About George Edward Pickett
George Edward Pickett (January 16, 25, or 28, 1825 – July 30, 1875) was a career United States Army officer who became a general in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. He is best remembered for his participation in the futile and bloody assault at the Battle of Gettysburg that bears his name, Pickett's Charge.
Pickett was born in Richmond, Virginia, the first of the eight children of Robert and Mary Pickett, a prominent family of Old Virginia. He was the cousin of future Confederate general Henry Heth. He went to Springfield, Illinois, to study law, but at the age of 17 he was appointed to the United States Military Academy. Legend has it that Pickett's West Point appointment was secured for him by Abraham Lincoln, but this is largely believed to be a story circulated by his widow following his death. Lincoln, as an Illinois state legislator, could not nominate candidates, although he did give the young man advice after he was accepted; Pickett was actually appointed by Illinois Congressman John T. Stuart, a friend of Pickett's uncle and a law partner of Abraham Lincoln.
Pickett was popular as a cadet at West Point. He was mischievous and a player of pranks, "... a man of ability, but belonging to a cadet set that appeared to have no ambition for class standing and wanted to do only enough study to secure their graduation." At a time when often a third of the class washed out before graduation, Pickett persisted, working off his demerits and doing enough in his studies to graduate, ranking last out of the 59 surviving students in the Class of 1846. It is a position held with some backhanded distinction, referred to today as the "goat", both for its stubbornness and tenacity, but one which usually relegated its holder to an obscure posting with little opportunity to advance; two of the most famous "goats" were Pickett and George Armstrong Custer.
Early military career
Pickett was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the U.S. 8th Infantry Regiment. He gained national recognition soon after in the Mexican-American War when he carried the American colors over the parapet during the Battle of Chapultepec. Wounded at the base of the wall, Pickett's friend and colleague, Lt. James Longstreet, handed him the colors. Pickett carried the flag over the wall and fought his way to the roof of the palace, unfurling it over the fortress and announcing its surrender. He received a brevet promotion to captain following this action.
In 1849, while serving on the Texas frontier after the war, he was promoted to first lieutenant and then to captain, in the 9th U.S. Infantry in 1855. In 1853, Pickett challenged future Union general and opposing Civil War commander Winfield Scott Hancock to a duel. Pickett had met Hancock only briefly, when Hancock was passing through Texas. Hancock declined the duel, an outcome not unlikely, considering how much duels had already fallen out of favor at the time.
In January 1851, Pickett married Sally Harrison Minge, the daughter of Dr. John Minge of Virginia, the great-great-grandniece of President William Henry Harrison, and the great-great-granddaughter of Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence. Sally died during childbirth that November, at Fort Gates, Texas.
Captain Pickett next served in the Washington Territory. In 1856 he commanded the construction of Fort Bellingham on Bellingham Bay, in what is today the city of Bellingham, Washington. He also built a frame home that year, which still stands, the oldest house in Bellingham. While posted to Fort Bellingham, Pickett married a Native American woman of the Haida tribe, Morning Mist, who gave birth to a son, James Tilton Pickett (1857–1889); Morning Mist died a few years later. "Jimmy" Pickett made a name for himself as a newspaper artist in his short life. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 32 near Portland, Oregon.
In 1859 Pickett was dispatched in command of Company D, 9th U.S. Infantry, to garrison San Juan Island in response to discord that had arisen there between American farmers and the Hudson's Bay Company. The confrontation was instigated when American farmer Lyman Cutler shot and killed a pig that had repeatedly broken into his garden. The pig belonged to the Hudson's Bay Company, and though Cutler was prepared to pay a fair price for the pig, the Company was not satisfied, insisting he be brought before the British magistrate, thus initiating the territorial dispute that came to be known as the Pig War. In response to the U.S. forces, the British sent a force of three warships and 1000 men. The British commander demanded that Pickett and his men leave. Pickett declined, and the British officer returned to his frigate, threatening to land his own men. Pickett with his 68 men appeared to be fully prepared to oppose a British landing, ordering them into a line of battle near the beach. "Don't be afraid of their big guns," he told his men, "We'll make a Bunker Hill of it." Pickett's presence and determination prevented the landing, the British being under orders to avoid armed conflict with United States forces, if possible. After initial tensions passed the crisis was averted, both sides being unwilling to go to war over a pig. President James Buchanan dispatched Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott to negotiate a settlement between the parties.
