A Sojourn on the Plains: The Frontier Service of Henry Heth

August 07, 2020 Posted by: Karlton Smith

Most visitors to Gettysburg learn that the battle started on July 1, 1863. What they might not know is that the battle started when Maj. Gen. Henry Heth, Army of Northern Virginia, was leading his division (four brigades with about 7,500 officers and men) to Gettysburg. Gen. Robert E. Lee, Army of Northern Virginia, had ordered his commanders not to bring on a general engagement until the whole army was concentrated. Believing there were only local militia forces in Gettysburg, Heth ordered two of his brigades (about 3,500 men) to conduct a “forced reconnaissance, and determine in what force the enemy were – whether or not he [the Federal commander] was massing his forces on Gettysburg.” A normal reconnaissance is conducted by about a half dozen officers and men. Heth confronted a Federal cavalry brigade under the command of Brig. Gen. John Buford of about 1,500 men. Buford, using dismounted tactics which officers had learned on the frontier, held up Heth’s advance long enough for infantry under Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds to arrive on the field. This clash of two strong forces inadvertently led to the launch of the battle of Gettysburg, in defiance of Lee’s wishes.

Seated photograph of Confederate General Henry Heth, Library of Congress
Confederate General Henry Heth (Library of Congress) 

Few visitors to Gettysburg are acquainted with Heth, and fewer still know of his frontier service prior to the war. Henry Heth, known as Harry, was born on December 16, 1825, in Virginia. He was a cousin of future Confederate Maj. Gen. George Edward Pickett. In 1842, Heth turned down a midshipman’s appointment to the U. S. Navy, but in 1843, he accepted an appointment to West Point. He graduated last in the West Point Class of 1847. Among his classmates, and future Civil War generals, were Thomas H. Neill, Charles Griffin, Romeyn B. Ayres, John Gibbon, Ambrose E. Burnside, and A. P. Hill. All but Burnside fought at Gettysburg. All but A. P. Hill and Heth fought for the North.

Heth was initially promoted to brevet 2nd lieutenant and assigned to the 1st Infantry. He was promoted to 2nd lieutenant on September 22, 1847, and reassigned to the 6th Infantry. He was promoted to 1st lieutenant on June 10, 1853, and to captain on March 3, 1855, and transferred to the newly organized 10th U. S. Infantry. Heth spent most of his pre-war service with the army in Kansas and Nebraska territories. Heth served on a board to test the merits of new breech-loading rifles in 1857. In 1858, Heth wrote and published A System of Target Practice for use by the U. S. Army. This was largely a translation from a French military manual.

In his memoirs, Heth was particularly proud of his prowess at hunting buffalo while serving with the U. S. Army on the Plains. Heth wrote: “During my sojourn on the plains at Fort Atkinson [Kansas Territory], and subsequently at Fort Kearny [Nebraska Territory], I killed over one thousand buffalo. I became a buffalo fiend. I never enjoyed any sport as much as I did killing them. From constant practice with Colt’s army six-shooter, large size, I became an expert in the use of the pistol on horseback….In hunting buffalo successfully there are two essentials: first, a horse sufficiently fleet to overtake your cow, and who will not shy when you approach her and he gets the odor of the buffalo; second, to be perfectly cool and not draw your pistol from your holster until you are within a few strides of her side, then shoot her behind the left fore shoulder…I had hunted buffalo so much with the Indians, who, as I have said, used only the bow and arrow in their hunts, and it seemed so easy to kill buffalo in that manner that I determined to try that method of hunting. I found it the most difficult job I had ever undertaken. After many trials, and shooting away a hundred or more arrows, I at last succeeded in locating one in the right spot and brought down my cow.” Heth’s soldiers would tell passing soldiers “that their lieutenant would mount a horse bare back, and with his bow and arrows kill more buffalo in a single run than the most expert Indian hunter could kill in two.” 

