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George Pickett

George Edward Pickett (January 16, January 25 or January 28, 1825 – July 30, 1875) was a career U.S. Army officer who became a general in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. He is best remembered for his participation in the futile and bloody assault at the Battle of Gettysburg that bears his name, Pickett's Charge.

Early years

Pickett was born in Richmond, Virginia, the first of eight children of Robert and Mary Pickett, a prominent family of Old Virginia. He was the cousin of future Confederate general Henry Heth. He went west to Springfield, Illinois, to study law, but at the age of 17 he was appointed to the United States Military Academy. Legend has it that Pickett's West Point appointment was secured for him by Abraham Lincoln, but this is largely believed to be a story circulated by his widow following his death. Lincoln, as an Illinois state legislator, could not nominate candidates, although he did give the young man advice after he was accepted; Pickett was actually appointed by Illinois Congressman John T. Stuart, a friend of Pickett's uncle and a law partner of Abraham Lincoln.

Pickett was a popular cadet at West Point, charming and dapper, but a class clown, demonstrating his aversion to intellectual pursuits and hard work by graduating last (a position nicknamed the "goat") of 59 students in his 1846 class. Usually, such performance is a ticket to an obscure posting and a dead-end career, but he, just as George Custer did later, had the fortune to graduate just after a war broke out and the army had a sudden need for officers. He was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the U.S. 8th Infantry Regiment and almost immediately became engaged in the Mexican-American War. He gained national recognition when he was the first to climb the parapet during the Battle of Chapultepec, retrieving an American flag from his wounded colleague, future Confederate general James Longstreet, and unfurling it over the fortress while under fire. He received a brevet promotion to captain for his exploit. After the war, while serving on the Texas frontier, he was promoted to first lieutenant in 1849 and to captain, in the 9th U.S. Infantry, in March 1855.

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. She died during childbirth that November, immediately following an Indian raid at Fort Gates, Texas.

Captain Pickett next served in the Washington Territory. In 1856 he commanded the construction of Fort Bellingham on Bellingham Bay in what is today the city of Bellingham, Washington. He also built a frame home that year and it still stands today, the oldest house in Bellingham. At Fort Bellingham, Pickett married a Native American woman of the Haida tribe, Morning Mist, who gave birth to a son, James Tilton Pickett (1857-1889); Morning Mist died a few years later. "Jimmy" Pickett made a name for himself as a newspaper artist in his short life.

In 1859, Pickett occupied San Juan Island, thus becoming involved in a territorial dispute with Great Britain that has been nicknamed the Pig War (because it was instigated in response to an American farmer who had killed a pig belonging to the Hudson's Bay Company). While commanding a garrison of only 68 men, he stood up to a British force of three warships and a thousand men. His presence, and British orders that called for no confrontations, prevented their landing. He was quoted as saying defiantly, "We'll make a Bunker Hill of it." Once again the young officer was in the national limelight. President James Buchanan dispatched Lieutenant General Winfield Scott to negotiate a settlement between the parties.

Civil War

Early assignments

After the firing on Fort Sumter, Virginia seceded from the Union and Pickett began a journey home from Oregon to serve his state, despite his personal detestation of the institution of slavery. Arriving after the First Battle of Bull Run, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army on June 25 1861; he had been holding a commission as a major in the Confederate States Army Artillery since March 16. Within a month he was appointed colonel in command of the Rappahannock Line of the Department of Fredericksburg, under the command of Major General Theophilus H. Holmes. Holmes's influence obtained a commission for Pickett as a brigadier general on January 14, 1862.

Pickett made a colorful general. He rode a sleek black charger, "Old Black", wearing a small blue cap, with buffed gloves over the sleeves of an immaculately tailored uniform that had a double row of gold buttons on the coat and shiny gold spurs on his highly polished boots. He held an elegant riding crop whether mounted or walking. His mustache drooped gracefully beyond the corners of his mouth and then turned upward at the ends. His hair was the talk of the Army: "long ringlets flowed loosely over his shoulders, trimmed and highly perfumed, his beard likewise was curling and giving up the scent of Araby.

Pickett's first combat command was during the Peninsula Campaign, leading a brigade that was nicknamed the Gamecocks. (The brigade would eventually be led by Richard B. Garnett in Pickett's Charge.) They performed well at Williamsburg, Seven Pines and Gaines' Mill. At Gaines' Mill, Pickett was knocked off his horse by a bullet in the shoulder, and although he made an enormous fuss that he was mortally wounded, a staff officer examined the wound and rode away, stating that he was "perfectly able to take care of himself." However, Pickett was out of action for three months on medical leave and his arm would remain stiff for at least a year.

