A Tragedy in Two Acts: The Garnett Cousins of Virginia

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series Confederate Generals Officers

Robert S. GarnettThe American Civil War has many tragic stories to tell. In an era when units were raised in towns and cities it was not uncommon for brothers and cousins to serve in the same units. There have also been instances of fathers and sons serving together.

There is the story of Lt. Col. Isaac Avery who was mortally wounded in the attack  at Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg. Unable to speak, he wrote a note and gave it to his friend and adjutant to deliver to his father. The note reads: “Major, tell my father I died with my face to the enemy. I. E. Avery.”  Three of the Avery brothers, including Col. Clark M. Avery of the 33rd North Carolina, would be killed during the Civil War and another crippled for life.

Then, there is the somewhat apocryphal letter from Abraham Lincoln to Mrs. Bixby of Boston. Lincoln sought to console her for the deaths of her five sons. However, it appears that three of the five were alive after the war while Mrs. Bixby apparently a Confederate sympathizer.

Then, we have the tragedy of the Garnett cousins of Essex County, Virginia who were both killed in battle while serving as brigadier generals in the Confederate Army.

The younger cousin, Robert Selden Garnett, was born on the family plantation in 1819. He attended West Point and graduated in 1841. He was assigned to the 4th U.S. Artillery as a second lieutenant. He served in Upstate New York on the Canadian border and then at Fort Monroe in Virginia. He served as an instructor at West Point, then as an army recruiter before becoming a general’s aide.

Garnett served in the Mexican-American War under Zachary Taylor and received two brevets for distinguished service, one at the Battle of Monterrey and the other for “Gallant and Meritorious Conduct” in the Battle of Buena Vista.

From the end of the Mexican War until the start of the Civil War, Garnett continued to serve in a great variety of positions, reaching the rank of major before he resigned his commission when Virginia seceded. He became Adjutant General of Virginia state troops under Robert E. Lee. In June he was promoted to brigadier general and assigned to command 4,500 troops in the western Virginia.

After the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Rich Mountain, Garnett withdrew his command from their entrenchments at Laurel Hill. He hoped to withdraw to Northern Virginia under cover of darkness but his smaller force was pursued for several days by sometimes as many as 20,000 Union troops. Garnett was shot and killed while directing a rear-guard action at Corrick’s Ford on the Cheat River

His body was recovered and identified his body after Garnett’s remaining men had fled. In recognition for his past service in the Mexican War, a Union guard of honor escorted his body under a flag of truce to his relatives. He was buried in Baltimore but was later re-interred next to his wife in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, one of two Confederate generals buried there. Robert Garnett was the first general officer to be killed in the war.

Richard Brooke Garnett was Robert’s cousin and elder by two years. The two graduated in the same class at West Point and Richard was Richard Brooke Garnettcommissioned as second lieutenant in the 6th U.S. Infantry. He served in Florida and in the West where he was a noted Indian fighter. During the Mexican War he served in staff positions, seeing no combat.

One month after Virginia seceded Richard resigned his commissioned and joined the Confederate States Army as a major in the artillery. At the end of August, he was transferred and promoted to lieutenant colonel in Cobb’s Legion.

By mid November he was transferred yet again and promoted to brigadier general of the 1st Brigade of the Valley District of the Confederate Army of the Potomac. His unit had formerly been commanded by Stonewall Jackson and was known as the Stonewall Brigade.

It was during the Valley Campaign of 1862 that Garnett’s career took a downward turn. At the First Battle of Kernstown in March, Garnett was ordered by Jackson to a retreating Union division. Faulty intelligence reported the Union strength as comparable to Garnett’s. Jackson ordered the attack but when Garnett realized that he was outnumbered two to one, he withdrew.

Jackson who was never the easiest commander was incensed. He accused Garnett of of disobeying orders, asserting that he should not have retreated without obtaining permission from Jackson first. Jackson arrested Garnett for “neglect of duty” on April 1 and relieved him of command.

Garnett’s court-martial started in August 1862, with only Jackson and his aide giving testimony. However the trial was suspended due to the start of Gen. Robert E. Lee‘s Northern Virginia Campaign and the Second Battle of Bull Run that September. Lee ordered Jackson to release Garnett from arrest and he was assigned to command the injured George Pickett’s brigade.

Garnett command the brigade at the Battle of Antietam in September. When Pickett was promoted to divisional command, Garnett was given permanent command. He commanded the unit at the Battle of Fredericksburg that December. The division was not at Chancellorsville since James Longstreet’s First Corp was temporarily in Suffolk, Virginia.

Jackson was gravely wounded on May 2nd and later succumbed to his wounds on May 10th. Garnett was now unable to clear his name. His moment of truth came on July 3rd at Gettysburg. After missing the first two days of the battle, Pickett’s Division was one of the units assigned to make the frontal assault on Cemetery Ridge.

Garnett’s brigade was in the front rank of the assault but Dick Garnett was in no shape to lead them He had a fever and had been kicked by a horse in leg. Unable to walk the distance, he was forced to ride, a target for every aimed rifle on the Union side. Honor precluded him from sitting out the attack.

According to his courier, Private Robert H. Irvine of the 19th Virginia, who witnessed his death, Garnett got within 20 yards of the “Angle” where he was shot in the head. Irvine’s horse was hit and fell on the general. Irvine pulled Garnett’s body from underneath the horse and recovered his watch which he gave to the brigade’s adjutant.

Despite wearing a new general’s uniform Garnett was buried with Union dead in a mass grave. It has been assumed that Garnett’s body was re-interred in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond in 1872. A memorial cenotaph was erected in his honor in 1991.

Two cousins, two loyal sons of Virginia, two generals; both ended their lives on the battlefield in service to their state and the Confederacy.


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