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Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew

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Brigadier General James Johnston Pettigrew is best known as the unwavering leader of the North Carolina brigade in Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. Before he ever donned a Confederate uniform, however, Pettigrew had already made his mark as a scientist, scholar, author, lawyer, and politician. This full-length biography of the man considered in his day as a beau ideal of the southern cavalier shows how and why Pettigrew's life was influenced by the genteel traditions of the Old South.

303 pages, Paperback

First published July 1, 1990

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About the author

Clyde N. Wilson

62 books27 followers
Clyde Norman Wilson is professor of history emeritus from the University of South Carolina. He is a recipient of the Bostick Prize for Contributions to South Carolina Letters and of the first annual Randolph Society Lifetime Achievement Award. He is also the M.E. Bradford distinguished chair of the Abbeville Institute.

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Profile Image for Drew Norwood.
252 reviews9 followers
March 4, 2023
Pettigrew was a truly remakable man. Though he is not a popular figure now, he was referred to by his contemporaries as the “beau ideal of the patriot, the solider, the man of genius, and the accomplished gentleman.” Wilson's biography is worth reading, if only to appreciate the type of man that this society sought to (and did) produce.

Wilson's biography is concise and walks through his life chronologically, and then the final chapter discusses Pettigrew's only published book, which highlights his social observations and worldview:

1. Birth and Childhood. Born and raised in North Carolina to a planter (a man of "unflagging industry and unflinching rectitude"). He was sickly as a child and had an unconventional upbringing due to the early death of his mother.

2. Education. Pettigrew was educated in a strict and classical manner. The discipline he underwent would seem abusive now but produced fine results. The guiding principles of his early education was "to install character, to the end that his wealth, social position, and abilities would be perceived not only as matters of luxury and privilege but also as imperatives to duty and responsibility." It was early recognized that he was a genius and strongly self-motivated. Later he attended Univ. of North Carolina and excelled in every endeavor. He was frequently referred to as the best student the school has ever had.

3. Astronomy. Appointed as an astronomer at the National (Naval) Observatory. Excelled in mathematics and observations. His ambition lead him to seek other careers, however.

4. Law. Read the law in Baltimore and began law practice, soon moved to Charleston to practice with his Uncle, James Louis Petigru, who became a life-long mentor and fried.

5. Travel abroad (first trip to Spain). James L. Petigru paid for Johnston Pettigrew to travel abroad Europe for a few years of study and travel. He was to widen his vision, to learn civil law in Berlin, and to see the peoples and civilizations of the Old World. During this trip, Pettigrew became enamored with Italy and Spain. He wrote down many thoughts assessing the differences between the North and the South and their corresponding likeness in European nations--with the North aligning with England and Germany, and the South aligning with Italy, France, and Spain. Pettigrew developed a particular affinity for the Spanish people, history, and customs. "James Johnston Pettigrew was a romantic. As Italy represented to him the sensual, self-indulgent, and bright-hued side of the romantic inheritance, 'the unsought grace of life' of Edmund Burke's evocation of the medieval legacy, so Spain came to represent the austere, demanding, testing, self-sacrificing reverse of the coin of chivalry, Burke's 'cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise.'"

6. Law Practice. Pettigrew tossed around the idea of becoming a scholar, devoting his time to writing a history of the Spanish Arabs, but he eventually decided to return to the practicing of law. He was a brilliant attorney but was conflicted at times with his varied interest, his code of chivalry, and pursuit of unalloyed good, with the day-to-day practice of law. "Although Johnston Pettigrew's intellectual ability allowed him to be a successful lawyer, those who knew him well between 1854 and 1860 sensed that he was not an earnest one. HIs profession never engaged his deepest attention or enthusiasm and was never able to absorb all his intellectual energy."

7. Code/Philosophy of Life. Wilson devotes a chapter to help the reader better understand Pettigrew's driving motivations. As a friend wrote of him, "He was a man who desired to be, and not to seem. His ambition was large, but it was an ambition to do what was worthy to be done." He sought some outlet for his talents, a worthy cause. In this respect he was often called quixotic. He took for himself the Castilian knight as a model--"simple, honorable, brave, self-abnegating." This code of chivalry guided Pettigrew threw life, whether it lead to dueling, caring for the contagious sick in the face of probable death, refusing high salaries offered to him to avoid working for money rather than honor and justice, turning down prestigious military promotions he felt he didn't earn, etc.

8. Legislature. Served for a short time in the state legislature. Earned the reputation as a first-rate speaker, thinker, and scholar. He was never devoted to the life of a potlician or statesman, however.

9. Anticipating War. Pettigrew wrote a minority report against the re-opening of the slave trade which was widely distributed and discussed throughout the South. He wrote a paper on the South Carolina militia system and how it should be improved. He was also an officer in the militia and drilled persistently.

10. Return to Spain. Pettigrew made a second trip to Spain, which would form the basis of his book "Notes on Spain." On entering the country he wrote: "Adieu to a civil civilization which reduced men to machines, which sacrifices half that is stalwarts and individual in humanity to the false glitter of centralization, and to the luxurious enjoyments of a manufactuaring, money age!" This time in Spain, particularly in Andalusian and Valencia, he saw as the greatest time of his life. (120)

11. War For Southern Independence. He served valiantly. He was shot and injured multiple times, yet always returned to combat as quickly as possible. He yearned for battle and glory. Initially he turned down appointments as an officer because he wanted to earn his way through the ranks. He later turned down his first offer as a Brigadier General and was summoned to Jefferson Davis to explain his refusal. Eventually he relented and was made a Brigadier General. He lead his brigade in "Pickett's charge" at Gettysburg (Wilson argues that it could have, and should have, been called "Pettigrew's charge" because Pettigrew went further, incurred far more deaths in his divisions (of mostly North Carolinians), and served with more valor, but the Richmond papers quickly published the account of "Pickett's charge" and the Virginians which became emblazoned for history). He was shot and killed during a skirmish shortly after Gettysburg. He was only 35 years old at the time.

12. Notes on Spain. This might be the best chapter in the book. Wilson walks us through Pettigrew's book, Notes on Spain, which Pettigrew self-published shortly before the War. Notes on Spain contains Pettigrew's social philosophy and many insights into his thinking as a young "protonational" Southerner. As one scholar (a contemporary of Pettigrew) noted: "On every page is revealed the scholar, thinker and keen observer . . . whilst we have frequent glimpses of a statesman and philosopher at home among the social and political systems of the Old World." Wilson makes good use of this writing, considering its literary value, its social and political contributions, its understanding of republicanism, and its portrayal of America and the South.
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