When he returned to the Army in September 1862, Pickett was given command of a two-brigade division in the corps commanded by his old colleague from Mexico, Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, and was promoted to major general on October 10. His division would not see serious combat until the Gettysburg Campaign the following summer. At the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, they were lightly engaged, with no fatalities. Longstreet's entire corps was absent from the May 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, detached on the Suffolk Campaign.

Before the Gettysburg Campaign, Pickett fell in love with a Virginia teenager, LaSalle "Sallie" Corbell (1843–1931), commuting back and forth from his duties in Suffolk to be with her. Although Sallie would later insist that she met him in 1852 (at age 9), she did not marry the 38-year-old widower until November 13 1863.

Gettysburg and Pickett's Charge

Pickett's division arrived at the Battle of Gettysburg on the evening of the second day, July 2 1863. They had been delayed performing guard duty on the Confederate lines of communication through Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. After two days of heavy fighting, General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had driven the Union Army of the Potomac to the high ground south of Gettysburg and had been unable to dislodge them. General Lee's plan for July 3 called for a massive assault on the center of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge. He directed General Longstreet to assemble a force of three divisions for the attack—two exhausted divisions from the corps of A.P. Hill (under Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew and Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble) and Pickett's fresh division from Longstreet's corps. Lee referred to Pickett as leading the charge (although Longstreet was actually in command), which is one of the reasons that it is generally not known to popular history by the more accurate name "Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Assault."

Following a two-hour artillery barrage that was meant to soften up the Union defenses, the three divisions stepped off across open fields almost a mile from Cemetery Ridge. Pickett inspired his men by shouting, "Up, Men, and to your posts! Don't forget today that you are from Old Virginia. Pickett's division, with the brigades of Brig. Gens. Lewis A. Armistead, Richard B. Garnett, and James L. Kemper, was on the right flank of the assault. It received punishing artillery fire on its flank and then volleys of infantry rifle fire as it approached its objective. Armistead's brigade made the farthest progress through the Union lines. Armistead was mortally wounded, falling near "The Angle" at what is now considered the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy". But neither of the other two divisions made comparable progress across the fields and Armistead's success was not reinforced.

Pickett's Charge was a bloodbath. While the Union lost about 1,500 killed and wounded, the Confederate casualty rate was over 50%. Pickett's three brigade commanders and all thirteen of his regimental commanders were casualties. Kemper was wounded and Garnett and Armistead did not survive. Trimble and Pettigrew were the most senior casualties, the former losing a leg and the latter wounded in the hand and dying on the retreat to Virginia. Pickett himself has received some historical criticism for surviving the battle personally unscathed, but his position well to the rear of his troops (probably at the Codori farm on the Emmitsburg Road) was command doctrine at the time for division commanders.

As soldiers straggled back to the Confederate lines along Seminary Ridge, Lee feared a Union counteroffensive and tried to rally his center, telling returning soldiers that the failure was "all my fault." Pickett was inconsolable for the rest of the day and never forgave Lee for ordering the charge. When Lee told Pickett to rally his division for the defense, Pickett allegedly replied, "General Lee, I have no division now." Pickett's official report for the battle has never been found. It is rumored that Gen. Lee rejected it for its bitter negativity and demanded that it be rewritten, never filing an updated version.

To his dying day, Pickett mourned the great loss of his men. After the war, it is said that he met once with General Lee in a meeting described as "icy." John Singleton Mosby seems to be the only witness to support this claim of coldness between Lee and Pickett. Others were present and are on record denying such an exchange. Mosby related that afterward Pickett said bitterly, "That man destroyed my division." Most historians find this encounter less than likely, especially as Pickett was on record elsewhere as having said, after being asked why Pickett's Charge failed, that "I've always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.

