Friday, July 3, 1863 was an oppressively hot day. When the artillery fire upon distant Culp’s Hill subsided in late morning, the men from Pickett’s Division – having arrived in Gettysburg in the evening a day earlier, waited in the shade on Seminary Ridge.
Two generals in gray engaged there in quiet conversation. They had learned what was about to take place.
One of them, with flashing eyes, a new uniform, and dark beard, lit a cigar. He then said, “This is a desperate thing to attempt.”
His companion nodded. “It is,” he agreed. “But the issue is with the Almighty.” 1
The cigar wielding general was Richard Brooke Garnett. The other was Lewis A. Armistead. Both were brigade commanders in Pickett’s Division. The field they faced from the corridor of trees where they stood was soon to be their battle ground. For both, it would be their last battle.
Lewis A. Armistead, by some accounts, had apparently not wanted to enter into the war. But once the decision was made, he never faltered and faced the war and his own fate with strict obedience to his duty as a soldier.
The military life was one that had been revered in the Armistead family for many generations. Lewis Armistead was born on February 18, 1817 in New Bern, North Carolina; the elder son of General Walker Keith Armistead and his wife, the former Elizabeth Stanley. Although born in North Carolina, Armistead’s family had settled in Virginia in 1635. He had four sisters (Lucinda, Nell, Frances, and Bettie) and a younger brother, Bowles. Lewis’s paternal grandfather, John Armistead, was a veteran of the American Revolution. He was the father of five sons – and all served in the War of 1812. Lewis’s famous uncle, Colonel George Armistead, is best known as the commander of Fort McHenry in Baltimore when the British laid siege to it in August of 1814. Keeping his place sure at all hazards, the defenses held and the English turned back. It was the inspiration for Francis Scott Key – who was there during the fight – to write The Star-Spangled Banner , the national anthem. 2
What is less known is that Lewis Armistead’s father, Walker Keith, John Armistead’s youngest son, actually outranked his famed brother George, and was a general in the same war; overseeing garrisons and forts around the Great Lakes, including Fort Niagara. A gifted engineer and professional soldier all his days, General Walker Keith Armistead fought against the Seminoles in Florida. He then went to Fort Moultrie in South Carolina near Charleston, overseeing the expansion and upkeep of that fort, when he fell desperately ill and later died in 1844. 3
With such an illustrious ancestry, it was natural that Lewis – named for one of his soldierly uncles – would follow in their footsteps. He received an appointment to West Point in 1834, at the age of 17. An altercation in 1836 with an irascible fellow cadet named Jubal Early caused Armistead to break a plate over Early’s head.
Jubal Early is known historically for his surly and cantankerous manner. He was famous during the war for his harshness and vandalism against the people of the North. However, at West Point, it was Armistead who got the boot. He was dismissed and Early remained. It is possible that Armistead’s low academic stance also played a role in his leaving. 4
The expulsion must have caused Armistead significant regret. He was his father’s son, and he wanted to be a soldier. After exhibiting great remorse and pleading for another chance to prove himself, Armistead was admitted into the Sixth Infantry and went west to serve his country.
At about this time, in the early 1840s, Lewis A. Armistead married the beautiful and aristocratic Cecilia Lee Love, the granddaughter of Richard Henry Lee, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Two children were born to the couple: a namesake son named Walker Keith, born the year the elder Walker Keith died, and a daughter, Flora, born in 1846. 5
Leaving his young family, Lewis answered his nation’s call to duty and fought in the War with Mexico. Entering with the rank of Lieutenant, Armistead soon proved his courage and devotion at Churubusco, Molino del Rey, and Chapultepec.
Chapultepec was the castle fortress, located on a high mesa above Mexico City. General Santa Anna and his army were stationed around the capital, with the central garrison at Chapultepec. The high, barricaded position was easily defended with about 400 men. The U.S. army had to tread the moat, storm the heights, and then breach the mighty walls of the castle fortress – a feat that Santa Anna apparently thought they could not do.
