George Pickett

January 16 (1825) is the birthday of George Edward Pickett, the Confederate General immortalized in “Pickett’s Charge” at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. 

Pickett was born in Richmond, Virginia as the first of eight children in a prominent, “Old Virginia” family. He studied law in Springfield, Illinois for a time, but he was appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1841. He secured his appointment through Illinois Congressman John T. Stuart, who was a friend of his father’s and also a law partner of Abraham Lincoln. 

At the Academy Pickett was a popular but mischievous cadet who took his studies just serious enough to graduate – but last of the 59 members of the Class of 1846. (George Armstrong Custer finished last in the Class of 1862, though that class was graduated a year early because the Civil War started in 1861.) 

Finishing last in the class would usually mean obscurity for a career Army officer, but luckily for Pickett war with Mexico broke out shortly after he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 8th U.S. Infantry Regiment. He distinguished himself in the Battle of Chapultepec. During an assault of the fortifications, a fellow officer, Lt. James T. Longstreet, was wounded and handed Pickett the U.S. flag. Pickett carried the flag over the wall and fought his way to the roof of the palace, where he planted the flag. He was promoted to brevet captain for his actions. 

In 1849 while serving in frontier Texas he was promoted to first lieutenant in the 9th U.S. Infantry and then to captain in 1855. 

In January 1851 he had married Sally Harrison Minge, but she died in childbirth in November of the same year at Fort Gates in Texas. 

He next served in the Washington Territory, starting in 1856. He commanded the construction of Fort Bellingham, which eventually became the site of the city of Bellingham, Washington. The frame house he had built is still the oldest frame house in the city. 

While at Fort Bellingham he married a Native American woman, Morning Mist. She died shortly after the birth of their son, James. 

In 1859 Pickett took command of Company D of the 9th U.S. Infantry garrisoning San Juan Island in response to trouble there. A territorial dispute had arisen between a local farmer and the Hudson’s Bay Company. The farmer had shot a pig belonging to the trading company, and things got out of hand. A large British force was prepared to push the Americans off the island, but Pickett called their bluff. Neither side wanted to go to war over a mere pig. But the episode became known as the Pig War. The dispute was settled by negotiation. 

When the Civil War broke out Pickett returned to serve his state, Virginia. He resigned his commission in the U.S. Army in June 1861. He was first appointed a major in the Confederate States Army Artillery, then quickly a colonel in command of the Rappahannock Line in the Department of Fredericksburg, and finally in January 1862 a brigadier general. 

He was a colorful general officer. He wore a very impressive uniform, rode an impressive black charger, and wore his hair in long, perfumed ringlets. 

He commanded a brigade in defense against McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in the summer of 1862. He was commended for his actions at the battles of Williamsburg, Seven Pines, and Gaines’s Mill. A shoulder wound in that last battle put him out of action for three months. 

Pickett returned to duty in September 1862 and was given command of a two-brigade division in Major General James Longstreet’s corps. Pickett himself was promoted to major general in October of 1862, and his division was increased to five brigades. Longstreet’s corps missed out on the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, but it participated in the Battle of Gettysburg in July of that year. 

Before the Gettysburg campaign Pickett had fallen in love with a Virginia teenager LaSalle “Sallie” Corbell. They would marry in November of 1863. She would bear him two children. 

Pickett’s division arrived at Gettysburg on the evening of the second day of the battle, so it had seen no action on the first two days of the terrible battle. Lee’s army had pushed the Union army out of Gettysburg on the first day of the battle but was unable to push the Union right off Culp’s Hill. On the second day Lee assaulted the Union left, on Little Round Top particularly, again without success. On the third day Lee determined to throw a large force at the Union center, thinking the two ends had been strengthened and the center weakened and that the Union army was exhausted as a whole. 

Lee ordered the attack to be made by Pickett’s fresh three-brigade division and two divisions from A.P. Hill’s corps, which had seen heavy fighting in the battle up to that time. Pickett’s brigades were led by generals Armistead, Garnett, and Kemper. The other two divisions were led by generals Pettigrew and Trimble. (But the charge was never thought of as a Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble charge. Even Lee considered Pickett in command of the charge itself, under the overall command of Pickett’s corps commander, Longstreet.) 

