George Edward Pickett was born on January 16, 1825, and raised on his family’s plantation at Turkey Island in Henrico County. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, accumulating a host of demerits and graduating last in his class in 1846. (Pickett’s classmates included Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and George B. McClellan.) He went on to serve in the Mexican War (1846–1848), earning two honorary brevets for gallant conduct.
Pickett spent the next thirteen years in the frontier army, in scattered outposts in Texas and in the far West. During these years, he faced personal tragedies. In November 1851, his first wife, Sally Minge, and their newborn daughter died in Texas. While stationed at Fort Bellingham in Washington Territory and finding himself frequently caught between the interests of white settlers and Indians, he married a Haida Indian. She also died, however, soon after the birth of their son James Tilton Pickett in 1857.
The Civil War brought Pickett home to Virginia to fight for the Confederacy. By the spring of 1862 he led an all-Virginia brigade under the command of his old army friend James Longstreet. Pickett fought ably in the battles of Williamsburg (1862), and Seven Pines (1862), earning commendations from his superiors. At the Battle of Gaines’s Mill (1862), Pickett was severely wounded and, as a result, left active service for the rest of the summer. He returned to the field in the autumn of 1862, winning promotion to major general. Pickett and his division remained largely in reserve during the lopsided Confederate victory at Fredericksburg (1862) and did not participate at all in the stunning victory at Chancellorsville (1863). His division was instead with Longstreet, laying siege to Suffolk. It was there, however, that Pickett became increasingly distracted by his courtship with LaSalle Corbell. They married in Saint Paul’s Church in Petersburg on September 15, 1863, just a few weeks after the fateful Battle of Gettysburg.
Casualties During Pickett’s Charge
After Gettysburg, Pickett assumed command of the Department of North Carolina, an assignment made difficult by high rates of desertion, Unionist sentiment in the area, and guerrilla warfare. His situation went from bad to worse. In February 1864, Lee ordered him to take the coastal city of New Berne, North Carolina, from Union control. Pickett faltered and failed, and in his report he lashed out at fellow officers. Pickett also discovered that a group of Union prisoners were, in fact, former Confederate soldiers who had switched sides. He angrily ordered them tried by court-martial, and twenty-two were summarily hanged in Kinston, North Carolina, as their family and friends stood witness. Their bodies were stripped and buried in an unmarked mass grave.
Pickett rejoined the Army of Northern Virginia in May 1864, even regaining his old division, but nothing was the same. The last ignoble chapter of his military career came on April 1, 1865. At the Battle of Five Forks, Union troops successfully attacked Lee’s right flank, ending their ten-month siege and forcing the fall of Petersburg and the Confederate capital of Richmond. Pickett, however, left his troops poorly positioned for the fight when he left the lines for an infamously long lunch—a shad bake with Fitzhugh Lee, Robert E. Lee’s nephew. The “food was abundant,” the historian Douglas Southall Freeman has written, and “the affair was leisured and deliberate as every feast should be.” In the meantime, the battle was lost and Pickett was removed from command. The surrender at Appomattox Court House came just eight days later, on April 9.
Pickett returned home to discover that the U.S. War Department was investigating him for war crimes for the Kinston hangings. With his wife and infant son, he escaped to Montreal, Canada, but returned to Virginia after a few months when Ulysses S. Grant indicated that there would be no formal indictment. He lived there quietly and modestly, farming, selling insurance, and battling declining health. Pickett rarely spoke publicly about his war experiences and died on July 30, 1875, at the age of fifty.
While the former general had spent his last years brooding about the disastrous charge that bore his name, his financially burdened widow decided to make the most of an opportunity. In an attempt to revitalize his memory, she became a prolific author and widely traveled lecturer, transforming Pickett into the hero of Gettysburg in the tradition of the Lost Cause. The Lost Cause was a view of the war that downplayed slavery and lionized the Confederate military. It is ironic, perhaps, that Pickett should so benefit from the pens of Lost Cause writers while his friend and mentor, James Longstreet, so suffered. Longstreet, who became a Republican Party member after the war, was blamed for the defeat at Gettysburg by former Confederate general Jubal A. Early, among others.
LaSalle Corbell Pickett authored the celebratory history Pickett and His Men (1913), which the historian Gary W. Gallagher has demonstrated was largely plagiarized, and two collections of wartime letters (1913, 1928), which Gallagher has argued were fabricated. Nevertheless, her image of her husband at the moment his charge began—”gallant and graceful as a knight of chivalry riding to a tournament,” whose “long, dark, auburn-tinted hair floated backward in the wind like a soft veil as he went on down the slope of death”—has stuck in the American imagination. And her letters have been cited in works as diverse as Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Killer Angels (1974) and Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War (1990).