One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 12, Number 1
January 2004

Something that I wish I had said: “It has become popular in the anti-Confederate writing now so much in vogue to claim, or at least pretend, that defeated southerners created a farcical postwar myth in which they pretended that their wartime leaders meant far more to them during the conflict than actually had been the case. The Myth of the Lost Cause soothes and lulls postmodernists who know for sure that no one could really have been all that patriotic in times of stress and turmoil—a visceral reaction in many instances to the personal tendencies of modern observers.” Quoted from “The Metamorphosis in Stonewall Jackson’s Public Image” by Bob Krick. My favorite author and wordsmith then follows up with a pungent comment about selective hindsight and the possibility of a “Myth of the Won Cause.” How appropriate!

The motivation for this opening commentary is that it has become quite fashionable recently for the historical revisionists to resurrect the traditional narrative of the so-called Lost Cause, and I’m getting a little tired of it. As a native Virginian who had a grandfather and three other men of the same household serve in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, maybe I’m becoming a little touch and crotchety on the subject, but I’m almost beginning to believe that the thesis of something called the “Lost Cause” may be a fabrication rooted in Krick’s proposed Myth of the Won Cause. My formative years were only filled with references to “The War,” and I never knew the phrase about a “Lost Cause” until I began to read history books.

On to another subject.

Numerous famous personages of the Civil War were associated in one way or another with Charlottesville and Albemarle County including Major General Thomas L. Rosser, Brigadier General/Secretary of War George Wythe Randolph, Brigadier General John Marshall Jones, Brigadier General Armistead Lindsay Long, Brigadier General Lucius Northrop, and numerous colonels such as John S. Mosby, John Bowie Magruder, Richard T. W. Duke, John Bowie Strange, and Henry Gantt. The latter two officers had the distinction of commanding the 19th Virginia Infantry Regiment which was composed of men primarily from Charlottesville, Albemarle, and surrounding counties.

Most of the Confederate officers identified above are well known and have been recognized in various historical accounts and/or by local commemorative markers. For example, Colonel Strange, who commanded the 19th Virginia from June 1861 until he was killed in action in Maryland at Turner’s Gap on September 14, 1862, is memorialized by a stone monument at the Albemarle Court House, and his name appears prominently in several accounts of local history. On the other hand, Strange’s successor as commander of the regiment, Henry Gantt, remains enigmatic and obscure, and an almost unrecognized dramatis personae of our area. Gantt’s lack of recognition in the community is difficult to explain in view of the fact that he and his family were prominent in early Albemarle history, he served as regimental colonel from the fall of 1862 until the end of the war with a commendable military record, bravely led his men in Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg where he was badly wounded, and returned to live at his home near Scottsville for almost twenty years after the war.

Henry Gantt lived at “Valmont” about a mile southwest of the town of Scottsville on the bluffs above the James River. “Vallmont” has been traditionally considered by historians to be the original Edward Scott home, and the location of the first Albemarle County Court House and jail in 1745. The farm had been in the Gantt family since 1852 when Henry’s father, John Weems Gantt, purchased the approximately 500 acres. Henry inherited the property from his father after the latter’s death in 1860.

At about age 17 Henry entered V.M.I. in 1848, and graduated three years later in 1851. Apparently not an outstanding student, he ranked 23 out of a class of 29. The Gantts were a prosperous family in the antebellum years and young Henry, one of ten siblings and the oldest son, apparently took a very active role in farm operations after graduating from college.

Gantt’s military career is believed to have begun in late 1859 following the John Brown Raid at Harpers Ferry. John Brown’s attack inflamed fears throughout the South of a slave uprising and resulted in the formation of numerous local volunteer military companies. The Scottsville Guard was one of such companies that formed about this time and Henry Gant, because of his V.M.I. military training, was apparently named captain and commanding officer of the unit. When war was declared, these volunteer companies were mobilized and formally incorporated into regiments. Thus the Scottsville Guard became Company C of the 19th Virginia Infantry Regiment in May of 1861 when the latter unit was officially formed.

