BRIGADIER GENERAL JAMES JOHNSTON PETTIGREW

tmh10

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CONFEDERATEE THIRD CORPS, HETH'S DIVISION, PETTIGREW'S BRIGADE 2,577 men
BRIGADIER GENERAL JAMES JOHNSTON PETTIGREW



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
 

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tmh10

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Just a reminder that the loss in numbers also tragic in that it includes the loss of men like this who would probably have contributed great things to society, had he survived the war.
 

Silverfox

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Good post---Interesting----I had a relative wounded in the charge-- was with Pettigrew----He was a Lieutenant at the time---All did their duty. One does wonder in how many ways would a man like Pettigrew have contributed.
 

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I have always wanted to read more about him. If anyone can recommend a book, I'd appreciate it. I know of his toughness at Gettysburg and the painful way in which he died on the retreat. I'd imagine anyone hit in the side/abdomen suffered a similar painful, extended demise.
 

tmh10

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I have always wanted to read more about him. If anyone can recommend a book, I'd appreciate it. I know of his toughness at Gettysburg and the painful way in which he died on the retreat. I'd imagine anyone hit in the side/abdomen suffered a similar painful, extended demise.
I found this book, but haven't read it. I will get to it after I get caught up a bit.

Wilson, Clyde N. Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0-8203-1201-9.

and

Trescot, William Henry. Memorial of the Life of J. Johnston Pettigrew: Brigadier General of the Confederate States Army. Charleston, SC: J. Russell, 1870. OCLC 3557938.
 

JerseyBart

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JerseyBart

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Same here.

Pettigrew always seemed to me a different type of Civil War general.
An intellectual...not that the non-professors, authors etc. weren't...that could have contributed so much to literature, the educational system and given back to the youth of his time had he survived the war.
 

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An intellectual...not that the non-professors, authors etc. weren't...that could have contributed so much to literature, the educational system and given back to the youth of his time had he survived the war.
A Southern Joshua Chamberlain maybe?
 

tmh10

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Great post, Ted.

Pettigrew was at the head of a long list of North Carolinians that made their state proud throughout the war.
I think his death was a big loss for us. I can only imagine what insight he would have provided to the people after the war in his writings. This man could have written the difinitive book on the eastern theatre of war.
 

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http://www.ourstate.com/scholar-warrior/

James Johnston Pettigrew: A Scholar in the Civil War

  • By Philip Gerard
  • Photography Used with permission of the School of Government, copyright 2006, by the School of Government. This copyrighted material may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the express written permission of the School of Government, CB# 3330 UNC Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599-3330; telephone: 919-966-4119; fax 919-962-2707; Web address: www.sog.unc.edu.

In the summer of 1859, while hotheads in the Carolinas are debating whether to secede from the United States, a young planter’s son from Tyrrell County is tramping through the hills of Europe. His name is James Johnston Pettigrew, known to family and friends as “Johnston.” He is 31 years old, independently wealthy, a slave owner, a graduate of the University of North Carolina, a former professor at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., a licensed attorney in Charleston, South Carolina, and a former South Carolina state legislator.

Pettigrew is a champion fencer, a mathematical wizard, and fluent in five languages. At age 14, he entered the University of North Carolina and later graduated valedictorian of a 36-member class.

He has traveled to Europe to join the Sardinians in fighting for independence from Austrian domination. Part of him, chafing at the scholar’s mild life, craves adventure and glory.

Before the first shots are fired, however, the French emperor intervenes and the war is called off. Pettigrew retreats to Spain, a country he’s always fancied and once visited. He admits, “I went to Spain actuated by the purest motives of selfishness — to gratify myself.” There, he writes a book, Notes on Spain and the Spaniards, in the Summer of 1859, with a Glance at Sardinia. The book’s byline reads, “By A Carolinian,” followed by Pettigrew’s initials (J.J.P.).

So accomplished, and yet Pettigrew laments that his life lacks purpose. “I live for nothing that I am aware of,” he writes to his older brother, William. On another occasion, “I believe I should turn my head toward getting rich: one must have some object in view; that would be better than nothing; this floating along is rather unsatisfactory.”

He struggles to find a practical purpose for his life, a useful way to apply his dazzling intellectual skills and all he has learned.

After the trip to Europe, Pettigrew comes home to Charleston, where South Carolina is rapidly moving toward secession. He has no military experience, but since he bears a prominent family name he is appointed colonel of the 1st Regiment of Rifles. In that role he leads 200 troops from the Citadel and takes possession of Castle Pinckney, a Federal harbor fort.

