James Johnston Pettigrew at Gettysburg

General James Johnston Pettigrew

The last division to be organised in the Army of Northern Virginia was made up of parts of brigades and scattered regiments. They were brought together to fill in a new Corps commanded by A P Hill. The division itself was led by Henry Heth who had four brigadiers to command each of the four brigades in the Division. The four brigadiers were John M Brockenbrough, James Archer, James Johnston Pettigrew and Joseph R Davis (a nephew of Jefferson Davis). By far, the most versatile and outstanding was Pettigrew. His ability to search out and absorb information was inexhaustible and he was always able to put that information to immediate use. As a young privately tutored student, he had been expected to seek some professional career, and when he attended the University of Northern Carolina, he achieved the highest marks ever attained by a student. He led his class in mathematics, sports, languages and every other liberal arts course he took. After graduation, he spent seven years abroad in diplomatic service and writing. He became proficient in German, French, Italian and Spanish and was even able to read passably in Hebrew and Arabic. By the age of 35 he was an astute diplomat, legislator, author, and lawyer.

When war came in 1861, he could have been an officer from day one, but chose to join Hampton's Legion as a private simply because they were on their way to the front. Although he had never attended any military classes, his grasp of all things military was recognised right away and he was soon elected as Colonel of the 22nd North Carolina. Offered a Generalship, he turned it down, but pressure from Jeff Davis and other high officials finally persuaded him to accept. During the Peninsular Campaign at the Battle of Fair Oaks he was left for dead, but ended up as a prisoner of the Yankees. After exchange, he found that his regiment was now under the command of a fellow North Carolinian, Dorsey Pender. A new brigade was formed and it was this brigade that Pettigrew led all the way to Gettysburg.

As lead brigade of the division, Pettigrew was about to enter Gettysburg, when he observed Yankee cavalry approaching the town from the East and since his orders were to "not bring on any kind of action", he slowly retreated westwards towards Cashtown and the main body of the army. Reporting to Hill and Heth, he told them that where there was Yankee cavalry, the infantry would be close behind. Hill and Heth chose not to believe Pettigrew and so it was that two of Heth's brigades were sent in the next day "to clear out the Yankee cavalry".

What they met were organised brigades of Yankee infantry as Pettigrew had forecast, and the battle of Gettysburg began. As Heth's troops slowly began to push the Yankees back towards Gettysburg, Heth was hit in the head by a minie ball and it fell to Pettigrew to take over the division. Take over he did, and the Yankee troops were pushed back from McPherson Ridge to Seminary Ridge and beyond, before other relief brigades took over from Pettigrew's exhausted and madly mauled troops.

When Pettigrew took over for the wounded Henry Heth on the first day at Gettysburg, he took over four badly depleted and worn out brigades. The survivors were so worn out; in fact, that they would be of no use to Lee's plan of attack on the second day and were simply told to "rest up". It wasn't until the third day that they would be called upon to go into action again. They were definitely not the fighting force they had been on the first day but, nevertheless, they were to be part of the massive attack planned against the Federal centre on Cemetery Ridge. George Pickett's men were to form the centre of the formation, Wilcox and Perry were to form the right flank and Pettigrew was given the left flank and was to be supported by Trimble. Because of a "dogleg" in the Federal lines, Pettigrew and Trimble would have about 80 yards further to charge than Pickett. This dogleg would soon earn the name of "the bloody angle" and it would be here that some of the best troops in Lee's army would be cut to ribbons. To the left of the bloody angle were Zeigler's grove and an apple orchard, and it was here that some of Pettigrew's and Trimble's men would be found dead after the charge was over. It would also prove to be the furthest point of penetration of any troops in the charge! Pettigrew himself was hit in the hand during the charge, but it did not seem to slow him down as he led his troops all the way to the Federal lines and then back again in an orderly retreat. They had been under almost constant fire during the whole charge and the brigades were shattered. Some of Pettigrew's regiments almost ceased to exist as the Federal cannon took their toll. Even though Trimble's troops came on behind and merged with Pettigrew's, they met a second line of Federal fire that decimated their ranks too. With this final effort, Pickett's charge was mercifully over.

The evening after Pickett's charge, the rain came down in torrents and men slowly began to trickle back to their units, or what was left of them. Everyone including Federal commander Meade fully expected the battle to be renewed on the next day. It was, in fact, well into the next day before it was realised by Lee that the only recourse was to retreat back to Virginia. Pettigrew was relieved from command of the division upon the return of Henry Heth, now recovered from his head wound. The retreat, led by hundreds of wagons loaded with wounded, went well, and Heth's Division including Pettigrew's brigade brought up the rear. As the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac with much difficulty due to heavy rains, defensive lines were made to repel any pursuit by the Federals. After an all night march, Heth joined Pettigrew in the early morning and informed him that his brigade would be the "final rearguard".

Pettigrew had his men aroused and take up their positions, then rode with Heth to see that everything was in order. Suddenly a small squadron of cavalry appeared, and then another appeared displaying a U.S. flag. Pettigrew and Heth could not believe that such a small body of men could be preparing to attack their line, and at first they even thought the troops could be Confederates with a captured flag. That though was quickly dispelled as the cavalry rode forward and demanded Pettigrew's surrender.

Before Pettigrew could even answer, pistol fire rang out from several of the cavalry riders and Pettigrew was thrown off his startled horse as it reared. He had one arm in a sling due to the wound received during Pickett's charge, but landed on the other, which still hurt from a wound received at Seven Pines. Rising, and recovering his composure, Pettigrew quickly took charge and began to direct the fire of his troops. The cavalry continued their attacks, but began to take heavy casualties. One Federal trooper managed to work his way to a flanking position and with accurate fire began to drop Pettigrew's men in quick succession. Pettigrew kept shouting "get him, get him", but in the noise of the heavy firing, he went unheard. Armed only with his pistol, and heedless of his own safety, Pettigrew moved towards the trooper to get a closer shot. As he moved nearer, the trooper took a steady aim on Pettigrew, fired, and hit him in the lower abdomen. Eventually all the Federal cavalry troopers were killed, but it was too late for Pettigrew. His wound proved mortal, and he died three days later at Bunker Hill, Virginia. Mourned by his brigade, the whole Army of Northern Virginia and his Home State of North Carolina, so died,--- "A native son who was the embodiment of bravery and excellence".

The above article appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, June 2002