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Essex County History
1861-1865
General Robert S. Garnett &
General Richard B. Garnett


Major Robert Selden Garnett Jr. was born on December 16, 1819 and raised at his father’s home, Champlain, in upper Essex. A tradition of civilian and military distinction surrounded him. Robert Selden Garnett, Sr., his father, studied law at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), served one term in the Virginia House of Delegates and five terms (1817-1827) in the U.S. House of Representatives. His uncle, James Mercer Garnett, also served in the House of Representatives, and was a leading agriculturalist and advocate for women’s education. His mother, Olympia Charlotte de Goughes, was the daughter of a French general and a leading French feminist. His cousin of nearly the same age, Richard Brooke Garnett who lived at nearby Rose Hill, also experienced a tragic death, but later in the war at Cemetery Ridge in Gettysburg. It is easy to imagine the two as youths riding without a care through the fields and forests of Occupacia before their years of service. Robert and Richard would later attend West Point together, graduating numbers 27 and 29 respectively in the Class of 1841. Their classmates would later be generals on both sides of the battle line, including Confederates: Josiah Gorgas, Samuel Jones, Claudius Sears, Abraham Buford, and Federals: Zealous Tower, Horatio Wright, Albion Howe, and Alfred Sully.

Robert S. Garnett, Jr. saw action in the war with Mexico. He ended up serving as an aide-de-camp for General Zachary Taylor, participating in the important battles of Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Monterey, and Buena Vista, rising to the rank of First Lieutenant in 1846. After the war he became a captain in the infantry, leading expeditions against the Yakima Indians and participating in the military administration of California. He later served as Commandant of Cadets at West Point (1852-54) while Robert E. Lee was Superintendent. He was promoted to Major in 1855. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Garnett resigned his commission in the U.S. Army to fight for his native state. He was commissioned a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army on June 6, 1861 and assigned the defense of northwest Virginia (now the state of West Virginia). Despite valiant efforts, his vastly outnumbered command was forced into a retreat. On July 13, 1861 he led a small detachment to Carrick’s Ford on the Cheat River to stall the advance of Federal troops while the bulk of his force escaped. He was killed while bravely leading his men, becoming the first general to be killed in the war. His former West Point roommate, Major John Love, was the first Union officer to come to his side.

Richard Brooke Garnett began his career serving in the Second Seminole War in Florida, and then served throughout Missouri, the Indian Territory, Arkansas, Texas and South Dakota. He also served with General Albert Sydney Johnston in the Utah Expedition of 1857-58. When news of Virginia's secession reached him, he resigned from the U.S. Army on 17 May 1861 and offered his sword to his native state. By fall of that year, he was Lt. Colonel second in command of Col. Thomas R.R. Cobb's famous Georgia Legion. By spring of 1862, he was promoted to Brigadier General in command of the even more famous Stonewall Brigade.

In March of 1862, a battle of Stonewall Jackson's famous Shenandoah Campaign was fought at Kernstown, VA. It would be a disaster for Richard Garnett though. Due to incorrect intelligence, the Stonewall Brigade was sent against a vastly superior federal force. After two hours, fighting on three sides and low on ammunition, Garnett ordered the Stonewall Brigade to retreat. A furious Jackson relieved Garnett from command and had him arrested pending court-martial. The court-martial was never convened due to the demands of campaigning. Garnett never had the opportunity to clear his name, and most historians support his position. After Jackson's death, Richard was one of his mourners and reportedly said to Major Sandie Pendleton and Captain Kyd Douglas: "You know of the unfortunate breach between General Jackson and myself. I can never forget it, nor cease to regret it. But I wish here to assure you that no man can lament his death more sincerely than I do. I believe he did me a great injustice, but I believe also he acted from the purest of motives. He is dead. Who can fill his place!"

At Gettysburg, General Richard B. Garnett was a brigade commander in Pickett's Division. When that desperate charge was made on Cemetery Ridge, an ailing Garnett led his men from the saddle knowing his probable fate. He bravely led his troops almost to the federal lines before being struck down. A marker in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery commemorates his courage and sacrifice. He was later awarded the Confederate Medal of Honor by the Sons of the Confederacy.



General Garnett









Sources:

1. Settlers, Southerners and Americans: The History of Essex County, Va.. 1985, by James B. Slaughter (available at the Essex County Museum and Historical Society)

2. Essex County Virginia: Historic Homes, 2002. by Anita and Gordon Harrower and Robert LaFollette (available at the Essex County Museum and Historical Society)

3. Essex County Historical Society Bulletin, vol. 50. Major Garnett and the California State Seal. by Robert LaFollette. March 2008

4. Essex County Historical Society Bulletin, vol. 27. History of the Confederate Medal of Honor and of Richard Brooke Garnett, Brigadier General, C.S.A., an Essex Native. by Col. Joseph B. Mitchell, USA (Ret.) . November 1985

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