Lewis A. Armistead was born on February 18, 1817 in New Bern, North Carolina to Walker Keith Armistead and Elizabeth Stanly. He grew up in the mountains of Virginia on the family farm, Ben Lomond, near Upperville. He was accepted to West Point on March 21, 1833 but tendered his resignation on January 29, 1836 for cracking a mess hall plate over the head of fellow classmate Jubal Early.
Lewis was still able to serve his country and was appointed to the 6th U.
S. Infantry as a Second Lieutenant in 1839. This was due in part because of the Seminole Indian uprisings in Florida, and largely because of the influence of both his father, General Walker Keith Armistead and also that of Edward Stanly, his uncle who was a Congressman from North Carolina. He served three years in Florida and was transferred to Jefferson Barracks in Missouri in 1842.
Lewis married for the first time in 1844 to Cecilia Lee Love. To them a son, Walker Keith Armistead was born on December 11, 1844, and a daughter, Flora Lee on June 26, 1846.
Lewis served in the Mexican War and was brevetted to the rank of Captain for his actions in battle.
In April 1850, they lost their little girl. She is buried at Jefferson Barracks. Later that same year, his wife also passed away, on December 12. from an unknown cause. During this time, the Armistead family home in Virginia burned. Armistead took leave in October of 1852 to go home and help his family.
While home on leave, he married for the second time to Cornelia L. T. Jamesson, the widow of a naval midshipman who had died in 1845. They were married March 17, 1853 and went west when Armistead returned to duty.
They apparently had, and lost a child. Also buried at Jefferson Barracks is another grave, that of an infant, Lewis B. Armistead who died on December 6, 1854. The next year his second wife passed away during a cholera epidemic on August 2, 1855 at Fort Riley, Kansas. He had lost two children, two wives, and his family's home in a period of six years.
When secession came about, Lewis, like many of his Southern comrades, resigned from the U.S. Army on May 26, 1861 to serve his beloved Virginia. He was appointed Major in the Confederate Army on September 14, 1861. Within less than two weeks, he was appointed full Colonel and given command of the 57th Virginia Infantry.
On April 1, 1862 he was promoted to Brigadier General and given the command of a brigade made up of the 9th, 14th, 38th, 53rd, and 57th Virginia Infantry Regiments.
Armistead served in the battles of Seven Pines, Malvern Hill, Sharpsburg, and the Suffolk Campaign. His most famous service came in his last battle at Gettysburg in July 1863. In the lead when the remnants of Pickett's Division and other units pierced the Union line of July 3rd, he crossed the wall at the Angle, his hat upon his sword, and he was then shot down, with wounds in the upper right arm and above the left knee. Neither wound was considered life threatening, but he was exhausted both mentally and physically, and died at the nearby Spangler farm about 9:00 a.m. July 5, 1863.
He is buried alongside his uncle, George Armistead, the defender of the original Star Spangled Banner at Fort McHenry during the war of 1812, at St. Paul's Cemetery in Baltimore. His sword is on display at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond Virginia.
CONFEDERATE FIRST CORPS, PICKETT'S DIVISION, ARMISTEAD'S BRIGADE 1,946 men
BRIGADIER GENERAL LEWIS ADDISON ARMISTEAD
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