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Many people who are familiar with the movie Gettysburg will probably recognize the name Richard Garnett. Garnett was depicted as a tragic figure in the movie, someone who appeared to have his honor to defend and, despite being sick and lame at the time of the battle (depicted in the movie) he went ahead and defended his honor to the death. The movie shows him riding into the fray on the third day of the battle, going headlong into cannon fire and then disappearing, forever, in a cloud of smoke with only his bloody horse to appear out of the action returning to Confederate lines.

The truth is, there is much more to Garnett’s story than a sick soldier riding his horse to save his reputation and gain himself some glory. Garnett was one of the more complicated figures of the Civil War and there is much to learn about him and his actions both prior to and during the Civil War. There are some that compare Garnett to his compatriot Lewis Armistead (also part of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg and killed in the battle) in that they were both tragic figures who met sad ends after similarly sad lives. But Garnett’s life wasn’t as sad as some might think.

This is the story of the man who would become a martyr for the Confederate cause at Gettysburg. With his bravery tarnished by an altercation with a superior officer just a few months before, Garnett would carelessly risk his life to prove that officer wrong and show everyone that he was as brave a man as there could be. The cost of all this? His life.

The story of Garnett begins on November 21st, 1817 which is when he was born. He was born on what was then known as the Rose Hill estate in Essex County, Virginia. His parents were William Henry Garnett and Anna Maria Brooke. His parent’s background was English.

It must not be forgotten that Richard was related, as a cousin, to Robert Selden Garnett. Robert made his name, in the Civil War, in a somewhat infamous way by being known as the first soldier with the rank of General to die in the war. The two Garnett’s completed their education at the United States Military Academy in 1841. Richard was ranked 29th in a class of 52.

His post collegiate military career saw him start as a second lieutenant in the 6th United States Infantry. His duty placed him in several different locations including Florida where he was part of the government’s effort in fighting the Seminole Indians. He then went out west where he spent some time in various places such as Texas, California and the Dakotas.

The Mexican War came but Garnett did not participate in the pre-Civil War action. During that period, he was stationed in New Orleans, Louisiana as a staff officer.

Garnett was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant and given command for Fort Laramie in Wyoming. There he oversaw incursions against the Sioux Indians. He was promoted again, this time to captain in 1855, and played a role in various positions and events during his time in the west.

Not much is known about the family that Garnett put together during his time out west. It is known that he had a son with an Oglala Sioux woman named Looks at Him (or Mollie Campbell). The child was named William Garnett (also known as Billy Garnett). There are photos that exist of Billy that can easily be found. It is known that Garnett’s son has a little bit of a claim to fame as he was that he was present when the famous Native American leader Crazy Horse was killed. The younger Garnett also worked for the Army during his life.

The impending Civil War was starting to approach and during the build up to that event, Garnett found himself out in California. Garnett’s feelings about the division of the states tended to side with that of the Union (the Federal government) but, like so many other soldiers in his position, he decided to fight for his home state of Virginia and thus took up arms with his native state and the newly created Confederate government.

To make it official, Garnett gave up his commission in the United States Army on May 17th, 1861. He started off his career in the Confederate Army at the rank of major and started in the artillery. He was then promoted to lieutenant colonel and put in charge of Cobb’s Legion starting August 31st, 1861. Cobb’s legion was made up of troops from Georgia and was organized by Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb. This was a well-known unit in the Civil War and when they started service they were composed of infantry, cavalry and artillery units.

Garnett’s stint as a lieutenant colonel wasn’t long and he was promoted to brigadier general on the 14th of November 1861. His new assignment was to take command of the 1st Brigade of the Valley District in the Confederate Army of the Potomac (which was a short-lived name for that Confederate army). The command that Garnett gained was a unit that was first put together by famous Confederate general Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. The brigade is better known as the Stonewall Brigade.

Taking over command of the Stonewall Brigade was an honor but it came with a price and Garnett would, unfortunately, pay that price heavily. The event that would derail Garnett’s career and give him bad luck with the brigade came at Kernstown.

The battle was somewhat of wash for the Confederates and it put Garnett and his men in a dangerous position. After much success, Garnett and the Stonewall Bridge found themselves in a precarious position that they almost weren’t able to get out of.

