James Johnston Pettigrew, Confederate general, was born on July 4, 1828, at “Bonarva” in Tyrrell County, the son of Ebenezer and Ann Shepard Pettigrew. He was the grandson of Episcopalian bishop Charles Pettigrew. The eighth of nine children born to a wealthy planter family, James was educated at Bingham Academy in Hillsborough prior to entering the University of North Carolina at age fourteen. Highly gifted academically and intellectually, Pettigrew received the highest possible ratings in each of his four years at the school, and graduated as valedictorian of the class of 1847.
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Pettigrew excelled at mathematics and foreign languages, six of which he was reported to speak and read fluently including Hebrew and Arabic. Upon Pettigrew’s graduation President James K. Polk appointed a professor at the National Observatory. The head of the observatory, scientist Matthew F. Maury, referred to Pettigrew as “the most promising young man in the South.” Despite the accolades of his superiors, Pettigrew left the observatory after only six months to study law. From 1850 to 1852 he traveled in Europe and studied briefly at the University of Berlin.
Upon his return from Europe, Pettigrew joined the legal firm of James Louis Petigru, his father’s cousin, in Charleston. From 1852 until 1861, Pettigrew lived and worked in Charleston, immersing himself in the culture and social life of the city. In 1856 he was elected to the South Carolina state legislature, but his outspoken arguments against a series of bills that called for reopening the foreign slave trade ensured his failure in the succeeding election. Shortly after his defeat, Pettigrew again traveled to Europe and enlisted as a volunteer in Italy’s war against Austria. The war ended before he saw action, and Pettigrew spent the remainder of the year traveling in Spain. He published an account of his adventures the following year in Notes on Spain and Spaniards in the Summer of 1859, With a Glance at Sardinia.
When South Carolina seceded in the fall of 1860, Pettigrew was appointed military advisor to Governor Francis Pickens and elected colonel of the 1st South Carolina Rifles. On December 27, 1860, Pettigrew hand-delivered the governor’s demand to the garrison commander of Fort Sumter that he withdraw his forces. He and his regiment then marched to Castle Pinckney, which they garrisoned until the siege of Fort Sumter ended in April.
In August 1861, Pettigrew was elected colonel of the 22nd North Carolina Infantry, which he led until he was severely wounded at Seven Pines in May 1862. Shot in the throat and shoulder, Pettigrew refused to leave the field, and was subsequently shot a third time in the arm, and bayoneted in the leg while incapacitated. Taken prisoner, he survived his wounds and was repatriated. For his courage, Pettigrew received a promotion to brigadier general and given a command consisting of the 11th, 26th, 47th, and 52nd North Carolina Infantry regiments.
In May 1863, Pettigrew’s brigade joined General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia for the Pennsylvania Campaign. Over the three days of the battle, July 1-3, Pettigrew led his men in ferocious fighting at Gettysburg. On the third day of the battle, Pettigrew’s brigade participated in the Pettigrew-Pickett Charge in the course of which he was wounded in the hand. His brigade suffered the highest losses of any unit in the entire Confederate army at Gettysburg. Eleven days later Pettigrew was shot in the stomach in a minor skirmish at Falling Waters, Maryland. He died three days later at Bunker Hill, West Virginia. He is buried at his family’s plantation, “Bonarva.” Collett Leventhorpe who commanded a regiment in Pettigrew’s brigade, remarked that he never met a man “who fitted more my ‘beau ideal’ of the patriot, the soldier, the man of genius, and the accomplished gentleman.”
Clyde Wilson, Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew (1990)
Sarah M. Lemmon, ed., The Pettigrew Papers, II (1988)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, V, 77-79—sketch by Clyde Wilson
Ezra Warner, Generals in Gray (1959)