Lawrence O'Bryan Branch was born in Enfield, North Carolina on November 28, 1820. His family moved to Tennessee, but his parents both died shortly thereafter, his mother when he was five years old, and his father when he was seven years old. Guardianship was assumed by his uncle, John Branch, who served as governor of North Carolina from 1817 to 1820, United States senator from 1823 to 1829, and finally as Secretary of the Navy under Pres. Andrew Jackson from 1829 until 1831.
Branch's first schooling came from private tutors in Washington, D.C. He later attended Bingham Military Academy in Asheville and the University of North Carolina. He graduated first in the Class of 1838 from Princeton University and then moved to Nashville, where he studied law and owned a newspaper.
Branch moved to Tallahassee, Florida in 1840 and began practicing law. He fought in the Seminole Wars in 1841 and, three years later, married Nancy Haywood Blount. The couple had four children. In 1852, the family moved to Raleigh, where Branch was a lawyer and president of the Raleigh & Gaston Railroad Company. He was elected to the United States Congress for three terms from 1855 to 1861, but he declined an invitation to serve as Secretary of the Treasury under Pres. James Buchanan.
In May 1861, Branch enlisted as a private in the Raleigh Rifles and in September was elected colonel of the 33rd North Carolina Regiment. By January 1862, he was appointed brigadier general. Following the Battle of New Bern in March 1862, Branch's brigade was attached to Gen. A.P. Hill's Division of Gen. Stonewall Jackson's Corps. They were engaged in many battles in Virginia, including Hanover Courthouse, Seven Days, Cedar Mountain, 2nd Manassas, Chantilly, and Harper's Ferry.
On September 17, 1862 at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland, Branch was shot by a Federal sharpshooter and died instantly.