September 26, 2009

Memoirs of Henry Heth

Confederate general Henry Heth earned the title of “goat” during his years at West Point as he graduated at the very bottom of his 1847 class. Such ignominy relegated him to 14 years of frontier duty before he resigned his commission on April 25, 1861, to serve his native Virginia.

He became colonel of the 45th Virginia in 1861, was promoted to brigadier general in January 1862, which then led to various district and department commands. By the time of Gettysburg, Heth was a major general in the Army of Northern Virginia and in command of a 3rd corps division, a rank he held until the war’s waning months. In February 1865, Heth was appointed to command of that corps, ultimately surrendering with his men at Appomattox.

Heth was one of the most liked men in all of the army and it is written that Lee referred to Heth by his first name, allegedly the only case of Lee doing this with his generals. Following the war, Heth was involved in the insurance business.

The general’s memoirs remained unpublished for the better part of a century until rescued by editor James Morrison. Greenwood Press, best known as a publisher of scholarly reference books, released the memoirs in 1974 in a very small print run that included a solid introduction by Morrison of Heth’s life. According to Eicher’s The Civil War in Books (#235), “the narrative focuses on Heth’s more successful actions while dismissing others with little comment.” For instance, Heth remarks on his actions that about the start of Gettysburg with no more than a single paragraph. Nevertheless, in its commentary of Heth’s memoirs, Military Review noted that “Of particular interest to students of history are Heth's accounts of life in the Army and the United States before and after the Civil War.... Morrison's introductory essay on Heth the man, Indian fighter, Confederate general and loyal Virginian, is a masterpiece of scholarship, subtle wit and graceful writing.” I also especially liked veteran Civil War bookseller Dave Zullo's remarks on this book: "Henry Heth was an interesting character but the stories he tells of the antics of him and his best friend, Winfield Scott Hancock, during their West Point years and thereafter, are priceless. This is a book that would make any Hancock or Heth fan laugh until their sides hurt. But he also discusses the reality of war. This has a sadness to it that will make you want to cry. Of the many, many biographies and memoirs that I have read, this is one of my favorites...."

Though initially published in 1974, it appears that Greenwood still has the book in print at $57.95. For a title that is relatively recent, first editions are quite uncommon (therefore pricey) and even scarcer in premium condition with dust jacket. As you can see here, there are only a handful of copies currently offered for sale.

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