In the careers of the officers of the Army of Northern Virginia, there was no hint of Robert E. Lee's personal patronage except in the case of one man--"Harry" Heth. Heth (pronounced to rhyme with "teeth") was easy to like for a man such as Lee--he had Lee's social background, was West Point and Old Army, and of the finest character. Thirty-seven years old, Heth was in addition personally attractive, both socially charming and good looking--of medium height, with lank brown hair and mustache, high cheekbones, strong chin and deep-set eyes. He was strongly opinionated, but one who was able to see his own weaknesses and not take himself too seriously. That Lee had a strong affection for Heth was obvious to everyone--Heth was the only officer Lee ever called by his first name.
Heth, a cousin of Maj. Gen. George Pickett, was born near Richmond of good "Old Dominion" stock. His grandfather had been an officer in the Revolution, and his father an officer in the navy in the War of 1812. Heth was educated in private schools until he accepted an appointment to West Point from President Tyler. There he disappointed, graduating dead last in the class of 1847 (the same class as his boyhood friend, Powell Hill). Heth went on to be a dutiful soldier, spending the next fourteen years in frontier outposts, slowly compiling a creditable record and rising to the rank of captain of infantry. He was married in 1857, with Hill as his groomsman.
Heth resigned his commission when Fort Sumter was bombarded, and was immediately employed by General Robert E. Lee as Acting Quartermaster General for the Virginia army. In those early days of mobilization for war, Heth only served as quartermaster for about a month--until the end of May, 1861--but in that short time he made a lasting impression--Lee thereafter interested himself in Heth's advancement as he did for no other man.
After his quartermaster assignment, Heth was made colonel of the 45th Virginia regiment and assigned to Western Virginia, where he would labor for the next year. He was first put under Brig. Gen. John B. Floyd, serving as Floyd's inspector general in addition to leading his own regiment. In January 1862 he was promoted to brigadier general and assigned to the defense of Lewisburg in Western Virginia, gateway to the Kanawha Road through the Allegheny Mountains. There, in a small action on May 23, 1862, his entire command routed away. The instructive thing about the episode is that, in a war where officers routinely went to great lengths in their reports to disguise poor performances of their units, Heth, with admirable candor, freely admitted the disgraceful panic and flight of his command in his report of the battle.
The embarrassing affair did not affect his reputation. In the summer of 1862--at the same time the Virginia army was seeing its first heavy fighting on the Peninsula--Heth was assigned to Maj. Gen. Kirby Smith's army in East Tennessee. He commanded a division in the Perryville Campaign in the late summer and fall of 1862. (Heth saw no combat in the campaign because General Braxton Bragg fought the Perryville battle before Kirby Smith's force arrived.) In January 1863 Heth was appointed commander of the Department of East Tennessee.
A month later Heth was requested by Lee to join the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee evidently lobbied hard for Heth's assignment to Jackson's corps--Jackson wrote to Lee at one point, "From what you have said respecting General Heth, I have been desirous that he should report for duty." On March 5, 1863 Heth was given command of Field's brigade, which had been languishing under the lackluster command of Col. John Brockenbrough since Field's wounding at Second Bull Run the summer before. Heth stepped in as senior brigadier in his friend, now Maj. Gen. Powell Hill's Light Division, a development that must have rankled the erstwhile senior Brig. General Dorsey Pender--Heth had never fought in a full-scale pitched battle, whereas Pender had fought hard with the Light Division the whole bloody year, with wounds to prove it.
Heth commanded his new brigade for the first time at Chancellorsville in May 1863. There, determined to show dashing qualities in his first action with the Army of Northern Virginia, he attempted an unsupported counterattack of the Federal Regular Division emerging from the Wilderness on the battle's first day. (He was saved from a nasty repulse by a quick-witted captain who volunteered to lead a probe with two regiments, a probe which was greeted by ferocious fire from long lines of Yankees hidden in the woods.) The next evening, Heth inherited temporary command of the division when Hill was wounded. Heth himself was slightly wounded later in the battle, but he retained command to the end of the fight, prompting a commendation for "heroic conduct" from the acting corps commander, Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart. His performance standing in for Hill had not been brilliant, but he had at least proven himself steady and reliable while fighting on a scale he had never before experienced.
On May 24, Hill was promoted to the leadership of the new Third Corps. After he left Lee's tent on that day, Hill sat down and wrote a letter concerning the leadership of the divisions in his new command. He was especially concerned that his beloved Light Division would be led by the right man. "Of General Heth," he wrote, "I have but to say that I consider him a most excellent officer, and gallant soldier, and had he been with the Division through all its hardships, and acquired the confidence of the men, there is no man I had rather see promoted than he." Having said that, he went on to recommend Pender for the post. Hill then suggested what Lee had in fact already decided to do: have two brigades from the Light Division--Archer's and Heth's (which would once again pass to Brockenbrough)--be united with two other brigades brought up from the Carolinas to form a new division to be commanded by Heth, who would be promoted along with Pender.
