Fallen Leaders: General Richard B. Garnett

A Disputed Photo of Richard Garnett

Tuesday, May 12, 1863. The location: Richmond, Virginia. The bells tolled, the military bands played dirges, and uniforms and civilian attire displayed mourning badges. The casket of Lieutenant General Thomas J. Jackson was drawn through the streets to Capitol Square where the general’s remains were carried into the building to lie in state.

One of the Confederate officers serving as pallbearer at Stonewall’s funeral ranked as a fallen leader. Thirteen months earlier Jackson had court-martialed him. In less than two months after following Jackson’s casket, he would be dead on the field of Gettysburg. Richard Garnett’s life and Confederate military service offers the opportunity to examine the concept of fallen leader from several perspectives.

Richard Brooke Garnett was forty-five years old in the spring of 1863, born November 21, 1817 in Essex County, Virginia. He graduated from West Point in 1841 and served the next 20 years with the U. S. Army in Florida and other posts throughout the South and West. He was one of the few West Pointers of that era who did not see action in the Mexican-American War. Garnett resigned his commission in 1861 and became a major in the Regular Confederate Army. By the end of that year, he had promoted to brigadier general in the Provisional Confederate Army and took command of the First Virginia Brigade in the Shenandoah Valley.[i]

Trouble started on March 23, 1862. At the Battle of Kernstown, Garnett withdrew his brigade from the battle when he realized that he faced an entire Federal division. The move prompted the retreat of the rest of the Confederate army, and earned General Jackson’s ire for pulling the “Stonewall” Brigade out of the fight.[ii] The root of Jackson’s problem seemed to be that Garnett had withdrawn the brigade without orders from Jackson, and according to the commanding general, cost a battlefield victory. From Garnett’s perspective, he had saved the Stonewall Brigade to fight another, and Garnett claimed he was unaware of any trouble in the chain of command until charges appeared on April 1, 1862.

Unfortunately, for Garnett, Jackson was not playing an April Fool’s prank. The charges accused Garnett of withdrawing from the field without orders, relieved him of command, and put him under arrest with order to be taken to Harrisonburg for confinement and a future military trial.[iii]

According to civilian letters remarking on the situation:

Gen. Garnett says he had no idea of anything being wrong until the 1st of April, when he was arrested for “improper conduct on the battlefield,” and Winder put in his pace. Gen. Garnett, I am afraid, has the tendency of his family to free speech. He uses no measured language about Jackson’s “Winchester Folly” and says nothing but the timidity of the enemy prevented a total defeat.

Gen. Garnett says all his field officers say they sustain him and many captains. He wrote from Harrisonburg, the 3rd [of April], and said he had written to Senator R.M.T. Hunter to ask for an immediate trial. I do hope he may get it, and for the sake of himself & the family, I would wish him triumphantly acquitted…. William Garnett says “Jackson is mad.”

Gen. Garnett says he has no idea what the charges are. He says the Stonewall brigade were near a mutiny on his account….[iv]

Garnett spent the next four months asking for a court martial trial to handle the dispute and get the charges refuted. Finally, in August a court convened at Liberty Mills in Orange County, Virginia, but the August campaigning toward Second Manassas disrupted the proceedings. According to documentation, only Jackson and his staff officer, Alexander Pendleton, testified before the court was dismissed and the whole incident quietly dropped. Garnett returned to military service, taking command of a brigade in Pickett’s division of Longstreet’s corps—far away from Jackson. Garnett and his men fought at South Mountain and Sharpsburg (Antietam) and were present for the Battle of Fredericksburg, afterwards digging solid winter entrenchments.[v] Longstreet’s corps did not fight at Chancellorsville in the spring of 1863 since they had been sent away to find food and forage in a different part of Virginia.

Perhaps one of the most interesting recorded incidents about Garnett’s character appears in Henry Kyd Douglas’s memoirs. Although Douglas is sometimes criticized for exaggerations, he did serve on Jackson’s staff and would likely have little motivation for writing a glaring untruth in the following section which offers an explanation for how Garnett took a public role at Jackson’s funeral:

General Jackson was lying dead in the Executive Mansion and General Garnett had come to look upon his remains. Major Pendleton and myself met him at the door and led him to the parlor… His manly form trembled with emotion and sorrow…. In a little while, taking Pendleton and myself by the arms, he led us to the window. “You know of the unfortunate breach between General Jackson and myself; I can never forget it, nor cease to regret it. But I wish here to assure you that no one can lament his death more sincerely than I do. I believe he did me great injustice, but I believe also he acted from the purest motives. He is dead. Who can fill his place?” When the painful interview ended, Pendleton asked him to be one of the pallbearers in the honorary procession to take place on the following day, and he willingly consented.[vi]

After the funeral ceremonies concluded in Richmond, Garnett returned to his brigade. A few weeks, the newly reorganized three Confederate corps of the Army of Northern Virginia began their march northward to Pennsylvania, seeking a decisive battle. By the end of June, General Lee sought to reunite his army which had spread out over the roads and towns of Pennsylvania. The convergence of his divisions toward the crossroads town of Gettysburg resulted in one of the largest battles of the war.

Marching in Pickett’s Division of Longstreet’s corps, Garnett and his brigade of Virginia regiments did not arrive at the battle ground until two days of fighting had already unfolded. The 8th, 18th, 19th, 28th, 56th Virginia Regiments formed part of the “fresh troops” that Lee hoped to pitch into the fight. Having tested and battled on the Federal’s flanks on July 2, 1863, Lee surmised that the center of the line might be weak, allowing an assault attack to punch through and gain a victory. Lee planned a massive assault and thought Pickett’s division which had not fought significantly in this campaign could make the difference.

