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The Unfulfilled Promise of Robert E. Lee’s Favorite Officer

By Robert K. Krick
6/6/2018 • America's Civil War Magazine

So what if Henry Heth graduated dead last at West Point? String pulling by Lee and Jefferson Davis gave this blue blood an unusual shot at greatness.

By the time Robert E. Lee became commander in chief of all Confederate forces in 1865, nearly half a thousand men had attained general officer rank in the army of his short-lived country. In that entire gilt-bedizened group, good authority suggests, Lee called only one man by his given name:Henry Heth.Lee interested himself in Heth’s advancement more than that of any other Confederate officer, perhaps because of Heth’s easy charm, or the social background they shared or their similar family heritage of distinguished service to the country.

The first Henry Heth in America emigrated from Ireland in about 1750.Three of his sons launched the Heth martial tradition as officers during the Revolution,according to family lore.The Confederate Henry Heth wrote proudly of his father John’s service in the War of 1812 as a midshipman under Stephen Decatur. After his military service,John took over operation of the family’s lucrative coal mines in Chesterfield County,Virgina. Henry was born in Chesterfield on December 16, 1825.

John Heth had plenty of money and enjoyed spending it.“My father was passionately devoted to blooded horses, ” his son recalled, and “his large means enable[ed] him to indulge in the expensive sport of racing.”Young Henry “always had a horse in training”but never won a race.The boy received his early education at private schools in Amelia, Charles City,and Cumberland counties;Georgetown College; a preparatory school on Long Island, and the fashionable Frères Peugnet in New York City,operated by two Frenchmen who claimed Napoleonic service.

Heth’s life of privilege ended in April 1842 upon the death of John Heth.It was,Henry wrote,“the most severe calamity I had ever felt.”The family quickly descended from affluence to poverty. In June 1843, when Henry reported to the U.S. Military Academy, he described his family as “Badly off” and in “Reduced Circumstances.”

At West Point,young Heth carved out a really dreadful academic record, every bit as unimpressive as those of his cousin George Pickett and James Longstreet. Heth managed to finish his first year standing 38th among 45 cadets, but he then plummeted to dead last in his second year and clung tenaciously to that position through graduation in 1847. Heth’s mates during the West Point years included scores of names that would become familiar during the Civil War, among them Thomas J.“Stonewall” Jackson, George McClellan,Cadmus J.Wilcox,George Pickett,FitzJohn Porter,Winfield Hancock,and Alfred Pleasonton. A.P. Hill,Ambrose E. Burnside, John Gibbon, and Orlando B. Willcox graduated with Heth—and,of course,well ahead of his ranking.

Orlando Willcox judged his friend Harry Heth one of the “brightest men” in the Class of 1847 but a “gay reveller”who ignored his studies and frequented the renowned Benny Havens bar near the post.The military academy’s conduct records reflect the consequences of that lifestyle. In standings for conduct ranked across the entire student body,Heth never finished a year standing higher than 181st (out of 204 in 1845) and averaged 199th. Twice he came perilously close to 200 demerits for a year, which would have triggered automatic expulsion.Despite Cadet Heth’s shenanigans—or perhaps because of them—his classmates admired him.Willcox wrote in the 1880s, “I never knew a warmer friend, or a better or more gentle and patient man, husband and father.”

Brevet Second Lieutenant Heth progressed through the ranks of the pre-Civil War United States Army at the glacial pace customary for that era.The army expansion concurrent with his graduation, resulting from the Mexican War, did promptly push Heth to a permanent second lieutenancy in fewer than three months.Thereafter,predictably,Henry Heth received only two more promotions in the next 13 years: to first lieutenant on June 9, 1853, and to captain on March 3, 1855, assigned to the 10th U.S. Infantry.

When sectional conflict sundered the Union in 1861, Heth of course went with his Virginia home and family.In a letter dated April 17 to President Jefferson Davis, Heth offered “my services in defense of our common country” and signed himself “Late, Capt. US Army.” In a penciled note to the secretary of war atop Heth’s letter, the usually aloof and punctilious Davis touted the applicant with uncommon warmth.“Special attention,”the president wrote.“This is a first rate soldier and of the caste of men most needed. J.D.”

Heth did not entirely live up to the high promise the president had discerned.Two days after an initial commission as major,Heth become a lieutenant colonel of Virginia Volunteers with assignment as “Acting Q.M. General for the Forces in the field”—probably to take advantage of his experience discharging that staff function in 1854-55.On June 17,he became colonel commanding the 45th Virginia Infantry and on January 14,1862,received a promotion to brigadier general.

In attempting to defend western Virginia, General Heth ran afoul of the same insoluble problems that beset Robert E. Lee early in the war.When his entire command was routed in a small battle at Lewisburg in May 1862,the local citizenry quickly turned against the general they initially had admired. In a memorably amusing summary,one young woman in town wrote:“Up to this time my father had been much struck with General Heth’s resemblance to Napoleon,but after this affair we heard no more of this fancied resemblance.General Heth was [now] short,rotund, and square-faced.”

As embarrassing as this defeat might have proved for another officer, it did nothing to tarnish Heth’s reputation.That summer he was given command of a division in Maj.Gen.Kirby Smith’s army in East Tennessee. By January 1863 he was made commander of the Department of East Tennessee,only to be requested by General Lee to join his army the next month.

Lee had proclaimed Heth’s virtues so enthusiastically that Stonewall Jackson—usually an uncompromising stickler for promotion of men within his own corps—expressed eagerness to have Heth assigned to him.“From what you have said respecting General Heth,” Jackson wrote to Lee in February 1863,“I have been desirous that he should report for duty.”

Heth’s delight at escaping the western Virginia morass shows through his contemporary correspondence. In 1863, during the reorganization of the Army of Northern Virginia designed to cope with the loss of the irreplaceable Stonewall Jackson,Heth was appointed major general. He was given command of a division newly formed from disparate elements. A few weeks later his brand new command opened the Battle of Gettysburg.Through the war’s last two years, Heth found neither major distinction nor disgrace.

From 1885 to 1889, General Heth served as special agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs,a job that took him back across the Great Plains among the scenes of his youthful frontier service. During the last years of his life, General Heth played an important role as the ranking Confederate representative on the “Antietam Board,” which oversaw the preservation of the Sharpsburg Battlefield.

Heth died in Washington, D.C., on September 27, 1899, and was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. His Confederate legacy may well have left him—and perhaps his patron Lee and the once-enthusiastic Jefferson Davis—faintly disappointed.

 

A frequent contributor to America’s Civil War, historian and author Robert K. Krick’s most recent book is Civil War Weather in Virginia (University of Alabama Press, 2007)

Originally published in the January 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here

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