Lewis Armistead, Reluctant Confederate General

At Gettysburg, Confederate General Lewis Armistead prepared his troops for Pickett's Charge. Read this article for facts and hisorical events.

Brigadier General Lewis Armistead stood at the edge of the woods on Seminary Ridge staring at the Union troops massed along the dim spine of a hill peeking through the battle smoke, just across the Emmitsburg Road. He wondered if his best friend, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, might, even now, be looking back at his position from that very same ridge. Armistead knew that Hancock was there, all right, commanding General Meade's II Corps. He and his men were a part of the terrible battle of Gettysburg, just like Armistead and his Virginians.

Orders had come down from Robert E. Lee that morning. Fifteen thousand Confederate troops, under the command of General George Pickett, would mount a massive charge across the open field in an attempt to break the Union line. It was hot that July 3, 1863 -- terribly hot and Meade thought the two previous days of intense battle at Gettysburg might have tuckered out the Confederates and forced them to catch their breath.

He was dead wrong.

Shortly after noon, E.P. Alexander's massed artillery opened up on the Federal line and were quickly answered by Union cannon. Black powder smoke hugged the ground in the still, stifling air. Occasionally a stray shell whistled through the trees over Armistead's head, shattering branches and spraying the waiting troops with showers of leaves and splinters. Armistead felt certain that if he survived the charge across that mile and a quarter of open field with his Virginians, he would have a reunion with his old friend. Unfortunately it wouldn't be a pleasant one -- for either of them.

It was no surprise that Lewis Addison Armistead, considering all of the tragedy in his life, would find himself in such an untenable situation. Life had dealt him some staggering blows. The real miracle was that Armistead had weathered all these storms with his gentle nature still in tact. A quiet, sensitive man, Armistead hated the war but, like many others of the era, was loyal to his home state. His was a Virginian and, above all else, his honor dictated that he would defend her to the death.

Armistead was born on February 18, 1817, and grew up on the family farm near Upperville, Virginia. His father was General Walker Keith Armistead. His mother, Elizabeth Stanly, was the sister of North Carolina Congressman Edward Stanly. With such connections it wasn't difficult for the elder Armistead to secure an appointment to West Point for his son. But twice young Armistead was forced to resign. The first time, he became ill and lost so much class time that he would not be able to complete the year. The second time he whacked a fellow classmate, future Confederate general Jubal Early, over the head with a mess hall plate.

In spite of setbacks Armistead, through the influence of his father, was appointed as a Second Lieutenant to the 6th U.S. Infantry Regiment and went to Florida to fight the Seminole Indians. After serving three years in Florida, he was assigned to Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis.

The year of 1844 was very special for Armistead. It was then that he not only married Cecilia Lee Love, but he met Hancock for the first time. The Armisteads had two children. In the meantime, Armistead went off with Hancock to fight in the Mexican War. When he returned, he was assigned recruitment duty in Kentucky.

Then, in 1849, it was discovered that Armistead was suffering from Erysipelas, a skin disease that was destroying tissue. An operation removed the diseased tissue.

The next year he lost both his wife and their four-year-old daughter. Then the Armistead farm in Virginia burned to the ground and the family lost everything they owned. Armistead applied for a leave to return to Virginia and help his family. While there, he married a second time. But his happiness was short-lived. A year later, the couple lost an infant daughter. A year after that, his second wife died in a cholera epidemic. Armistead had lost two wives, two children, and the family farm in less than six years.

When Fort Sumter was fired on in April, 1861, Armistead and Hancock were stationed in Los Angeles, California. The regular army officers were forced to choose up sides. Some of course, would fight for the Union. Others like Armistead, with loyalties to the South, would fight for the Confederacy. On the night of their departure, those officers going south bade a tearful farewell to their comrades. Armistead gave Hancock's wife, Almira, his prayer book with "Trust In God And Fear Nothing" inscribed inside. To Hancock, he gave a new major's uniform.

Throughout the war, Armistead saw nothing of Hancock -- that is, until Gettysburg. Now there they were -- two old friends -- just a bit over a mile apart, but on opposite sides of a battlefield, poised to annihilate each other.

General James Longstreet had opposed Lee's plan for a charge from the every beginning and told him, quite bluntly, that not even 15,000 troops could take the well-entrenched Union position. It would be a massacre. But Lee was stubborn and when Pickett asked Longstreet for permission to charge the position, Longstreet could only bow his head.

"Charge the enemy and remember old Virginia," the flamboyant Pickett shouted, waving his hat. In an instant, 15,000 butternut troops began marching across the open field toward Cemetery Ridge.

The carnage was appalling. The Confederates marched steadily into the face of Union fire and were slaughtered by the bushel. Armistead led his troops gallantly, his campaign hat skewered on the tip of his sword, held high for all to see. By the time the Confederates reached the wall, fully two-thirds of their number were casualties. Just as Armistead crossed the wall, he was shot down.

As he lay bleeding, resting against the wheel of a cannon, Armistead asked after Hancock and was told that his friend was also wounded. "Not both of us on the same day!" Armistead cried. Then he said to Captain Henry Bingham, Hancock's aide, "Tell General Hancock from me. that I have done him and you all a grave injustice."

Although Armistead's wounds were not considered life-threatening, he died two days later at a field hospital. He was worn out and mentally exhausted. It was said that Lewis Armistead simply died of a broken heart -- the most tragic irony of all.

Hancock, on the other hand, lived to fight another day.

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