Johnston Pettigrew--he dropped his first name for most purposes--was more scholar than soldier; his intellectual accomplishments were probably the highest of any man on the field at Gettysburg. He was also slender and handsome, with shining black hair, meticulously pointed mustache, fastidiously groomed beard, dark eyes, a high intelligent forehead, and a dark complexion indicating his French Huguenot ancestry. July 4th would be his thirty-fifth birthday, and he had already achieved recognition as an author, lawyer, diplomat, linguist, and legislator. Bright to the point of genius, Pettigrew was a renaissance man whose capacity to learn new things and acquire new abilities was apparently inexhaustible. It therefore came as a surprise to nobody that he developed into an excellent military officer.

Born into a wealthy North Carolina family, Pettigrew grew up on a Tyrell County plantation that stretched along the Scuppernong River. His early education was by private tutors at the family homestead--named "Bonarva"--and was aimed at a professional, not military career. He attended the University of North Carolina, where he made the best grades ever recorded there. Besides excelling in mathematics, the classical languages, and the liberal arts, he was graceful and athletic, and led his class in fencing, boxing, and the single stick (a kind of fencing). After graduating at the age of nineteen, he was immediately appointed--by no less than President James K. Polk--to an assistant professorship at the Naval Observatory in Washington. When later he decided to take up law, he studied in Baltimore, after which he entered the firm of his uncle, who was dean of the bar in Charleston, South Carolina.

His uncle proved hard to get along with, and young Johnston left to study civil law in Germany. He traveled extensively in Europe, and became proficient in French, German, Italian and Spanish, with a reading knowledge of Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic. He spent seven years abroad, writing a travel book--Notes on Spain and the Spaniards--and spending some time in diplomatic service.

After his sojourn in Europe, Pettigrew returned to his practice in Charleston. He entered politics and was elected to the state legislature in 1856. Within his reach, many thought, was any goal--Chief Justice, even President. But the winds of war were blowing too strongly to ignore. Pettigrew sensed the coming hostilities, and was named colonel of the 1st Regiment of Rifles, a Charleston militia outfit. The regiment occupied the harbor forts, and in April 1861 took part in the bombardment of Fort Sumter. With the war an accomplished fact, the militia unit was disbanded, and Pettigrew, eager to fight at any rank, enlisted as a private in Hampton's Legion as it headed for Virginia. Word got around among his North Carolina friends, however, that he had been seen at a railroad station traveling to Virginia with the Legion without so much as a corporal's stripes, and soon he was elected colonel of the 12th North Carolina Regiment (later redesignated the 22nd North Carolina).

During the inactivity of the next few months in the East, Pettigrew was offered a brigadier generalship, which he declined, protesting that he lacked combat experience. Both President Davis and General Joseph E. Johnston had noticed him, however, and when the offer was renewed in February 1862, Pettigrew accepted. He was given command of a brigade, and he fought with it on the Peninsula at Yorktown, then at Seven Pines, where he was hit by a bullet which entered the lower part of his throat, struck his windpipe, passed under his collarbone, and tore the bones of his shoulder. The bullet cut an artery, and Pettigrew nearly bled to death. While he lay helpless, he received another bullet wound in the arm and was bayoneted in the right leg. Believing his wounds mortal, the young general didn't permit any men to leave the ranks to carry him to the rear. Left for dead on the field, he recovered consciousness in a Federal prison camp and was exchanged in August, to find that his brigade had been given to Brig. Gen. Dorsey Pender. That fall and winter, he commanded a brigade in Southern Virginia and North Carolina, but saw little action.

On May 30, 1863, Pettigrew's brigade and Joseph Davis's Mississippi brigade were traded to the Army of Northern Virginia for two of Lee's veteran brigades which had been depleted by the Battle at Chancellorsville (after a period of negotiation and "bargaining" between the leaders of the respective theaters, and involving President Davis and the governor of North Carolina). This would be Pettigrew's first service under Lee (he been wounded on the Peninsula the day before Lee took command of the Virginia army nearly one year before). The two new brigades were assigned to Maj. Gen. Harry Heth's new division. Pettigrew was by far the most dynamic, though one of the least experienced, of Heth's four brigade commanders. He was also the senior brigadier, and would take Heth's place if anything happened to him, although he was entirely unacquainted with the division.

Those who remembered Pettigrew from the Peninsula were glad to have him back in the army for the Gettysburg Campaign. One who knew him well characterized him: "Pettigrew seemed to have every attribute of a great soldier, uniting with the brightest mind and an active body a disposition which had him the idol of his men, and a courage which nothing could daunt. He was so full of theoretical knowledge that I think it really impaired his usefulness, but experience, which he was getting fast, would soon have corrected that . . . ." Another who tented near him for several months described him: "He was quick in his movements and quick in his perception and in his decision. . . . His habit was to pace restlessly up and down in front of his tent with a cigar in his mouth which he never lighted. . . . As gentle and modest as a woman, there was [about him] an undoubted capacity to command, which obtained for Pettigrew instant obedience." He was "courteous, kindly and chivalric," and "unfailingly a gentleman."