The charge was preceded by a two-hour artillery barrage. Pickett’s division was on the right. About 15,000 men stepped from the woods on Seminary Ridge and headed across a mile of open ground toward the stone wall at the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. 

I have visited the Gettysburg National Military Park many times. Each time I stood at Lee’s statue/monument on Seminary Ridge and looked across that open field and was awed by the courage and devotion of the Confederate soldiers. July of 1863 was the third summer of the war. These men were veterans. They could look across that open field and immediately recognize the hell they would be marching into. How do you get 15,000 armed men to march into what looked like certain death? Yet they did it. Amazing. But only half those men came back. 

Pickett himself did not make the march. As attack commander he stayed in the rear. The other generals went. Kemper was wounded, and Armistead (who actually reached the Union line – the High Tide of the Confederacy) and Garnett were mortally wounded. Pettigrew and Trimble were wounded. All thirteen of Pickett’s regimental commanders were casualties. 

Lee and Longstreet worried about a counterattack. When Lee supposedly told Pickett to regroup his division for defense, Pickett is reported to have said, “General Lee, I have no division.” (This encounter was portrayed in the movie “Gettysburg”.) 

After the war Pickett, along with other former Confederate officers, once met with Lee. After the meeting Pickett is reported to have complained bitterly to Col. John Mosby, a famous Confederate cavalry officer, that “that man destroyed my division.” Mosby supposedly replied, “Yes, but he made you immortal.” 

After the Battle of Gettysburg Pickett continued in command of his division. He surrendered to U.S. Grant on April 9, 1865 along with Lee and the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia. They were all paroled and sent home. 

At the end of the war many Confederate officers who had been U.S. Army officers were concerned about being arrested and tried for treason. Pickett went to Canada. But in contrast to other countries and in other wars, very little retribution was inflicted on Confederate officers or members of the Confederate government. Even Jefferson Davis spent just two years as a military prisoner. So Pickett returned from Canada in just a year. He worked as an insurance agent in Norfolk, Virginia.  

George Pickett died on July 30, 1875. His remains were initially buried in Norfolk but moved to the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond on October 24. Twenty-seven other Confederate generals are buried in that cemetery as is Jefferson Davis and the remains of 18,000 Confederate enlisted men. 

Pickett’s beloved Sallie outlived Pickett by 55 years. She died in March 1931. She spent the rest of her life lionizing her husband (much the same way Libbie Custer did with her husband, another George). Various circumstances prevented Sallie’s remains from joining those of her husband at first. It wasn’t until March 1998 that she too was buried in Hollywood Cemetery, the first woman to be buried in the Confederate military section.

[In case you are confused by all the discussion of military units, here’s a rough description of an idealized organization of a Civil War army: A company had about 100 men in it and was commanded by a captain. Ten companies were combined into a regiment commanded by a colonel. Several regiments were organized into a brigade commanded by a brigadier general. A division contained several brigades and was commanded by a major general. Several divisions were combined to make up a corps. Several corps constituted an army.  

In theory a corps would be commanded by a lieutenant general and an army by a full general. But U.S. Grant was the only Union officer promoted to lieutenant general during the war. There were no Union full generals, though Grant commanded all the Union armies starting in 1864.  

The Confederate Army did have lieutenant generals, 18 of them. Like Longstreet. And several full generals, like Lee.]

Added in a comment the next day:

Pickett's first wife died in childbirth and the child died with her. Pickett had a son, James Tilton Pickett, with Morning Mist. She died from complications from childbirth. James, being of mixed blood, would never be able to participate in the social life back in Virginia, and Pickett left him back in Oregon with friends when he went back to Virginia. Pickett never saw the boy again, though he acknowledged the son and provided financial support. James lived 1857-1889, dying at age 31. Pickett had two children with LaSalle Corbell: George Edward Pickett, Jr (1864-1911) and David Corbell Pickett (1866-1874). Corbell, as he was called, died as a young boy a year before Pickett himself died.