American Civil War: Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead

Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, CSA. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Lewis Armistead - Early Life & Career:

Born February 18, 1817 in New Bern, NC, Lewis A. Armistead was the son of Lieutenant Colonel Walker and Elizabeth Armistead. Raised in Fauquier County, VA, he came from a family rich in military tradition which saw his father and five uncles serve in the War of 1812. One uncle, Major George Armistead, oversaw the famed defense of Fort McHenry in 1814. Seeking to follow in their footsteps, Armistead accepted an appointment to West Point in 1833.

Arriving at the academy, he proved a weak student and particularly struggled with French. In addition to poor grades, Armistead's conduct was frequently found wanting and he resigned in 1836 after purportedly breaking a plate over the head of Jubal A. Early. Despite this failure, his father, who had been brevetted to brigadier general in 1828, was able to secure him a commission as a second lieutenant on July 10, 1839. Posted to the 6th US Infantry, Armistead served under his father during the Second Seminole War in Florida.

Lewis Armistead - Mexican-American War:

Promoted to first lieutenant on March 30, 1844, Armistead married a distant cousin of Robert E. Lee, Cecilia Lee Love, later that year. After two years of service on the frontier, with postings at Forts Towson and Washita, he took part in the Mexican-American War. Assigned to Major General Winfield Scott's army, Armistead landed near Veracruz and served in the siege of the city.

As the army pushed inland, he distinguished himself at the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco in August 1847. Brevetted to captain for his role in these engagements, Armistead earned another brevet promotion for his role in the Battles of Molino del Rey and Chapultepec a month later. With the end of the war in 1848, he spent much of the next several years moving through various peacetime assignments which included recruiting and garrison duty.

Losing his wife to illness in 1850, Armistead remarried in two years later, this time to Cornelia Taliaferro Jamison.

Lewis Armistead - Antebellum Years:

The next six years saw Armistead, who was promoted to captain in 1855, hold various assignments on the frontier before receiving orders to march to Utah for service in the Utah War of 1858. Arriving on the scene, his regiment was not needed and instead pushed on to California. While there, Armistead took part in the Mohave Expedition of 1858-1859. Given command of Fort Mohave on the Colorado River, he defeated a small Mohave uprising and reestablished peace in the area. Moving to San Diego in 1860, Armistead oversaw the depot there and became good friends with his counterpart in Los Angeles, Captain Winfield Scott Hancock. Learning of the outbreak of the Civil War and Virginia's departure from the Union, he elected to resign his commission on May 26, 1861. The night before the Southern officers departed California, Hancock's wife hosted a farewell party at which a tearful Armistead told his friend, "Hancock, goodbye; you can never know what this has cost me."

Lewis Armistead - Early Assignments:

Departing California with Brigadier General Albert S. Johnston, Armistead travelled east to Virginia via Texas.

Entering Confederate service on September 15, 1861, he initially received was commissioned as a major but two weeks later received command of the 57th Virginia Infantry with the rank of colonel. Through the fall of 1861 and spring of 1862, the regiment manned defenses around Richmond and Norfolk. On April 1, Armistead was promoted to brigadier general and given command of a brigade in Brigadier General Benjamin Huger's division. In this role, he took part in the Battle of Seven Pines as General Joseph E. Johnston attempted to defend Richmond from Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac in late May. Though his command performed poorly, Armistead's personal bravery was noted. In the wake of the battle, Lee assumed command of Confederate forces and in late June commenced a campaign to push McClellan away from Richmond.

Lewis Armistead - Campaigning with Lee:

Winning a string of victories, Lee was finally halted by Union forces at Malvern Hill on July 1. In the course of the battle, Armistead's brigade spearheaded a series of bloody, failed assaults on the Union lines. Marching north in August, his brigade joined Major General Richard A. Anderson's division in Major General James Longstreet's wing of the Army of Northern Virginia. Entering the Second Battle of Manassas on August 30, Armistead's men played a role in the flank attack which shattered Major General John Pope's army. Seeking to take advantage of the victory, Lee began moving north to invade Maryland. As Confederate forces marched north, Lee appointed him provost marshal for the army due to his reputation for enforcing discipline. During the Battle of Antietam, Armistead's brigade remained in reserve though he received a minor wound in the foot.

As the fall progressed, Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia and Armistead's command moved into Major General George Pickett's newly-formed division, which was part of Longstreet's First Corps. Though present at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, the division was only lightly engaged. In mid-February, Lee detached Pickett's division and sent it to Richmond as Union efforts along the coast threatened the area. This was followed by Longstreet and another division. Operating against Union forces in Suffolk, VA in the spring of 1863, Armistead took part in Longstreet's campaign in the area and missed the Battle of Chancellorsville. Rejoining the main army, Longstreet, Pickett, and Armistead began marching north as Lee commenced his invasion of Pennsylvania in June.

Lewis Armistead - Battle of Gettysburg:

On July 1, elements of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill's Third Corps clashed with Union cavalry led by Brigadier General John Buford opening the Battle of Gettysburg. Though Confederate forces drove back the Union I and XI Corps on the first day, July 2 saw attacks against the Army of the Potomac's flanks fail.

The last Confederate formation to arrive on the field, Pickett's division was too late to take part in the fighting. As night fell, Lee hoped to resume efforts against the Union flanks the next day. Circumstances the next morning prevented this plan from moving forward and instead he decided on a frontal assault against the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. The force for this attack was centered on Pickett's division and augmented by six brigades from Hill's corps.

Totaling around 13,000 men, the attack, which became known as "Pickett's Charge," was preceded by a lengthy artillery barrage that commenced around 1:00 PM. Confederate forces began advancing around 2:00 PM and were required to cross three-quarters of mile of open ground before reaching the Union line. Deployed behind the brigades of Brigadier Generals James Kemper and Richard Garnett, Armistead's men endured intense Union artillery fire as they advanced. In a twist of fate, the target of the assault was a portion of the Union line held by his friend Hancock's II Corps. As Kemper and Garnett's men were decimated by Union fire, Armistead, leading from the front, stuck his hat on the tip of his sword and charged forward.

Breaking into the Union lines, Armistead's men were met with fierce counterattacks from Union reinforcements. Hit three times in the arm and leg, Armistead fell as his men were driven back and the attack collapsed. Captured, the wounded Armistead was taken from the field and asked to see Hancock. This proved impossible as Hancock had also been wounded. Encountering one of Hancock's aides, Captain Henry Bingham, Armistead asked that his personal effects be delivered to his friend. Bingham granted this request and the fallen general was taken to a field hospital at the Spangler Farm for treatment. Though Armistead's individual wounds were not mortal, he succumbed on July 5 from a combination of exhaustion, fever, and blood loss. His remains were transported to Baltimore, MD where they were buried next to his uncle George Armistead in the Old Saint Paul's Cemetery.

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