In the summer of 1859, while hotheads in the Carolinas are debating whether to secede from the United States, a young planter’s son from Tyrrell County is tramping through the hills of Europe. His name is James Johnston Pettigrew, known to family and friends as “Johnston.” He is 31 years old, independently wealthy, a slave owner, a graduate of the University of North Carolina, a former professor at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., a licensed attorney in Charleston, South Carolina, and a former South Carolina state legislator.
Pettigrew is a champion fencer, a mathematical wizard, and fluent in five languages. At age 14, he entered the University of North Carolina and later graduated valedictorian of a 36-member class.
He has traveled to Europe to join the Sardinians in fighting for independence from Austrian domination. Part of him, chafing at the scholar’s mild life, craves adventure and glory.
Before the first shots are fired, however, the French emperor intervenes and the war is called off. Pettigrew retreats to Spain, a country he’s always fancied and once visited. He admits, “I went to Spain actuated by the purest motives of selfishness — to gratify myself.” There, he writes a book, Notes on Spain and the Spaniards, in the Summer of 1859, with a Glance at Sardinia. The book’s byline reads, “By A Carolinian,” followed by Pettigrew’s initials (J.J.P.).
So accomplished, and yet Pettigrew laments that his life lacks purpose. “I live for nothing that I am aware of,” he writes to his older brother, William. On another occasion, “I believe I should turn my head toward getting rich: one must have some object in view; that would be better than nothing; this floating along is rather unsatisfactory.”
He struggles to find a practical purpose for his life, a useful way to apply his dazzling intellectual skills and all he has learned.
After the trip to Europe, Pettigrew comes home to Charleston, where South Carolina is rapidly moving toward secession. He has no military experience, but since he bears a prominent family name he is appointed colonel of the 1st Regiment of Rifles. In that role he leads 200 troops from the Citadel and takes possession of Castle Pinckney, a Federal harbor fort.
His 1st Regiment later takes up positions on Morris Island, near Fort Sumter. Using cotton bales, railroad iron, and whatever other materials he can muster, Pettigrew supervises the building of gun batteries and ramparts with such zeal and efficiency that he quickly establishes a reputation as a gifted military leader.
A relative of Pettigrew and his law partner, James Louis Petigru (his last name so incongruously spelled), notes in a letter to his own grandson, “Your cousin Johnston is no longer a pale intimate of the obscure building in St. Michael’s Alley, where he used to pore over dusty books in a foreign tongue; but bestrides a gallant steed. With gay trappings, long spurs, and bright shoulder knots.”
In keeping with expectations, Pettigrew becomes the chief military aide of South Carolina governor Francis Pickens. He advises the governor in a tense standoff between Federal and State forces in Charleston Harbor, initially telling him not to move on Fort Sumter, but later vowing that his regiment will be the first to assault the island fortress. And so it is that after Pettigrew conducts a spectacular bombardment, Fort Sumter is surrendered.
Pettigrew’s regiment then shifts to Sullivan’s Island to fend off the attack they are sure will follow. To their surprise, Charleston goes quiet and the 1st Regiment is relieved.
Respected and in demand, Pettigrew is offered the position of Adjutant General for South Carolina, among other offers of commissions as a captain and even a major. He declines them all and instead enlists in Wade Hampton’s Legion as a private.
Even so, Pettigrew’s heart lies with his native state of North Carolina. Before long, he is plucked from the ranks and commissioned colonel of the 22nd North Carolina Regiment.
Pettigrew is not the only scholar who marches off to war.
On the eve of secession, in April 1861, sophomores and juniors at his alma mater present a petition to former North Carolina Gov. Charles Manly, secretary of the board of trustees, asking that they be allowed to enlist: “In presenting this petition we have been actuated by no desire to be released from our studies but by a thorough conviction that the present perilous condition of our country and our own interest demand it.”
Most of the seniors have already joined the army. But their petition is denied.
At the outset of the war, the Confederate government exempts university students from conscription. However, as battle and disease deplete the army, the exemption is rescinded. Conscription agents round up young scholars and carry them off to fight. By 1862, only about 50 students remain on the University of North Carolina campus. Just months before, it was home to 456 students, the second-largest student body in the South after the University of Virginia.
A year later, the senior class numbers just nine young men — three of whom are combat veterans, including one who is permanently disabled, and two others who have purchased substitutes to enlist in their stead. The junior class has dwindled from 30 to 14, two of them veterans. Only nine sophomores remain, two of them disabled. The freshman class counts only three members older than age 18.
The rest have all enlisted, and some already lie dead upon the battlefield.
From Durham County, Trinity College sends a cadre of students and teachers, the Trinity Guards, to serve as wardens at Salisbury Prison. Wake Forest College, a Baptist institution in Wake County, shutters its doors to its 76 students for the duration of the war. Many of them join the army along with their teachers, and in time the college is reopened as a military hospital.
Pettigrew is the embodiment of these educated warriors.
On May 31, 1862, he enters battle at Seven Pines, Virginia, where a minié ball catches him in the throat and tears through his shoulder, severing an artery. Convinced he is mortally wounded, he chooses to remain on the battlefield, a fallen hero.
Retreating Confederate soldiers spot Pettigrew’s body and send word to his family that he has been killed in action. But in fact, Union soldiers recover him and carry him to a field hospital.
By August, his wounds have healed and he is exchanged.