General Winfield Scott, the U.S. Army commander, ordered storming parties forward. Accordingly, it appears that Lieutenant Armistead was the first man to storm across the moat at the battle fortress. He was wounded in the fight, and recognized for his bravery in the battle. Others who participated in the Battle of Chapultepec included Winfield Scott Hancock, James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and George Pickett. Pickett carried the colors and planted them on the heights of Chapultepec. When the fortress fell to the Federal army, it proved Santa Anna’s High Water Mark. 6
After the Mexican War, Armistead went where duty called. When stationed at Fort Jefferson in Missouri, his wife, months after giving birth to their daughter, Flora, became seriously ill. She failed to improve, and the Armisteads went to Mobile, Alabama in an attempt to help her recover. Death nevertheless visited the family. First, they lost their young daughter to disease at age 4. Shortly afterwards, Cecilia Armistead passed away as well – likely from consumption. 7
Deeply saddened but needing to return to duty, Lewis Armistead left his son with his widowed mother and his sister Bettie; and he went west again, participating in the Utah Expedition and then fighting the Mojave tribal uprisings in Southern California. Armistead, like his close friend Hancock, served as a Quartermaster in Los Angeles from 1859 to 1861 – when war erupted. Armistead’s close friend, Dick Garnett, was also serving in California at the time. 8
The Hancocks held a soirée at their Los Angeles home as a farewell to parting friends. Almira Hancock remembered that, of all the guests, Armistead seemed the most downcast that evening. Tears were visible on his cheeks when he finally took his leave. “ Hancock, good-by [sic],” he said. “You can never know what this has cost me.” 9
He left his small testament with Almira, and asked her to send it to his family in case of his death. When she looked at the flyleaf, she saw that Lewis had written: “Trust in God and Fear Nothing.”
There still exists a controversy about the meaning of Armistead’s words to Hancock, and his enlistment. One Confederate source claims that he “ with much reluctance entered Confederate service .” His example to his men, however, and his temerity in battle show anything but reluctance. 10
Armistead joined the Confederacy as a major, but soon received a colonelcy and the command of the 57th Virginia regiment in September 1861. He received his brigadier’s star in the spring of 1862, in time to fight in the Peninsula Campaign against General McClellan and the Army of the Potomac. He showed great bravery, and even recklessness, at Malvern Hill, where he was wounded.
General Armistead served as General Lee’s provost marshal at the Battle of Antietam. He was at Fredericksburg with Pickett’s Division on Marye’s Heights, but his brigade was not heavily engaged. At the start of 1863, Pickett’s Division, including Armistead’s Brigade, was sent to Norfolk, Virginia to guard fortresses there, and they were not at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
There would be plenty of action soon to follow, however, at Gettysburg.
Pickett’s Division formed the rear guard of Lee’s army as it wound its way up the Blue Ridge Mountains toward Pennsylvania.
Armistead, called “Lo” by his friends (short for Lothario –a character from the book Don Quixote), knew that his close friend, Hancock, served as the commander of the Federal Second Corps. He was also a friend to John Reynolds, who headed the Union First Corps. Traveling toward Gettysburg, he remained close to his fellow Virginian, Dick Garnett. 11
Because Pickett’s men formed Lee’s rear guard, they were the last Confederate troops to arrive in Gettysburg, early in the evening on July 2, 1863. They arrived too late to participate in the fight that day – a fact that irked Pickett, who was eager to prove his men, many of whom were green and untried.
Friday, July 3 dawned with a slight rain and the promise of a hot day – and the ensuing day did not disappoint. An artillery barrage began that day at first light, signaling an intense battle on Culp’s Hill. When the Union prevailed there after several hours’ fighting, General Lee told Longstreet to get Pickett ready.
General Lee was a man who strictly followed rules and went by the book. It served him well, as most of the Federal commanders who fought against him were much younger and were not familiar with Napoleonic tactics.
Then George Meade took command, with reluctance, of the Army of the Potomac a few days before the Battle of Gettysburg. A few years younger than Lee, at age 47 in the summer of 1863, Meade recognized Lee’s textbook maneuvers on Gettysburg’s second day. A classic Napoleonic attack, used with success many times by the great Emperor of France, was to hit the enemy flanks, and if the attack did not succeed, to next hit the center. Napoleon had figured, correctly, that the enemy would keep the middle of the defensive line thin and weak, in order to strengthen his flanks, in anticipation of another attack on the ends of the lines.
