The Pettigrews

(Tyrrell County)

Featured Characters – 1860

James Johnston Pettigrew

James J. Pettigrew

Courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History

James Johnston Pettigrew was born on July 4, 1828, at Bonarva Plantation on Lake Phelps. His father operated several large plantations in neighboring Tyrrell and Washington counties. At age 14, he entered the Uni­versity of North Carolina, where he gradu­ated in 1847 with the highest honors. At the commencement were President James Polk and the Secretary of the Navy, who offered him a professorship at the U.S. Naval Observatory. After six months there, Pettigrew began to study law in Charleston, only to leave to study in Europe that same year. When he returned in 1852, Pettigrew continued to practice law in Charleston. When South Carolina seceded from the Union, Pettigrew was elected Colonel of the 22nd North Carolina Troops and was appointed to monitor the Potomac.

When the Union Army was approaching Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign, Pettigrew was hit by a musket ball while scouting the position of the enemy. The ball went through his throat and shoulder, damaging his right arm permanently. He lost consciousness and did not regain it until he awoke in a Union hospital and was afterwards sent to prison in Fort Delaware. When he was finally exchanged, he came into command of a brigade of North Carolina troops known as Pettigrew’s Brigade that served northeastern North Carolina. On June 1, 1863, Pettigrew’s brigade marched to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania with the Army of Northern Virginia. On the third day of fighting there, Pettigrew’s division took part in the assault known as Pickett’s Charge, where they went farthest to the front of the fighting, at the stone wall, and were the last men to return to Confederate lines. 

On July 14, while standing with a group of officers while withdrawing troops after Gettysburg, an altercation broke out when a group of straggling federal cavalry rode into them. Pettigrew was shot in the stomach, his only hope was staying immobile until Union doctors could find and treat him. He refused and said he would rather die than be captured again and so he was carried to Bunker Hill, West Virginia, where he died three days later.  His body was later taken to Raleigh, where he was given a funeral and later buried with his family in Tyrrell County.  Bonarva Plantation eventually formed the core of Pettigrew State Park.  .