Documenting the American South Logo
Pettigrew, James Johnston

James Johnston Pettigrew (1828-1863) is perhaps the most famous antebellum student to graduate from the University. He was born in Tyrrell County, NC, the eighth of nine children of Ebenezer and Ann Blount Shepard Pettigrew. Educated at Bingham's Hillsborough Academy, Pettigrew entered the University at fourteen. He joined the Philanthropic Society and graduated first in his class of thirty-six students in 1847, the year President Polk attended the commencement exercises. A talented mathematician, Pettigrew became a professor at the National Observatory, but he left after six months to travel in Europe and study law there. Upon his return in 1852 he joined the Charleston, SC, law firm of James Louis Pettigru, his father's cousin. In 1856 he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. A Union man, Pettigrew nevertheless became convinced that a long civil war was inevitable, and he remained active in the militia throughout the 1850s, becoming a self-taught military engineer and returning to Europe to fight with the Italians in their war against Austria. When the Civil War broke out, Pettigrew enlisted as a private in Virginia's Hampton Legion, declining several commissions and promotions on the grounds that no one should command men who had not previously led them in battle. By the beginning of the Peninsula campaign, however, he accepted a commission as brigadier general. Shot several times, captured, and exchanged for other prisoners, Pettigrew was wounded during Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, then was shot again in the stomach during the retreat from Pennsylvania. He died three days later (Dictionary of North Carolina Biography 5:77-79).