Heth had so many old friends and had made new ones so quickly with his captivating manner that there was no complaint when he was made major general after such a brief time with the Army of Northern Virginia. After the march of Lee's army into Pennsylvania in June, the inexperienced Heth led Hill's Third Corps toward Gettysburg to get shoes on July 1. Though Pender and his division were the proper spearhead division of Hill's corps, Heth's brand-new division was camped closest to the objective, and Heth specifically asked for the assignment. He expected no more fighting than it took to brush aside a cavalry outpost. Whatever should happen, he was undoubtedly anxious to justify Lee's hopes for him, and his new major general's insignia.
| Heth's troops were on the Chambersburg Pike toward Gettysburg by 5
o'clock on the morning of July 1. An artillery battalion was in the lead (a
careless choice, showing that Heth expected no serious trouble), followed by
Archer's brigade, then Davis, Pettigrew, and Brockenbrough. At 7:30 A.M.,
cavalry outposts were spotted about three miles east of Gettysburg and the
first shots of the battle were fired. The cavalry were slowly pushed back
about a mile to Herr Ridge, and when that eminence was secured, Heth deployed
Archer on the south side of the Pike and Davis on the north side, both facing
east. The artilley were unlimbered on the crest. By that time it was 9:30
Heth then gave the battle line the order to advance without bringing up the rest of the division--a costly mistake. By the time his two brigades had worked their way across the shallow valley in their front and ascended McPherson's Ridge, they were surprised to meet the two just-arrived brigades of the crack First Division, First Corps of the Army of the Potomac. In this initial confrontation, which lasted until about 11:30 A.M., Archer's brigade was routed, losing about 600 men, including many captured--among them Brig. Gen. James J. Archer himself. Davis's brigade fared no better. After a promising beginning, Brig. Gen. Joe Davis was thrown back with similar losses, including large numbers captured in the Railroad Cut. Heth's shoe expedition had turned into a foray, and the foray had stumbled into a disaster. His poor judgment and recklessness had committed Lee to the battle he expressly wished to avoid until his army was concentrated.
There was a noontime lull in the fighting while Heth sent back the news to Hill and reformed his lines on Herr Ridge, bringing up Pettigrew and Brockenbrough and sending his two damaged brigades to the flanks--Archer to the right and Davis to the left. In the meantime Rode's division had come up on Oak Hill and attacked the Union defenders on McPherson's Ridge from the north, and Lee had arrived with Lieut. Gen. A.P. Hill to survey the situation. At 2:30 P.M., watching Rodes's attack and seeing Pender's division available to support Heth's men, Lee saw an opportunity and gave the order for Heth to renew his attack. Heth threw his division forward in a head-on assault in concert with Rodes. Col. John Brockenbrough's Virginians struck the Yankee "Bucktail Brigade" near the Pike, and Pettigrew's regiments met the Iron Brigade and another Union brigade further south. Both sides suffered horribly in the desperate fighting which raged on McPherson's Ridge over the next hour. Great holes were torn in Heth's lines, fighting and dying at distances of only a few paces from the Union muzzles (one of Pettigrew's regiments alone lost 687 men), but Heth neglected to ask for support from Pender's division when it might have spared his own men much suffering.
At this moment, Heth too became a casualty, victim of a bullet which struck him in the head and cracked his skull open. His life was saved because, a couple of days earlier, he had gotten a new felt hat, one of dozens captured in Cashtown. Since the hat was too large, his quartermaster had doubled up a dozen or so sheets of foolscap paper and stuffed them inside the hat, insuring a snug fit. "I am confidently of the belief that my life was saved by this paper in my hat," Heth wrote later. As it was, Heth was knocked unconscious for a full 24 hours. Although he insisted groggily on sitting in on Lee's consultations with his officers the next day, Heth's part in the battle was over. His brigades, meanwhile, had been shattered. Nearly half the men in the division had been cut down in Heth's clumsy head-on rushes.
Heth was not publicly chided for his recklessness, however, perhaps because such lapses were so general in the Army of Northern Virginia over those three July days, perhaps because of his special relationship with Lee. Heth was back in command by July 7, and directed the fight at Falling Waters as Lee's army recrossed the Potomac. He commanded his division until the final surrender, and briefly took command of the entire corps during the final winter while Hill was on sick leave.
For further reading:
Connelly, Thomas. An Irishman in Dixie. Columbia, SC, 1988
Hassler, William W. "Lee's Hard-Luck General." Civil War Times Illustrated 5, Jul 1966
Morrison, James L., Jr. "The Memoirs of Henry Heth." Civil War History 3, Mar 1962
_____, ed. The Memoirs of Henry Heth. Westport, CN, 1974