General George Pickett

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General George Pickett
(January 1825 – July 30, 1875)

General George Edward Pickett
General George Pickett.jpg
Battles & Leaders

George Edward Pickett was born in 1825 in Richmond, Virginian, and was the first of Robert and Mary Pickett's eight children. As a young man he was considered to be a "dandy of a fellow" who always had a flair for doing things in a big way. He enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduated last in the class of 1846, and was considered a "jovial fellow." Some notable fellow West Point graduates included: George B. McClellan, Jesse Lee Reno, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, George Stoneman, Dabney H. Maury, David R. Jones, Cadmus M. Wilcox, Samuel B. Maxey, Samuel D. Sturgis, and John G. Foster.
 
Pickett initially served during the Mexican American War in 1847-48; where he received honors for gallant and meritorious conduct in the battles of Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec. He later served on the Texas frontier and on the Pacific Coast. 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 in November 1851. Years later, he married LaSalle Corbell of Virginia; after General Pickett died, she published a collection of letters that he had written to her and a biography of the general entitled, Pickett and His Men.
 

U.S. Army Service Record: Brevet second lieutenant, Eighth Infantry, July 1, 1846; Second lieutenant, Second Infantry, March 3, 1847; transferred to Seventh Infantry, July 13, 1847; transferred to Eighth Infantry, July 18, 1847; First lieutenant, June 28, 1849; Captain, Ninth Infantry, March 3, 1855; (Officially) Resigned Captain commission, June 25, 1861.

 

C.S. Army Service Record: Major, Corps of Artillery, C.S.A., March 16, 1861; Colonel, Provisional Army of the Confederate States (P.A.C.S), July 23, 1861; Brigadier general, P.A.C.S., January 14, 1862; Major general, P.A.C.S., October 10, 1862.

 

Confederate Commands: July 23, 1862, commanding Third Brigade, Longstreet's Division, Army of Northern Virginia. Brigade composed of the Eighth, Eighteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-eighth and Fifty-sixth Virginia Infantry Regiments; August 13, 1862, commanding division in Longstreet's Corps, Army of Northern Virginia. Division composed of the brigades of Garnett, Armistead, Kemper and Jenkins. Corse's Brigade was afterward added; Commanding Department of North Carolina, September 23, 1863; August 31, 1864, commanding a division in First Corps, Army of Northern Virginia; January 31, 1865, same command.

LaSalle Corbell Pickett
LaSalle Corbell Pickett.gif
(1843-1931)

When the American Civil War commenced, Pickett resigned his commission with the United States Army and offered his services to Virginia. He was assigned the rank of colonel and was later promoted to brigadier general in charge of a Virginia brigade. Wounded at the Battle of Gaines' Mill, Pickett rejoined the army after the 1862 Maryland Campaign. He was soon promoted to major general and assumed command of a division of Virginia and North Carolina troops. His command did not engage during the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. Subsequently, Pickett was ordered to march three brigades (of his division) from the Richmond-Petersburg area to join the Army of Northern Virginia, which was poised to invade the North.

On July 3, 1863, General Pickett's division lined up on Seminary Ridge to participate in the grand assault on the Union center. His 5,000 Virginians charged the Union line on Cemetery Ridge and briefly broke through, but after desperate fighting they were forced to retreat. Pickett lost nearly one-half of his division including all three of his brigadier generals- Garnett, Kemper, and Armistead. His command in shambles, the general's spirit was nearly crushed. It was a terrible defeat that would forever be known as "Pickett's Charge" and the High Water Mark of the Rebellion.

General Pickett and his shattered division returned to Virginia where they were allowed to rest and reorganize. His brigade commanded by General Montgomery D. Corse, which had remained in Virginia during the Gettysburg Campaign, rejoined Pickett's Division. That fall, Pickett was assigned to command the Department of Virginia and North Carolina.