The Duke of Wellington, Napoleon’s great nemesis, had figured out Napoleon’s great tactic at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. George Meade did the same to General Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg. After the Confederates hit both Union flanks, strongly, and failed to secure them, Meade believed that Lee would go up the middle next. He was, unfortunately for the South, exactly right.
Pickett was thrilled that his men had a role in the battle, concerned that they had missed their chance. Garnett and Armistead, however, realized the grim outcome. They were sending their men out over an open field nearly a mile in width, then rising to Cemetery Ridge; scaling both a fence at the Emmitsburg Road, and then the stone wall of the Union position. They agreed that the charge was “a desperate thing to attempt.” 12
At about 1 o’clock that sultry afternoon, the Confederate artillery began to pummel the Union line in an attempt to weaken the position. The Union answered in kind, and the men on Seminary Ridge were lying low, hoping that they would be missed. Both Garnett and Armistead, however, remained in sight of the Union artillerists, Garnett on horseback due to an injured leg. At one point, a soldier in Armistead’s brigade urged Lo to take cover. When the general refused, the soldier stood, only to be ordered down. “ Never mind me , “Armistead told him, “we want men with guns in their hands.” Then, as suddenly as it began, the volleys from the big guns stopped. 13
Pickett ordered the men to their posts. Garnett led on the left, General Kemper on the right, and Lo Armistead stood behind Garnett’s troops, in support.
Although Kemper and Garnett rode, Longstreet had urged them not to, to keep from being easy targets. Armistead hearkened to the warning, and, like the men he led, prepared to march across the field on foot. Armistead tersely addressed his troops, which consisted of the 9th, 14th, 38th, 53rd, and 57th Virginia regiments. “Men,” he said, “remember your wives, your mothers, your sisters, and your sweethearts.” 14
A light breeze blew away the residue of smoke from the myriad cannons, and Union soldiers on Cemetery Ridge saw a line of gray emerge from the woods on Seminary Ridge. It was about 3 p.m.
The day, which registered 88 degrees in town, actually felt much hotter due to the increased humidity from the incessant rains. Coupled with the smoke and heat from cannons and musketry, and the direct sun in the open field, the afternoon must have been oppressive.
As soon as Pickett’s Division (as well as Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s Divisions to Pickett’s left) emerged from the shelter of trees on Seminary Ridge, Federal artillery from Cemetery Hill to Little Round Top opened on them, blowing great gaps in the Confederate lines.
The Union muskets were still far away, and the Southern soldiers remained out of range until they crossed the Emmitsburg Road.
“While we were advancing ,” remembered R.W. Martin of the 53rd Virginia, “we could see at times only smoke and flame.” The undulating terrain also made it difficult for both sides to see one another at times. 15
Once the men of Longstreet’s Assault crossed the Emmitsburg Road, they had about 300 yards to advance to the Union position. They were by that time within range of Union muskets. The Federals waited patiently until the Confederates were in range. Then the first line rose and fired, a sheet of bullets by the thousands. As they knelt to reload, the second row rose and did the same. Then, as they knelt, the cannons fired canister at close range. The gray and butternut lines began to fall. Men came apart. Some disappeared completely due to the devastating hail of lead.
General Garnett, Armistead’s close friend and comrade, was one of the latter. Astride his black horse, he galloped toward the stone wall. A cannon near the wall fired its canister in a cloud of smoke. When the smoke cleared, Garnett was gone. His body was never found.
With the chaos and blinding smoke, Armistead drew his sword and placed his felt hat atop the point. Calling his men to follow, he pushed forward, and his felt hat slid down the blade. As they neared the stone wall, Armistead pushed his hat back to the tip of his sword.
They reached the wall, and knelt beside it in an attempt to withstand the heavy volleys of musketry. R.W. Martin of the 53rd Virginia was beside Armistead. “Martin,” he said, “we can’t stay here. We must go over that wall.” Martin jumped up and yelled, “ Forward with the colors!
