Why was Confederate General Richard B. Garnett a target for Union soldiers during the Civil War?

Richard B. Garnett. Image Source: Virginia Historical Society.

Richard B. Garnett served as a General in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1841 and served in the Mexican-American War. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Garnett resigned from the United States Army and joined the Confederacy, where he rose to the rank of Brigadier General. He saw combat in several significant battles, ending with the Battle of Gettysburg. On July 3, he led the center of General George Pickett’s Division during the ill-fated attack on Cemetery Ridge known as Pickett’s Charge. Garnett was suffering from a leg wound, so he rode his horse into battle, making him an easy target for the Union soldiers defending the ridge.

Battle of Gettysburg, Pickett's Charge
Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Richard B. Garnett and Pickett’s Charge

NOTE: The following narrative of Pickett’s Charge was written by Thomas Elbert Vineyard in 1914 and appears in “Battle of the Civil War.” We have added section headings, quotes, and corrected spelling errors in order to aid comprehension of the events that took place during the ill-fated attack on Cemetery Ridge.

Pickett’s Division Moves Out

General Pickett rode along the line informing his men that the artillery had not succeeded in driving the enemy from their strong position. Word was passed down the line from the right that they were to charge. All were on their feet in a moment and ready; not a sound was heard; not a shot was fired from any part of the field.

The command, “Forward!” was given, and in five minutes they had passed through the strip of woods that lay between them and the artillery, and as they emerged from the cover and passed through the artillery line the artillerymen raised their hats and cheered them on their way. They also passed through Lane’s brigade of Wilcox’s division, whose men were waiting for orders to support the charge.

George Pickett, Confederate General
George Pickett. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Garnett Leads the Center

General Garnett was leading the center, General Kemper on the right, and General Armistead was leading the left of the division with a swarm of skirmishers in front. The smoke had cleared away and revealed the long line of the Federal position on Cemetery Heights, which was about a mile distant.

Garnett was suffering from a fever and an injured leg that prevented him from leading his men on foot. He led his brigade into battle on horseback, making him an easy target.

When the Federals observed the advance of Pickett’s division, which they had anticipated, they opened fire, which at first ranged over the advancing columns, but before they had marched half the distance they began to get range on them. The Confederate lines advanced steadily and in full confidence. A band on the extreme right continued to play “Dixie,” “‘The Girl I Left Behind Me,” and other familiar airs of the day. The division was marching directly towards Hancock’s position, this objective point having been given Pickett by General Lee, but after passing through Wilcox’s division in waiting Pickett caused each of his three brigades to make a half-wheel to the left. This, being well executed, was attended with some loss of time.

Union Artillery Fires on Pickett’s Division

The Federal artillery soon began its death work of destruction. Pickett’s division had been quite near this grim monster before, but on this occasion, he seemed to be pressing on them steadily and closely, which was enough to make the bravest quail under his ghastly appearance. The Federals seem to have exhausted their ammunition in some places in the artillery lines.

Pickett Pushes Forward

This being discovered by Pickett gave him courage, and he caused his division to move up quickly. Crossing several fields enclosed by strong fences, he at length reached the base of the elevation. He once more changed his direction by a half-wheel to the right, halting to rectify his lines.

His division pushed on, but great gaps were being cut in his lines by the grape and canister from the Federal artillery, causing such wide openings that the division had to be halted and dressed first to the right and then to the left, obliquing and filling up the lines. They were now in close range of the Federal lines and were being fired upon from behind a stone wall, and their ranks were fast melting away.

The division pressed on. Round shot, shell, canister, and rifle balls were poured into them at close range from the front, and a battery on Round Top raked the line from the right.

Pettigrew and Lane Fall Back

Pickett was expecting to be supported by Pettigrew’s brigade on the left, and Lane’s brigade on the right. Those brigades, however, were coming up, but were being met by such strong opposition that they were entirely outdistanced and fell back finally with Pickett’s retreat, thus leaving Pickett with his three brigades alone in front.

Richard B. Garnett Killed in Action

The Confederate ranks were thinning as far as the eye could see. Garnett was killed leading his brigade, his being in the lead. Kemper, coming up next to the distance of sixty yards behind, brought his brigade to a halt to give Armistead time to come up for the last and final charge.