By the time the 19th Virginia was formally accepted into Confederate States service and fully operational on July 1, 1861, it consisted of 10 companies organized around the nucleus of the Monticello Guard (re-organized in 1857 from a previous unit known as the Charlottesville Blues) as Company A, and the Albemarle Rifles as Company B. Other units were the Howardsville Grays (Company D), Piedmont Guards (Company E), Montgomery Guard (Company F), Nelson Grays (Company G), Southern Rights Guard (Company H), Amherst Rifles (Company I), and Blue Ridge Rifles (Company K). Seven of the companies were from Albemarle County.

Although commanding the Scottsville Guard prior to the war, and most certainly the de facto Captain on April 17, 1861, at the beginning of the war, Henry Gantt was never formally commissioned as a captain in Confederate service. The honor of being the first captain of the Scottsville volunteers was given to his younger half brother Albert who had no formal military training. Rather, Henry’s first official Confederate commission was on May 17 when he was named Major. Less than a year later he was promoted to lieutenant colonel on April 29, 1862.

The 19th Virginia saw no serious action until May of 1862 when the unit was heavily engaged at the Battle of Williamsburg while assigned to Pickett’s Brigade of Longstreet’s Division. Gantt was commended highly for his leadership as a lieutenant colonel in this action.

Colonel Gantt is said to have been wounded slightly at Second Manassas during the late stages of the fighting on August 30, 1862, and may not have accompanied the regiment across the Potomac the next month in the Maryland campaign. While in Maryland, the 19th Virginia participated in a fierce holding action on South Mountain at Turner’s Gap on September 14 where Colonel Strange was mortally wounded. Strange was so badly wounded that he had to be left behind during the retreat. Years later his body was returned to Charlottesville for a hero’s burial.

Even though Lieutenant Colonel Gantt was probably not with the regiment at the time of the engagement at Turner’s Gap, he was named as Strange’s replacement and promoted to colonel effective September 14. He would retain that position until the end of the war.

By the summer of 1863 the 19th Virginia was assigned to Garnett’s Brigade of Pickett’s Division. On the afternoon of July 3, Colonel Gantt led his men up Cemetery Ridge as part of the most famous charged in American military history. Although severely wounded early in the battle in what has been called “Pickett’s Charge,” Gantt was rescued by his men and taken to the rear. In an amazing and rare feat of Confederate logistical efficiency, he was transported back across the Potomac to Charlottesville over 200 miles away, where he was admitted to the Confederate hospital seven days later on July 10. Two days later he was transferred to the Scottsville hospital to be nearer his family.

Henry Gantt’s Gettysburg wounds were obviously debilitating, forcing him to spend considerable time on medical furlough at home, and he was in and out of several hospitals until the end of the war. However, whenever his health permitted, he continued on active duty and in late 1864 and early 1865 he returned to command of the 19th Virginia, and even served temporarily as acting commander of Hunton’s Brigade on several occasions. He was not with the 19th Virginia when the pathetic remnants surrendered at Sailor’s Creek, and probably was in a Richmond hospital or at home when the war ended.

After the war, Henry Gantt returned to his James River farm and attempted to make a living. In terrible health, and after struggling for almost twenty years during a period of economic devastation and depression, he died hopelessly in debt on October 4, 1884, while on a visit to Buckingham White Sulphur Springs. He like many others of his time, frequented the numerous Virginia “springs” for their alleged therapeutic value.

Although we know little about Henry Gantt’s personal life, he must have been a man of great strength and discipline to endure his war injuries and survive in the impoverished economy after the Civil War. Today, the only visible recognition given to one of Albemarle’s most distinguished citizens is a single inscription on one side of the monument in the Scottsville Confederate Cemetery: In Memory of Col. Henry Gantt, Major James C. Hill and the Officers and Men of Southern Albemarle Who fought Under the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy.

Henry Gantt is surely a man without honor in his own county.