His 1st Regiment later takes up positions on Morris Island, near Fort Sumter. Using cotton bales, railroad iron, and whatever other materials he can muster, Pettigrew supervises the building of gun batteries and ramparts with such zeal and efficiency that he quickly establishes a reputation as a gifted military leader.

A relative of Pettigrew and his law partner, James Louis Petigru (his last name so incongruously spelled), notes in a letter to his own grandson, “Your cousin Johnston is no longer a pale intimate of the obscure building in St. Michael’s Alley, where he used to pore over dusty books in a foreign tongue; but bestrides a gallant steed. With gay trappings, long spurs, and bright shoulder knots.”

In keeping with expectations, Pettigrew becomes the chief military aide of South Carolina governor Francis Pickens. He advises the governor in a tense standoff between Federal and State forces in Charleston Harbor, initially telling him not to move on Fort Sumter, but later vowing that his regiment will be the first to assault the island fortress. And so it is that after Pettigrew conducts a spectacular bombardment, Fort Sumter is surrendered.

Pettigrew’s regiment then shifts to Sullivan’s Island to fend off the attack they are sure will follow. To their surprise, Charleston goes quiet and the 1st Regiment is relieved.

Respected and in demand, Pettigrew is offered the position of Adjutant General for South Carolina, among other offers of commissions as a captain and even a major. He declines them all and instead enlists in Wade Hampton’s Legion as a private.

Even so, Pettigrew’s heart lies with his native state of North Carolina. Before long, he is plucked from the ranks and commissioned colonel of the 22nd North Carolina Regiment.

Empty classrooms
Pettigrew is not the only scholar who marches off to war.

On the eve of secession, in April 1861, sophomores and juniors at his alma mater present a petition to former North Carolina Gov. Charles Manly, secretary of the board of trustees, asking that they be allowed to enlist: “In presenting this petition we have been actuated by no desire to be released from our studies but by a thorough conviction that the present perilous condition of our country and our own interest demand it.”

Most of the seniors have already joined the army. But their petition is denied.

At the outset of the war, the Confederate government exempts university students from conscription. However, as battle and disease deplete the army, the exemption is rescinded. Conscription agents round up young scholars and carry them off to fight. By 1862, only about 50 students remain on the University of North Carolina campus. Just months before, it was home to 456 students, the second-largest student body in the South after the University of Virginia.

A year later, the senior class numbers just nine young men — three of whom are combat veterans, including one who is permanently disabled, and two others who have purchased substitutes to enlist in their stead. The junior class has dwindled from 30 to 14, two of them veterans. Only nine sophomores remain, two of them disabled. The freshman class counts only three members older than age 18.

The rest have all enlisted, and some already lie dead upon the battlefield.

From Durham County, Trinity College sends a cadre of students and teachers, the Trinity Guards, to serve as wardens at Salisbury Prison. Wake Forest College, a Baptist institution in Wake County, shutters its doors to its 76 students for the duration of the war. Many of them join the army along with their teachers, and in time the college is reopened as a military hospital.

Pettigrew is the embodiment of these educated warriors.

On May 31, 1862, he enters battle at Seven Pines, Virginia, where a minié ball catches him in the throat and tears through his shoulder, severing an artery. Convinced he is mortally wounded, he chooses to remain on the battlefield, a fallen hero.

Retreating Confederate soldiers spot Pettigrew’s body and send word to his family that he has been killed in action. But in fact, Union soldiers recover him and carry him to a field hospital.

By August, his wounds have healed and he is exchanged.

On July 1 of the following year, outside the quiet crossroads of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Pettigrew’s brigade joins the Army of Northern Virginia and blunders into bloody battle with Union troops. The division commander, Gen. Harry Heth, is badly wounded, so Pettigrew assumes command. On the third day of Gettysburg, Pettigrew leads his division of nearly 5,000 men — conspicuous for their bloody bandages — into battle alongside Gen. George Pickett’s division. One of Pettigrew’s three brigades consists of North Carolinians. The other two are made up of Virginians.

At two o’clock in the afternoon, after the greatest cannonade in history has shaken the ground and deafened them, they step out of the tree line and cross a mile of cornfields under heavy fire, advancing up the steep slope of Cemetery Ridge, toward the stone wall at the center of the Union line.

Because of its position on the extreme left of the Confederate line, Pettigrew’s division will have to cross several hundred yards more of deadly ground than Pickett’s.

As thousands fall around him, Pettigrew advances. His horse is shot, and he dismounts, sending it to the rear. On foot now, he leads troops through a deadly hail of fire that one survivor calls “that storm of death.” One of Pettigrew’s hands is shattered by grapeshot, but he presses on. His line stands and delivers a volley, then charges forward to within a few yards of the stone wall.

