Richard Brooke Garnett, a member of Tidewater aristocracy, was born November 21, 1817, at "Rose Hill", the family mansion in Essex County, Virginia. Garnett received his early education near home and in Norfolk. In 1841 he and his cousin, Robert Selden Garnett, inseparable in their boyhood, graduated in the same West Point class. Service in the army took him to Florida, fighting the Seminoles, then westward. For several years, during the Mexican War, he held a staff position in New Orleans. Promoted to first lieutenant in 1847, Garnett later commanded Fort Laramie against the sometimes troublesome Sioux, traveled as a recruiting officer, and, after his promotion to captain in 1855, served at various other points on the western frontier. In California during the winter of 1860-61, he learned from afar of the South's secession, and the start of war in April. He resigned from the army effective May 17 to fight for his native Virginia and the South.
Commissioned major in the Confederate army, Garnett soon suffered the loss of his cousin Robert, who was killed at Corrick's Ford in western Virginia on July 13, 1861. Subsequently, Richard was appointed second-in-command of then Colonel Thomas R.R. Cobb's Georgia Legion, and promoted to lieutenant colonel in early September. After brief service with the legion on the Peninsula, Garnett received his promotion to brigadier general and was immediately assigned to the Shenandoah Valley, coming under command of General Thomas J. Jackson. By spring 1862, the new brigadier commanded Jackson's old troops, now known as the Stonewall Brigade and composed of the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 27th and 33rd Virginia Infantry Regiments.
Garnett, like all future commanders of the brigade, assumed responsibility under the shadow of its former leader and would be closely watched by Jackson to see how he was handling his 'Old Brigade'. As it turned out, Garnett's personal attention to the men, combined with the brigade's dedication to the Southern Cause, formed a comfortable bond between commander and commanded. The Stonewallers experienced something new under Garnett. They found him to be sympathetic to their problems both as units and as individuals. He took particular pains to look after the care and comfort of his charges, much to the dissatisfaction of 'Old Blue Light'. Yet Jackson could find no fault in the military handling of the brigade, for it was the best in his Valley Army and he knew it. Then came the battle of Kernstown, Virginia:
In late March Jackson received information from his cavalry commander, Brig. Gen. Turner Ashby, that the Federals were leaving the Valley. Fearful that this was a threat to Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard's force at Manassas, Jackson set his small army in motion to intercept the Yankees. After an exhausting march of 36 miles, they caught up to the retiring army of Brig. Gen. James Shields on March 23, a Sunday. The Sabbath was not a day the pious Stonewall desired for battle.
Acting on Ashby's intelligence that a rear-guard of only four regiments were to their immediate front, Jackson sent orders to Garnett to prepare the Stonewall Brigade for action, along with other elements of the Valley Army who had survived the forced march. The engagement grew from skirmishing fire to a full blown battle. Instead of four regiments, Jackson was facing Shield's entire army.
The Stonewallers were in the thick of it from the outset as the unequal contest swayed back and forth. After two hours of unceasing combat, Garnett's command began to run low on ammunition. None was at hand since the wagons had been left far behind on the forced march. The brigade now found itself beset by superior numbers attacking from three directions. Garnett made the only logical military decision that would save his fatigued and ammunition-less command. He wrote: ':had I not done so we would have run imminent risk of being routed by superior numbers, which would have resulted probably in the loss of part of our artillery and also endangered our transportation.'
Noting a regiment advancing to his support (Jackson's last reserve), he hurried a courier to have them stop and form a line upon which the brigade could fall back and rally. He then ordered the battered and bloody brigade to the rear, an action which was to cost Garnett his command and the stigma of court martial charges brought by the enraged army commander.
Relieved from command on April 1, he was ordered arrested and sent under guard to Harrisonburg. His men were furious and considered the action against their leader as a gross injustice. As for Garnett, he, whom Walter Harrison of Maj. Gen. George Pickett's staff described as the 'brave, proud and sensitive spirit,' it 'was a cruel blow.' In August 1862, with only Jackson and his aide, Captain Alexander Pendleton, giving testimony, the trial was suspended due to the pressing duties of renewed campaigning. General Robert E. Lee's Maryland Campaign was underway and the services of a first-rate brigadier were sorely needed. By order of Lee, Garnett was released from arrest and assigned to Maj. Gen. James Longstreet's First Corps. In early September, Garnett thus took command of a brigade of Virginians - the 8th, 18th, 19th, 28th, and 56th Infantry Regiments - with which he served creditably at Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg. Garnett then took part in Longstreet's Suffolk campaign, returning to Richmond after the fatal wounding of General Jackson, May 2.
Richard Garnett always felt that his reputation had been wrongfully slighted by Jackson's accusations following Kernstown. Yet, against Jackson personally, Garnett held no grudge. After learning that the great "Stonewall" was dead, Garnett went to the executive mansion in Richmond where Jackson's body lay in state, Major Sandy Pendleton and Captain Kyd Douglas watched Garnett as he cried beside the casket. He then spoke so tenderly of Jackson that Pendleton asked if the general would serve as a pallbearer in Jackson's funeral procession through the capital on the 12th. Garnett did so, joining Generals Longstreet, Richard S. Ewell, and others in this solemn honor.
In Lee's second invasion of the North during June 1863, Garnett's five Virginia regiments marched northward as part of General Pickett's division, Longstreet's Corps. On July 3, 1863, Garnett's brigade was in the front rank of the Pickett-Pettigrew charge at Gettysburg. Extremely ill, the general was wearing a heavy overcoat in spite of the heat. Garnett got to within twenty yards of the Federal lines when he disappeared in the gun smoke and confusion. His riderless horse soon galloped toward the rear. Presumably, Federal soldiers stripped his dead body of its sword and other insignia before burying Garnett in one of the mass graves on the battlefield. The marker for General Richard Brooke Garnett in the Confederate Section of Hollywood Cemetery, reads: "Among the Confederate Soldiers' Graves in this area is the probable resting place of Brigadier General Richard Brooke Garnett C.S.A. who was killed in action July 3, 1863, as he led his Brigade in the charge of Pickett's Division on the final day of the battle of Gettysburg. First buried on the battlefield, General Garnett's remains were likely removed to this area in 1872 along with other Confederate dead brought from Gettysburg by the Hollywood Memorial Association. Requiescat in Pace Richard Brooke Garnett 1817 - 1863."
Colonel Eppa Hunton, who was to succeed Garnett, said of him: 'He was one of the noblest and bravest men I ever knew.' He had given his life to erase forever the one blight on his distinguished record.