On July 1 of the following year, outside the quiet crossroads of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Pettigrew’s brigade joins the Army of Northern Virginia and blunders into bloody battle with Union troops. The division commander, Gen. Harry Heth, is badly wounded, so Pettigrew assumes command. On the third day of Gettysburg, Pettigrew leads his division of nearly 5,000 men — conspicuous for their bloody bandages — into battle alongside Gen. George Pickett’s division. One of Pettigrew’s three brigades consists of North Carolinians. The other two are made up of Virginians.
At two o’clock in the afternoon, after the greatest cannonade in history has shaken the ground and deafened them, they step out of the tree line and cross a mile of cornfields under heavy fire, advancing up the steep slope of Cemetery Ridge, toward the stone wall at the center of the Union line.
Because of its position on the extreme left of the Confederate line, Pettigrew’s division will have to cross several hundred yards more of deadly ground than Pickett’s.
As thousands fall around him, Pettigrew advances. His horse is shot, and he dismounts, sending it to the rear. On foot now, he leads troops through a deadly hail of fire that one survivor calls “that storm of death.” One of Pettigrew’s hands is shattered by grapeshot, but he presses on. His line stands and delivers a volley, then charges forward to within a few yards of the stone wall.
But Union troops swarm into the line. The two Virginia brigades in Pettigrew’s division break first. The Federals smash the remaining North Carolina brigade with relentless massed musket and cannon fire. With no support coming up behind him, Pettigrew falls back with the other battle-shocked survivors across a rutted landscape littered with bodies. He is one of the last soldiers to quit the field.
As Pettigrew rallies his men to defend against a counterattack, Gen. Robert E. Lee, who ordered the assault, approaches him, bereft and stunned. He takes Pettigrew’s good hand, and tells him, “General Pettigrew, it is all my fault.”
But within hours the Richmond papers are calling the foolhardy assault “Pickett’s Charge,” lauding the bravery of the Virginia troops and blaming the failure on the “cowardly” North Carolinians. Yet in the single North Carolina brigade in Pettigrew’s division, every colonel, lieutenant colonel, and major has been killed or wounded, save one, who was captured at the wall. One of its regiments, the 26th, went into battle on the first day of Gettysburg with 800 men. At the close of the third day, it musters just 80.
A fatal mistake
Through torrential rain, along mud-sloppy roads, Pettigrew retreats with the remnants of his brigade down the back side of Seminary Ridge. They march all night to South Mountain, Maryland, heading for the safety that lies beyond the Potomac in Virginia.
Now Pettigrew commands part of the rearguard of the shattered Army of Northern Virginia. Although his injured hand is splinted and his arm hangs in a sling, he tirelessly rallies his men through 10 days of hard marching and constant skirmishing. At Falling Waters, Maryland, on July 14 — at camp with his brigade — he is standing under a tree conferring with General Heth and a cadre of officers when a troop of Union cavalry bursts out of the woods.
At first, Heth mistakes them for Confederate troops, dressed in captured blue coats. But then they charge into the middle of camp. Pettigrew attempts to mount his horse one-handed, but the horse shies and throws him to the ground.
When one Union soldier shoots down several Confederates with a Colt revolver, Pettigrew advances on him. He draws a small pistol from his breast pocket, aims it at the charging cavalryman, and pulls the trigger. The weapon misfires. The soldier returns fire, hitting Pettigrew in the stomach.
Confederates swarm after Pettigrew’s assailant, chasing him into a barn and battering him to death with a rock. It has not been a glorious battle, just a brutal melee that has gained nothing.
The Federals are driven off. The surgeon advises Pettigrew to remain behind and be captured, since the Union surgeons will be better equipped to treat him. He refuses and is carried 18 miles over rough roads to Bunker Hill, now part of the newly formed state of West Virginia. He lingers for three days in agony. His military career has been as remarkable as the rest of his life: he has advanced from private to general; been wounded twice; was captured and exchanged; survived the massacre of Pickett’s Charge; and now has fallen again. He is a long way from the classroom.
On July 17th, he confides to a fellow officer, “It’s time to be going,” and gives up the ghost.
His body lies in state at the Capitol in Raleigh and is buried there.
At war’s end, the University of North Carolina is bankrupt; owing debts of $100,000, and by 1871 is forced to close. Like so many other institutions, it invested heavily in Confederate securities and bank bonds, all of which are now worthless. The new state constitution of 1868 declares that it will have an “inseparable connection to the Free Public School system of the State,” under the oversight of the Board of Education. The old trustees, many of them ex-Confederates, are ousted so that the school can become the “people’s university.” It reopens in 1875.
In November 1865, honoring Pettigrew’s wish that he be buried on the family plantation at Bonarva in Tyrrell County, his family arranges to move his remains there from Raleigh.
In the Civil War, the wandering scholar found his purpose. Now, he is home.
The author is indebted to the North Carolina Division of Archives and History and the North Carolina Collection at the Wilson library, UNC Chapel Hill, for Pettigrew’s correspondence. Published sources include: Hugh Talmage Lefler and Albert Ray Newsome, History of a Southern State: North Carolina (The University of North Carolina Press, 1954); James Johnston Pettigrew, Spain and the Spaniards, in the Summer of 1859, with a Glance at Sardinia (Evans and Cogswell, 1861 ); Clyde N. Wilson. Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew (The University of Georgia Press, 1990); Percival Perry, “History of Wake Forest University,” Wake Forest College Bulletin January, 1974; David Silkenat, “’In Good Hands, in a Safe Place’: Female Academies in Confederate North Carolina,” The North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. LXXXVIII, No. 1, January 2011.