Henry Heth (1825-1899)

Henry Heth (December 16, 1825 - September 27, 1899) was a career U.S. Army officer and a Confederate general in the American Civil War.

Heth was born in Chesterfield County, Virginia, a cousin of George Pickett. His name was pronounced as "Heeth" and he usually went by "Harry". He was one of the few generals whom Robert E. Lee called by his first name. Heth graduated from the U.S. 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 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.

After 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 Lee's quartermaster in the Virginia Provision 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. He commanded a division in the Perryville Campaign, but arrived too late for combat in the bloody Battle of Perryville.

In March, 1863, Lee brought Heth back into his command, the Army of Northern Virginia, as a brigade commander in 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 west 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 this is 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 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 crack 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 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 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 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, and the retreat to Appomattox Court House, where he surrendered with Lee on April 9, 1865.

After the war he 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. on September 27, 1899, and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

Heth was the author of A System of Target Practice (1858) and The Memoirs of Henry Heth (posthumous, 1974).