Henry Heth (1825–1899)


Henry “Harry” Heth (pronounced “Heeth”) was first a brigade then a division commander in the Confederate army during the American Civil War (1861–1865). He distinguished himself during Braxton Bragg’s Kentucky campaign (1862) before being transferred, by order of Robert E. Lee, to the Army of Northern Virginia, where he served under A. P. Hill. As one of the most popular officers in an unusually tight-knit army, Heth is said to be the only general Lee addressed by his given name. Heth took over a division at the Battle of Chancellorsville (1863) and is best known for his role in precipitating the Battle of Gettysburg (1863). His generalship was distinguished by a tendency toward aggressiveness that produced mixed results.

Heth was born at Black Heath, in Chesterfield County, Virginia, on December 16, 1825, into a family with a solid military pedigree. His paternal grandfather, Henry Heth, had been a colonel during the American Revolution (1775–1783), while his father, John Heth, was a navy captain who was briefly captured during the War of 1812. One of Heth’s cousins was Confederate general George Pickett. Heth was denied entrance to the U.S. Naval Academy and instead was graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1847, finishing, like his cousin, at the bottom of his class. He served during the Mexican War (1846–1848), although he arrived well after active operations had ended. After returning to the United States, he saw active service fighting Native Americans on the western frontier (he led a successful flanking maneuver against the Sioux in the 1855 Battle of Ash Hollow, in present-day Nebraska) and in 1858 wrote the army’s first marksmanship manual, A System of Target Practice (1862).

A System of Target Practice

After Virginia’s secession from the Union on April 17, 1861, Heth resigned his U.S. Army commission and briefly headed the state’s quartermaster department before assuming command of the 45th Virginia Infantry Regiment. He then participated in the unsuccessful western Virginia campaign conducted by Brigadier General John B. Floyd during the second half of 1861. In January 1862, Heth accepted a promotion to brigadier general, and a few months later his brigade was sent to East Tennessee to assist Confederate forces in that region. There, during the autumn of 1862, he participated in the Kentucky Campaign that culminated in the Battle of Perryville, although Heth was not present at the battle.

Heth and his command were transferred east in February 1863 and assigned to a division in the Army of Northern Virginia’s Second Corps, which was under the command of Heth’s West Point classmate and groomsman, A. P. Hill. After Hill was wounded during the night of May 2–3 at Chancellorsville, Heth took command of Hill’s division and led it with characteristic aggressiveness through the rest of the battle. Despite suffering a slight wound of his own at Chancellorsville, Heth received command of a new division in the Third Corps shortly before the Confederate army embarked on a second campaign north of the Potomac River in June 1863.

On June 30, 1863, Heth, now a major general, sent a force into the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg in order, he wrote a few months later, to “search the town for army supplies (shoes especially).” After briefly skirmishing with Union cavalry, Heth returned to the town the following morning, July 1. His advance once again encountered cavalry, almost by accident touching off the Battle of Gettysburg. Heth handled his division badly that day and suffered a head wound. Command transferred to Brigadier General James J. Pettigrew, and on July 3 the division participated in the attack on Cemetery Ridge that came to be known as Pickett’s Charge. Heth recovered sufficiently from his wound, however, to resume his command even before the army retreated across the Potomac and back to Virginia.

Henry Heth

Heth played his part in the debacle that was the Bristoe Station Campaign of October 1863, which earned Hill a stern rebuke from Lee. But Heth was effective through the Overland Campaign of 1864. He also fought well at Weldon Railroad, Reams’s Station, Peebles’s Farm, and Burgess’s Mill during the siege of Petersburg (1864–1865), with Lee and Hill repeatedly turning to his command to defend the logistical lifelines that sustained the army against an inexorable Union campaign to seize them.

When Hill was killed during the last Union offensive against Petersburg on April 2, 1865, Lee intended to have Heth take command of the Third Corps. But in the course of the day’s fighting, Heth had become physically separated from the rest of the corps, which led Lee to assign direction of the corps to another officer. Heth nonetheless managed to accompany the army as it retreated west from Petersburg and was with it when it surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.

After the war, Heth sold insurance and engaged in a number of other enterprises, including assisting the U.S. War Department in its efforts to gather material for its Official Records. He died of Bright’s disease at his home in Washington, D.C., on September 27, 1899, and is buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

December 16, 1825
Henry Heth is born in Chesterfield County.
Henry Heth enters the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Henry Heth graduates from West Point at the bottom of his class.
Henry Heth sees active service on the western frontier and writes the U.S. Army's first marksmanship manual, A System of Target Practice.
January 1862
During the American Civil War, Henry Heth accepts a promotion to brigadier general and is later sent to East Tennessee to assist Confederate forces in that region.
February 1863
Confederate general Henry Heth and his command are transferred east from Tennessee and assigned to a division in the Army of Northern Virginia's Second Corps.
May 2—3, 1863
After Confederate general A. P. Hill is wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Brigadier General Henry Heth takes command of Hill's division and leads it aggressively.
June 30, 1863
Confederates in Henry Heth's division of A. P. Hill's Third Corps set off for the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in search of shoes and supplies. They discover Union cavalry instead.
July 1, 1863
Major General Henry Heth's advance against Union cavalry begins the Battle of Gettysburg. Heth suffers a head wound during the engagement.
July 3, 1863
Major General Henry Heth's forces take part in an attack on Cemetery Ridge at the Battle of Gettysburg. (The attack will come to be known as Pickett's Charge.) Heth himself is unable to participate because of the head wound he received two days earlier.
April 2, 1865
Major General A. P. Hill is killed in combat. Robert E. Lee intends to promote Major General Henry Heth to Hill's former post but changes his mind when he finds that Heth is physically separated from the rest of the corps.
April 9, 1865
Major General Henry Heth is present with the Army of Northern Virginia when Robert E. Lee surrenders at Appomattox Court House to end the American Civil War.
September 27, 1899
Henry Heth dies in Washington, D.C. He is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.
  • Heth, Henry. The Memoirs of Henry Heth. Ed. James L. Morrison Jr. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1974.
  • Tagg, Larry. The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America’s Greatest Battle. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.
APA Citation:
Rafuse, Ethan. Henry Heth (1825–1899). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/heth-henry-1825-1899.
MLA Citation:
Rafuse, Ethan. "Henry Heth (1825–1899)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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