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Confederate Leader: Lewis Armistead

Some Q&A with a Confederate Soldier from Gettysburg: (C) Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead

 At forty-six, Lewis Armistead (pronounced “UM-sted” in nineteenth-century Virginia) was Pickett’s eldest brigadier.

 Armistead was born February 18, 1817 in New Bern, North Carolina. He came from a military family–his father and four uncles had fought in the War of 1812. Young Lewis was sent to West Point to continue the family tradition, but was forced to leave: he reportedly was expelled for breaking a plate over the head of fellow cadet Jubal Early. He would soon have been forced to leave anyway–he was failing in his studies on account of insufficient preparation. Despite this setback, he refused to be denied a career as a soldier, and was commissioned directly into the infantry in 1839 at the age of twenty-two. He distinguished himself in the Mexican war, where he was wounded and earned two commendations for bravery.

 When the South seceded from the Union, Armistead had been in the Army for twenty-two years. He had risen only to captain of infantry due to the glacial promotion rate of the peacetime army. He chose to follow the south out of the Union and resigned his commission in the U.S. Army.

 Armistead did not take his resignation lightly, as evidenced by this anecdote: He was stationed in California when the war began. On June 15, 1861, Capt. Winfield S. Hancock’s wife gave a party for the several officers that had resigned their commissions and were about to leave CA to join the Confederate Army. Despite the awkward situation, everyone was parting good friends. According to Mrs. Hancock, Captain Armistead bid farewell to her husband thusly: he put his hands on his friend’s shoulders as the tears streamed down, and said, “Hancock, good-by; you can never know what this has cost me.”

 What was your mission on 3 July?

BG Armistead was with the rest of MG Pickett’s division at Chambersburg in the army’s rear on July 1.

On July 2, Armistead shared the division’s march toward Gettysburg, going into bivouac in the late afternoon a few miles east of town, and was spared any fighting.

On the morning of July 3, Armistead and his men, along with those of Brig. Gens. Richard Garnett and James Kemper, were brought forward, finally lying down in a swale just east of Spangler’s Woods, behind a low ridge on which was perched a line of Rebel artillery.

For the coming assault on the Union center on Cemetery Ridge, Armistead’s brigade was deployed alone in Pickett’s second line, behind Garnett and Kemper.

During the attack on Cemetery Ridge, only Armistead’s brigade temporarily -briefly- reached the top of the ridge—afterwards called the high watermark of the Confederacy. They were, however, ultimately repulsed.

It is said that the turning point of the battle – and perhaps the turning point of the Civil War – took place on July 3, 1863 when Pickett’s Charge failed.

Do you agree with your orders for that day?

Armistead died in battle, so the historical record lacks his thoughts on the day. 

On one hand, we know how emotional Armistead was about resigning from the Army of the U.S., as the aforementioned farewell to Hancock helps to illustrate; as do his words/actions after being wounded. He reportedly said:

“Say to General Hancock for me, that I have done him, and you all, a grievous injury, which I shall always regret.”

Some accounts also stated that he requested that his watch and other valuables be given to his friend Hancock, who had faced him that day from the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge.

But we know that Armistead WAS willing to refuse orders with which he disagreed. For example, The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America’s Greatest Battle by Larry Tagg reveals that at Second Manassas in August 1862, Armistead was situated on the extreme right of Longstreet’s assaulting corps. As the last to come in contact with the retreating Federals, it was dark before he was called upon by Maj. Gen. “Jeb” Stuart, his superior on the scene, to deliver an attack against the stiffening enemy resistance. Armistead refused, believing that a night attack would be futile and the danger of collision with friendly infantry too great.

So while he may certainly have had some reservations about “the Cause,” he agreed with his orders at Gettysburg enough to execute them rather than refuse, as he did at Second Manassas a year earlier.

How strenuously do you try to accomplish your objective?

He gave his life attempting to accomplish the objective.

What type of leadership do you show during the attack on 3 July attack?

By the early summer of 1863, Armistead was well-known for his toughness, sound judgment and great personal courage.  

At Gettysburg, Armistead was prepared to lead by example, displaying hands on leadership literally at the front of his troops rather than issuing orders from the rear.  During the nearly two-hour artillery duel between 1 and 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Armistead exposed himself dangerously to the hissing Union metal. One of his men rose to protest, fearing the general would be killed, but Armistead ordered him back down, saying, “Never mind me…”

After the artillery had subsided, the infantrymen stood and prepared for the assault which would be known forever as “Pickett’s Charge.” Armistead addressed his men briefly with his usual speech:

“Men, remember your wives, your mothers, you sisters and your sweethearts.”

As his brigade started forward in precise synchronization with the rest of the division, Armistead, going forward on foot, took his old black slouch hat off his close-cropped, grizzled head, placed it on the point of his sword, and held it high for the men to see and follow. Unfortunately, the point of the sword soon pierced the fabric, and the hat descended slowly along the blade, finally resting on the hilt. It sat on his fist as Armistead approached the Union lines, until he put it again at the tip.

By the time Armistead had crossed the Emmitsburg Road and his men were trading musketry fire with the Union men in front of the Clump of Trees immediately in his front, he was the only brigadier left to lead the division–Garnett and Kemper were both down. As he reached the stone wall, sensing that his men were hesitating, Armistead reportedly called out, “Come on boys, give them the cold steel! Who will follow me?” He stepped over the wall toward a battery of abandoned Union guns, and somewhere between 100 and 300 of his men followed him across the barrier, where they faced a solid line of blue regiments with flashing rifles. This is the moment which would become famous as the High-water Mark of the Confederacy. Just before reaching one of the Union guns, Armistead was hit by three bullets in the chest and arm. He staggered forward, put his hand on a cannon to steady himself, then fell.

Armistead was carried into the Union lines and taken to a surgeon, who later described him as “seriously wounded, completely exhausted, and seemingly broken-spirited.” Armistead died two days later on July 5, and was buried in his family plot in St. Paul’s Churchyard in Baltimore.

After the war, a Soldier of the 9th Virginia wrote of Armistead:

“his place was in the rear, properly…[but] his men saw him. They saw his example. They caught his fire and determination, and then and there they resolved to follow that heroic leader until the enemy’s bullets stopped them. It was his example, his coolness, his courage that led that brigade over that field of blood.”

Note: Blog written by Melissa Ziobro, and posted by Chrissie Reilly.

Posted in Civil War.

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