At forty-six, Lewis Armistead (pronounced "UM-sted" in nineteenth-century Virginia) was Pickett's eldest brigadier. His nickname was "Lo" to his friends, short for "Lothario," which was meant to be a joke--unlike the Shakespearean lover, he was a widower with a shy and silent mien. He was gray above a receding hairline, and his hair and grizzled beard were close-cropped, rather unusual for that woolly time.
Armistead came from a military family--his father and four uncles had fought in the War of 1812, and it was one of those uncles who had commanded Fort McHenry during the attack witnessed by Francis Scott Key. Young Lewis was sent to West Point to continue the family tradition, but was forced to leave: he was expelled for breaking a plate over the head of fellow cadet Jubal Early, but he would soon have been forced to leave anyway--he was failing in his studies on account of insufficient preparation. Despite this setback, he refused to be denied a career as a soldier, and was commissioned directly into the infantry in 1839 at the age of twenty-two. He distinguished himself in the Mexican war, where he was wounded at Chapultapec and earned two commendations for bravery. Otherwise, he spent his pre-war years in the Old Army's frontier posts. When the South seceded, Armistead had been in the army for twenty-two years, but had risen only to captain of infantry due to the glacial promotion rate of the peacetime army.
Armistead was posted in the little adobe village of Los Angeles when the war began, and on June 15, 1861, Capt. Winfield S. Hancock's wife gave a party for the several officers that had resigned their commissions and were about to leave to join the Confederate army. Despite the awkward situation, everyone parted good friends. As the party was breaking up, Col. Albert Sidney Johnston's wife sat down at the piano, and sang "Kathleen Malvourneen." (A song of loss, the lyrics went "It may be for years, and it may be forever.") According to Mrs. Hancock, Captain Armistead walked across to his host, and put his hands on his friend's shoulders as the tears streamed down, and said, "Hancock, good-by; you can never know what this has cost me."
In mid-September 1861, back in Richmond after a grueling cross-country trek, Armistead was made colonel of the 57th Virginia volunteer regiment. The next April, before he had seen any fighting, he was promoted to brigadier general and given command of a brigade, which was serving near Norfolk in southeastern Virginia. Moving his brigade to Richmond when the Peninsula Campaign began, he fought first at the Battle of Seven Pines where, during the Federal counterattack on the second day, his regiments retreated, leaving Armistead alone to face an entire enemy brigade with only about thirty stalwart men. This courageous episode was noted admiringly by Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill in his report after the battle. A month later, at the Battle of Malvern Hill, Armistead was chosen to spearhead the attack after the Confederate artillery had softened up the Federal position, indicating that Lee had faith in Armistead's ability and judgment. As it happened, Armistead's unfortunate brigade lost 388 men in one of the worst-conceived and -executed assaults of the war.
At Second Manassas in August 1862, Armistead was situated on the extreme right of Longstreet's assaulting corps. As the last to come in contact with the retreating Federals, it was dark before he was called upon by Maj. Gen. "Jeb" Stuart, his superior on the scene, to deliver an attack against the stiffening enemy resistance. Armistead refused, believing that a night attack would be futile and the danger of collision with friendly infantry too great. This episode serves as an indication of Armistead's backbone and belief in his own judgment; also, perhaps, a cautious nature.
Twenty-two years of Old Army service had made Armistead crusty and blunt, qualities which didn't endear him to the numerous civilians in the officers corps of the volunteer Confederate army. One of his colonels quit, stating that "on every occasion Brig. Gen. Armistead's manner and tone are so offensive and insulting that I can but believe he . . . wishes to force me to resign." Armistead replied, "I have felt obliged to speak to him as one military man would to another and as I have passed nearly all my life in camps my manner may not be understood or appreciated by one who has been all his life a civilian." A good indication that Armistead was widely known to be a hard-bitten, no-nonsense soldier was the fact that during the Maryland Campaign, from September 6 to September 26, Lee made Armistead the army's provost marshal--its "chief of police." It was a frustrating assignment--desertions were then at their peak in the Army of Northern Virginia, due to exhaustion, lack of shoes, bad diet, and many men's belief that invasion of the North was wrong--and General Lee evidently felt he needed a notoriously tough man to keep straggling to a minimum.