On April 1, 1865, General Pickett was in command of Confederate troops during the Battle of Five Forks, an important crossroads several miles west of Petersburg, Virginia. While the general was enjoying a fish fry picnic with fellow officers behind the lines, a large Union force attacked his troops. Pickett immediately galloped to the front but it was too late- the line was broken and many of his troops were retreating from the battlefield. Despite his efforts, Pickett could do little but rally the survivors and retreat. With Five Forks in Union hands, Petersburg could no longer be held and General Lee ordered his army to abandon both Petersburg and Richmond the following day. At the Battle of Sailor's Creek (also called Sayler's), Virginia, on April 6, Pickett's command was shattered in a brief but bloody battle. Pickett and his staff were able to escape the Union trap and he led what remained of his small command to Appomattox Court House, where he surrendered and was paroled.

"Lee's surrender is imminent. It is finished. The cloud of despair settled over all on the 3rd when the tidings came to us of the evacuation of Richmond and its partial loss by fire. The homes and families of many of my men were there, and all knew too well that with the fall of our capital, the last hope of success was over. It is finished! Thousands of them have gone to their eternal home, having given up their lives for the cause they knew to be just. The others, alas, heartbroken, crushed in spirit, are left to morn its loss. Well, it is practically all over now. We have poured out our blood, and suffered untold hardships and privations, all in vain." George Pickett in a letter to his wife dated April 9, 1865

After the war, General Pickett returned to his wife and child in Richmond. Unable to find suitable work, and after declining offers that would take him away from his family, he farmed for several years before he accepted a lucrative offer to sell insurance for a New York company based in Virginia. He sold insurance bonds and acted as an agent for the insurance company in Richmond until his death in 1875. Buried in Hollywood Cemetery in the city, a monument in his memory was dedicated at his gravesite by former veterans of his old division. His widow, LaSalle Corbell, became his staunchest defender when a controversy arose regarding the general's actions at Five Forks, Sailor's Creek, and Gettysburg where some questioned whether he had actually participated in the attack that bears his name. Pickett was staunchly defended by former staff officers and soldiers who recalled his presence among the troops during the charge and put that question to rest. The other controversies did not die quite so easily.

“Three phases of loyalty sway the Southern heart today – loyalty to memory, loyalty to present duty, loyalty to hope. There is no rivalry among these phases of the same noble sentiment. Together they work for the evolution of a regenerated nation. He who is untrue to the past is recreant to the present and faithless to the future.” Words of LaSalle Corbell Pickett in "Pickett and His Men." (March 4, 1913)

Bibliography: Boritt, Gabor S., ed., Why the Confederacy Lost (Gettysburg Civil War Institute Books), Oxford University Press (1992); Eicher, John H., and Eicher, David J., Civil War High Commands, Stanford University Press (2001); Tagg, Larry, The Generals of Gettysburg, Savas Publishing (1998); Warner, Ezra J., Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders, Louisiana State University Press (1959); Confederate Military History, vol. IV, p. 650 (1987); Pickett, LaSalle Corbell, Pickett and His Men; Gettysburg National Military Park; General Officers of the Confederate States of America.

Recommended Reading: Pickett And His Men, by La Salle Corbell Pickett (448 pages). Description: A graduate of West Point Academy and classmate of such military notables as George B. McClellan and Thomas J. Jackson, George Edward Pickett began his Confederate career as a Colonel, then rose to the rank of Brigadier General, in which capacity he served under General James Longstreet at the Seven Days' Campaign in January of 1862, and finally to the rank of Major General later that same year. He is perhaps best known for commanding the ill-fated charge up Seminary Ridge at the Battle of Gettysburg. Continued below.

After the war, he fled to Canada and was denied a full pardon until only one year before his death in 1875. LaSalle Corbell Pickett spent the rest of her life honoring her husband and shaping his image as a Confederate hero and this book is the product of her efforts. I am unaware of a single Pickett biography that doesn't quote this book. This work also allows the reader the opportunity to walk in the shoes of George Pickett. Highly recommended for the Civil War buff and anyone remotely interested in the Battle of Gettysburg.

