Lewis Addison Armistead – In Charge of the Charge

On his sword perched the hat from his head.
As it waved, very proudly he said,
“You can tell where I’m at
If you follow this hat
To the top with old Lew Armistead!”

It doesn’t seem right that Pickett’s Charge should conjure images of brave General Pickett, sword flashing in one hand while the other controls his fiery steed, at the head of his gallant men. It isn’t right because Pickett stopped part way to the top and watched the climax from a distance.

Nor does it seem right that the general who actually did lead that charge should be forgotten. Let’s remember him. His name was Lewis Armistead. He was forty-six years old when he led the famous charge. He had been kicked out of West Point for assaulting fellow cadet Jubal Early, but managed to get a commission in the infantry anyway at the age of twenty-two.

He was stationed at Los Angeles when the war started. His best friend and fellow officer, Winfield Scott Hancock, gave him a farewell party before he started the long trek overland to Richmond, where he was made a colonel in the Confederate army. He was a brigadier general in Pickett’s division at Gettysburg, and had a reputation for toughness and bravery.

General Pickett put Armistead’s brigade at the head of the charge. Armistead made a short speech to his brigade—remember your wives, your sweethearts, your mothers. Then he placed his black slouch hat on the point of his sword and, holding it aloft like a banner so his men could follow it, started out walking up the slope to his destiny. No fiery charger, just a determined walk up the slope soon to be littered with fallen comrades.

He had told his men he would carry that hat to the top, and he did, to the very high water mark of the Confederacy. And once at the top, he was shot down by the soldiers of his old friend, General Winfield Scott Hancock.