Armistead was back at the head of his brigade at the Battle of Fredericksburg, where the entire division held in reserve. The division missed the battle of Chancellorsville, being detached to Suffolk in southeastern Virginia.
By the early summer of 1863, Armistead was known for his toughness, sound judgment and great personal courage. However, his brigade had the least contact with the enemy of any in the Army of Northern Virginia over the previous year. Armistead and his men, with their unfortunate experiences at Seven Pines and Malvern Hill a full year past, were in fine fettle and eager for another chance to get at the Yankees.
| Armistead was with the rest of Pickett's division at Chambersburg in
the army's rear on July 1.|
On July 2, Armistead shared the division's march toward Gettysburg, going into bivouac in the late afternoon a few miles east of town, and was spared any fighting.
On the morning of July 3, Armistead and his men, along with those of Brig. Gens. Richard Garnett and James Kemper, were brought forward, finally lying down in a swale just east of Spangler's Woods, behind a low ridge on which was perched a line of Rebel artillery. For the coming assault on the Union center on Cemetery Ridge, Armistead's brigade was deployed alone in Pickett's second line, behind Garnett and Kemper.
During the nearly two-hour artillery duel between 1 and 3 o'clock in the afternoon, Armistead exposed himself dangerously to the hissing Union metal. One of his men rose to protest, fearing the general would be killed, but Armistead ordered him back down, saying, "Never mind me; we want men with guns in their hands."
After the artillery had subsided, the infantrymen stood and prepared for the assault which would be known forever as "Pickett's Charge." Armistead addressed his men briefly with his usual speech: "Men, remember your wives, your mothers, you sisters and your sweethearts." As his brigade started forward in precise synchronization with the rest of the division, Armistead, going forward on foot, took his old black slouch hat off his close-cropped, grizzled head, placed it on the point of his sword, and held it high for the men to see and follow. Unfortunately, the point of the sword soon pierced the fabric, and the hat descended slowly along the blade, finally resting on the hilt. It sat on his fist as Armistead approached the Union lines, until he put it again at the tip. By the time Armistead had crossed the Emmitsburg Road and his men were trading musketry fire with the Union men in front of the Clump of Trees immediately in his front, he was the only brigadier left to lead the division--Garnett and Kemper were both down. As he reached the stone wall, sensing that his men were hesitating, Armistead called out, "Come on boys, give them the cold steel! Who will follow me?" He stepped over the wall toward a battery of abandoned Union guns, and somewhere between 100 and 300 of his men followed him across the barrier, where they faced a solid line of blue regiments with flashing rifles. This is the moment which would become famous as the High-water Mark of the Confederacy. Just before reaching one of the Union guns, Armistead was hit by three bullets in the chest and arm. He staggered forward, put his hand on a cannon to steady himself, then fell.
Armistead was carried into the Union lines and taken to a surgeon, who later described him as "seriously wounded, completely exhausted, and seemingly broken-spirited." The doctor told Armistead that he was dying. Armistead then spoke words whose meaning would later be heatedly debated by both sides: "Say to General Hancock for me, that I have done him, and you all, a grievous injury, which I shall always regret." He died two days later in a Union hospital.
For further reading:
Krick, Robert K. "Armistead and Garnett." in Gary Gallagher, ed., The Third Day at Gettysburg and Beyond, Chapel Hill, 1994
Motts, Wayne "Trust in God and Fear Nothing": Gen. Lewis A. Armistead. CSA, Gettysburg, 1994
Myers, J. Jay. "Who Will Follow Me?" Civil War Times 32, Jul/Aug 1993
Poindexter, James E. "Address on the Life and Services of Gen. Lewis A. Armistead." Southern Historical Society Papers 37, 1909. Reprint, Wilmington, 1991