General George Pickett

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General George Pickett

General George Pickett
General George Pickett.jpg
(Library of Congress)

General George Pickett: A Biography

Major-General George Edward Pickett was born at Richmond, Va.,
January 25, 1825, son of a planter of Henrico County. He was
graduated at the United States Military Academy in the class
of 1846, which included George B. McClellan, J. L. Reno,
Thomas J. Jackson, George Stoneman, Dabney H. Maury, D. R.
Jones, C. M. Wilcox, S. B. Maxey and others who attained
prominence in the war of the Confederacy.

Going into the war with Mexico, he was promoted second
lieutenant, Second infantry; was transferred to the Seventh
and finally to the Eighth infantry, and participating in all
the important engagements of Scott's army, was brevetted first
lieutenant for gallantry at Contreras and Churubusco; earned
the brevet of captain at Chapultepec, and finally took part in
the capture of the Mexican capital.

He subsequently served with the Eighth infantry on frontier
duty in Texas until 1855, when he was promoted captain Ninth
infantry, and given a year's assignment to Fortress Monroe.
He was afterward on duty in Washington territory, until the
spring of 1861.

In 1856, he occupied San Juan island with sixty men, and
forbade the landing of British troops, winning the thanks of
the territorial legislature for his gallant and firm discharge
of duty, and the commendation of General Harney for "cool
judgment, ability and gallantry." His loyalty and firmness
saved the rights of the United States until the title to the
island was confirmed by international arbitration, and "
" guarded one end of the island until the British
finally retired.

His first commission in the Confederate service was as major
of artillery, regular army. On July 23, 1861, as colonel in
the provisional army, he was assigned to temporary command on
the lower Rappahannock, with headquarters at Fredericksburg,
and on February 28, 1862, being promoted to brigadier-general,
he was ordered to report to General Longstreet.

Commanding a brigade of Longstreet's corps, he won
commendation for "using his forces with great effect, ability
and his usual gallantry, " at Williamsburg. On the second day
of the battle of Seven Pines, he was particularly distinguished
for his good generalship during an attack by Hooker's command.

An order to withdraw was received, which was obeyed by the
other brigade commanders after the repulse of the first
attack; but "Pickett, the true soldier," as Longstreet writes,
"knowing that the order was not intended for such an
emergency, stood and resisted the attack," holding his ground
against odds of ten to one for several hours longer. The
enemy attempted to creep up quietly and capture the
Virginians, but they met him with a fearful fire that drove
him back to the bushes, which ended the battle.

At Gaines' Mill, fighting on the right with Longstreet, his
brigade broke Porter's line just west of the Watts house,
attacking with such vigor as almost to gain possession of the
Federal reserve artillery. In this assault, Pickett fell
severely wounded, and he was for some time absent from his
brave command, which under his leadership had won the title of
"the gamecock brigade."

In October, 1862, he was promoted to major-general and
assigned to a division of Longstreet's corps, composed of his
old brigade under Garnett, and the brigades of Armistead,
Kemper and Corse, all Virginians, and Micah Jenkins' South
Carolina brigade. Though there were five or six other
Virginia brigades, in other divisions, this was distinctively
"the Virginia division" of the army, and comprised all the
Virginia brigades in Longstreet's corps except Mahone's.

He held the center of the line at Fredericksburg, and after
that battle was sent with his division to Richmond, which was
supposed to be threatened by the Federal movements. He was
reinforced by Hood's division, and General Longstreet, in
command, operated against Suffolk.

Pickett went into the Gettysburg campaign with three brigades,
Garnett's, Kemper's and Armistead's, and Dearing's artillery.
He reached the battlefield with his men on the forenoon of the
third day of battle, and was selected to make the attack upon
the Federal center on Cemetery hill, Heth's division under
Pettigrew to form the left of the line, which should be
supported by Pender's division under Trimble.

The attack was to be made after the enemy's artillery had been
weakened by the massed fire of the Confederate artillery,
which began at 2 o'clock. After a terrific artillery battle
there was a lull in the Federal fire, and the Confederate
ammunition being near exhaustion, General Alexander sent a
note to Pickett: " For God's sake, come quick. The eighteen
guns are gone; come quick, or my ammunition won't let me
support you properly. "

Pickett handed the note to Longstreet, who had strongly
objected to the proposed assault with the forces available.
To Pickett's question, "General, shall I advance?" Longstreet
said nothing, but nodded his head. Pickett then accepted the
duty with apparent confidence and "rode gaily to his command,"
before going into the fight writing on the envelope of a
letter to his betrothed: If Old Pete's nod means death, then
good-bye and God bless you, little one."

The story of the charge has been often eloquently related.
The Federal artillery was supplied with ammunition in time to
work havoc in the Confederate ranks -- the shattered lines
closed up and gained the summit of the ridge and planted the
stars and bars in the Federal lines -- and disappeared in a
tornado of fire. Very few came back unhurt.