During the fight, Garnett and his men were ordered by Jackson to attack a Union force that was close to the same size as their command was. However, the size of the Union unit was underestimated and Garnett found himself going up against many more men than he had available. He was seriously outnumbered.

The men of Garnett’s command found themselves running out of ammunition and surrounded on three sides. If you know the history of the Stonewall Brigade, you will know that they were very brave fighters and stood tall in all the battles they were involved in. They earned that reputation from their former commander, Jackson. So, giving up and letting go was difficult.

But Garnett had no choice and had to order his men to retreat. Had he not done that, the entire command would have been captured. Garnett saved a lot of men but it would come at a price.

Jackson was outraged that Garnett retreated and felt that Garnett disobeyed his orders. Jackson thought that the commander of the Stonewall Brigade should have asked for permission to retreat instead of doing it on his own. In his angry reaction to the retreat, Jackson had Garnett arrested for neglecting his duty. He was relieved of command on April 1st of 1862.

Garnett was out of action for a while after his arrest. His court martial didn’t begin until August of 1862. When it began, the only witnesses against Garnett at that time were Jackson himself and his aide. There

are some records and letters available that discuss the varied aspects of the charges from both Jackson’s and Garnett’s sides and these are very interesting to read.

The coming of the battle of Second Bull put a stop to the court martial and gave Garnett a little bit of a reprieve. The commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee, told Jackson to let Garnett go. In a move to get Garnett out of the shadow of Jackson, Lee assigned him to General George E. Pickett’s brigade which was part of General James Longstreet’s corps. Garnett was given command of Pickett’s Brigade at the battle of Antietam.

Garnett did well at Antietam by some accounts performing actions that were mainly reserve actions. He and his men arrived at the town of Sharpsburg near noon on September 15th and held a position on the southwest slope of a place called Cemetery Hill. They stayed there until the morning of the 17th and departed after they were relieved by another brigade. The unit appears to have been attacked at some point by Union soldiers.

The details of the action are a little sketchy but it would appear that Garnett’s men were involved in some fighting just prior to the start of the major battle of Antietam. The battle that they were involved in was South Mountain. We should remember that Garnett had just taken over command of his men and may not have been familiar with every aspect of the unit.

The action at South Mountain, involving Garnett’s men, came as he and his troops found themselves in Hagerstown, Maryland the morning of the 14th of September. They hurried to Boonsboro and when they arrived at the base of South Mountain, Garnett’s soldiers were pushed to the top of the mountain in hurried fashion to help stop the onslaught coming from the Federal troops who were attacking Turner’s Gap. Garnett’s men helped stop the Union forces (under John Hatch) from taking the gap as well as the entire mountain.

Later that night, Garnett and his men were taken off the mountain.

Just a short few days after the battle of South Mountain, Garnett and his men were involved in the epic battle of Antietam. In the battle, Garnett commanded the regiments of the Eighth, Eighteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty Eighth and Fifty Sixth Virginia Volunteers.

In the early morning of the 17th, Garnett’s units were told to move to position on the southeastern side of the town of Sharpsburg to help give backup to some artillery batteries that were part of the famed Washington Artillery. During the next few hours, the men of the brigade came under heavy artillery fire and several soldiers were killed or wounded. They did, however, remain stout against the onslaught that they were facing and did not break amid extreme pressure.

After a while, the men of Garnett’s command were asked to move ahead towards the top of a hill to try to give a group of skirmishers the enemy had set forth to give the Confederates some resistance. As a result of this movement, the men of his command came under even heavier fire from Union artillery and the losses became greater. Some of Garnett’s men (those that had advanced) began to fall back and take cover.

The men continued the fight, however, as Garnett was asked to provide some additional troops to harass those Union soldiers that were firing on a new battery that had come up to take over for the Washington Artillery. Garnett obliged and sent his Fifty-Sixth Regiment over to cover the artillery. Soon

after, it was discovered that a large force of Union troops had come across Antietam Creek and were heading towards the 56th. Garnett needed to do something.

What he did was move him men forward in front of some guns and settled into a cornfield. Initially, an attack by several Union skirmishers was beaten off but a large force of Union troops came straight for Garnett’s men. Even though Garnett’s men were slim in number (an estimated 200) the combined effect of his men’s rifle fire and the fire from the artillery helped in beating back the Union troops. At least they beat them back in Garnett’s front. The Northern troops had managed to turn the Confederate’s right flank and the large force of Confederates was about to be enveloped by the Union force.

