Thursday, March 17, 2011

Carolina Cavalier: James Johnston Pettigrew

Brigadier General James Johnston Pettigrew

       One of my all time favorite generals is James Johnston Pettigrew of North Carolina. He was born in 1828 in Tyrrell County at Bonarva, the family plantation. The slim boy suffered health problems growing up in the swampy region and as a result was forced to spend a great deal of time indoors. He was tutored at the plantation and learned so fast that he enrolled at the University of North Carolina at the age of fifteen. Pettigrew is considered one of the finest scholars to ever attend the university. 
       He graduated first in the Class of 1847 at the age of 18 and held the record of highest grade  point average at the school until just a few years ago. Upon graduation, Pettigrew was appointed an assistant professor at the United States Naval Observatory. He studied law, dabbled in politics and finally decided to travel the world. He would eventually write a book about his travels, but it was considered a dull work. 
       At this point in his life, Pettigrew was considered a serious man, always thoughtful, but never wasting his time uselessly. He was described as slender built, olive complexioned and  possessing dark piercing eyes. 
       When the war began, Pettigrew had very limited military experience. He had served briefly as a colonel of a militia regiment in 1859. He was in Charleston when the war began and captured Castle Pinckney. Frustrated about not seeing any action, he resigned his commission and joined Hampton's Legion as a private. 

Pettigrew early in the war

       Just hours before the Battle of Manassas, Pettigrew was commissioned colonel of the 22nd North Carolina Infantry and missed the battle. He was extremely frustrated about not having combat experience. President Davis attempted to promote Pettigrew to brigadier general, but the man would have none of it. He claimed he didn't have the experience necessary for the promotion. Two weeks later, he would cave in to the pressure and accept the promotion. 
       Upon hearing of Pettigrew's promotion, a member of his family asked to be placed on his staff because he assumed it would be a place of safety. Pettigrew responded, "I assure you that the most unsafe place in the brigade is about me. By all means, get rid of this idea of a safe place, which you will regret after time. The post of danger is certainly the post of honor."
       Pettigrew would see his first action at the Battle of Seven Pines. Just as his brigade advanced against the enemy, Pettigrew was struck in the neck by a bullet. The projectile passed through his throat, slicing artery's, damaging nerves, muscles and his windpipe. The wound was thought to be mortal. Pettigrew refused to allow any of his men to leave the ranks to carry him to the rear. He soon passed out. Sometime during the night he would receive another gunshot wound and a bayonet slash to one of his legs. He would awake the next morning a prisoner of war. 
       Pettigrew was exchanged in August of 1862 and sent home to recuperate from his wounds. He would then take command of a brigade of North Carolina Infantry and see action at New Berne. Though the battle was lost, Pettigrew was praised for gallantry. 
       In May of 1863, Pettigrew's brigade was sent back to Virginia to join Robert E. Lee's army on its invasion of Pennsylvania. His command saw some of the fiercest fighting there on July 1, 1863. Despite losing a lot of good men and a large portion of his staff, Pettigrew was lucky to be unharmed. When Henry Heth was wounded early in the action, Pettigrew took command of the division. 
       On July 3, Lee ordered Pettigrew to lead Heth's division in Pickett's Charge against the Federal center. The division advanced under a galling fire. Portions of his left flank gave way and fell back, but the center and right advanced on across the field. Pettigrew's horse was killed beneath him, but he continued to advance on foot with his men. He advanced to within a hundred yards of the Federal line when his hand was severely wounded by canister fire. (Canister is hundreds of small round balls fired at close range from cannons.)
       He stayed on the field and watched his division charge further than Pickett's Virginians before being one of the last to leave the field. He slowly walked to the rear and met General Robert E. Lee. Lee said, "General, I am sorry to see you wounded; go to the rear." Despite the pain, Pettigrew saluted and continued on his way. 

Brigadier General Pettigrew

       During the retreat to Virginia, Pettigrew continued to command Heth's division. At Falling Waters, Maryland, Pettigrew was receiving orders from Heth about being the rearguard, a group of forty drunken Union cavalrymen charged through the Confederate lines. The General's horse was shot beneath him. He immediately came up with his pistol in his hand and began to stalk one of the troopers through a garden. It was at this point that he was hit in the stomach by a pistol ball. All forty of the Federal cavalrymen were killed in the fight. 

Site of Pettigrew's mortal wounding

       There was a chance the general could be saved if he would allow himself to be captured again. Pettigrew refused saying he would rather die than be a prisoner again. He was carried across the Potomac River and placed in the Boyd House where he died three days later. He had just turned thirty-five two weeks earlier. 

Boyd House

       The death of Johnston Pettigrew was extremely hard on his family. Although he had no prior military training, he was extremely intelligent and quickly learned to command men. 

Pettigrew's frock coat

       Robert E. Lee said of the man, "The army has lost a brave soldier and the Confederacy an accomplished officer." 
       One staff officer noted, “Pettigrew’s brigade would have followed him wherever he led, or gone wherever he told them to go, no matter how desperate the enterprise.” 

Pettigrew's grave

       North Carolina held a day of mourning for General Pettigrew. A large crowd gathered for his funeral. A friend wrote, "More than anything, he loved liberty, but he felt that to love liberty was an empty mockery unless that love was exhibited in sacrifice which its acquisition requires."
       James Johnston Pettigrew rests today in the Pettigrew Family Cemetery, Tyrrell County, North Carolina. He was possibly the most intelligent general in the Confederate army. 


  1. a brave and fearless man, shame he had to die, thanks for letting us know about him

  2. A true hero of of the Civil War and no doubt would have done great things after the war, probably Governor, Senator or-move over James Know Polk-President. His knowledge of field sanitation and regard for both his men and non combatants set him apart as a Leader for all times. Glenn Deal Jr, Great Grandson of the William Wilkie Carpenter of the Company E, 57 th Regiment of Catawba County, NC

  3. General Pettigrew was my 2nd cousin 5x removed. I enjoyed reading this entry. Feel free to check out my blog about my Civil War Ancestors. Here's a link to the Pettigrew entry: