The Civil War #4
By Daniel J. Vance
In the classic Civil War film Gettysburg, one scene that really stands out is the courage shown at Pickett’s Charge by Confederate General Lewis Armistead, who faced overwhelming odds leading his out-manned rebels over a stone wall before Union soldiers would beat back his brigade. That moment has been called the “High-Water Mark of the Confederacy.” It was the furthest north Confederate soldiers fought during the war.
What many Americans don’t know is that another “Armistead” had an equally prominent role at the high-water mark of a different U.S. war. But first, about Lewis.
On July 3, 1863, the third day of battle, Armistead’s brigade emerged from protective woods at Gettysburg with orders to march one mile over open field to engage Union soldiers eventually firing from three sides. The brigades of Garnett and Kemper (also under Pickett) were out front. After Kemper rode back to urge Armistead to hurry in support, Armistead ordered, “Double quick.” He was out front, rallying his Virginians forward by waving his black felt hat on the point of his sword. They marched through a hail of bullets and artillery.
In 1909, James Poindexter, who had been a captain under Armistead, gave a speech on Armistead’s role. He said, “(Then the charge) raged with redoubled fury. As we got within forty yards of the stone wall, all along the line the order of charge came, and charge we did. From behind the fence the Yankee infantry rose and poured into our ranks a murderous fire. Garnett’s brigade and Kemper’s had almost entirely disappeared; their brave commanders, their gallant officers, with hundreds of the rank and file, were stretched on the field, and it remained for Armistead’s men to finish the work. After a desperate fight the Yankees began to give way; and as they fell back our men rushed forward to the stone wall with unfaltering steps, Armistead still leading the charge.
“…The veteran Armistead took in with the eye of a trained soldier the situation and saw in a flash that to halt there meant ruin and defeat. Just ahead, bristling with cannon, was Cemetery Ridge. Just beyond it (Union Gen.) Hancock was hurrying up his heavy reserves. On the right and left the enemy’s lines were still intact. On both flanks fierce assaults would soon be made on Pickett’s men. ‘Colonel,’ said Armistead to the commanding officer of the Fifty-third, ‘we cannot stay here.’”
Armistead reportedly yelled, “Forward with the colors,” and he and 150 remaining Confederates rushed over the stone wall into thousands of bluecoats. Armistead gave one last shout before being shot, “Follow me, boys; give them the cold steel.’”
Of course, his cause shouldn’t be admired; only his courage. Armistead died two days later and was buried at Old St. Paul’s Cemetery in Baltimore. He lies next to his uncle, Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead, whose Fort McHenry heroics during the high-water mark of the War of 1812 against British bombardment inspired Francis Scott Key to pen The Star Spangled Banner.
[Daniel J. Vance was editor of Connect Business Magazine from 1996-2015. He wrote the newspaper column Disabilities from 2003-17. He lives in Vernon Center, Minnesota.]