” and went over. Armistead went right after him. About 100 of his brigade followed. They were the only ones from Pickett’s Division to cross the Union lines – of Pickett’s nearly 4800 troops. “Come on, boys!” General Armistead shouted. “Give them the cold steel!” 16
The sudden onset of men in gray startled the men of the Philadelphia Brigade on the other side of the wall and they began to retreat. Their actions incensed their commander, General Webb, who yelled at them to stay put. A gap opened, revealing the guns of Cushing’s Battery – its young commander having just fallen dead. 17
General Armistead noticed the cannons and called to the men to turn the guns. Immediately some of his brigade attempted it. “We went up to the second line of artillery ,” remembered a soldier from the 14th Virginia, “and just before reaching those guns a squad of from twenty-five to fifty Yankees around a stand of colors to our left fired a volley back at Armistead, and he fell forward.” 18
That pivotal moment proved to be the High Water Mark of the Confederacy.
The survivors of Armistead’s Brigade either surrendered or quickly made their way back to Seminary Ridge.
The results were disastrous for the Confederates. In Pickett’s Division, all three brigade commanders were shot down. Of the thirteen colonels in Pickett’s Division, all were either wounded or killed. Men with the rank of major took control of the regiments. Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s divisions suffered similar casualties. It was “a loss never to be fully repaired,” lamented one Virginian. 19
“Armistead did not groan or move,” noted Private Easley of the 14th Virginia, who survived the charge. “I thought him dead.” 20
General Armistead was still alive, with two wounds – one in the leg and the other in the arm. He gave the Masonic symbol of distress, and men from the 72nd Pennsylvania noticed. They came to his aid and carried him farther behind the Union lines. Armistead asked to see General Hancock, who commanded the line. The soldiers went to where Hancock lay, a few yards distant. He had also been desperately wounded during the charge. He sent a member of his staff, Captain Henry Bingham, to see to his old friend. 21
Captain Bingham went to General Armistead, and told him that General Hancock had been wounded. Bingham saw that Armistead was “seriously wounded, completely exhausted, and seemingly broken spirited.” Armistead gave Bingham his gold watch, spurs, letters and other articles. “Say to General Hancock for me,” Armistead told the captain, “that I have done him, and you all, a grievous injury, which I shall always regret.” 22
General Armistead was taken to the Eleventh Corps Field Hospital at the George Spangler Farm, located behind the Round Tops and laid on the floor of the summer kitchen. Dr. Daniel Brinton examined the general, and believed that he would recover. He was surprised when, less than two days later, early on July 5, Armistead died from his wounds. The doctor said that Armistead had “suffered from much over exertion, want of sleep, and mental anxiety.” The general had also developed a fever, possibly from infection – arm wounds were known to become septic many times in the Civil War, killing many soldiers. 23
There were other factors, too, that likely led to the brave general’s death. He was 46 years of age at Gettysburg, but appeared much older. His hair was as gray as his uniform, and one soldier who saw him fall remarked that “he was an old man, 63, and probably exhausted.” It is possible that in the intense heat and stress of the fight, Armistead suffered from heat stroke. Dr. Brinton noted that Armistead had a fever – which could have resulted from infection or heat exhaustion. Another factor is the emotional distress Armistead must have suffered. He likely saw Garnett, his cherished friend, disappear forever. If he had not, he would have known of it shortly after the fight. He knew Hancock had been shot, which visibly grieved him. Reynolds, another old friend, had died July 1. Recalling Armistead’s words to Hancock as the pair parted in early 1861, one can see that Armistead felt keenly the cost of the war in which they fought. Realizing the significant loss in human life – including those he had led – was undoubtedly another factor in upsetting the already wounded and exhausted commander. There is yet another explanation from one member of Armistead’s brigade, who had been captured with his commander: “His proud spirit chafed under his imprisonment.” 24
For many years, it was not known where Armistead’s body had been placed for burial. His wife had died, his son was too young to take care of his father’s remains. His widowed mother still lived. The family burials were scattered from Alabama to Virginia to North Carolina.
