American Civil War: Major General Henry Heth

Major General Henry Heth. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Major General Henry Heth was Confederate commander during the Civil War who saw service both in Kentucky and with the Army of Northern Virginia. An early favorite of General Robert E. Lee, he saw action in many of the famed leader's campaigns in the East and is best remembered for initiating the action that led to the Battle of Gettysburg. Heth continued to lead a division in Lieutenant General Ambrose P. Hill's Third Corps for the rest of the conflict. he remained with the army until its surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.

Early Life & Career

Born December 16, 1825 at Black Heath, VA, Henry Heth (pronounced "heeth") was the son of John and Margaret Heth. The grandson of a veteran of the American Revolution and son of a naval officer from the War of 1812, Heth attended private schools in Virginia before seeking a military career. Appointed to the US Military Academy in 1843, his classmates included his boyhood friend Ambrose P. Hill as well as Romeyn Ayres, John Gibbon, and Ambrose Burnside.

Proving a poor student, he matched his cousin's, George Pickett, 1846 performance by graduating last in his class. Commissioned as a brevet second lieutenant, Heth received orders to join the 1st US Infantry which was engaged in the Mexican-American War. Arriving south of the border later that year, Heth reached his unit after large-scale operations had concluded. After participating in a number of skirmishes, he returned north the following year. 

Assigned to the frontier, Heth moved through postings at Fort Atkinson, Fort Kearny, and Fort Laramie. Seeing action against the Native Americans, he earned a promotion to first lieutenant in June 1853. Two years later, Heth was promoted to captain in the newly-formed 10th US Infantry. That September, he earned recognition for leading a key flanking attack against the Sioux during the Battle of Ash Hollow. In 1858, Heth penned the US Army's first manual on marksmanship entitled A System of Target Practice.

Major General Henry Heth

  • Rank: Major General
  • Service: US Army, Confederate Army
  • Nickname(s): Harry
  • Born: December 16, 1825 at Black Heath, VA
  • Died: September 27, 1899 at Washington, DC
  • Parents: Captain John Heth and Margaret L. Pickett
  • Spouse: Harriet Cary Selden
  • Children: Ann Randolph Heath, Cary Selden Heth, Henry Heth, Jr.
  • Conflicts: Mexican-American War, Civil War
  • Known For: Battle of Gettysburg (1863)

The Civil War Begins

With the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and beginning of the Civil War in April 1861, Virginia left the Union. After the departure of his home state, Heth resigned his commission in the US Army and accepted a captain's commission in the Virginia Provisional Army. Quickly advanced to lieutenant colonel, he briefly served as General Robert E. Lee's quartermaster general in Richmond. A critical time for Heth, he became one of the few officers to earn Lee's patronage and was the only one referred to by his first name. 

Made colonel of the 45th Virginia Infantry later year, his regiment was assigned to western Virginia. Operating in the Kanawha Valley, Heth and his men served under Brigadier General John B. Floyd. Promoted to brigadier general on January 6, 1862, Heth led a small force entitled the Army of the New River that spring. 

Engaging Union troops in May, he fought several defensive actions but was badly beaten on the 23rd when his command was routed near Lewisburg. Despite this setback, Heth's actions helped screen Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. Re-forming his forces, he continued to serve in the mountains until June when orders arrived for his command to join Major General Edmund Kirby Smith at Knoxville, TN.    

Kentucky Campaign

Arriving in Tennessee, Heth's brigade began moving north in August as Smith marched to support General Braxton Bragg's invasion of Kentucky. Advancing into the eastern part of the state, Smith captured Richmond and Lexington before dispatching Heth with a division to menace Cincinnati. The campaign ended when Bragg elected to withdraw south after the Battle of Perryville. 

Rather than risk being isolated and defeated by Major General Don Carlos Buell, Smith joined with Bragg for the retreat back to Tennessee. Remaining there through the fall, Heth assumed command of the Department of East Tennessee in January 1863. The following month, after lobbying from Lee, he received an assignment to Jackson's corps in the Army of Northern Virginia. 

