Richard Brooke Garnett was born on November 21, 1817, to a large family in Essex County. In 1841, he and his cousin, Robert Selden Garnett, both graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, with Richard finishing twenty-ninth out of fifty-two and Robert twenty-seventh. (Robert Garnett also went on to serve as a brigadier general in the Confederate army and was killed in action in 1861.) Commissioned a second lieutenant, Richard Garnett joined the 6th U.S. Infantry and served in that unit for the next twenty years, mostly at posts in the West, including Texas, the Dakotas, and California. Although he did not fight in the Mexican War (1846–1848), he saw combat against the Sioux Indians. When Virginia seceded in April 1861, Garnett, by then a captain and a strong Unionist, reluctantly resigned his commission.
Awaiting him in Richmond in mid-September were two commissions in the Confederate army—one as a major of artillery and the second as a first lieutenant in Cobb’s Georgia Legion. Garnett accepted the lieutenancy and served as second in command of the legion for two months. On November 14, 1861, he was appointed brigadier general and assigned early in December to lead “Virginia’s First Brigade,” or what had come to be known as the Stonewall Brigade after its first commander, Stonewall Jackson, who had been promoted to major general and placed in charge of Confederate troops in the Shenandoah Valley.
Upon his arrival in the Valley, one soldier described Garnett as having been “said to be a competent officer” who had “light hair[,] blue eyes & light complexion, & … rather a pleasant face.” Garnett quickly became popular with the brigade, in part by offering a leadership style that contrasted with the notoriously strict discipline of Jackson; he made a point of listening to his soldiers’ requests and providing for their comfort through the winter months.
Garnett immediately saw action in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862, during which Jackson’s forces brilliantly diverted Union troops from reinforcing the Army of the Potomac under George B. McClellan, then targeting Richmond. On March 23, Jackson, relying on flawed intelligence, attacked a larger force at Kernstown. Toward the end of the fight, with his brigade running low on ammunition and facing serious threats to its front and flanks, Garnett ordered his men to pull back. Jackson was furious at him for withdrawing without orders and on April 1 placed the general under arrest and charged him with neglect of duty. Garnett requested a court-martial so that he might clear his name, but one was not convened until August 6. After one day, however, the court was suspended, never to convene again, when Jackson ordered his command to begin a march that, three days later, resulted in the Battle of Cedar Mountain.
On September 5, Lee ordered Garnett released and returned to active service in temporary command of Pickett’s brigade while Pickett recuperated from wounds received at the Battle of Gaines’s Mill (1862). Garnett led the brigade in action during the Maryland Campaign that autumn, and a colonel under his command later wrote that “while [Garnett] was not a man of much mental force, he was one of the noblest and bravest men I ever knew.” When Lee reorganized the army in October 1862, Pickett was promoted to lead the division that included his old brigade, which was now permanently commanded by Garnett. For the next eight months, however, Garnett did not take part in any fighting. At the Battle of Fredericksburg (1862), his brigade was held in reserve, and during the Chancellorsville Campaign (1863), Lee sent Pickett’s and John B. Gordon‘s divisions to Southside Virginia on a foraging expedition.
Still, the lingering stain of Garnett’s unfinished court-martial remained, and a fellow officer in Pickett’s division was moved to observe that “He was thereafter anxious to expose himself, even unnecessarily, and to wipe out effectually by some great distinction in action, what he felt to be an unmerited slur upon his military reputation.” After Jackson died following the Battle of Chancellorsville, however, Garnett was able to set aside any ill will when he served as a pallbearer at the general’s funeral.
Late in June, Pickett’s division served as the Army of Northern Virginia’s rear guard as Lee began his second invasion of the North. Consequently, Garnett’s brigade did not reach the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, until the afternoon of July 2, the battle’s second day. On July 3, the general’s final moments began as his brigade, which occupied the left front of the division’s formation, crossed the open fields south of town in the doomed frontal assault known as Pickett’s Charge. Garnett, unable to walk because he had been kicked in the leg by a horse, led his brigade mounted on his black charger. As the attack reached the Union line, he was last seen in the chaos, encouraging his men in a manner that was “totally devoid of excitement or rashness,” according to Major C. S. Peyton, the division’s only field officer not killed or wounded. Moments later, amid the close and confused combat, Garnett was struck and killed, probably by grape shot. His body was never recovered.
Late in the nineteenth century, the unidentified Confederate dead from Gettysburg, which presumably included the general’s remains, were reburied at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. Years later Garnett’s sword turned up in a pawnshop in Baltimore, Maryland, and was returned to relatives. No known photograph of Garnett exists.