In 1938, Dr. Frederick Tillberg, park historian at Gettysburg National Military Park, successfully located the gravesite of General Lewis A. Armistead. He was buried in a vault next to his famous uncle, the hero of Fort McHenry, Colonel George Armistead in St. Paul’s Cemetery in Baltimore. 25
Gettysburg offers two memorials to the famed general, whose iconic bravery personifies the Confederate soldier in the ill-fated Pickett’s Charge. In the summer of 1887, a monument was dedicated on the spot where Armistead fell. (It was offered as an olive branch to disgruntled Confederates who wished to place a large monument to the men of Pickett’s Charge behind the Union lines at the High Water Mark. They were summarily refused, because the rule was that monuments to troops could not go where they did not stand. As most of Pickett’s Division did not make it over the wall, Colonel John Bachelder, the chief historian for the Battle of Gettysburg, could not comply with the request.) The Friend to Friend Monument, dedicated in 1993, was placed by the Masonic Lodge of Pennsylvania. It depicts General Armistead and Captain Bingham in the moments after Armistead fell in the charge. Created by the late sculptor Ron Tunison, the memorial is one of Gettysburg’s most costly, and most inspiring.
There have been controversies over the years since that fateful summer of 1863 about what General Armistead meant when he spoke to Captain Bingham on Cemetery Ridge. Some argue that Armistead regretted fighting for the South. The manner in which he displayed such courage and determination during the war, especially during the charge at Gettysburg, seems to cast doubt on that conjecture. Whether he was a reluctant soldier for the Confederacy or not, General Lewis A. Armistead fought with distinction and showed great courage at Gettysburg. He is likely the most visible representative figure of the fatal charge that turned the tide of the Civil War on a fateful summer’s day in 1863. The words of General Armistead to his friend Hancock in Los Angeles continue to remind us of the veracity of his words: “ ou can never know what this has cost me” or countless others, in America’s worst conflict.
Sources: Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography, 1600-1899 . New York: 1900. Lewis A. Armistead Personal File, Gettysburg National Military Park. Lewis A. Armistead Family Tree, Ancestry.com. Cecilia Lee Love Armistead Biography, Find-a-Grave.com. Arkansas Daily Gazette, 26 November 1918. Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command . New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968. Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. Vol. II Fredericksburg to Meridian . New York: Random House, 1963. The Hanover Evening Sun, 14 January, 1939. Reardon, Carol. Pickett’s Charge: In History & Memory . Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. Rollins, Richard, ed. Pickett’s Charge! Eyewitness Accounts. Redondo Beach, CA: Rank & File Publications, 1994. Smith, J.H. The War With Mexico . New York: MacMillan & Company, 1919. Stewart, George R. Pickett’s Charge. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1959. Storrick, William. “General Armistead was Only Southern Leader to Cross Wall at Angle in Pickett’s Charge.” The Gettysburg Times, 23 March 1939. U.S. Census, 1860. Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders . Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959. Woodhead, Henry, ed. Voices of the Civil War: Gettysburg . Richmond, VA: Time Life Books, 1995.
1. Foote, p. 534.
2. Armistead Family Tree, Ancestry.com. Appleton, p. 90. One source claims that John Armistead had six sons, all of whom served in the War of 1812.
3. Arkansas Daily Gazette, 26 Nov. 1918. Armistead Family Tree, Ancestry.com.
4. Storrick, The Gettysburg Times, 23 Mar. 1939. Warner, p. 11. Coddington,p. 153.
5. Armistead Family Tree, Ancestry.com. Cecilia Lee Love Armistead Bio, Find-a-Grave.com.
6. Smith, p. 146.
7. Cecilia Lee Love Armistead Bio, Find-a-Grave.com.
8. U.S. Census, 1860. Warner, p. 12.
9. Stewart, p. 29.
10. Appleton, p. 90.
11. Ibid. See Don Quixote, Part One , where an extemporaneous story explains a husband testing his wife’s fidelity with his friend, Lothario.
12. Foote, p. 534.
13. Stewart, p. 144.
14. Ibid., p. 170.
15. Rollins, p. 200.
16. Stewart, pp. 216-217.
17. Reardon, p. 199.
18. Woodhead, p. 127. According to the Corpus Christi Caller, 30 June 1963, Armistead fell over the body ofAlonzo Cushing.
19. Stewart, p. 269.
20. Rollins, p. 192.
21. Storrick, The Gettysburg Times, 23 March, 1939. Stewart, p. 255.
23. Armistead Personal File, GNMP.
24. Rollins, pp. 192, 200.
25. The Hanover Evening Sun,
14 Jan. 1939.