Major General Henry Heth wearing his Confederate Army uniform.
Major General Henry Heth, CSA.  Library of Congress

Chancellorsville & Gettysburg

Taking command of a brigade in his old friend Hill's Light Division, Heth first led his men in combat early that May at the Battle of Chancellorsville. On May 2, after Hill fell wounded, Heth assumed leadership of the division and gave a credible performance though his assaults the next day were turned back. Following Jackson's death on May 10, Lee moved to reorganize his army into three corps. 

Giving Hill command of the newly-created Third Corps, he directed that Heth lead a division comprised of two brigades from the Light Division and two recently arrived from the Carolinas. With this assignment came a promotion to major general on May 24. Marching north in June as part of Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania, Heth's division was near Cashtown, PA on June 30. Alerted to the presence of Union cavalry in Gettysburg by Brigadier General James Pettigrew, Hill ordered Heth to conduct a reconnaissance in force towards the town the following day. 

Lee approved the action with the restriction that Heth was not to cause a major engagement until the entire army was concentrated at Cashtown. Approaching the town on July 1, Heth quickly became engaged with Brigadier General John Buford's cavalry division and opened the Battle of Gettysburg. Initially unable to dislodge, Buford, Heth committed more of his division to the fight. The scale of the battle grew as Major General John Reynold's Union I Corps arrived on the field. 

As the day progressed, additional forces arrived spreading the fighting west and north of the town. Taking heavy losses through the day, Heth's division finally succeeded in pushing Union troops back to Seminary Ridge. With support from Major General W. Dorsey Pender, a final push saw this position captured as well. During the course of the fighting that afternoon, Heth fell wounded when a bullet struck him in the head. Saved by a thick new hat that had been stuffed with paper to improve the fit, he was unconscious for the better part of a day and played no further role in the battle.

Overland Campaign

Resuming command on July 7, Heth directed the fighting at Falling Waters as the Army of Northern Virginia retreated south. That fall, the division again took heavy losses when it attacked without proper scouting at the Battle of Bristoe Station. After taking part in the Mine Run Campaign, Heth's men went into winter quarters. 

In May 1864, Lee moved to block Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign. Engaging the Major General Winfield S. Hancock's Union II Corps at the Battle of the Wilderness, Heth and his division fought hard until relieved by Lieutenant General James Longstreet's approaching corps. Returning to action on May 10 at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Heth attacked and drove back a division led by Brigadier General Francis Barlow. After seeing further action at North Anna in late May, Heth anchored the Confederate left during the victory at Cold Harbor

Having been checked at Cold Harbor, Grant elected to move south, cross the James River, and march against Petersburg. Reaching that city, Heth and the rest of Lee's army blocked the Union advance. As a Grant commenced the siege of Petersburg, Heth's division took part in many of the actions in the area. Frequently occupying the extreme right of the Confederate line, he mounted unsuccessful attacks against his classmate Romeyn Ayres' division at Globe Tavern in late August. This was followed assaults at the Second Battle of Reams Station a few days later.

Major General Romeyn B. Ayres with a large beard and wearing his Union Army uniform.
Major General Romeyn B. Ayres. Library of Congress

Final Actions

On October 27-28, Heth, leading Third Corps due to Hill being ill, succeeded in blocking Hancock's men at the Battle of Boydton Plank Road. Remaining in the siege lines through the winter, his division came under assault on April 2, 1865. Mounting a general attack against Petersburg, Grant succeeded in breaking through and forced Lee to abandon the city. 

Retreating toward Sutherland's Station, the remnants of Heth's division were defeated there by Major General Nelson A. Miles later in the day. Though Lee desired to have him lead Third Corps after Hill's death on April 2, Heth remained separated from the bulk of the command during the early parts of the Appomattox Campaign. Withdrawing west, Heth was with Lee and the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia when it surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9. 

Later Life

In the years after the war, Heth worked in mining and later in the insurance industry. Additionally, he served as a surveyor in the Office of Indian Affairs as well as assisted in the compilation of the US War Department's Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. Plagued by kidney disease in his later years, Heth died at Washington, DC on September 27, 1899. His remains were returned to Virginia and interred in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery.    

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Henry Heth." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General Henry Heth. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Henry Heth." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).