battle of Monterey (September 21–23, 1846). On February 23, 1847, he received a brevet promotion to major for distinguished service at the Battle of Buena Vista (February 22–23, 1847).
Antebellum Army Service
At the conclusion of the Mexican–American War, Garnett joined the 7th U.S. Infantry and transferred to Florida to mediate conflicts between white Floridians and Seminole Indians. In 1849, Garnett carried dispatches to California. During his trip, Garnett completed a sketch that later became the Great Seal of the State of California. On March 9, 1851, Garnett received a promotion to the rank of captain while serving at Corpus Christi, Texas.
In November 1852, Garnett returned to West Point, where he served as Commandant of Cadets under Superintendent Robert E. Lee until July 1854. On March 3, 1855, he briefly served with the 1st U.S. Cavalry. Less than one month later, on March 27, Garnett received a promotion to the rank of major and traveled to the Pacific Northwest with the 9th U.S. Infantry.
Marriage and Personal Tragedy
While on leave from the northwest, Garnett married Marianna E. Nelson of Boston, Massachusetts, on January 24, 1857. The couple gave birth to a son named Arthur in February 1858, while they were living at Fort Simcoe in the Washington Territory. Garnett’s happiness was short-lived, however. On September 17, 1858, his son died from a fever. Six days later, his wife also passed away. The grieving officer returned to Brooklyn to bury his family. He then received a leave of absence from the army and traveled to Europe for an extended study of military tactics in the Crimea.
Garnett returned from Europe when the American Civil War erupted and offered his services to his home state of Virginia. Governor John Letcher appointed him as a colonel and adjutant general of the Virginia Provisional Army on April 25, 1861. Five days later, the United States Army accepted Garnett’s resignation. After the Confederacy absorbed the Virginia Provisional Army, Garnett received a commission as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army on June 6, 1861.
Army of the Northwest Commander
Two days later, Jonathan Witters, the Confederacy’s assistant adjutant, and inspector general issued General Orders, No. 67 announcing that “Brig. Gen. R. S. Garnett, Provisional Army, will proceed to Staunton, and assume command of the troops to operate in Northwestern Virginia.” The troops under Garnett’s command were later known as the Army of the Northwest.
Battle of Rich Mountain
Garnett’s orders were to protect vital railroads and turnpikes in the region. Upon reaching Staunton, Garnett divided his forces between Rich Mountain and his headquarters at Laurel Hill. On July 11, 1861, at the Battle of Rich Mountain, Federal forces, commanded by Brigadier-General William S. Rosecrans, forced the evacuation of Garnett’s forces at Rich Mountain.
Death at the Battle of Corrick’s Ford
Upon learning of the retreat, Garnett also abandoned his headquarters at Laurel Hill. During the Confederate withdrawal, Union troops overcame Garnett and his rearguard at the Battle of Corrick’s Ford on July 13. As Garnett tried to stall the Federal advance, he received a mortal gunshot wound in the back, making him the first general officer to die during the Civil War.
Union troops transferred the Garnett’s body to Baltimore for burial. After the war, on August 28, 1865, Garnett’s remains were re-interred next to the graves of his wife and son at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.