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Recommended Reading: Pickett, Leader of the Charge: A Biography of General George E. Pickett, C.S.A. Publishers Weekly: This first modern biography of the man who led the final Confederate attack at Gettysburg depicts neither an archetypical cavalier nor a shallow incompetent. Though Pickett's promotion owed something to the patronage of his superior Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, he had an excellent record of brigade command and did as well on July 3, 1863, as anyone was likely to have done in the circumstances. Continued below.
Nevertheless, Pickett lost the confidence of Robert E. Lee and spent most of the rest of the war on peripheral assignments in North Carolina and southern Virginia. Performing adequately under direct supervision, Pickett showed no aptitude for independent command despite some successes, notably in organizing the defenses of Petersburg in 1864. Longacre's sympathy for his subject leads him both to overestimate Pickett's military capacities and to understate Gettysburg's impact on a man who in its aftermath arguably suffered from what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. This work is still a useful addition to the literature on Confederate command in the Civil War.

 

Recommended Reading: Pickett's Charge, by George Stewart. Description: The author has written an eminently readable, thoroughly enjoyable, and well-researched book on the third day of the Gettysburg battle, July 3, 1863. An especially rewarding read if one has toured, or plans to visit, the battlefield site. The author's unpretentious, conversational style of writing succeeds in putting the reader on the ground occupied by both the Confederate and Union forces before, during and after Pickett's and Pettigrew's famous assault on Meade's Second Corps. Continued below.

Interspersed with humor and down-to-earth observations concerning battlefield conditions, the author conscientiously describes all aspects of the battle, from massing of the assault columns and pre-assault artillery barrage to the last shots and the flight of the surviving rebels back to the safety of their lines… Having visited Gettysburg several years ago, this superb volume makes me want to go again.
 

Recommended Reading: Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command (912 pages). Description: Hailed as one of the greatest Civil War books, this exhaustive study is an abridgement of the original three-volume version. It is a history of the Army of Northern Virginia from the first shot fired to the surrender at Appomattox - but what makes this book unique is that it incorporates a series of biographies of more than 150 Confederate officers. The book discusses in depth all the tradeoffs that were being made politically and militarily by the South. Continued below.

The book does an excellent job describing the battles, then at a critical decision point in the battle, the book focuses on an officer - the book stops and tells the biography of that person, and then goes back to the battle and tells what information the officer had at that point and the decision he made. At the end of the battle, the officers decisions are critiqued based on what he "could have known and what he should have known" given his experience, and that is compared with 20/20 hindsight. "It is an incredibly well written book!"

 

Recommended ReadingBrigades of Gettysburg: The Union and Confederate Brigades at the Battle of Gettysburg (Hardcover) (704 Pages). Description: While the battle of Gettysburg is certainly the most-studied battle in American history, a comprehensive treatment of the part played by each unit has been ignored. Brigades of Gettysburg fills this void by presenting a complete account of every brigade unit at Gettysburg and providing a fresh perspective of the battle. Using the words of enlisted men and officers, the author-well-known Civil War historian Bradley Gottfried-weaves a fascinating narrative of the role played by every brigade at the famous three-day battle, as well as a detailed description of each brigade unit. Continued below.

Organized by order of battle, each brigade is covered in complete and exhaustive detail: where it fought, who commanded, what constituted the unit, and how it performed in battle.  Innovative in its approach and comprehensive in its coverage, Brigades of Gettysburg is certain to be a classic and indispensable reference for the battle of Gettysburg for years to come.

 

Recommended ReadingShook over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War. Description: Eric T. Dean Jr., a lawyer whose interest in the Civil War prompted him to return to school to obtain a Ph.D. in history, makes a unique contribution to Civil War studies with his research on the psychological effects of the war on its veterans. Digging through the pension records of Civil War vets, Dean documents the great number who, suffering from severe psychological problems triggered by intense combat experience, were dutifully provided with disability pensions by the U.S. government. Continued below.

Dean's central thesis--that these veterans provide a mirror for the experiences of their counterparts in Vietnam a century later--is supported with lucid reasoning. Of particular interest are the many stories of intense Civil War combat and its psychological aftereffects, including many cases of Civil War veterans committed to asylums well into the 1890s--case studies seldom found in standard histories which offer painful testimony to the war's enormous impact on the nation.

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