After the firing on Fort Sumter, Virginia seceded from the Union, and native son Pickett journeyed from Oregon to serve his state, despite his personal detestation of the institution of slavery. Arriving after the First Battle of Bull Run, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army on June 25, 1861; he had been holding a commission as a major in the Confederate States Army Artillery since March 16. Within a month he was appointed colonel in command of the Rappahannock Line of the Department of Fredericksburg, under the command of Maj. Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes. Holmes's influence obtained a commission for Pickett as a brigadier general, dated January 14, 1862.
Pickett made a colorful general. He rode a sleek black charger named "Old Black," and wore a small blue kepi-style cap, with buffed gloves over the sleeves of an immaculately tailored uniform that had a double row of gold buttons on the coat, and shiny gold spurs on his highly polished boots. He held an elegant riding crop whether mounted or walking. His mustache drooped gracefully beyond the corners of his mouth and then turned upward at the ends. His hair was the talk of the Army: "long ringlets flowed loosely over his shoulders, trimmed and highly perfumed, his beard likewise was curling and giving up the scent of Araby."
Pickett's first combat command was during the Peninsula Campaign, leading a brigade that was nicknamed the Gamecocks (the brigade would eventually be led by Richard B. Garnett in Pickett's Charge). Pickett led his brigade ably in the battles of Williamsburg and Seven Pines, earning commendations from his superiors. At Gaines's Mill he was shot off his horse while leading his brigade in its first assault. Pickett continued to move forward with his men for a while, leading his horse on foot. A second assault by Pickett's brigade, led by Col. Eppa Hunton, along with the brigade led by Cadmus Wilcox, broke the Union line. Pickett feared he'd taken a mortal blow to his shoulder, but the wound was initially assessed by others as minor. The shoulder wound turned out to be severe enough that Pickett was out of action for the next three months, and his arm would remain stiff for at least a year.
When Pickett returned to the Army in September 1862, he was given command of a two-brigade division in the corps commanded by his old colleague from Mexico, Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, and was promoted to major general on October 10. His division would not see serious combat until the Gettysburg Campaign the following summer. It was lightly engaged at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, suffering no fatalities. Longstreet's entire corps was absent from the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, as it was detached on the Suffolk Campaign.
Before the Gettysburg Campaign, Pickett fell in love with a Virginia teenager, LaSalle "Sallie" Corbell (1843–1931), commuting back and forth from his duties in Suffolk to be with her. Although Sallie would later insist that she met him in 1852 (at age 9), she did not marry the 38-year-old widower until November 13, 1863.
Gettysburg and Pickett's Charge
Pickett's division arrived at the Battle of Gettysburg on the evening of the second day, July 2, 1863. It had been delayed by the assignment of guarding the Confederate lines of communication through Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. After two days of heavy fighting, Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, which had initially driven the Union Army of the Potomac to the high ground south of Gettysburg, had been unable to dislodge the Union soldiers from their position. Lee's plan for July 3 called for a massive assault on the center of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge, calculating that attacks on either flank the previous two days had drawn troops from the center. He directed General Longstreet to assemble a force of three divisions for the attack—two exhausted divisions from the corps of Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill (under Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew and Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble), and Pickett's fresh division from Longstreet's own corps. Although Longstreet was actually in command, Lee referred to Pickett as leading the charge, which is one of the reasons that it is generally not known to popular history by the name "Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Assault." In addition, much of the mythology of the Charge arose from newspaper reports; Pickett was the only Virginia commander of his rank, and the Virginia newspapers played up their native son's role and made the assault a more glamorous "charge".
Following a two-hour artillery barrage meant to soften up the Union defenses, the three divisions stepped off across open fields almost a mile from Cemetery Ridge. Pickett inspired his men by shouting, "Up, Men, and to your posts! Don't forget today that you are from Old Virginia." Pickett's division, with the brigades of Brig. Gens. Lewis A. Armistead, Richard B. Garnett, and James L. Kemper, was on the right flank of the assault. It received punishing artillery fire, and then volleys of massed musket fire as it approached its objective. Armistead's brigade made the farthest progress through the Union lines. Armistead was mortally wounded, falling near "The Angle", at what is now termed the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy". Neither of the other two divisions made comparable progress across the fields; Armistead's success was not reinforced, and his men were quickly cut down or captured.