The artillery force that Garnett sought to protect started to withdraw and his troops soon followed. They fell into the roads north of Sharpsburg where troops from Lee’s army were in “pieces” trying to escape the oncoming Federal troops. Fortunes did turn the Confederate’s way however as elements of the army began to force the Union troops back. In an effort to help, some of Garnett’s men joined in to repel the Federal onslaught. Soon the threat from the Union forces was eliminated.

Garnett did well at Antietam as did his men. Following the battle Garnett was given full command of the brigade and was assigned to Pickett’s division full time. Pickett was promoted to brigade command.

The men of Garnett’s command fought at the battle of Fredericksburg in December of 1862. During the battle, Garnett and his brigade were present for the battle but not much is known about what they did during the fighting.

The battle of Chancellorsville was a battle that Garnett and his men, along with the whole First Corps (Longstreet’s Corps) of the Army of Northern Virginia missed out on. That part of the army was in Suffolk, Virginia during the battle.

Chancellorsville did influence Garnett what happened there may have saved his military career. During the battle, his accuser (for Kernstown), Jackson, was shot by his own men and died a short time later. With the death of Jackson, the accusations against Garnett went away and he was no longer being considered for the charges that were leveled against him.

But apparently, Garnett did not hold a grudge against Jackson. He was one of Jackson’s pallbearers at the funeral and didn’t have anything bad to say about him. Some thought he put it behind him but did he really?

The next big campaign for Garnett, and the one that would be his last, was Gettysburg. The campaign was a rough one for Garnett and ended even rougher for him as we all know. The details of that day and the few days’ prior are described further.

Garnett had an unfortunate thing happen to him during the trip to Gettysburg. He was kicked by his horse, Red Eye, and suffered quite a bit. He had a fever and the chills because of the injury (or perhaps another illness) and was not feeling his best during the campaign.

Garnett’s brigade, still part of Pickett’s division, had the dubious honor, along with the rest of the division, of bringing up the rear of the Army of Northern Virginia. When the fighting started in Gettysburg, the division was still a ways away and wouldn’t get to Gettysburg until the evening of the battle’s second day. The next day would be the culmination of many things. It would be the final bell for

the Army of Northern Virginia, it would give some a chance for glory and it would be Garnett’s high point and end point.

Lee had decided, on the third day, that the Union Army could be broken in its center along Cemetery Ridge. He had a few fresh troops left and the bulk of those troops would come from Pickett’s division of Longstreet’s Corps. This meant that Garnett and his men would be put into the thick of the fray and see a bulk of the action.

The details about Garnett’s actions at Gettysburg are somewhat confusing but there appears to be a consensus about what happened, at least leading up to his death.

The consensus detail of the hours prior to Garnett’s demise state that several people felt that Garnett was not in any condition to lead during the charge. It is said that General Lee ordered that all generals were not to ride on horseback during the advance and this could have put a damper on Garnett’s plans to participate in the charge with his brigade due to the previously mentioned injury. It looked as if Garnett would have to sit this one out.

The problems Garnett went through at Kernstown and the subsequent chastising by Jackson made him a little skittish at Gettysburg. He did not want to sit the charge out for fear of being called a “coward” or losing his honor. Although he appeared not to hold a grudge against Jackson the whole event had scarred him. He was going to make this charge no matter what. He had to do it for himself.

Garnett made it known that he was going to participate in the charge despite the fact some fellow officers, including his equal Lewis Armistead, complained and told him that he should not make the charge. Garnett’s honor was at stake, at least in his own mind it was.

He did make a comment prior to the start of the battle that is mentioned in several publications and even (as of three years ago) has been painted on a wall at the museum in the Gettysburg Visitors center at the Gettysburg National Military Park. Just before Garnett was to make his famed movement towards the Union lines, he turned to his equal, brigadier general Lewis Armistead, and said “This is a desperate thing to attempt”. Armistead is said to have replied “the slaughter will be terrible”.

Soon everyone would discover just how right Garnett and Armistead would be.

Against orders, Garnett mounted his big black horse Red Eye, made his way to the front of his brigade and rode forward as the charge began. Many felt, and this was probably true, that he would make the perfect target for Union riflemen as he approached the line.