At Gettysburg
After being the first brigade in the army to make contact with Union cavalry outposts east of Gettysburg the previous day, Pettigrew's men were third in Heth's division's column of march along the Chambersburg Pike on July 1. Pettigrew thereby missed the disastrous morning battle fought between Heth's two lead brigades and crack Federal infantry on McPherson's Ridge. When Heth reformed his division on Herr Ridge around noon, Pettigrew was put into line on the right of Brockenbrough's brigade, whose left touched the Chambersburg Pike. Guarding Pettigrew's right were the dazed regiments of Archer's brigade, so roughly handled that morning. At 2:30 P.M., Pettigrew received the order to attack the Federals on McPherson's ridge a few hundred yards to the east, and his large 2500-man brigade sprang forward with Brockenbrough's men. The fighting which followed between the North Carolinians and the Yankee defenders--the legendary Iron Brigade with the help of Biddle's brigade--was some of the most desperately fought and bloodiest of the war. The two lines tore at each other for an hour, at times the muzzles of the guns almost touching. Hundreds of casualties piled up on both sides. Pettigrew's men finally pried the Federals off the ridge, but were themselves too fought out to pursue.

Pettigrew received word during the fight that General Heth had been wounded and that he was now in command of the division. There was little he could do until 3:30 P.M., when the Union men had retreated sullenly to the next ridge to the east. At that point, Pettigrew recalled his brigade and let Pender's division take up the attack. The division Pettigrew inherited was bled white by the day's head-on attacks--it had lost more than 40% of its strength. He moved the remnants of his four stricken brigades back to Herr Ridge to bivouac for the night.

There the division spent the entire day of July 2, recovering stragglers, mending the wounded, and burying the dead. That evening the division was moved forward to the western slope of Seminary Ridge.

On July 3, the Pettigrew's division was brought back into the battle. Lee was looking for a large unit, a whole division, which he could employ alongside Pickett's in an all-or-nothing assault on the enemy center. Pettigrew's brigades were chosen, apparently, for two reasons: they were already near the position whence the attack would be launched, and they had not fought at all the previous day. This was a grievous error; Lee had no idea how terribly the division had been shattered on July 1, or he undoubtedly would have chosen a fitter group. Pettigrew's brigades were moved forward to Seminary Ridge, just north of Spangler's Woods, a few hundred yards to the left and slightly to the rear of Pickett's division. From left to right (north to south), they were positioned as follows: Brockenbrough's brigade, Davis's, Pettigrew's, and Archer's. The brigades were put in two lines, one about a hundred yards behind the other, with half the men of each regiment in front and the other half behind, so that when the lines inevitably crushed together, regimental integrity would be preserved.

At 3 o'clock in the afternoon, when the two-hour bombardment of the Union line went silent, Pettigrew stepped over to Col. J.K. Marshall, now commanding his brigade, and cried out, "Now, colonel, for the honor of the good old North State, forward!" The division, numbering at the time around 4500 men, moved forward, first through woods, then breaking into the open. As the division emerged from the trees, Pettigrew out in front saw to his horror that Brockenbrough's and Davis's brigades were missing on the left, but soon they broke from the woods and hurried forward to their places in line. Brockenbrough's men, however, coming under fire from the left, soon ran back into the woods. The three remaining brigades strode forward until they got within canister and musket range, when, one colonel wrote, "everything was a wild kaleidoscopic whirl." Pettigrew's horse was shot, and he continued forward on foot. As the Confederates approached the thundering Union line, Pettigrew was a hundred yards or so from the stone wall when the bones of his right hand were crushed by a canister shot. Despite the pain, he remained on the field. The tattered remnants of many of his regiments got within feet of the wall, only to surrender. Men in blue crowded forward on the left and leveled a cross-fire at the Confederates huddled in front. After a few minutes of this slaughter Pettigrew's survivors turned singly and in small groups and staggered back across the Emmitsburg Road to their starting places on Seminary Ridge. The Battle of Gettysburg was over.

Johnston Pettigrew would live only a few days more. On July 14 at Falling Waters, as the Rebel army was recrossing the Potomac, he was in command of a portion of the rearguard when Union cavalry attacked. His horse plunged, and due to his Gettysburg injury, he fell with it. Rising, a pistol shot hit him in the abdomen on the left side just above the hip, passed downward, and came out his back. Refusing to be captured even though it meant more immediate care, he was taken across the river in a litter. He died two days later.

For further reading:
Wilson, Clyde N., Jr. Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew. Athens, GA, 1990
_____. "'The Most Promising Young Man of the South': James J. Pettigrew." Civil War Times Illustrated 11, Feb 1973

Excerpted from "The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America's Greatest Battle" by Larry Tagg