Armistead Reaches the Union Breastworks

They were fired upon by the enemy, posted along the edge of the woods. This murderous fire almost disorganized them. Armistead, urging his men forward with his hat on his sword, holding it up as a guide, crossed over the Union breastworks, and for a time the Confederates seemed to gain some advantage but were presently surrounded by overwhelming numbers. General Armistead was mortally wounded, and nearly all the other officers of the division were either killed or wounded.

Pickett Orders His Devastated Division to Retreat

Pickett, seeing the hopelessness of the charge, ordered a retreat of his shattered lines.

Out of 4,800 men that followed Pickett, scarcely 1,200 to 1,300 got back into the Confederate lines. Out of eighteen field officers and four generals, Pickett and one lieutenant colonel alone remained unharmed.

The High Point of the Confederacy

Pickett’s division, together with the supporting brigades under Lane and Pettigrew, numbered about 14,000 men. Where General Armistead fell is considered to be the highest point, figuratively speaking, that was reached by the Southern Confederacy.

Battle of Gettysburg, Pickett's Charge, Cemetery Ridge, Illustration
Confederate forces assault Cemetery Ridge. Image Source: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion, Vol 2.

Learn More About the Life and Career of Richard B. Garnett

Early Life

  • 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 the twin boys and six girls born to William Henry and Anna Maria (Brooke) Garnett.
  • 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.

Early Military Career

  • On September 1, 1837, Garnett entered the United States Military Academy, along with his cousin, Robert. Later, Robert became the first General officer killed in the Civil War.
  • Among his classmates at West Point were future Union generals Don Carlos Buell, John F. Reynolds, Nathaniel Lyon, and Horatio G. Wright.
  • In 1841, Garnett graduated from the United States Military Academy and ranked 29th in his class of 52 cadets.
  • Following his graduation from West Point, he was commissioned as a brevet Second Lieutenant on July 1, 1841, and was assigned to the 6th U.S. Infantry Regiment.

Garnett in the West

  • Garnett served for 20 years with the 6th U.S. Infantry Regiment in the West where he campaigned against Native American Indians and helped settle territorial disputes.
  • From September 6, 1845, to March 9, 1851, he served as aide-de-camp to his uncle, brevet Brigadier General George Mercer.
  • Garnett was promoted to first lieutenant in the U.S. Army on February 16, 1847.
  • He was promoted to captain on May 9, 1855.

Garnett in the Civil War

  • Garnett resigned his commission in the U.S. Army on May 17, 1861, to fight for his home state of Virginia in the Civil War.
  • By September 1861, he had advanced to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of Cobb’s Georgia Legion.
  • On November 14, Garnett was promoted to Brigadier General in command of the 1st Brigade of the Valley District of the Confederate Army of the Potomac.
  • On April 1, 1862, General Stonewall Jackson arrested Garnett for “neglect of duty” and relieved him of his command for ordering a retreat at the First Battle of Kernstown without Jackson’s authorization.
  • Court-martial proceedings against Richard Garnett lasted only one day — August 6, 1862 — and never rendered a verdict.
  • On September 5, 1862, General Robert E. Lee reinstated Richard Garnett and assigned him to the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of General James Longstreet.
  • Garnett commanded the injured George Pickett’s brigade at the Battle of Antietam (September 15, 1862).
  • He assumed permanent command of Pickett’s brigade on November 26, after Pickett was promoted to divisional commander.
  • Garnett did not take part in the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862), and was not present at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863).
  • Following Stonewall 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.
Thomas Stonewall Jackson, Illustration
Stonewall Jackson. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Garnett and the Gettysburg Campaign

  • When General Lee started 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 didn’t arrive at Gettysburg until the afternoon of July 2, 1863.
  • Lee selected Pickett’s division, which included Garnett’s brigade, to take part in the ill-fated assault on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, commonly known as Pickett’s Charge.
  • Garnett was suffering from a fever and an injured leg that prevented him from leading his men on foot during Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1862. Instead, he led his men into battle mounted on a horse, making him an easy target.
  • Garnett was mortally wounded, probably by grapeshot, during Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1862.
  • Although Garnett was dressed as a Confederate general, his body was never identified after the fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg.
  • It is possible that 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.

What happened to General Garnett’s Body?

This video from Have History Will Travel discusses Garnett and Pickett’s Charge.