The story of how Garnett was killed varies. Depending on what you read (and what you watch) there are about two consensus theories on how he died. The overall and accepted view on how he died is that he got close to the Angle (the point in the Union line where the wall that the men were behind took a sharp turn) and then disappeared. Most believe he was cut down by rifle fire.

One account has Garnett getting shot down by rifle fire close to the Union line. They say his body fell among the scores of dead around him and that he was buried in a mass grave with other Confederate soldiers. Another account has Garnett getting close to the Union line, atop his horse, and then getting shot from it by canister fire. It’s said that his body was disintegrated and that he was not easily identifiable. It was said that his horse returned to the rear with a lot of blood on it.

We may never know what really happened to Garnett. What we do know is that he never made it out of the charge alive, falling bravely in front of the Union lines.

The details of where Garnett’s body is buried are pretty sound. Many, almost the consensus, say that his body is interred with several other Confederates from Gettysburg in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. There is a marker to his name at the cemetery that reads:

“Among the Confederate soldiers’ graves in this area is the probable resting place of Brigadier General Richard Brooke Garnett C.S.A. who was killed in action July 3, 1863 as he led his brigade in the charge of Pickett’s division on the final day of the battle of Gettysburg. First buried on the battlefield, General Garnet remains were likely removed to this area in 1872 along with other Confederate dead brought from Gettysburg by the Hollywood Memorial Association. Requiescat in pace Richard Brooke Garnett 1817-1863”

The story of Garnett does not end with his death. There is one more little piece of the story that should be told.

Along with the mystery of how Garnett died there was also a mystery of what happened to his sword. You would have thought that as soldiers and others who crossed the battlefield and searched among the dead would have found some kind of indication of who Garnett was (where his body was) but for several years after the battle no one had any idea where he was at or where he was buried.

About 30 years after Garnett’s death, a former Confederate general named George H. Steurt was in a pawn shop in Baltimore when he discovered something familiar. He found the sword of Garnett in the pawn shop and bought it. On the sword were the initials R.B. Garnett, U.S.A identifying that it was Garnett’s. The sword was the one that Garnett had received while he was at West Point and he had it with him when he and his fellow officers gave their allegiance and went to fight for the the Confederate States of America. It was with him when he died at Gettysburg.

Steuart had made an attempt to find Garnett’s family but he died before he could locate them. About two years later (Steuart died in 1903) his nephew had found the wife of Colonel John B. Purcell, a niece of Garnett, and gave her the sword. Now while this is not a great mystery in and of itself, the mystery of how that sword wound up in the pawn shop is pretty intresting to consider. We will never know but how it came from the battle field to the pawn shop would be something fascinating to find out.

The story of Garnett is a sad one. Garnett had a family, he had a son that he may have forgotted. He left his family to continue his military career and fight in the greatest war in all of American history. He had alligences to the Union but, in the end, he gave up those allegiences to fight for his native state of Virginia. It was Virginia to whom he had a greater dedication to than anything else. He was not a die hard secessionist by any means but, like so many former Federal officers that sided with the Confederacy, his allegiance was to his home state and that is side he chose.

Perhaps the saddest part of Garnett’s life is that he had to do what he did for honor. He knew that if he didn’t ride into the face of the enemy on the afternoon of July the 3rd 1863 he might not be able to shake the allegations of cowardice that Jackson had brought against him. He may have felt, that in other people’s eyes, he still had something to prove and he was going to prove it that afternoon. Proving his honor and squashing any remaining doubts about that honor cost him his life.

The legend of Garnett was brought up again over the past few years as some noted scholars debated over whether or not a photo, that had been contributed to being Garnett, was actually him. Another photo had surfaced recently that is said to be that of Garnett as well. The original photo of Garnett depicts a solider with dark hair and a beard. The new photo shows someone with light hair and no beard. Some accounts state that Garnett had dark hair.

We may never know what Garnett really looked like.

The movie Gettysburg did a nice job of portraying the plight of Garnett. You can see his being injured was depeicted and in a scene him talking about his honor was shown. The movie doesn’t give the full story of Garnett but it shows him enough to pique your interest and want to know more about him.

This writer has the honor of being related to Garnett (as well as his cousin Robert Garnett) through family relation.

The story of Garnett is a tragic one but it is one typical of the Civil War. A solider fights for his country and bravely died in the process. There are many stories like that and they all deserve to be told.