But Union troops swarm into the line. The two Virginia brigades in Pettigrew’s division break first. The Federals smash the remaining North Carolina brigade with relentless massed musket and cannon fire. With no support coming up behind him, Pettigrew falls back with the other battle-shocked survivors across a rutted landscape littered with bodies. He is one of the last soldiers to quit the field.

As Pettigrew rallies his men to defend against a counterattack, Gen. Robert E. Lee, who ordered the assault, approaches him, bereft and stunned. He takes Pettigrew’s good hand, and tells him, “General Pettigrew, it is all my fault.”

But within hours the Richmond papers are calling the foolhardy assault “Pickett’s Charge,” lauding the bravery of the Virginia troops and blaming the failure on the “cowardly” North Carolinians. Yet in the single North Carolina brigade in Pettigrew’s division, every colonel, lieutenant colonel, and major has been killed or wounded, save one, who was captured at the wall. One of its regiments, the 26th, went into battle on the first day of Gettysburg with 800 men. At the close of the third day, it musters just 80.

A fatal mistake
Through torrential rain, along mud-sloppy roads, Pettigrew retreats with the remnants of his brigade down the back side of Seminary Ridge. They march all night to South Mountain, Maryland, heading for the safety that lies beyond the Potomac in Virginia.

Now Pettigrew commands part of the rearguard of the shattered Army of Northern Virginia. Although his injured hand is splinted and his arm hangs in a sling, he tirelessly rallies his men through 10 days of hard marching and constant skirmishing. At Falling Waters, Maryland, on July 14 — at camp with his brigade — he is standing under a tree conferring with General Heth and a cadre of officers when a troop of Union cavalry bursts out of the woods.

At first, Heth mistakes them for Confederate troops, dressed in captured blue coats. But then they charge into the middle of camp. Pettigrew attempts to mount his horse one-handed, but the horse shies and throws him to the ground.

When one Union soldier shoots down several Confederates with a Colt revolver, Pettigrew advances on him. He draws a small pistol from his breast pocket, aims it at the charging cavalryman, and pulls the trigger. The weapon misfires. The soldier returns fire, hitting Pettigrew in the stomach.

Confederates swarm after Pettigrew’s assailant, chasing him into a barn and battering him to death with a rock. It has not been a glorious battle, just a brutal melee that has gained nothing.

The Federals are driven off. The surgeon advises Pettigrew to remain behind and be captured, since the Union surgeons will be better equipped to treat him. He refuses and is carried 18 miles over rough roads to Bunker Hill, now part of the newly formed state of West Virginia. He lingers for three days in agony. His military career has been as remarkable as the rest of his life: he has advanced from private to general; been wounded twice; was captured and exchanged; survived the massacre of Pickett’s Charge; and now has fallen again. He is a long way from the classroom.

On July 17th, he confides to a fellow officer, “It’s time to be going,” and gives up the ghost.

His body lies in state at the Capitol in Raleigh and is buried there.

At war’s end, the University of North Carolina is bankrupt; owing debts of $100,000, and by 1871 is forced to close. Like so many other institutions, it invested heavily in Confederate securities and bank bonds, all of which are now worthless. The new state constitution of 1868 declares that it will have an “inseparable connection to the Free Public School system of the State,” under the oversight of the Board of Education. The old trustees, many of them ex-Confederates, are ousted so that the school can become the “people’s university.” It reopens in 1875.

In November 1865, honoring Pettigrew’s wish that he be buried on the family plantation at Bonarva in Tyrrell County, his family arranges to move his remains there from Raleigh.

In the Civil War, the wandering scholar found his purpose. Now, he is home.

Selected Sources
The author is indebted to the North Carolina Division of Archives and History and the North Carolina Collection at the Wilson library, UNC Chapel Hill, for Pettigrew’s correspondence. Published sources include: Hugh Talmage Lefler and Albert Ray Newsome, History of a Southern State: North Carolina (The University of North Carolina Press, 1954); James Johnston Pettigrew, Spain and the Spaniards, in the Summer of 1859, with a Glance at Sardinia (Evans and Cogswell, 1861 ); Clyde N. Wilson. Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew (The University of Georgia Press, 1990); Percival Perry, “History of Wake Forest University,” Wake Forest College Bulletin January, 1974; David Silkenat, “’In Good Hands, in a Safe Place’: Female Academies in Confederate North Carolina,” The North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. LXXXVIII, No. 1, January 2011.

Philip Gerard is an author and chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

To view all stories from Our State’s Civil War Series, visit http://www.ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series

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