Pickett's Charge was a bloodbath. While the Union lost about 1,500 killed and wounded, the Confederate casualties were several times that. Over 50% of the men sent across the fields were killed or wounded. Pickett's three brigade commanders and all thirteen of his regimental commanders were casualties. Kemper was wounded, and Garnett and Armistead did not survive. Trimble and Pettigrew were the most senior casualties, the former losing a leg and the latter wounded in the hand and later mortally wounded during the retreat to Virginia. Pickett himself has received some historical criticism for surviving the battle personally unscathed, establishing his final position well to the rear of his troops, most likely at the Codori farm on the Emmitsburg Road. Thomas R. Friend, who served Pickett as a courier, wrote that he "went as far as any Major General, Commanding a division, ought to have gone, and farther."
As soldiers straggled back to the Confederate lines along Seminary Ridge, Lee feared a Union counteroffensive and tried to rally his center, telling returning soldiers that the failure was "all my fault." Pickett was inconsolable. When Lee told Pickett to rally his division for the defense, Pickett allegedly replied, "General Lee, I have no division." Pickett's official report for the battle has never been found. It is rumored that Gen. Lee rejected it for its bitter negativity and demanded that it be rewritten, and an updated version was never filed.
To his dying day, Pickett mourned the great loss of his men. After the war, it is said that he met once with General Lee in a meeting described as "icy." John Singleton Mosby seems to have been the only witness to support this claim of coldness between Lee and Pickett. Others were present and are on record denying such an exchange. Mosby related that afterward Pickett said bitterly, "That man destroyed my division." Most historians find this encounter less than likely, especially as Pickett was on record elsewhere as having said, after being asked why Pickett's Charge failed, that "I've always thought the Yankees had something to do with it."
After Gettysburg, despite never receiving condemnation by Lee or Longstreet, Pickett's career went into decline. He commanded the Department of Southern Virginia and North Carolina over the winter, and then served as a division commander in the Defenses of Richmond. After P.G.T. Beauregard bottled up Benjamin Butler in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, Pickett's division was detached in support of Robert E. Lee's operation in the Overland Campaign, just before the Battle of Cold Harbor, in which Pickett's division occupied the center of the defensive line, a place in which the main Union attack did not occur. His division returned to take part in the Siege of Petersburg. On April 1, 1865, Pickett's defeat at the Battle of Five Forks was a pivotal moment that unraveled the tenuous Confederate line and caused Lee to order the evacuation of Richmond, Virginia, and retreat toward Appomattox Court House. It was a final humiliation for Pickett, because he was two miles away from his troops at the time of the attack, enjoying a shad bake with generals Fitzhugh Lee and Thomas L. Rosser. By the time he returned to the battlefield, it was too late.
There has been a historical controversy about whether, after the Battle of Sayler's Creek on April 6, 1865, Pickett was relieved of command. Lt. Col. Walter H. Taylor, Lee's chief of staff, wrote after the war that he issued orders for Lee relieving Pickett, along with Maj. Gens. Richard H. Anderson and Bushrod R. Johnson. No copies of these orders remain. Lee's biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, wrote:
At the same time that Lee relieved Anderson of command, he took the same action regarding Pickett and Bushrod Johnson, but the order regarding Pickett apparently never reached him. As late as April 11 he signed himself, "Maj. Genl. Comdg." Lee thought the order had been given Pickett, and when he saw him later he is said to have remarked, "I thought that man was no longer with the army."
In his 1870 book Pickett's Men, Walter Harrison reprinted an order from Lt. Col. Taylor to Pickett dated April 10, 1865, in which he addresses Pickett as "Maj Gen G E Picket [sic], General Commanding." The order was a request for an account of the movements and actions of Pickett's Division from the time of the Battle of Five Forks to Appomattox. Pickett's official report to Taylor later that same day was signed "G.E. Pickett, Major-Gen., Commd'g." Taylor later explained to Fitzhugh Lee that it was addressed in this way because Pickett was relieved of his division command, not dismissed from the Army, and the report covered a time in which he was in command.
