About Henry Heth
Henry "Harry" Heth ( /ˈhiːθ/ not /ˈhɛθ/; December 16, 1825 – September 27, 1899) was a career United States Army officer and a Confederate general in the American Civil War. He is best remembered for precipitating the Battle of Gettysburg, accomplished inadvertently while sending some of his troops of the Army of Northern Virginia to the small Pennsylvania village, according to his memoirs, seeking shoes.
Heth was born at Black Heath in Chesterfield County, Virginia, son of United States Navy Captain John Heth, and Margaret L. Pickett. He was a cousin of George Pickett. He usually went by "Harry", the name also preferred by his grandfather, American Revolutionary War Colonel Henry Heth, who had established the Heth family in the coal business in the Virginia Colony after emigrating from England about 1759.
He was one of the few generals whom Robert E. Lee called by his first name. Heth graduated from the United States Military Academy at the bottom of his class in 1847; he was wounded at West Point in 1846 with a bayonet stab to his leg. He was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant and assigned to the 1st U.S. Infantry regiment. His antebellum career was served primarily in western posts, some as a quartermaster, and he eventually achieved the rank of captain. He played a prominent role in the 1855 Battle of Ash Hollow against the Sioux. In 1858, he created the first marksmanship manual for the Army.
After the war began at Fort Sumter, Heth resigned from the U.S. Army and joined the Confederate States Army. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel and served for a brief time as Robert E. Lee's quartermaster in the Virginia Provisional Army, but that time was influential for his career, because Lee looked out for Harry for the rest of the war. He spent the remainder of 1861 in the Kanawha Valley in western Virginia in the 5th and 45th Virginia Infantry regiments. He was promoted to brigadier general on January 6, 1862, and sent west to the Department of East Tennessee, to serve under Kirby Smith. During the Kentucky Campaign, he was sent by Smith to take a division north from Lexington, Kentucky, to make a demonstration on Cincinnati; although this caused a great commotion in the city's defenses, only a few skirmishes occurred.
In March 1863, Lee brought Heth back into his command, the Army of Northern Virginia, as a brigade commander in Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill's division. He fought in the Battle of Chancellorsville, showing aggressive, but misguided, qualities in his first large-scale combat, attacking without reserves against a Union force emerging from the Wilderness. He assumed temporary command of the division when Hill was wounded. Following the death of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, Lee reorganized his army into three corps, promoting Hill to the Third Corps. Heth retained his division command and was promoted to major general on May 24, 1863.
Heth's division made history by inadvertently starting the Battle of Gettysburg. Marching east from Cashtown on July 1, 1863, Heth sent two brigades ahead in a reconnaissance in force. His memoirs referred to sending them in a search for shoes in Gettysburg, but some historians consider this an apocryphal story; Heth knew that Jubal A. Early had been in Gettysburg a few days earlier and any available shoes would have been taken at that time. Besides, sending two brigades on such a scavenger hunt would have been wasteful. Heth's true motivation remains hidden to history. The brigades made contact with Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. John Buford and spread out into battle formation.
Lee had ordered A.P. Hill to avoid a general engagement with the enemy before he could assemble his full army, but Heth's actions had now rendered that order moot. They were engaged and Union reinforcements started arriving quickly. Heth's decision to deploy his two brigades before the arrival of the rest of his division was an error as well; they were repulsed in hard fighting against a elite division of the Army of the Potomac's I Corps, including the famously tenacious Iron Brigade. After a lull in fighting, Heth brought two more brigades into the fray in the afternoon and the Union forces were driven back to Seminary Ridge, but principally because the Union corps' right flank was crushed by Richard S. Ewell's corps coming in from the north. Finally, Heth attacked again in conjunction with the division of Lt. Gen. Robert E. Rodes and the Union corps was routed, retreating back through town to Cemetery Hill. But Confederate losses were severe; Heth should have better coordinated his attack with the division of Maj. Gen. Dorsey Pender. Heth was wounded during the attack when a bullet struck him in the head. Fortunately for him, he was wearing a hat that was too large and stuffed with papers to make it fit. The papers probably deflected the bullet to avoid a fatal wound, but Heth was knocked unconscious and effectively out of the battle. Parts of his division, under the command of Brig. Gen. Johnston Pettigrew, saw more action two days later in Pickett's Charge and he recovered enough to command during the retreat back to Virginia and the minor engagements of the fall of 1863.
Harry Heth commanded his division through the 1864 Overland Campaign, the Siege of Petersburg. Following the death of Gen. A.P. Hill on April 2, 1865, Heth briefly took over command of the Third Corps. Heth's troops, now led by Gen. John R. Cooke, were pushed back at the Battle of Sutherland's Station. Heth led the remainder of his troops in the retreat of the Appomattox Campaign to Appomattox Court House, where he surrendered with Lee on April 9, 1865.
After the war, Heth worked in the insurance business and later served the government as a surveyor and in the Office of Indian Affairs. He died in Washington, D.C., and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.
In popular media
Heth was portrayed by Warren Burton in the 1993 film Gettysburg, based on Michael Shaara's novel, The Killer Angels.
A System of Target Practice (published in 1858) The Memoirs of Henry Heth (posthumous, 1974).