Fort Kearny, Kansas Territory, Library of Congress
Fort Kearny, Kansas Territory (Library of Congress) 

When promoted to captain in the new 10th Infantry in 1855, Heth was somewhat skeptical about the appointment. Heth had no political connections and had not applied for a promotion in the new regiment.  “I thought,” Heth wrote, “for a moment and then handed the paper to Colonel [Philip St. George] Cooke saying, ‘Colonel, this is all a hoax; this trick was played by [Winfield Scott] Hancock and others.’” Colonel Cooke assured Heth that it was not a joke. Heth reported to Col. Samuel S. Cooper, Adjutant General in Washington, DC. Cooper told Heth that the appointment had been made by the Secretary of War. Heth replied, “I do not even know the name of the Secretary of War; he does not know me, nor do I know him.” Cooper then introduced Heth to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy.  Davis was secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce. Davis knew all about Heth’s exploits on the plains and his expertise in hunting buffalo. This was why Heth received the promotion. Davis, apparently, knew the records of all his officers.

In August 1855, Maj. Gen. William S. Harney led a mixed force of about 600 infantry, cavalry and artillery out of Fort Kearny in search of a band of 250 Brule Sioux. This was in response to the Grattan Massacre in August 1854. Harney led five companies of the 6th Infantry to attack the front of the village. Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke, 2nd Dragoons, and Capt. Henry Heth, with Companies E & K, 2nd Dragoons, Light Company G, 4th Artillery, and Heth’s Company E, 10th Infantry were sent to establish a blocking position in the rear of the village. At first, the dragoons fought dismounted. When the Sioux broke through the blockade, the dragoons remounted and gave chase, led by Henry Heth. The action, known as the battle of the Blue Water or “Harney’s Massacre,” resulted in the deaths of 86 Sioux men and women and 70 women and children captured. What Heth thought of this somewhat one-sided affair he did not say.

In a twist of history, many future Civil War generals served at the battle of Blue Water, Nebraska Territory. These included 1st Lt. John Buford, 2nd Dragoons, who commanded troops in Cooke’s blocking maneuver. It was Buford, commanding the First Division, Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac, who stopped Heth’s advance to Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. Other future Civil War generals engaged at Blue Water included: 2nd Lt. Gouverneur K. Warren, Topographical Engineers, later known as the “Savior of Little Round Top;” Capt. Albion P. Howe, 4th U. S. Artillery (G) who commanded the Second Division, Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac; Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke, 2nd Dragoons, wrote the standard cavalry tactics manual used by both sides; 1st Lt. Beverly Robertson, Company I, 2nd Dragoons, commanded a cavalry brigade under Maj. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart, Army of Northern Virginia. This list also includes Capt. William Steele, Company K, 2nd Dragoons and Maj. Albemarle Cady, Adjutant, 6th Infantry. Heth, Robertson, and Steele fought for the Confederacy. Warren, Howe, Robertson, Buford, and Heth were in the Gettysburg Campaign.

Heth resigned his commission on April 25, 1861, to join the Confederacy. He served in Western Virginia, at one time as a quartermaster for Gen. Robert E. Lee. This is apparently where Lee and Heth began their personal relationship. Lee, for example, usually addressed Heth as “Harry.” Heth was promoted to brigadier general on January 6, 1862, and sent to the Department of East Tennessee to serve with Maj. Gen. E. Kirby Smith. Heth and his command missed the battles of Perryville, Kentucky, and Stone’s River, Tennessee. Lee recalled Heth to Virginia in January 1863 and gave Heth command of a brigade in A. P. Hill’s division. When Hill was wounded at Chancellorsville, Virginia, in May 1863, Heth assumed command of the division. Heth was commended by both Gen. Robert E. Lee and Maj. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart. Heth was promoted to major general on May 24, 1863, and given command of Hill’s old division when Hill assumed command of the new Third Corps.

Although not a particularly successful general (he never won a decisive battle) and despite his misstep in bringing about the battle of Gettysburg, Heth was admired for his personal qualities, such as his joie de vivre and his sense of humor, and served with his command until Appomattox. After the war, Heth worked in insurance in Richmond, Virginia. He worked as a government civil engineer on river and harbor work. For some years, he served as a special agent in the Office of Indian Affairs. Before becoming ill in 1898, Heth served as a commissioner for marking the graves of the Confederate dead at Antietam. He died on September 27, 1899, and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond. His memoirs were published in 1974.

Henry Heth. The Memoirs of Henry Heth. Edited by James L. Morrison, Jr. (Westport. CT: Greenwood Press, 1974)

GettysburgNationalMilitary Park, military, civilwar, battlefields, weapons

Last updated: August 7, 2020

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

1195 Baltimore Pike
Gettysburg, PA 17325

Contact Us