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 includedand .) 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(1862), and (1862), earning commendations from his superiors. At the (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 (1862) and did not participate at all in the stunning victory at (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 on September 15, 1863, just a few weeks after the fateful Battle of Gettysburg.
Casualties During Pickett’s Charge
This detail from a July 12, 1863, report by Confederate colonel W. R. Aylett charts the casualties (the number of killed, wounded, or missing) suffered by Armistead's Brigade on July 3, 1863, during the Battle of Gettysburg. On that day, Armistead's Brigade—consisting of the 9th, 14th, 38th, 53rd, and 57th Virginia Infantry—took part in the climax of the battle, an infantry attack known as Pickett's Charge. The chart here states that there were 1,191 casualties in the brigade. In addition, General Lewis A. Armistead, the commander of the brigade—listed here as "wounded and captured by the enemy"—died two days after the battle.
In the main body of the report, Aylett—who also was wounded that day—recounted how the brigade moved "across the open field for more than half a mile" under heavy artillery fire "which rapidly thinned its ranks." Still, Armistead's men reached the Union defenders, who were crouched behind a stone wall. After enduring "severe musketry fire" and bursts of artillery, the men in Armistead's Brigade "were compelled to retire leaving more than two thirds of our bravest & best, killed or wounded on the field."
Colonel Aylett made special mention of Armistead. "Conspicuous to all, fifty yards in advance of his Brigade waving his hat upon his sword he led his men upon the enemy with a steady bearing which inspired all breasts with enthusiasm and courage and won the admiration of every beholder," Aylett wrote. "Far in advance of all he led the attack till he scaled the works of the enemy and fell wounded in their hands but not until he had … seen his colors planted over their fortifications."
A page from an official Confederate report gives a partial listing of the dead, wounded, and missing men from the 57th Virginia Infantry Regiment after Pickett's Charge, the July 3, 1863, infantry attack that was the climax of the Battle of Gettysburg. The list of casualties from the 57th Virginia Regiment, part of Armistead's Brigade in General George Pickett's Division, are broken down by companies. The commanding officers for companies F, G, and H (shown here) were among those missing or wounded. This page was part of a report issued from the headquarters of Armistead's Brigade on July 12, 1863, by Colonel W. R. Aylett.
After Gettysburg, Pickett assumed command of the Department of North Carolina, an assignment made difficult by high rates of, 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, Union troops successfully attacked Lee’s right flank, ending their and forcing the fall of Petersburg and the Confederate capital of . Pickett, however, left his troops poorly positioned for the fight when he left the lines for an infamously long lunch—a shad bake with , Robert E. Lee’s nephew. The “food was abundant,” the historian 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 whenindicated 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 amember after the war, was blamed for the defeat at Gettysburg by former Confederate general , 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).