Richard Garnett—by medical standards—should not have been personally tasked with brigade leadership that day. During the Pennsylvania Campaign, a horse had kicked him in the knee and by July 3rd, chills and fever plagued him, likely an illness unrelated to the knee injury.[vii] When briefed about the coming assault that his regiments would participate in, Garnett believed it was “a desperate thing to attempt.”[viii] The near mile of open fields would allow Union cannon to decimate the attacking Confederates as they marched in echelon toward the attack point. Many of the troops in the regiments were not allowed to see the ground they would have to move across. Someone described Garnett’s men as displaying “splendid spirits and confident of sweeping everything before them.”[ix]

Two hours of cannonade shook the ground around Gettysburg as Confederate artillery tried to “soften” the Union line on Cemetery Ridge and knock the Federal cannon out of action. Through a Union ruse, the Confederates believed they had accomplished that goal and with ammunition running low for the big guns, the infantry brigades were ordered to form and advance. Garnett received permission to ride his horse into the attack due to his injured knee and illness.[x]

As he crossed the Confederate artillery line, Garnett saw an old friend, Edward Porter Alexander, who now commanded Longstreet’s artillery. Alexander later recalled:

“I think it was not earlier than 1:50 P.M., nor later than 2 P.M., when with great relief & delight, I saw Pickett’s line approaching at a good fast gait. Ahead of his men rode good & lovable Gen. Dick Garnett. I had crossed the plains with him, & Gen. Armistead also, in 1858, & grown very fond of them both…. Now that Pickett was actually started, my work was to begin again, so I left Longstreet, as he returned Garnett’s salute, & after riding a few yards with the latter, & wishing him good luck, I turned to ride down my line of guns. Garnett had not been well, and only got out of an ambulance, that morning, to lead his brigade for the last time.”[xi]

Since that afternoon, a thread of speculation hints that Garnett rode into the attack at Gettysburg that day to clear his name. That is certainly possible. He might have felt that he needed to vindicate himself on a battlefield. But it is also worth questioning if that line could be a bit of melodrama. Garnett had been given a brigade command by Lee and made some sort of inward peace after the Jackson controversy, evidenced by his willingness to be a pallbearer at that general’s funeral. A sense of honor and leadership almost certainly pulled him out of the ambulance and into the attack; other motivations went unrecorded (as far as I can tell).

At the Emmitsburg Road, Garnett’s brigade tangled with another brigade as the Confederate lines converged for the final push toward the Cemetery Ridge.[xii] Garnett—still mounted—halted his brigade around 20 yards from the stonewall where Union troops fired into his ranks. He gave orders for his men to return fire. There, in the fire fight, Garnett was hit, falling backwards and then slumping to ground, presumably killed instantly.[xiii] His bloodied horse galloped wildly back toward the Confederate position on Seminary Ridge with an empty saddle.[xiv]

General Richard Garnett’s body was unidentified on the field where Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble charged. It has been historically supposed that a Union soldier stripped his remains of identifying insignia, resulting in his unmarked internment in a burial trench, likely with the men of his brigade. Whether his body was later exhumed and reburied in Hollywood Cemetery (Richmond) or elsewhere in the South or possibly even remains on the field to this day is unclear at this point. Strangely, Garnett’s sword which he carried in the charge was discovered for sale in a pawnshop in Baltimore decades after the battle.[xv] (Phill Greenwalt wrote more about Garnett’s Sword on the ECW Blog in 2011.)

Garnett fell victim to Jackson’s frustrations and sense of military justice after Kernstown in 1862, but stoutly defended himself by seeking trial. When the court martial was finally dropped due to pressing military campaigns, Lee restored Garnett to an active military command, representing that his leadership was more valued than Jackson’s quest for a scapegoat. Interestingly, Garnett did not lose the respect of his men—including the famed Stonewall Brigade—through the incident.

During both his court-martial “fall” and his death moment, Richard Garnett led at the front of his brigade, performing his duty as he saw and understood it. Whether withdrawing the Stonewall Brigade from likely near-destruction or forming his brigade to return fire at the wall at Gettysburg, Garnett placed himself exactly where one expects to find a brigade leader—on the field, with his men, commanding in the fierce storm of battle.


[i] Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Gray, (Baton Rogue: Louisiana State University Press, 1959) 99.

[ii] W.G. Bean, Stonewall’s Man: Sandie Pendleton, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959) 57.

[iii] Ibid., 58.

[iv] Mrs. Pendleton to General Pendleton, April 6, 1862, quoted in: W.G. Bean, Stonewall’s Man: Sandie Pendleton, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959) 59.

[v] Francis Augustin O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock, (Baton Rogue: Louisiana State University Press, 2006) 484.

[vi] Henry Kyd Douglas, I Rode With Stonewall, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968) 38.

[vii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian, (New York: Vintage Books, 1986) 533.

[viii] Ibid., 536.

[ix] Ibid., 537.

[x] Ibid., 552.

[xi] Edward Porter Alexander, edited by Gary W. Gallagher, Fighting For The Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989) 261-262.

[xii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian, (New York: Vintage Books, 1986) 557.

[xiii] Ibid., 559.

[xiv] Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Gray, (Baton Rogue: Louisiana State University Press, 1959) 99.

[xv] Ibid., 99.

3 Responses to Fallen Leaders: General Richard B. Garnett

  1. Excellent post! And – from this North Carolinian – thanks for describing the assault as that of “Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble!”

  2. Sarah consistently provides engaging insights into key actors in the Civil War. I can’t imagine sitting a horse 20 yards from the stone wall with the air full of hot lead.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!