Historian William Marvel suggests that since both Anderson and Johnson acknowledged their own reliefs, "There is therefore no reason to suspect an order would not have been issued relieving Pickett, both because his division had been shattered beyond repair and because of his allegedly poor performance at Five Forks. ... That leaves only the question of whether Pickett received the order." Marvel does not answer this question conclusively, although he considers it to be a "charitable interpretation" of Pickett's report that he did not receive it.
Pickett continued to command his division (a division that had been reduced in strength to below that of a brigade), reporting to Longstreet, but Longstreet makes no mention of Pickett's division in his final report.
On April 9 Pickett commanded his remaining troops in the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse, forming up in the final battle line of the Army of Northern Virginia. He surrendered with Lee's army and was paroled at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
A legend told by Pickett's widow stated that when the Union Army marched into Richmond, she received a surprise visitor. He acted graciously and inquired whether he had found the Pickett house. Abraham Lincoln himself had come to determine the fate of an old acquaintance before the wars, and Sallie, astonished, admitted she was his wife and held out her infant for the president to cradle. Lincoln historian Gerald J. Prokopowicz has called this story a "fantasy".
Despite his parole, Pickett fled to Canada. He returned to Norfolk, Virginia, in 1866 to work as an insurance agent.
Pickett had difficulty seeking amnesty after the Civil War. This was a problem shared by other former Confederate officers who had been West Point graduates and had resigned their commissions at the start of the war. Former Union officers, including Ulysses S. Grant, supported pardoning Pickett, but it was not until one year prior to his death that George Pickett received a full pardon by Act of Congress (June 23, 1874).
Pickett died in Norfolk and is buried in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery.
Decades after Pickett's death, his widow Sallie became a well-known writer and speaker on "her Soldier," eventually leading to the creation of an idealized Pickett who was the perfect Southern gentleman and soldier. A considerable amount of controversy attends Sallie Pickett's lionizing of her husband. Two books published posthumously in her husband's name, The Heart of a Soldier, As Revealed in the Intimate Letters of Gen'l George E. Pickett (published in 1913) and Soldier of the South: General Pickett's War Letters to His Wife (1928), have been described as "unreliable works that were fictionalized by Pickett's wife." (Sallie was also the author, under her own name, of Pickett and His Men, published in 1913.) As a result, General Pickett has become a figure partially obscured by "Lost Cause" mythology.
Pickett today is widely perceived as being a tragic hero of sorts—a flamboyant officer who wanted to lead his troops into a glorious battle, but always missed the opportunity—until the disastrous charge at Gettysburg. Douglas Southall Freeman's works (especially Lee's Lieutenants), as well as Michael Shaara's novel The Killer Angels (1975) and Gettysburg (1993), the film adaptation in which he is portrayed by Stephen Lang) have greatly enhanced this reputation in popular culture.
Historian John C. Waugh wrote of Pickett, "An excellent brigade commander, he never proved he could handle a division." He quotes George B. McClellan, the Union general, as saying: "Perhaps there is no doubt that he was the best infantry soldier developed on either side during the Civil War."
Pickett's grave is marked by an elaborate memorial in Hollywood Cemetery. Commissioned in 1875 by the Pickett Division Association, a group of veterans from his division, it was originally intended to be placed at Gettysburg National Military Park at the "High Water Mark" of Pickett's Charge, but was built in Richmond when the U.S. War Department refused permission for the battlefield placement. A monument to Pickett also stands in the American Camp on San Juan Island, Washington, erected by the Washington University Historical Society, October 21, 1904.
Fort Pickett in Blackstone, Virginia, is named in his honor. Originally a site for the Civilian Conservation Corps, it was an active U.S. Army training facility in World War II and is currently occupied by the Virginia National Guard.
In popular media
Actor Stephen Lang portrayed George Pickett in the 1993 film Gettysburg. In the 2003 prequel Gods and Generals, Billy Campbell portrayed Pickett.