Robert S. Garnett Jr. — The First General Killed During the Civil War

December 16, 1819–July 13, 1861

Confederate Brigadier General Robert S. Garnett was mortally wounded at the Battle of Corrick's Ford on July 13, 1861, making him the first general officer on either side to be killed during the American Civil War.

General Robert S Garnett, Civil War

Union forces mortally wounded Confederate Brigadier General Robert S. Garnett at the Battle of Corrick’s Ford on July 13, 1861, making him the first general officer on either side to be killed during the American Civil War. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Who Was Robert S. Garnett, Jr.?

Robert Selden Garnett, Jr. was an American military officer who lived from 1819 to 1861. He was a general in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War and is notable for being the first general officer killed in the war. Garnett graduated from the United States Military Academy and served in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he resigned from the U.S. Army and joined the Confederate Army. He was given command of forces in western Virginia and led them in the Battle of Corrick’s Ford, where he was killed in action.

Robert S. Garnett, Jr. Facts

  • Full Name: Robert Selden Garnett, Jr.
  • Birth Date: December 16, 1819
  • Birth Location: His family’s plantation, “Champlain,” in Essex County, Virginia
  • Parents: Robert Selden Garnett, Sr., and Olympia Charlotte DeGouges
  • Education: United States Military Academy
  • Occupation: Military officer
  • Career Summary: Major (USA), Brigadier General (CSA)
  • Spouse: Marianna E. Nelson
  • Place of Death: Corrick’s Ford, Tucker County, Virginia
  • Date of Death: July 13, 1861
  • Place of Burial: Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York

Early Life

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 Garnett (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.

General Richard B Garnett, Civil War
Richard B. Garnett. Image Source: Virginia Historical Society.

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.

Mexican-American War

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 Crimea.

Civil War

Confederate Officer

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

On June 8, 1861, Jonathan Withers, 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.

Battle of Rich Mountain, Civil War, Illustration
Battle of Rich Mountain. Image Source: Wikipedia.

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 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.

Robert S. Garnett’s Significance

Robert Selden Garnett, Jr. is significant because he was a military officer who played a key role in the early stages of the American Civil War. After graduating from the United States Military Academy and serving in the Mexican-American War, Garnett resigned from the U.S. Army and joined the Confederate Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. Garnett was given command of Confederate forces in western Virginia, where he led them in the Battle of Corrick’s Ford, becoming the first general officer killed in the war.

Battle of Corrick's Ford, Union Forces, Illustration
Union troops at Corrick’s Ford. Image Source: The Soldier in Our Civil War.

Robert Selden Garnett, Jr. — Facts About His Life and Accomplishments

  • Garnett was one of seven children born to Robert Selden Garnett Sr. and Olympia Charlotte (DeGouges) Garnett.
  • Garnett’s father represented Virginia for five terms in the U.S. Congress.
  • Garnett’s mother was the granddaughter of French playwright and feminist, Olympe de Gouges, who the Jacobins guillotined in 1793 during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution.
  • Garnett graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1841, 27th in his class of 52 cadets.
  • Garnett’s cousin Richard Garnett attended the United States Military Academy and later became a Confederate general who was killed during Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg.
  • Following his graduation from West Point, Garnett was commissioned as a brevet second lieutenant on July 1, 1841, and assigned to the 4th U.S. Artillery in upstate New York.
  • On January 31, 1842, Garnett was promoted to second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
  • From July 5, 1843, to Oct. 17, 1844, Garnett served as an assistant instructor of infantry tactics at the U.S. Military Academy.
  • During the Mexican-American War, Garnett 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.
  • Garnett was promoted to first lieutenant in the U.S. Army on August 18, 1846.
  • On September 23, 1846, Garnett was brevetted to captain for gallant and meritorious conduct at the Battle of Monterey (September 21–23, 1846).
  • Garnett was brevetted to major on February 23, 1847, for distinguished service at the Battle of Buena Vista (February 22–23, 1847).
  • In 1849, Garnett was ordered to carry dispatches to California. During his trip, Garnett completed a sketch that later was later adapted to complete the Great Seal of the State of California.
  • On March 9, 1851, Garnett was promoted to captain in the U.S. Army.
  • From November 1852 to July 1854, Garnett served as Commandant of Cadets at the U.S. Military Academy under Superintendent Robert E. Lee.
  • On March 27, 1855, Garnett was promoted to major in the U.S. Army.
  • Garnett married Marianna E. Nelson of Boston, Massachusetts, on January 24, 1857.
  • Garnett’s wife and young son died within six days of each other in September 1858.
  • After Virginia seceded from the Union, Governor John Letcher appointed Garnett as a colonel and adjutant general of the Virginia Provisional Army on April 25, 1861.
  • The U.S. Army accepted Garnett’s resignation on April 30, 1861.
  • After the Confederacy subsumed the Virginia Provisional Army, Garnett was commissioned as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army on June 6, 1861.
  • On June 8, 1861, the Confederate government issued Special Orders, No. 67, placing Garnett in command of “the troops to operate in Northern Virginia” (later known as the Army of the Northwest).
  • Garnett was mortally wounded by a gunshot to the back at the Battle of Corrick’s Ford on July 13, 1861.
  • Garnett was the first general officer to be killed during the Civil War.
  • Garnett was originally buried in Baltimore.
  • 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.

The Battle of Corrick’s Ford and the Death of Robert S. Garnett

This video from the American Battlefield Trust discusses the Battle of Corrick’s Ford, where Garnett was killed in action.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Robert S. Garnett Jr. — The First General Killed During the Civil War
  • Date December 16, 1819–July 13, 1861
  • Author
  • Keywords Robert Selden Garnett, Jr.
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 13, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 12, 2024

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