December 16, 1825|
Black Heath, Virginia
|Died||September 27, 1899
|Resting place||Hollywood Cemetery,
|Allegiance|| United States
|Service/branch|| United States Army
Confederate States Army
|Years of service||1847-1865|
|Rank|| Captain (USA)
|Relations||George Pickett (cousin)|
He came to the notice of Robert E. Lee while serving briefly as his Quartermaster, and was given a brigade under A.P. Hill, whose division he commanded when the latter was wounded at Chancellorsville. He is generally blamed for accidentally starting the Battle of Gettysburg by sending half his division into the town before the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia was fully prepared. Later in the day, he succeeded in routing a Union corps, but at a heavy cost in casualties.
Heth was born at Black Heath in Chesterfield County, Virginia, son of United States Navy Captain John Heth, and Margaret L. Pickett. He was a cousin of George Pickett. He usually went by "Harry," the name also preferred by his grandfather, American Revolutionary War Colonel Henry Heth, who had established the Heth family in the coal business in the Virginia Colony after emigrating from England about 1759. (The name Heth is pronounced as Heath.)
Heth graduated from the United States Military Academy at the bottom of his class in 1847; he was wounded at West Point in 1846 with a bayonet stab to his leg. He was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant and assigned to the 1st Infantry Regiment. His antebellum career was served primarily in western posts, some as a quartermaster. He was serving as a first lieutenant in the 6th Infantry when John C. Symmes III refused a captaincy in the new 10th Infantry on March 3, 1855, and Heth was appointed in his place. He played a prominent role in the 1855 Battle of Ash Hollow leading a company of mounted infantry against the Lakota. In 1858, he created the first marksmanship manual for the Army.
After the war began at Fort Sumter, Heth resigned from the U.S. Army and joined the Confederate States Army. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel and served for a brief time as Robert E. Lee's quartermaster in the Virginia Provisional Army, but that time was influential for his career, because Lee looked out for Harry for the rest of the war. (Heth was one of the few generals whom Robert E. Lee called by his first name.) He spent the remainder of 1861 in the Kanawha Valley in western Virginia in the 5th and 45th Virginia Infantry regiments. He was promoted to brigadier general on January 6, 1862.
In the Spring of 1862 Heth was in command of the "Army of the New River," (in actuality the 22nd and 45th Virginia Infantry regiments, with attached cavalry and artillery). Heth's diminutive force held off the forces of General Jacob D. Cox in the Action at Giles Courthouse (May 10, 1862) and pursued the enemy to Lewisburg, where Heth was forced to withdraw (May 23, 1862). The actions were critical to keeping federal forces tied up and out of the Valley of Virginia while Stonewall Jackson was conducting his own campaign 120 miles to the North. Despite the small size of his force, Heth submitted his reports as an army commander and had his regimental commanders write their own as "brigade" commanders, possibly assisting in the eventual promotion of Heth to major general. 
He was then sent west to the Department of East Tennessee, to serve under Kirby Smith. During the Kentucky Campaign, he was sent by Smith to take a division north from Lexington, Kentucky, to make a demonstration on Cincinnati; although this caused a great commotion in the city's defenses, only a few skirmishes occurred.
In March 1863, Lee brought Heth back into his command, the Army of Northern Virginia, as a brigade commander in Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill's division. He fought in the Battle of Chancellorsville, showing aggressive, but misguided, qualities in his first large-scale combat, attacking without reserves against a Union force emerging from the Wilderness. He assumed temporary command of the division when Hill was wounded. Following the death of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, Lee reorganized his army into three corps, promoting Hill to the Third Corps. Heth retained his division command and was promoted to major general on May 24, 1863.
Heth's division made history by inadvertently starting the Battle of Gettysburg. Marching east from Cashtown on July 1, 1863, Heth sent two brigades ahead in a reconnaissance in force. His memoirs referred to sending them in a search of shoes in Gettysburg, but some historians consider this an apocryphal story; they say Heth knew that Jubal A. Early had been in Gettysburg a few days earlier and any available shoes would have been taken at that time. They also consider sending two brigades on such a mission would have been wasteful. The brigades made contact with Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. John Buford and spread out into battle formation.
Lee had ordered A.P. Hill to avoid a general engagement with the enemy before he could assemble his full army, but Heth's actions had now rendered that order moot. They were engaged and Union reinforcements started arriving quickly. Heth's decision to deploy his two brigades before the arrival of the rest of his division was an error as well; they were repulsed in hard fighting against an elite division of the Army of the Potomac's I Corps, including the famously tenacious Iron Brigade. After a lull in fighting, Heth brought two more brigades into the fray in the afternoon and the Union forces were driven back to Seminary Ridge, but principally because the XI Corps' right flank was crushed by Richard S. Ewell's corps coming in from the north. Finally, Heth attacked again in conjunction with the division of Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes and the Union corps were routed, retreating back through town to Cemetery Hill. But Confederate losses were severe; Heth should have better coordinated his attack with the division of Maj. Gen. Dorsey Pender. Heth was wounded during the attack when a bullet struck him in the head. Fortunately for him, he was wearing a hat that was too large and stuffed with papers to make it fit. The papers probably deflected the bullet to avoid a fatal wound, but Heth was knocked unconscious and effectively out of the battle. Parts of his division, under the command of Brig. Gen. Johnston Pettigrew, saw more action two days later in Pickett's Charge and he recovered enough to command during the retreat back to Virginia and the minor engagements of the fall of 1863.
Harry Heth commanded his division through the 1864 Overland Campaign, the Siege of Petersburg. Following the death of Gen. A.P. Hill on April 2, 1865, Heth briefly took over command of the Third Corps. Heth's troops, now led by Gen. John R. Cooke, were pushed back at the Battle of Sutherland's Station. Heth led the remainder of his troops in the retreat of the Appomattox Campaign to Appomattox Court House, where he surrendered with Lee on April 9, 1865.
After the war, Heth worked in the insurance business and later served the government as a surveyor and in the Office of Indian Affairs. He died in Washington, D.C., and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Heth served as the first Commander of the Centennial Legion of Historic Military Commands when it was founded in 1876.
In popular media
- A System of Target Practice (published in 1858)
- The Memoirs of Henry Heth (posthumous, 1974).
- "Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, vol 12, Part 1, page 491-495 (Second Manassas)".
- Noe, pp. 86-87.
- Centennial Legion of Historic Military Commands web site. Retrieved October 3, 2012.
- Berg, Andrew. "The Best Offense." Smithsonian Magazine, September 2005.
- Eicher, John H., and David J. Eicher. Civil War High Commands. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
- Noe, Kenneth W. Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. ISBN 978-0-8131-2209-0.
- Tagg, Larry. The Generals of Gettysburg, Campbell, CA: Savas Publishing, 1998. ISBN 1-882810-30-9.
- Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg – The First Day. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8078-2624-3.