A Confederate general whose career included the siege of Fort Sumner, every significant battle in Virginia, both of Robert E. Lee’s invasions of the north and the final retreat to Appomattox Court House, rising to temporary command of Longstreet’s corps during many of the key battles of 1864. A native of South Carolina, Richard Anderson entered West Point in 1838, graduating in 1842 in the same class as James Longstreet and D. H. Hill (although he only graduated 40th, that still put him well above Longstreet!). From West Point he entered the Dragoons, serving with them in the west and in the Mexican War.
When South Carolina seceded, Anderson resigned from the U.S. Army to become colonel of the 1st South Carolina infantry. His regiment was present during the siege of Fort Sumner, which triggered the civil war. Soon after, General Beauregard was promoted to command the Army of Virginia, and Anderson replaced his in command of Charleston, receiving a promotion to brigadier-general on 19 July 1861. From Charleston, Anderson was sent to Pensacola, where Braxton Bragg was attempting to capture Fort Pickens, still in Union hands. This effort ended in failure as an indirect result of George B. McClellan’s Peninsula campaign of 1862. The troops around Pensacola was summoned to Virginia, where every spare man was needed to oppose McClellan’s huge Union army.
Anderson was appointed to command a brigade in Longstreet’s division at Yorktown. This brigade was part of the rearguard engaged at Williamsburg, where Anderson had command of the left wing of Longstreet’s division. During the Confederate counterattack at Seven Pines, Anderson had command of two brigades. He was later praised for gallantry in Longstreet’s report on the battle.
After the Seven Days’ Battles, Anderson was promoted to major-general (14 July 1862), and given command of a division. This division was part of the force left to defend Richmond when Robert E. Lee moved north to attack Pope’s Army of Virginia in the campaign that ended at Second Bull Run. When it became clear that the Army of the Potomac was leaving the peninsula, Anderson’s division was called north, arriving in time to take part on the second day of the battle, joining Longstreet’s successful attack.
By now Anderson was trusted with independent assignments. Lee was now determined to invade the north, believing that this was the only way for the Confederates to win their independence. Soon after crossing into the north, Lee decided to capture Harper’s Ferry. Anderson’s division was part of the force detached from the main army to achieve this. It was further detached to guard Crampton’s Gap, where he was able to prevent the Union army forcing its way through in time to relieve Harper’s Ferry.
Circumstances combined to reduce Anderson’s role in his next two battles. His division played an important role at Antietam, but Anderson himself was badly wounded soon after reaching the battlefield from Harper’s Ferry. He recovered before the end of 1862, returning to his unit in time to take part in the battle of Fredericksburg, but his division was posted to the far left of the line, and was hardly attacked during the battle, suffering only 89 casualties.
He had more chance to distinguish himself at Chancellorsville. With Longstreet absent, Anderson’s division was under the direct command of Lee. His most important contribution came towards the end of the battle, when a Union counterattack under General Sedgwick came close to changing the result of the battle. Anderson’s division (with McLaws) led the Confederate response, forcing Sedgwick to retreat back over the Rappahannock River.
After the battle Anderson was praised in Lee’s report, and even mentioned as a possible corps commander. When Lee reorganised his army into three corps, Anderson’s division was transferred from Longstreet’s corps to A.P. Hill’s. Despite this transfer, at Gettysburg Anderson’s division first fought to support Longstreet’s attack on the second day. It also provided support for Pickett’s division during their famous charge on the third day.
At the start of General Grant’s Overland campaign of 1864, Anderson was still a division commander. However, Longstreet was badly wounded during the battle of the Wilderness, and on 6 May Anderson was picked to take temporary command of his corps, keeping it until Longstreet’s return in October. On the next day Anderson proved that Lee had been right to trust him. One of Anderson’s most striking characteristics as a commander was his speed. On 7 May Grant had begun to move towards Spotsylvania. If he could reach that position before Lee could block him, then Grant’s men would have been in a good position to race into Richmond ahead of the Confederates.
Lee ordered Anderson to block this move, and told him to move at 3 a.m. on 8 May. This would probably have been too late to stop Grant, but Anderson was ready to move four hours ahead of schedule and without waiting for fresh orders took the decision to move as soon as possible. By doing this he ensured that his men would be at Spotsylvania ahead of Grant.
Anderson retained command of Longstreet’s corps throughout the summer of 1864, commanding at the North Anna River and Cold Harbor, as well as in the first part of the siege of Richmond and Petersburg. During his period of command he proved himself to be a capable but not outstanding corps commander, although by this period the Army of North Virginia had been forced onto the defensive, giving Anderson little chance to demonstrate any greater ability. He was temporarily promoted to major-general (31 May 1864) while he retained the corps command, returning to his own rank when Longstreet returned in October 1864.
During the retreat to Appomattox Court House Anderson was unlucky enough to take part in what was in effect the final battle of the Army of Northern Virginia. At Saylor’s Creek (6 April 1865), Anderson and Ewell were cut off by the pursing Union forces. Ewell was forced to surrender. While most of Anderson’s men escaped, Anderson himself was captured, only missing the final surrender by three days.
Post-war Anderson returned to the service of South Carolina, first with the South Carolina Railroad (many of the defeated Confederate commanders were found railway jobs in the south after the war), and then as state inspector of phosphates. He died in 1879. His wartime career had spanned almost the entire length of the civil war, often in a position of some seniority. He was a very able divisional commander, but only a competent corps commander, and as a result he is probably less well known than he deserves to be. At Spotsylvania his prompt actions may well have saved the entire Confederate position in Virginia for nearly a year.