In September, 1863, Pickett was assigned to command of the
department of North Carolina, embracing Petersburg and
Southern Virginia. He made a demonstration against New Bern
in the latter part of January, 1864. In May, he joined Lee on
the North Anna, and from that time commanded his old division,
Armistead's, Pickett's, Corse's and Kemper's brigades, now
under Barton, Hunton, Corse and Terry, until the close of

On June 16th, Lee arrived at Drewry's bluff with Pickett's
division, and witnessed the gallant recapture of the
Confederate lines from Butler. He wrote to Longstreet: "We
tried very hard to keep Pickett's men from capturing the
breastworks of the enemy, but could not do it."

He remained before Bermuda Hundred until March, 1865, when he
was sent to Lynchburg to oppose Sheridan's raid, and then
marched with Longstreet north of Richmond in an attempt to
intercept the Federal cavalryman, whom he finally met on March
31st and April 1st at Dinwiddie Court House and Five Forks.

In these hard-fought battles Pickett commanded the infantry,
Fitzhugh Lee the cavalry, and as Longstreet writes: "His
execution was all that a skillful commander could apply.
Though taken by surprise, there was no panic in any part of
the command. Brigade after brigade changed front to the left
and received the overwhelming battle as it rolled on, until
crushed back in the next. In generalship, Pickett was not a
bit below the 'gay rider.'"

Reinforced too late to avoid defeat, he rallied and checked
the cavalry pursuit at Amazon creek, preventing worse
disaster. Here again, as at Gettysburg, he had been fated to
make the decisive fight, with insufficient forces, and the
inevitable followed.

He marched with his division from Petersburg, escaped from the
disaster at Rice's Station with 600 men of his splendid
division, and finally was surrendered April 9, 1865, with the
last of the army of Northern Virginia.

Subsequently he engaged in business at Richmond, but did not
survive the first decade following the war, dying at Norfolk,
July 30, 1875.

Source: Confederate Military History, vol. IV, p. 650

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.

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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: Pickett's Charge in History and Memory. Description: Pickett's Charge--the Confederates' desperate (and failed) attempt to break the Union lines on the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg--is best remembered as the turning point of the U.S. Civil War. But Penn State historian Carol Reardon reveals how hard it is to remember the past accurately, especially when an event such as this one so quickly slipped into myth. Continued below.

She writes, "From the time the battle smoke cleared, Pickett's Charge took on this chameleon-like aspect and, through a variety of carefully constructed nuances, adjusted superbly to satisfy the changing needs of Northerners, Southerners, and, finally, the entire nation." With care and detail, Reardon's fascinating book teaches a lesson in the uses and misuses of history.
Recommended Reading: Pickett's Charge--The Last Attack at Gettysburg (Hardcover). Description: Pickett's Charge is probably the best-known military engagement of the Civil War, widely regarded as the defining moment of the battle of Gettysburg and celebrated as the high-water mark of the Confederacy. But as Earl Hess notes, the epic stature of Pickett's Charge has grown at the expense of reality, and the facts of the attack have been obscured or distorted by the legend that surrounds them. With this book, Hess sweeps away the accumulated myths about Pickett's Charge to provide the definitive history of the engagement. Continued below.
Drawing on exhaustive research, especially in unpublished personal accounts, he creates a moving narrative of the attack from both Union and Confederate perspectives, analyzing its planning, execution, aftermath, and legacy. He also examines the history of the units involved, their state of readiness, how they maneuvered under fire, and what the men who marched in the ranks thought about their participation in the assault. Ultimately, Hess explains, such an approach reveals Pickett's Charge both as a case study in how soldiers deal with combat and as a dramatic example of heroism, failure, and fate on the battlefield.
Recommended Reading: Into the Fight: Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. Description: Challenging conventional views, stretching the minds of Civil War enthusiasts and scholars as only John Michael Priest can, Into the Fight is both a scholarly and a revisionist interpretation of the most famous charge in American history. Using a wide array of sources, ranging from the monuments on the Gettysburg battlefield to the accounts of the participants themselves, Priest rewrites the conventional thinking about this unusually emotional, yet serious, moment in our Civil War. Continued below.
Starting with a fresh point of view, and with no axes to grind, Into the Fight challenges all interested in that stunning moment in history to rethink their assumptions. Worthwhile for its use of soldiers’ accounts, valuable for its forcing the reader to rethink the common assumptions about the charge, critics may disagree with this research, but they cannot ignore it.
Recommended Reading: Pickett's Charge: Eyewitness Accounts At The Battle Of Gettysburg (Stackpole Military History Series). Description: On the final day of the battle of Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee ordered one of the most famous infantry assaults of all time: Pickett's Charge. Following a thundering artillery barrage, thousands of Confederates launched a daring frontal attack on the Union line. From their entrenched positions, Federal soldiers decimated the charging Rebels, leaving the field littered with the fallen and several Southern divisions in tatters. Written by generals, officers, and enlisted men on both sides, these firsthand accounts offer an up-close look at Civil War combat and a panoramic view of the carnage of July 3, 1863.

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