General Lewis Addison Armistead

Lewis A. Armistead (1817–1863)

Lewis A. Armistead was a Confederate general in the Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Decorated for bravery during the Mexican War (1846–1848), the West Point dropout and widower earned a reputation as a tough, soft-spoken, and highly respected leader at such battles as Seven Pines (1862), Antietam (1862), and Malvern Hill (1862), and was known to his friends, ironically, as "Lo," short for Lothario. At Gettysburg, on July 3, 1863, he helped to lead the frontal assault that came to be known as Pickett's Charge. When Armistead, at the head of his brigade, reached the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge that protected the Army of the Potomac's Second Corps, he was shot and wounded more than once. The Union troops who fired the fatal shots happened to be commanded by one of Armistead's closest friends, Winfield Scott Hancock. His death was immortalized in the 1993 film Gettysburg and has come to symbolize the Lost Cause-influenced "brother versus brother" view of the war so celebrated in American culture. MORE...

 

Lewis Addison Armistead was born on February 18, 1817, in New Bern, North Carolina, and was raised in Fauquier County, Virginia, by a family related to United States presidents James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, and Benjamin Harrison. His father and four uncles all served during the War of 1812, with one of those uncles, George Armistead, commanding Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, where the famous "Star Spangled Banner" flew. Armistead entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1833, but academic difficulties and poor conduct—including supposedly breaking a plate over the head of future Confederate general Jubal A. Early—led to his resignation in 1836.

Three years later Armistead returned to the army as a second lieutenant in the 6th Infantry Regiment and served primarily in garrison duty in the West. Although considered to be good-natured, Armistead demonstrated his ability as a fighter during the Mexican War, earning two brevet promotions for gallantry in the Mexico City Campaign of 1847. He resigned his commission on May 26, 1861, after Virginia seceded—a decision that led to an emotional farewell party hosted by the wife of his closest army friend, Winfield Scott Hancock. That evening, Armistead is said to have put his hand on Hancock's shoulder and, in tears, told him, "Hancock, goodbye; you can never know what this has cost me."

Armistead entered Confederate service on September 15, 1861, with the rank of major, but two weeks later he was promoted to colonel and given command of the 57th Virginia Infantry. For the next seven months, the unit manned defenses around the Confederate capital at Richmond and near Suffolk, Virginia. On April 1, 1862, Armistead, likely because of his prewar experience, was promoted to brigadier general and given command of a brigade that eventually consisted of five Virginia regiments. Two months later, on June 1, Armistead led his men into action for the first time at the Battle of Seven Pines. Though the brigade performed poorly, Armistead fought bravely, at one point having his horse killed under him.

At Malvern Hill (1862), Armistead's largely unsupported brigade led the assault against the strong Union position and was forced back, suffering more than 350 killed and wounded out of 1,200 engaged. After the war a Georgia soldier wrote that he and Armistead found shelter behind a poplar tree during the battle and that the general took a drink of brandy. According to the soldier, Armistead was known from then on as the "Poplar general."

Though with the army during the Second Manassas Campaign (1862), Armistead and his brigade saw little action. During the Maryland Campaign, Robert E. Lee, recognizing Armistead's qualities, appointed him provost marshal for the army. He was well-suited for such duty because, according to a colonel in his brigade, Armistead was a "strict disciplinarian" who believed that "obedience to duty" was "the first qualification of a soldier." Later that fall, when Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia, the brigade was assigned to a new division commanded by Major General George E. Pickett. At Fredericksburg in December 1862 the division occupied the center of the Confederate line and therefore saw no action. In the spring of 1863, Armistead and his brigade took part in a foraging expedition to southeastern Virginia and as a result missed the Chancellorsville Campaign (1863).

On the third and final day of Gettysburg, Pickett's division, which up to then had been held in reserve, was chosen to spearhead Lee's major attack against the center of the Union line. Armistead's brigade supported the division's front. With his hat on the tip of his raised sword, he led his brigade on foot across the open ground and into the chaotic fight on Cemetery Ridge. The brigade reached the Union line, commanded in part by Hancock, but went no farther. Armistead had just placed his hand on a Union cannon when he was struck by a volley of rifle fire. While lying badly wounded, he asked to see Hancock, but Hancock's command responsibilities and his own wounds prevented it.

Instead, Armistead was carried to a nearby Union field hospital where he died on July 5 from a combination of blood loss and exhaustion. Though initially buried near the hospital, his remains were later moved to Baltimore and interred in the family vault at Old St. Paul's Cemetery.

Time Line

  • February 18, 1817 - Lewis Addison Armistead is born in New Bern, North Carolina.
  • 1833 - Lewis A. Armistead enters the United States Military Academy at West Point but resigns two years later for academic deficiency and poor conduct.
  • 1839 - Lewis A. Armistead is commissioned as second lieutenant in the 6th United States Infantry.
  • 1846–1848 - Lewis A. Armistead serves in the Mexican War and earns two brevet promotions for gallantry.
  • May 26, 1861 - Lewis A. Armistead resigns his commission in the U.S. Army and bids an emotional farewell to comrades, including future Union general Winfield Scott Hancock, before joining the Confederate army.
  • September 15, 1861 - Lewis A. Armistead receives a commission as a major in the Confederate army.
  • September 23, 1861 - Lewis A. Armistead is promoted to colonel and given command of the 57th Virginia Infantry.
  • April 1, 1862 - Lewis A. Armistead is promoted to brigadier general in the Confederate army.
  • June 1, 1862 - Lewis A. Armistead experiences his first combat in the Civil War during the second day of the Battle of Seven Pines. Though his brigade performs poorly, Armistead's personal conduct draws praise.
  • July 1, 1862 - Lewis A. Armistead leads his Confederate brigade into the Battle of Malvern Hill and suffers a loss of more than 25 percent of his men in the unsuccessful frontal assault.
  • September 6, 1862 - Lewis A. Armistead is assigned to duty as provost marshal of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. He serves in that role during the Maryland Campaign.
  • July 3, 1863 - Lewis A. Armistead leads his brigade in the attack known as Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. Armistead and his men reach the Union line, commanded by his old army friend Union general Winfield Scott Hancock, but the attack fails and Armistead is struck down by a volley of rifle fire and taken to a nearby Union field hospital.
  • July 5, 1863 - Two days after he is wounded during what became known as Pickett's Charge in the Battle of Gettysburg, Lewis A. Armistead dies in a Union field hospital.
Further Reading
Glatthaar, Joseph T. General Lee's Army: From Victory to Collapse. New York: Free Press, 2008.
Hess, Earl J. Pickett's Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Motts, Wayne E. "Trust in God and Fear Nothing": Gen. Lewis A. Armistead, CSA. Gettysburg, Pa.: Farnsworth House Military Impressions, 1994.
Krick, Robert K. "Armistead and Garnett: The Parallel Lives of Two Virginia Soldiers." In The Third Day at Gettysburg and Beyond. Edited by Gary W. Gallagher, 93–131. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Poindexter, James E. "An Address Delivered Before R. E. Lee Camp No. 1, C.V., Richmond, Va., January 29, 1909." Southern Historical Society Papers 37 (1909): 144–51.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
Dozier, G. T. Lewis A. Armistead (1817–1863). (2014, August 1). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Armistead_Lewis_A_1817-1863.

MLA Citation:
Dozier, G. T. "Lewis A. Armistead (1817–1863)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 1 Aug. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: January 28, 2009 | Last modified: August 1, 2014


Contributed by Graham T. Dozier, managing editor of publications at the Virginia Historical Society.