After the Battle of Kernstown, Va., Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson ordered the court-martial of Brig. Gen. Richard Brooke Garnett for cowardice and “unauthorized retreat.” Garnett was deeply hurt by the injustice of the accusation. Nevertheless, Garnett wept at Stonewall’s funeral and served as one of his pallbearers.
Before the disastrous attack that came to be known as Pickett’s Charge, Richard Garnett went with his friend Gen. Lewis A. Armistead to survey the field. “This is a desperate thing to attempt,” Garnett said. Armistead agreed. “Yes it is. But the issue is with the Almighty, and we must leave it in His hands.”
The Almighty took Garnett a short time later.
“General Garnett was gallantly waving his hat and cheering the men on to renewed efforts against the enemy,” recorded James W. Clay, a private in Company G, 18th Virginia Infantry. “I remember that he wore a black felt hat with a silver cord. His sword hung at his side.”
Reportedly, Garnett urged his men forward with the words, “Make ready, Men! Take good aim. Fire low. Fire!”
Though he was wearing a new, heavy coat clearly marked with his general’s rank and carrying a sword engraved with his name, Garnett’s remains were never found. Confederates suspected that Union soldiers intentionally buried the general in a mass grave with his men, much the way Confederate soldiers buried Col. Robert Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts with his men later in the war. Consequently, Richard Garnett’s exact resting place cannot be determined with certainty.
Also, although nearly every general, North and South, had his photograph taken, Garnett may be the sole exception. In modern times, images thought to be that of Richard Garnett were determined to be of his cousin Robert Seldon Garnett, Richard’s inseparable boyhood companion, West Point classmate and fellow brigadier general in the Confederate army in Virginia. Robert Garnett was mortally wounded in July 1861, the first general killed in the war.
Richard Brooke Garnett (1817-1863) grew up the son of privilege at Rose Hill, the family mansion in Essex County, Va. Educated near home and in Norfolk, Garnett went to West Point with his cousin in 1838.
Richard Garnett graduated from West Point in 1841. He served in the Seminole War in Florida and in the Western campaigns against the Indians. He missed fighting in the Mexican War while assigned staff duties in New Orleans.
Garnett later commandedFort Laramie, Wyo., against the Sioux. While serving in California during the winter of 1860-61, he learned of the South’s secession and resigned his U.S. Army commission. He joined his home state as an officer in the Army of the Confederate States of America.
Garnett’s Civil War service before March 1862 was largely unremarkable.
However, at Kernstown on March 23, 1862, after two hours of unceasing combat, Garnett’s command began to run low on ammunition. The supply wagons had been left behind. Facing superior Union numbers attacking from three directions, Garnett made the only logical military decision: He ordered his forces to fall back.
Garnett explained his retreat at Kernstown this way: “Had I not done so, we would have run imminent risk of being routed by superior numbers, which would have resulted probably in the loss of part of our artillery and also endangered our transportation.”
Maj. Walter Harrison of Gen. George Pickett’s staff described Garnett’s “brave, proud and sensitive spirit.” He said the accusation of cowardice deeply wounded Garnett. It “was a cruel blow,” Harrison wrote.