Lawrence O’Bryan Branch was born on November 28, 1820 in Enfield, North Carolina. His parents moved to Tennessee but both died when Lawrence was young. He returned to North Carolina to live with his uncle John Branch, at the time the Governor of the state.
His uncle became Secretary of the Navy in 1829 in President Andrew Jackson’s administration and Lawrence went to Washington with him. Lawrence studied under private teachers, including Salmon P. Chase, before attending Bingham Military academy in North Carolina and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He graduated first in his class from Princeton College in 1838.
Branch then moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he studied law while owning and editing a newspaper. He moved to Tallahassie, Florida in 1840, where his uncle was by then Governor of the new State of Florida. He was admitted to the bar there, and in 1841 served in the Seminole Wars as aide-de-camp to General Leigh Reid.
In 1848 he married Nancy Haywood Blount. The couple would have four children. His only son, W.A.B. Branch, would go on to serve in Congress.
Branch moved to Raleigh, North Carolina in 1852 to become President of the Raleigh & Gaston Railroad. He was involved in politics as an elector for Franklin Pierce, then was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from 1855 to 1861. He declined an offer of Secretary of the Treasury from President Buchanan in 1860.
Branch left Congress in March of 1861 and in May briefly became a private in the Raleigh Rifles. Before he had attended more than one drill the Governor appointed him North Carolina’s Quartermaster and Paymaster General with the rank of colonel. He resigned in September and was commissioned colonel of the 33rd North Carolina Infantry. He was promoted to brigadier general on January 16, 1862, commanding his brigade at the Battle of New Berne in March.
In May the brigade, now consisting of the 7th, 18th, 28th, 33rd and 37th North Carolina Infantry Regiments, was ordered to Virginia and attached to A.P. Hill’s Light Division. Branch commanded the brigade in the Battle of Hanover Court House on May 27. He continued to command the brigade in the Seven Days Battles, Cedar Mountain, Chantilly and through the capture of Harpers Ferry. In those five months it lost all five of its colonels and 1,250 men out of its original strength of 3,000 killed or wounded.
After the capture of Harpers Ferry, Branch led his brigade on a forced march to Sharpsburg, Maryland, where Lee with the main part of his Army of Northern Virginia was badly outnumbered by Union General George McClellan. Branch’s men went directly from their march into an assault on Union General Burnside’s Ninth Corps.
The attack threw Burnside back and saved Lee’s army, but as Branch was conferring in a group of five other Confederate generals a Union sharpshooter fired at the tempting target and struck Branch in the head, throwing him into the arms of his staff officer, Major Englehard, and killing him instantly.
His commanding officer, A.P. Hill, gave Branch the highest of praise. “He was my senior brigadier and one to whom I could have entrusted the command of the division with all confidence. No country has a better son or nobler champion, no principle a bolder defender than the noble and gallant soldier, General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch.” A monument on the Sharpsburg battlefield consisting of a cannon barrel mounted in a stone marks the spot where Branch was killed.
Lawrence O’Bryan Branch is buried in Raleigh, North Carolina at the Old City Cemetery.
There are a variety of spellings of Branch’s middle name: O’Brian, O’Brien, and O’Bryan. His monument at Sharpsburg avoids the issue by abbreviating it “O’B” as does his grave marker. But the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress lists it as O’Bryan, which is probably the most authoritative source, and one of his children’s gravestones lists her name as Susan O’Bryan Branch Jones; she named her son Lawrence O’Bryan Branch Jones.