George Edward Pickett (January 16, January 25, or January 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 west 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 a popular cadet at West Point, charming and dapper, but a class clown, and adequately demonstrated his aversion to intellectual pursuits and hard work by graduating last (a position nicknamed the "goat") of 59 students in the Class of 1846. Sometimes such a performance gains the performer a ticket to an obscure posting and a dead-end career, but Pickett, as George Custer did later, had the fortune to graduate just after a war broke out (the Mexican-American War) and the army had a sudden need for officers of any kind. He was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the U.S. 8th Infantry Regiment, and almost immediately entered into battle in the Mexican-American War. He gained national recognition when he was the first to climb the parapet during the Battle of Chapultepec, and, retrieving an American flag from his wounded colleague, future Confederate general James Longstreet, unfurled it over the fortress while under fire. He received a brevet promotion to captain for his exploit. After the war, while serving on the Texas frontier, he was promoted to first lieutenant in 1849 and to captain, in the 9th U.S. Infantry, in March 1855.
In January 1851, Pickett married Sally Harrison Steward 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.
In 1859, Pickett occupied San Juan Island, thus becoming involved in a territorial dispute with Great Britain that has been nicknamed the Pig War (because it was instigated in response to an American farmer who had killed a pig belonging to the Hudson's Bay Company). While commanding a garrison of only 68 men, he stood up to a British force of three warships and 1000 men. His presence may have prevented their landing, but the British were under orders that dictated there be no confrontations. He was quoted as saying defiantly, "We'll make a Bunker Hill of it." Once again the young officer was in the national limelight. 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' 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). The brigade and its commander performed well enough at Williamsburg, Seven Pines, and Gaines' Mill. At Gaines' Mill, Pickett was knocked off his horse by a bullet in the shoulder, and although he made an enormous fuss that he was mortally wounded, a staff officer examined the wound and rode away, stating that he was "perfectly able to take care of himself." However, Pickett's condition was actually in between the two diagnoses, and he was out of action for three months on medical leave, and his arm would remain stiff for at least a year.
When Pickett returned to the Army in September 1862, Pickett 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. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, in December, it was lightly engaged, 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. Lee referred to Pickett as leading the charge (although Longstreet was actually in command), which is one of the reasons that it is generally not known to popular history by the more accurate name "Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Assault."
Following a two-hour artillery barrage that was 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 considered the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy." But neither of the other two divisions made comparable progress across the fields and 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, so that over 50% of the men sent across the fields were killed or wounded. Pickett's three brigade commanders and all 13 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 dying during the retreat to Virginia. Pickett himself has received some historical criticism for surviving the battle personally unscathed, but his position well to the rear of his troops (probably at the Codori farm on the Emmitsburg Road) was command doctrine at the time for division commanders.
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 now." 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 some other officers. By the time he returned to the battlefield, it was too late.
After the Battle of Sayler's Creek on April 6, 1865, Pickett was said to be 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, 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 war, 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.
Photograph Mathew Brady or Levin Handy 1860-1875 & Oil Tinted by Margaret A. Rogers