Lewis A. Armistead and the American Civil War

Today we welcome back guest author William F. Floyd, Jr. William worked for forty years for the City of Norfolk. In his retirement, he’s now pursuing the study of history at Tidewater Community College.

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Lewis A. Armistead
Lewis A. Armistead

Lewis A. Armistead was a Confederate general in the Civil War. He is best remembered for the role he played in “Pickett’s Charge” at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. The public’s interest in General Armistead was renewed by Michael Sharra’s Pultizer Prize winning book, “Killer Angels” on which Turner Picture’s movie “Gettysburg was based. The most iconic image of the charge is that of Armistead leading his Virginia brigades over the stone wall at the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. The general was wounded in the right arm and left leg as he placed his hand on a Union cannon. He died two days later behind Union lines. His long time friend

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, was in command of the Union’s II Corps on Cemetery Ridge that day. Hancock was also wounded during the assault, and lay not far from where Armistead had been shot. Hancock, who would survive his wound, refused to be carried from the field, until the outcome of the battle had been decided. The war would go on for almost two more years, but this moment at Cemetery Ridge could be said to be the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. The Confederate army would never again fight on northern soil in any substantial way.

Lewis Addison Armistead was born on February 18, 1817, the second of nine children, in Newbern, North Carolina but was raised on a farm near Upperville, Virginia and always considered himself a Virginian. His parents were General Walker Keith Armistead and Elizabeth Stanly, sister of North Carolina congressman Edward Stanly. Lewis’ father had received an appointment to the newly established United States Military Academy at West Point where he graduated in 1803. He participated in the War of 1812 and in 1818 achieved the rank of full colonel, and was named Chief Engineer of the army. He was made a Brevet Brigadier General in 1828. The elder Armistead passed away on October 13, 1845 while still on active duty.

The Armistead family had immigrated from Yorkshire, England and settled in Virginia in the 1630’s. They were truly a family of soldiers and brought with them a rich background of military service. Three generations later, the Armistead brothers fought in the War of 1812. The oldest of the brothers, Major George Armistead, commanded the garrison at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, where Francis Scott Key composed the national anthem. A second brother, Lewis Gustavus Adolphus was killed at Fort Erie.

Young Lewis was practically pre-destined to serve in the military. With his father being chief engineer of the army, Lewis’ appointment to West Point was practically a given. He accepted the appointment on March 21, 1833 and reported to the academy in June of that year.

Armistead had what could be called a less than stellar performance at West Point. His issues began with very poor results academically and eventually disciplinary problems which included smashing a plate over the head of future Confederate general Jubal A. Early. After being released from detention for this incident, he resigned from the academy. However, with the help of his father and his uncle, Congressman Edward Stanly, he obtained a commission as a second lieutenant. Before the Civil War, Armistead served at a number of posts in Florida, the mid-west and the west coast as far away as California. He later served in the Mexican War, where he was brevetted twice for bravery.

Winfield Scott Hancock
Winfield Scott Hancock

On the domestic side Armistead’s life could only be seen as tragic. By the age of thirty-seven he had lost his wife and two children. His health had also suffered from erysipelas, a degenerative skin disease, which if not properly treated, could prove to be fatal. His treatment was successful and he was able to resume his army career. 

While serving at the San Diego Barracks in southern California, he learned that South Carolina had seceded from the Union. Before deciding on his future plans, he decided to wait and see which way Virginia was going to go. When Virginia seceded, Armistead resigned his commission and asked for leave to travel east. After an emotional farewell party given by Captain Winfield Scott Hancock and his wife Almira, Armistead left with a group which included Joseph E. Johnston, a future Confederate General. He arrived in Richmond around September 15, 1861.

Armistead was appointed to the rank of major in the Confederate army and not long after was made a full colonel and was given command of the Fifty-Seventh Virginia Infantry Regiment. In November, his unit was sent to Howard’s Grove, Virginia where they stayed until January, 1862. In February the unit was assigned to protect the Blackwater River in Suffolk, Virginia. At the beginning of April, 1862, Armistead received his first general’s star and with it the command of an infantry brigade. 

His unit first saw action at Seven Pines (Fair Oaks, VA). The action was in opposition to Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign (March-August, 1862). The Federal commander had landed a large force on the Virginia peninsula between the York and James Rivers with plans to move against Richmond, the Confederate capital. On June 1, as part of Major General Benjamin Huger’s Division, Armistead’s brigade saw its first action of the war. Huger was to support Major General Daniel Harvey Hill in an effort to push back the Federals. The Confederate movement turned into a debacle with Armistead’s brigade not performing well at all. He personally led two of his units but failed to maintain his position on the field.

Armistead next saw action at the Battle of Malvern Hill (Poindexter’s Farm). This action was to be the sixth and last of what came to be known as the Seven Days Battles. It was General Robert E. Lee’s plan that one more offensive would destroy the Union forces before they could reach the James River. Armistead’s unit was chosen to help in the attack on Malvern Hill which was a mile north of the river. Lee’s real motivation for the attack was to not allow the Union forces to get any closer to the James River where they would be reinforced by gunboats and make them virtually impossible to defeat. The Federal advantage at Malvern Hill was already

overwhelming in that they occupied a position with steep declines on three sides, Federal artillery was massed atop the hill, and for the first time their entire army was together. As the Confederate artillery barrage was ongoing, Armistead passed the time in a ravine below the hill. One enlisted man claimed that Armistead spent much of this time drinking brandy. At about 3:30 P.M. Union forces began advancing which caused Armistead to send three of his regiments forward to counter the attackers. He was next ordered by Major General John B. Magruder to move his entire unit forward. Despite several charges, none came close to breaking the Union line. Even though the attack was a failure, McClellan decided to withdraw from the peninsula.

