Brigadier General Lewis A Armistead is best known today as the officer who personifies the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy” at Gettysburg. He alone, of the brigade commanders carrying out Pickett’s Charge, managed to reach, and briefly breach, the Union line near the copse of trees on Cemetery Ridge. Marching at the head of his brigade, he climbed over the fence with them, and shortly thereafter, he was mortally wounded beside a Union gun. Having made it so far before he was cut down, he has come to typify the questions of what might have been after the fall of the Confederacy.
Armistead had been a career Army officer before the war. Trained at West Point, although failing to graduate because of a fight, he served with distinction in the Mexican War. Between that war and the resignation of his position in 1861, he saw varied service in the western territories, and more importantly, personal tragedy in the deaths of his daughter and then his wife. In 1861, with his home state of Virginia seceding from the Union, he foresaw further tragedy as he bid farewell to his friend, Captain Winfield Scott Hancock of Pennsylvania.
He remained clear in his sense of duty, however, and upon returning to Virginia, he enlisted in the Confederate Army. He was initially accepted as a major, but within two weeks he had been promoted to Colonel and was given command of the 57th Virginia Infantry Regiment. This regiment was to remain with him for the rest of his life.
The war began very slowly for Armistead, and indeed, save for two battles in 1862 and another in 1863, it would remain so for him. His role as regimental commander was primarily one of instilling discipline in his men and preparing them to fight; when at last he was given specific orders, it was only to guard the Blackwater River, and no combat resulted.
In April of 1862, he was promoted to Brigadier General, with four additional Virginia regiments and a surplus battalion added to his command. This brigade was attached to the division of General Benjamin Huger, and for the first time it met the enemy on June 1 in the Battle of Seven Pines, near the end of McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign. It was not an auspicious beginning; most of the brigade was routed. While his hold on his men was questioned, his own bravery was not; he remained at his post with some twenty men.
He had another chance a month later. It was the end of the Seven Days that culminated the Peninsular Campaign; Huger’s division was called into action at Malvern Hill on July 1. Robert E Lee, new to overall command during the Seven Days, made some important decisions on the basis of happenstance and rough impression. One of these was to send Armistead into the battle on detached service.
Lee sent Armistead’s and Wright’s brigades to join Generals Jackson and Magruder in the attack on Malvern Hill. Initially, Armistead had been following Wright, but soon he took the lead, and he demonstrated some personal initiative in finding good terrain to give his men cover as they advanced. Unfortunately, coordination was bad in general at Malvern Hill, and Armistead soon found himself in a position in which he was trapped with half of his men between two threats. He urgently requested artillery support, but this support either did not materialize or it failed to help.
At last Magruder’s forces arrived, and Armistead’s men were relieved from that position, but then they were ordered into the assault. Armistead’s brigade made six attempts to break the Federal line; heavy casualties did much to atone for the brigade’s reputation since Seven Pines, but it never succeeded in this attack.
After the Seven Days, Lee reorganized his army into two commands under generals Jackson and Longstreet. Armistead’s brigade remained in the same division, under the overall command of Longstreet, but under the more capable divisional command of R H Anderson. Over the next year, however, Armistead again found himself in the position of being at the periphery of the action. His brigade did not reach Second Manassas in time to participate in the battle. At Antietam, his brigade was held in reserve. To add injury to insult, Armistead’s foot was hit by a spent cannonball, and so he was taken from the field.
His brigade was subsequently transferred to George Pickett’s division, which was present at Fredericksburg but did not participate in the battle. This division was also given detached duty the following spring, and missed the Battle of Chancellorsville. It was, however, reunited with Longstreet’s corps when Lee embarked upon his second invasion of the North.
Once again, Armistead’s brigade arrived late in the battle; Gettysburg, however, was big enough and lasted long enough that there was still use for him when he arrived. Pickett’s division joined the Confederate camp late on the second day, and as the only fresh division, Lee intended for it to play the central role in the third day’s decisive attack.
Pickett’s division had primary responsibility for breaking the Union line at its center. The brigades of Garnett and Kemper took the lead, and Armistead was tasked with their support. If Garnett and Kemper could force a breakthrough, Armistead was to exploit it. As it turned out, however, Garnett’s and Kemper’s brigades fell short, and Armistead’s brigade was left with the job of creating a breakthrough.
As before, Armistead showed personal courage in leading his men; he is famous for fixing his hat upon his sword so that his men could see him and follow. Follow they did, and Armistead led them across the field, up the slope and over the fence. They managed to cross the first line of troops before being stopped. Armistead himself was shot as he stood alongside a Union gun.
As it so happened, Armistead’s brigade was not only attacking the Union corps commanded by his old friend, Winfield Scott Hancock, but Hancock, too, was seriously wounded close by. Hancock survived the battle and the war, but Armistead died two days later in a Union field hospital. His last words, given to the surgeon, were “Men who can subsist on raw corn, can never be whipped.” (Motts, p. 48)
Dowdey, Clifford. Lee Takes Command. Barnes & Noble, 1994.
Freeman, Douglas S. Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command. Touchstone, 1998.
Motts, Wayne E. “Trust in God and Fear Nothing”: Gen. Lewis A Armistead, CSA. Farnsworth House Military Impressions, 1994.
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