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The Greatest Confederate UNC Alum
"It is a great pleasure to me, that I have never yet been taken for a Yankee or a Locofoco."
The challenges presented to North Carolinians
by the War Between the States produced many able young leaders. Of them, none
had a more interesting career and personality then James Johnson Pettigrew for
whom Pettigrew State Park was named.
Pettigrew was born on July 4, 1828, at Bonarva plantation on the shore of Lake Phelps. He was the youngest son and eighth of nine children of Ebenezer and Ann Blount Shepard Pettigrew. His father was an able agriculturalist, operating several large plantations in Tyrell and Washington counties.
In 1843, at age 14, Pettigrew entered the University of North Carolina where, it was said, his academic prowess in Latin and Greek was unequaled. President James K. Polk and secretary of the Navy attended the 1847 commencement ceremonies in Chapel Hill where Pettigrew gave the valedictory address. They were so impressed by his genius and poise, they gave the 18 year old graduate a professorship at the US Naval Observatory.
Pettigrew spent six months at the observatory as an astronomer but in 1849 began to study law. Later that year, he sailed to Europe. He studied at the University of Berlin and mastered German, French, Italian and Spanish. He also learned to read Arabic and Hebrew and became an accomplished pianist.
From 1852 until the onset of war, Pettigrew lived in Charleston, South Carolina, practicing law with his second cousin James L. Petigru, one of the most famous attorneys in the nation. Incidentally, Petigru was a slaveholding Unionist, while James Johnson Pettigrew was a non-slaveholding secessionist. In addition to practicing law, Pettigrew edited a newspaper, wrote magazine articles did historical research on Spain and the Moors and served in the South Carolina legislature.
Convinced that the cause of secession would eventually triumph and a war would be necessary to achieve freedom from the North, Pettigrew began to ready himself for military service. He was active in the South Carolina Militia and became knowledgeable about military tactics, engineering and artillery. In 1856 he became adjutant General of the South Carolina Militia.
In 1859, war broke out as the Kingdom of Sardinia sought to overthrow Austrian domination of Italy. Pettigrew rushed to Europe and offered his services to the King of Sardinia, but alas, an armistice was signed, so he saw no action. So, he traveled to Paris and studied Napoleonic tactics at St. Cyr. Then he returned to Spain where he completed his book entitled “Notes on Spain and the Spaniards” which was published in 1861.
When South Carolina seceded, Pettigrew was elected colonel of the SC First Regiment of Rifles and was appointed chief military aid to Governor Francis Pickens. After North Carolina seceded, Pickens followed the example of Lee and offered his services to his native state. He was soon elected Colonel of the 22nd North Carolina and was promptly sent to the Potomac. Pettigrew soon established the policy of eating the same food as the privates and denying himself anything he could not offer his men. Heeding what he had learned in Europe, Pettigrew took extraordinary health and sanitation precautions to protect his men from epidemics.
Pettigrew's Brigade at Gettysburg
"In the midst of all our trials it is a consolation to reflect, that our reputation, next to Greece, will be the most heroic of nations."
While serving at the Potomac, Pettigrew was promoted Brigadier General, but refused the promotion, declaring that no one should be a general unless he had led men in combat. Later, amidst heavy fighting, Pettigrew was ordered to accept the promotion and placed in command of North Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia and Virginia troops. During the Peninsula campaign when McClellan’s Union troops approached Richmond, Pettigrew’s troops were among the troops in opposition. A musket ball pierced Pettigrew’s throat and shoulder, permanently disabling his right arm. When soldiers tried to carry him to the rear, he ordered them back to the front ranks. Pettigrew lost consciousness on the battlefield and was captured. In August of 1862, he was exchanged for a Northern general in Confederate hands and immediately reported for duty, though he was partly incapacitated. Soon, he was given command of the 26th North Carolina brigade which came to be known as Pettigrew’s Brigade and was one of the most distinguished in the war.
On June 1, 1863, Pettigrew’s Brigade joined the Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee on the march to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Pettigrew’s Brigade attacked and, in desperate fighting, drove the Union forces off their positions at McPherson’s Ridge. Casualties were tremendous in this half hour fight. In fact the 26th North Carolina lost more then any one regiment in any day in the entire war, North or South. Pettigrew’s division superior, Harry Heth, was wounded so Pettigrew was given command of the entire division. On the third day of Gettysburg, this division took part in the famous assault on Cemetery Ridge, often reffered to as Pickett’s Charge. While some of Pickett’s men went up to the stone wall, some of Pettigrew’s men went over the stone wall. Though Pickett directed his division from a distance, Pettigrew was one who went up to the wall and was one of the last to return to Confederate lines. Thus, Pettigrew’s Brigade filled out the middle part of North Carolina’s Confederate boast “First at Bethel, Farthest to the front of Gettysburg and Chickamauga. Last at Appomattox.”
Brigadier General James Jonshton Pettigrew C.S.A
"For non who fought so briefly in the Army of Northern Viginia was there more praise while living or more laments when dead."
Pettigrew was shot in the stomach during the retreat after Gettysburg. He was told that the only hope of saving his life was to be immobilized and left behind where Union doctors might find him. He refused saying that he would rather die then be in another yankee prison. He was carried to Bunker Hill where he died two weeks after his 35th birthday. Funeral services were attended by a huge crowd at the North Carolina Capitol Square in Raleigh.
A South Carolina friend wrote of Pettigrew, “more than anything he loved liberty, but he felt that to love liberty was an empty mockery unless that love was exhibited in sacrifice which its acquisition requires.”
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Own Clyde Wilson's 288 page Biography of General Pettigrew.