As the action at Malvern Hill ended, Armistead would not see any real action again until July 3,1863 at Gettysburg. There would be plenty of action where the Army of Northern Virginia was engaged but Armistead did not play a major role in the fighting. This included such battles as Sharpsburg (Antietam), Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. It was during this time that Armistead’s brigade became part of Major General George E. Pickett’s division.

However, things were about to change for Armistead and his men. Pickett’s division was ordered to return to the main body of the army as it prepared for its second invasion into northern territory. There were a number of reasons why the Confederates chose to invade the north for a second time. Among them was the believe that it would relieve Richmond, allow the Confederates to gather supplies in Pennsylvania, encourage the northern peace movement, renew the possibility of European recognition and maybe even capture Washington D.C.

George Pickett
George Pickett

Perhaps, the most ironic fact about the battle of Gettysburg is that neither army had planned to fight there. The fighting took place over a period of three days from July 1 through July 3, 1863. At about 2:00 A.M. on July 2, Pickett began marching his entire division from Chambersburg toward Gettysburg, some twenty-six miles away. After a march of some twelve hours, the division stopped on the Chambersburg Pike about three miles from the town and rested for the remainder of the evening. The men were up at 3:00 A.M. on July 3 to continue.

The First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, of which Pickett’s division was a part was commanded by Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Lee often referred to him as “my old war horse” and his men would call him “old Pete.” Longstreet had become much closer to Lee after Stonewall Jackson’s death. In spite of this, he opposed Lee’s plan for the attack on July 3. He is quoted as having told Lee that, “I have seen soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, and armies, and should know… what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle could take that position.” Major General George E. Pickett’s Virginia brigades of Richard Garnett, James Kemper, and Lewis Armistead would spearhead the assault. They were fresh, having not taken part in the first two days’ battles.

Lee knew that the Union army had reinforced its flanks on the second day of battle, which would lead the Confederate commander to launch his assault at the Federal center. Longstreet’s biggest concern was that the attack could turn into another Fredericksburg in reverse. He had wanted to move around the Union force and occupy the high ground between them and Washington.

The attack began on July 3, with a two hour artillery barrage of the Union lines with over 140 cannon. It was the largest cannonade ever seen in North America but had little effect on the Union lines as most of the shells over shot their mark. The shelling ended around 3:00 P.M. Then with almost unbelievable precision, nearly 12,000 Confederates emerged from the woods on Seminary Ridge.

Armistead was ordered to place his troops behind Garnett’s brigade in close support, a position he did not like at all. After all, he had commanded a brigade longer than anyone in Pickett’s division. Things happened very fast from the time the charge began. Some estimated that scarcely more than twenty minutes passed between the appearance of Pickett’s men coming out of the woods and Armistead crossing the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge.

As the force approached Emmitsburg Road, they had to break ranks to get over the fences. The Union infantry had withheld fire until the Confederates had reached the road. At this point the Confederate right flank began to collapse, but Armistead was able to continue moving forward. He placed his hat on the end of his sword in order for his troops to see him at the front. After crossing the Emmitsburg Road, they pushed forward up the gentle slope approaching the stonewall on Cemetery Ridge. As the advance became more compressed, it mixed with some of Garnett’s and Pettigrew’ men. As they approached closer to what later would come to be known as Gettysburg’s “Bloody Angle,” the Confederates were slammed with point-blank fire from John Gibbon’s and Alexander Hays’ 2nd Corps divisions. Pickett’s soldiers fell in bunches in front of the stone wall but some were able to make it over the wall and became engaged in hand to hand combat.

Post war picture of Captain Henry Bingham
Post war picture of Captain Henry Bingham

Despite being forty-six years old, Armistead had lead his troops the entire way across the field and over the stone wall. As they began to cross the rocks, Armistead shouted, “boys, give them the cold steel.” As Armistead reached a second line of artillery, point-blank rifle shots knocked him down. Not long after, Union stretcher bearers were taking him to the rear, when they were stopped by Captain Henry H. Bingham, a member of Hancock’s staff. He told them to return to their post and that he would tend to the wounded Confederate soldier. When Bingham told Armistead that he was a member of Hancock’s staff, Armistead asked him to deliver a message to his old friend. He said, “tell General Hancock for me that I have done him and you all an injury I shall regret the longest day I live.” Bingham had Armistead moved to Eleventh Corps Field Hospital, at the George Spangler Farm. One of the surgeons who had treated the general said, “his prospects for recovery seemed good and I was astonished to learn of his death.” It is the believe that his death did not result directly from his wounds but from secondary fever and prostration. Lewis A. Armistead died at 9:00 A.M. on July 5, 1863.

General Armistead was initially buried at the Union hospital site in the Confederate section. His remains were later moved to Old Saint Paul’s Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland. He had died as he had hoped he would, as a soldier.

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