Lewis Addison Armistead was born into a Virginia military family in New Bern, North Carolina at the home of his mother's family on February 18, 1817. His uncle, Maj. George Armistead, commanded Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor during the War of 1812 and the British bombardment that Francis Scott Key was watching when he was inspired to write "The Star Spangled Banner." Groomed for a military career, Lewis entered West Point in 1833, but fell ill, resigned his class position, and re-entered in 1834. He struggled with his studies and his deportment, but by 1835 had improved in both when an infamous incident occurred between him and a young Jubal Early. Exactly what prompted Armistead to smash Early over the head with a plate on January 16, 1836 has never been revealed, but Armistead became famous among his military peers for it. Unfortunately, he was also placed under house arrest and forced to resign because of it. He finally received a commission as a Second Lieutenant, thanks to his family connections, in 1839 and began service in Florida during the Seminole wars. In 1844 Armistead was transferred to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), where he met and became friends with a new West Pointer, Winfield Scott Hancock. Both men were strict disciplinarians and firm in observance of duty, and their friendship would survive even the Civil War.
In his personal life, Armistead was not lucky. By 1854, when he was 37, he had been married and widowed twice, and two of his three children had died. Only one son, Walker Keith Armistead, survived to adulthood.
Armistead served in the Mexican War with many of the officers he would later serve with and against during the Civil War. By 1861, Armistead (now firmly Christened with the nickname "Lo," short for "Lothario"), was serving in California, as was Hancock, and the United States was coming apart. When his home state, Virginia, seceded, Armistead knew he had to resign his commission and visited Hancock and his wife, Almyra, one last time. The Hancocks hosted a farewell party for their friends, and Almyra recorded a scene that painfully described the agony their friends were going through:
"The most crushed of the party was Major Armistead, who, with tears, which were contagious, streaming down his face and hands upon Mr. Hancock's shoulders, while looking steadily in the eye, said, 'Hancock, good-by; you can never know what this has cost me, and I hope God will strike me dead if I am ever induced to leave my native soil, should worse come to worse.' Turning to me, he placed a small satchel in my hand, resquesting that it should not be opened except in the event of his death."
The satchel contained items intended for Armistead's family and a small prayer book for Almyra, inscribed "Lewis A. Armistead Trust in God and fear nothing."
Armistead became a Brigidier General in the Confederate Army, served notably at Malvern Hill, was wounded at Antietam, and finally led the most famous charge of almost any war, Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. He led his troops over the wall at "the Angle," momentarily breaking Union lines commanded by his old friend Hancock before he was mortally wounded at a place now marked by a monument to him and known as "The High Water Mark of the Confederacy." Giving his possessions to Union Major Bingham, a fellow Mason and member of Hancock's staff, he said, "Tell General Hancock for me that I have done him and you all an injury which I shall regret the longest day I live." That day came only two days later when Armistead died of complications from his wounds at a field hospital. Buried originally at the hospital, his body was later disinterred and taken to Baltimore, where he was reinterred beside the body of his uncle, Maj. George Armistead.
"Lo" Armistead was protrayed in the film "Gettysburg" by Richard Jordan, who ironically, like Armistead, died shortly thereafter, only a few days after a new monument depicting Armistead and Bingham, the Masonic Memorial "Friend to Friend," was dedicated in Gettysburg.