Lewis Armistead has become one of the best known Confederate officers thanks to the book The Killer Angels and the movie Gettysburg. He was born in New Bern, North Carolina, on February 18, 1817. His father, Walker Keith Armistead, and five uncles served in the War of 1812. His uncle, Major George Armistead commanded Fort McHenry during the British attack that inspired The Star Spangled Banner.
The story goes that he was dismissed from West Point in 1836 for breaking a mess plate over Jubal Early’s head, although he was also having serious academic problems at the time. Helped by his influential family, he was appointed Second Lieutenant in 1839. In 1844 he was promoted to First Lieutenant, and in the same year married Cecelia Lee Love. They had a boy and a girl, Walker Keith and Flora Lee.
During the Mexican War Armistead was brevetted twice for gallantry at Contreras and Cherubusco, was wounded at Chapultepec, and received a brevet to major for Molino del Rey and Chapultepec.
The Armisteads lost Flora Lee in 1850 while stationed at Jefferson Barracks, Misouri, and in December Cecilia died in Mobile, Alabama, where Lewis had taken her to escape the bitter winter at Fort Dodge. In 1852 the family home in Virginia burned. Lewis took a leave of absence to return to Virginia, and married Cornelia Taliaferro Jamison there in March of 1853.
Armistead brought his new wife when he returned to duty on the plains. They has a son, Lewis B., who died in December of 1854 and was buried next to Lewis’ first wife. In 1855 Lewis was promoted to captain, but tragedy struck again when Cornielia died that summer at Fort Riley, Kansas, during a cholera epidemic.
Armistead continued to serve on the plains of Kansas and Nebraska until 1858, when his 6th Infantry Regiment was sent to Utah and then on to California, where it took part in the Mohave Expedition. Armistead commanded a two-company post on the Colorado River called Fort Mohave. After escalating disturbances he led fifty men in a pitched battle with around 200 Mohave, resulting in a lasting peace with the tribe.
In 1860 Armistead commanded a depot in San Diego. While serving as quartermaster in Los Angeles he became good friends with John Reynolds and Winfield Hancock. He resigned on May 26, 1861, and in a farewell party is reported to have told Hancock “May God strike me dead” if he ever raised a hand against him in battle.
Armistead headed east with Albert Sidney Johnston, who had resigned the command of the Department of the Pacific and would go on to be the Confederacy’s second ranking general, and two dozen men of the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles, the only California militia unit to join the Confederacy. Avoiding both U.S. troops and Apaches, they reached Texas after an eight week journey across the desert.
After a brief period in western Virginia, Armistead became colonel of the 57th Virginia Infantry, then was promoted to brigadier general in April of 1862. He commanded a brigade at Seven Pines, led the Confederate assault at Malvern Hill, and led his brigade at Second Manassas. He served as the army’s provost marshal during the Maryland Campaign, then returned to his brigade for Fredericksburg and the Suffolk Campaign.
The image of Armistead at Gettysburg, hat on his sword as he led his brigade in Pickett’s Charge, has become one of the icons of the Civil War. He and a small group of survivors crossed the stone wall that was the objective of the attack. It came to be known as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy,” but Armistead was wounded in three places in the fierce fighting. The Friend to Friend Masonic Memorial at the northwest corner of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg depicts Union Captain Henry Bingham, a fellow Mason, aiding the wounded Armistead.
Armistead was taken to a Union field hospital at the George Spangler Farm. His wounds were not thought to be mortal, as they avoided bone, nerves and arteries, but he died two days later. He is buried next to his uncle at Old St. Paul’s Cemetery in Baltimore.
In addition to the Masonic Memorial, he is honored by a monument at Gettysburg near where he fell.