Robert S. Garnett, the First General Killed During the Civil War

Robert S. Garnett. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Robert S. Garnett Jr. was a General in the Confederate Army during the 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. According to a Union soldier who found him on the battlefield, he was likely killed by his own men.

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

Events Leading Garnett to Corrick’s Ford

During the summer of 1861, Union and Confederate forces struggled for control of western Virginia. The area was important because gaps in the Appalachian Mountains connected the East to the Midwest. The Virginia Militia acted quickly, disrupting traffic on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and taking control of turnpikes through the mountains.

The U. S. War Department countered by sending 20,000 troops into the area under the command of Major General George McClellan. McClellan pressed the Confederate forces in the area throughout the summer and fall, gradually pushing them out of the region, and paving the way for the creation of the State of West Virginia.

Battle of Philippi

On June 3, 1861, Union troops under the command of Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris surprised a Confederate encampment at Philippi, Virginia, and scored a Union victory. Many historians consider the Battle of Philippi to be the first significant land engagement in the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War.

Battle of Rich Mountain

On July 11, 1861, approximately 2,000 of McClellan’s men, under the command of Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans, used a remote mountain pass to flank Colonel John Pegram and his fortifications at Rich Mountain. When Pegram found out Rosecrans was moving toward him, he sent a contingent to engage him. During the heated engagement that followed, the outnumbered Confederates held off the Federals for two hours before they were forced to fall back at the Battle of Rich Mountain. With Rosecrans at his back, Pegram evacuated his defenses that night.

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

July 13, 1861 — Battle of Corrick’s Ford

When Garnett found out Pegram evacuated Rich Mountain, he abandoned his position at Laurel Hill. He marched his men across Cheat Mountain and into the Cheat River Valley. McClellan sent Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris and his Indiana Brigade in pursuit of Garnett.

Rugged mountain terrain, heavy rains, and muddy roads slowed Garnett’s retreat. On July 13, around noon, Morris caught up with Garnett’s rear guard near Corrick’s Ford over Shaver’s Fork of the Cheat River.

Garnett was desperate to escape, and he ordered the 23rd Virginia to engage the Union forces at the ford. Meanwhile, Garnett directed the main evacuation. After most of his men had moved out, Garnett returned to oversee the removal of the rearguard. As he turned on his horse to order a retreat, a member of the 7th Indiana might have shot him in the back, mortally wounding him. Garnett died on the battlefield, making him the first general officer to die in action during the Civil War.

An Account of the Death and Discovery of Garnett at Corrick’s Ford

NOTE: This account of the Battle of Corrick’s Ford and the discovery of Garnett’s body was written by Frederick W. Fout and published in 1904 in “The Dark Days of the Civil War, 1861 to 1865.” Fout was a German immigrant serving in the Union Army at the time of the battle and later published his recollection.

Fout Encounters Gordon While Pursuing the Confederates

Just as my company was entering the river to cross I encountered my old friend, Jonathan Gordon, with whom I had made my first efforts at enlistment in the artillery at Indianapolis…As we reached the bluff the alignment of company and regiment was somewhat out of shape, but in a full run after the enemy, we tried to perform a right wheel.

Fout and Others Find Garnett

This brought us to the north of the road…we ran about a quarter of a mile, when we came upon two dead bodies, one in the uniform of a Brigadier General, with Federal shoulder straps, the other a private soldier in a Georgia militia uniform. On reaching the supposed dead, the General with Federal shoulder straps was still breathing. Gordon remarked, with surprise, after seeing the dying officer:

“Why this is the rebel. Gen. Garnett!” There were four others present, all of my company, and their names are Vehaus, Williams, Gockle, and Stout.

We…left the dead Gen. Garnett with Gordon and followed…our regiment, which had gone on about one mile and a half, turned into an open field on the right hand of the road and rested. Soon after this Captain Benham of Gen. Morris’ staff came up and ordered the pursuit to cease. We had marched twenty-six miles since l0 a. m. on the 12th in a most constant and furious rainstorm…Our regiment had captured about fifty officers and men belonging to a Georgia militia regiment.

Who Shot Robert S. Garnett?

Now, as to the killing of Gen. Garnett. It is claimed by some writers that Mr. Gordon, seeing the rebel General, who was waving his sword and calling on his men to make a stand, had called on Captain Ferry’s company to fire at them, and that Sergeant Burlingame took a dead aim at Garnett and killed him. This story is erroneous.

Mr. Gordon was not far from my side from the time that we entered the river until we found the dead, and nowhere near Ferry’s company, and the finding of the body was as much a surprise to Gordon as to any of us. He probably went with me on account of our previous long acquaintance, and during the run after the enemy issued no orders to anyone.

Gordon Claims Garnett’s Body and Takes Advantage

…Mr. Gordon was a keen lawyer and quickly embraced the opportunity offered. He continued with us no farther but remained and claimed the dead Brigadier General as his trophy. He was therefore detailed to take Gen. Garnett through the lines to his friends in Richmond. On his return, he stopped in Washington and related his story to President Lincoln, who commissioned him to the vacancy as Major in the Eleventh Infantry, a position Garnett had resigned, on May 14, 1861, and from that date Gordon’s new commission was dated.

Fout Claims Garnett was Killed by Friendly Fire

Gen. Garnett wore a fine uniform, with a brilliant star on his shoulder strap. He had long black hair, and we found him lying with his head towards us. Ferry’s company was to the right or south of the road, during the run, and not near Gen. Garnett or within musket reach of him.

The position in which Garnett lay and the route which Ferry’s company followed make it absolutely clear to my mind that Garnett was killed by his own men, the Georgians, who formed his rear guard and were captured by us — the Seventh Indiana — on the run. Garnett being between the lines and in the rear of his own, they undoubtedly mistook him, through the laurel bushes, for a Federal officer.

The pointing out by Major Gordon, as so many writers have it, never happened, as I have related. Surely, if Gordon had recognized Gen. Garnett before he reached his body he, with his far-reaching and better rifle, would have taken aim at him himself.

Learn More About the Life and Career of Robert S. Garnett

Early Life of Robert S. Garnett

  • Robert S. 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.
  • His 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.

Early Military Career of Robert S. Garnett

  • Robert S. 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 General in the Confederate Army. Richard 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, he was promoted to Second Lieutenant.
  • From July 5, 1843, to Oct. 17, 1844, he served as an assistant instructor of infantry tactics at the U.S. Military Academy.

Garnett During the Mexican-American War

  • Robert S. Garnett participated in the Battle of Palo Alto (May 8, 1846) and the Battle of Resaca de la Palma (May 9, 1846) with General Zachary Taylor and the Army of Occupation.
  • Garnett was promoted to First Lieutenant on August 18, 1846.
  • On September 23, 1846, he was brevetted to Captain for gallant and meritorious conduct at the Battle of Monterey (September 21—23, 1846).
  • He was brevetted to major on February 23, 1847, for distinguished service at the Battle of Buena Vista (February 22—23, 1847).

Service Prior to the Civil War

  • In 1849, Robert S. 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.
  • From November 1852 to July 1854, he 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.
  • Garnett married Marianna E. Nelson of Boston, Massachusetts, on January 24, 1857.
  • His wife and young son died within six days of each other in September 1858.
Robert E Lee, 1864, Portrait
Robert E. Lee. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Garnett in the Civil War

  • 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 his resignation on April 30, 1861.
  • After the Virginia Provisional Army was absorbed by the Confederacy, 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 is Killed During the Battle of Corrick’s Ford

  • Robert S. 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.
  • He was originally buried in Baltimore.
  • On August 28, 1865, his remains were re-interred next to the graves of his wife and son at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.