Friends and Enemies at Pickett’s Charge

Conflict: Civil War

"Taking Battery A" by John Paul Strain; Confederate General Lewis A. Armistead at Pickett's Charge

“Taking Battery A” by John Paul Strain; depiction of Confederate General Lewis A. Armistead at Pickett’s Charge

Out of the 12,000 Confederates who participated in Pickett’s Charge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, only 5,000 survived. Of the many deaths that day and the numerous stories that can be told, one in particular is more well known than others.

General Lewis A. Armistead

Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead

Brigadier General Lewis Addison Armistead was not your typical military general of the time. Mainly, he didn’t graduate from West Point: he resigned after losing his temper in the lunchroom and busting a plate over Jubal Early‘s head. He was lucky that he had friends in high places (his father served well in the War of 1812 and after), who got him a place in the military at the same time most of his former classmates were graduating.

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock (who was named after the famous general) did graduate from West Point. He had a quiet two years in the infantry before the Mexican-American War began in 1846, where both Hancock and Armistead served. They remained close friends for the next twenty years and later were both stationed in California right before the outbreak of the Civil War.

General Winfield Scott Hancock (center)

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock (center)

When war was declared, Hancock and his wife, Almira, hosted a farewell party for their nearby friends in California, among them was Armistead. Armistead was born in North Carolina and couldn’t deny his attachments to the South. He resigned from the U.S. Army to serve the Confederacy. Hancock, a Pennsylvania native, remained to fight for the Union. This time they wouldn’t be serving with one another but against.

At the party, Armistead gave some of his belongings to Almira for safekeeping. If he were to fall during the war, he wanted her to deliver his things to his family. He gave Hancock a book to keep: it was Armistead’s prayer book with the words, “Trust in God and fear nothing,” inscribed inside. Resigning from the U.S. Army was painful for Armistead, and he confided in Hancock that evening upon his leave: “Good-by [sic]; you can never know what this has cost me.

It wasn’t until Pickett’s Charge on 3 July 1863 that the men had the chance of meeting again, but it would never come to pass. Armistead stood with thousands of other Confederates, ready for the charge. The attempt was futile though. The Union was equipped with better artillery and a better position. The grey soldiers marched to their deaths that afternoon, Armistead being one of them. He led his men from the front, waving his hat and shouting orders. He marched far enough to cross the wall onto the Union side and then was shot twice. He tried leaning on an enemy cannon but collapsed and laid there until Henry H. Bingham, a Union soldier, came by. Armistead asked him about Hancock. Bingham informed Armistead that Hancock was also wounded. Not knowing if he would ever see his friend again, Armistead gave Bingham his personal effects to deliver to Hancock.

Captain Henry H. Bingham

Captain Henry H. Bingham

Hancock was injured, but not as severely as Armistead. During the charge, Hancock remained very high and visible on his horse while he commanded the troops. He refused to get closer to the ground and ensure his safety, and while he was surveying the battle from that height, a bullet passed through the pommel of his saddle and shot straight into his thigh. With the bullet came pieces of wood and a nail from the saddle as well. Hancock wouldn’t let his men remove him from the front of the battlefield until the fight was over.

Hancock eventually received his friend’s possessions from Bingham, and Armistead died two days after he was wounded. Sadly, the men never had the reunion they had hoped for.

Read more about Armistead and Hancock here and here, and check out more documents regarding Pickett’s Charge on Fold3 here and here.