Five Forks

After Gettysburg, despite never receiving condemnation by Lee or Longstreet, Pickett's career went into decline. He commanded the Department of Southern Virginia and North Carolina over the winter, and then served as a division commander in the Defenses of Richmond. After P.G.T. Beauregard bottled up Benjamin Butler in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, Pickett's division was detached in support of Robert E. Lee's operation in the Overland Campaign, just before the Battle of Cold Harbor, in which Pickett's division occupied the center of the defensive line, a place in which the main Union attack did not occur. His division returned to take part in the Siege of Petersburg. On April 1 1865, Pickett's defeat at the Battle of Five Forks was a pivotal moment that unraveled the tenuous Confederate line and caused Lee to order the evacuation of Richmond, Virginia, and retreat toward Appomattox Court House. It was a final humiliation for Pickett, because he was two miles away from his troops at the time of the attack, enjoying a shad bake with some other officers. By the time he returned to the battlefield, it was too late. After the Battle of Sayler's Creek, he was relieved of command. He was paroled at Appomattox Court House on April 9 1865.

A legend told by Pickett's widow stated that when the Union Army marched into Richmond, she received a surprise visitor. He acted graciously and inquired whether he had found the Pickett house. Abraham Lincoln himself had come to determine the fate of an old acquaintance before the war, and Sallie, astonished, admitted she was his wife and held out her infant for the president to cradle. Lincoln historian Gerald J. Prokopowicz has called this story a "fantasy".


Despite his parole, Pickett fled to Canada. He returned to Norfolk, Virginia, in 1866 to work as an insurance agent.

Pickett had difficulty seeking amnesty after the Civil War. This was a problem shared by other former Confederate officers who had been West Point graduates and had resigned their commissions at the start of the war. Former Union officers, including Ulysses S. Grant, supported pardoning Pickett, but it was not until one year prior to his death that George Pickett received a full pardon by Act of Congress (June 23 1874).

Pickett died in Norfolk and is buried in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery.

In memoriam

Decades after Pickett's death, his widow Sallie became a well-known writer and speaker on "her Soldier," eventually leading to the creation of an idealized Pickett who was the perfect Southern gentleman and soldier. A considerable amount of controversy attends Sallie Pickett's lionizing of her husband. Two books published posthumously in her husband's name, The Heart of a Soldier, As Revealed in the Intimate Letters of Gen'l George E. Pickett (published in 1913) and Soldier of the South: General Pickett's War Letters to His Wife (1928), have been described as "unreliable works that were fictionalized by Pickett's wife. (Sallie was also the author, under her own name, of Pickett and His Men, published in 1913.) As a result, General Pickett has become a figure partially obscured by "Lost Cause" mythology.

Pickett today is widely perceived as being a tragic hero of sorts—a flamboyant officer who wanted to lead his troops into a glorious battle, but always missed the opportunity—until the disastrous charge at Gettysburg. Douglas Southall Freeman's works (especially Lee's Lieutenants), as well as Michael Shaara's novel The Killer Angels (1975) (and Gettysburg (1993), the film adaptation in which he is portrayed by Stephen Lang) have greatly enhanced this reputation in popular culture.

Pickett's grave is marked by an elaborate memorial in Hollywood Cemetery. Commissioned in 1875 by the Pickett Division Association, a group of veterans from his division, it was originally intended to be placed at Gettysburg National Military Park at the "High Water Mark" of Pickett's Charge, but was built in Richmond when the U.S. War Department refused permission for the battlefield placement. A monument to Pickett also stands in the American Camp on San Juan Island, Washington, erected by the Washington University Historical Society, October 21 1904.

Fort Pickett in Blackstone, Virginia, is named in his honor. Originally a site for the Civilian Conservation Corps, it was an active U.S. Army training facility in World War II and is currently occupied by the Virginia National Guard.

In popular media

Actor Stephen Lang portrayed George Pickett in the 1993 film Gettysburg, for which he received critical praise. In the 2003 prequel Gods and Generals, Billy Campbell portrayed Pickett.

See also


  • Boritt, Gabor S., ed., Why the Confederacy Lost (Gettysburg Civil War Instutute Books), Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-19-508549-3.
  • Eicher, John H., and Eicher, David J., Civil War High Commands, Stanford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
  • Lankford, Nelson, Richmond Burning: The Last Days of the Confederate Capital, Viking, 2002, ISBN 0-670-03117-8.
  • Prokopowicz, Gerald J., Did Lincoln Own Slaves? And Other Frequently Asked Questions about Abraham Lincoln, Pantheon Books, 2008, ISBN 978-0-375-42541-7.
  • Rhea, Gordon C., Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26 – June 3, 1864, Louisiana State University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-8071-2803-1.
  • Tagg, Larry, The Generals of Gettysburg, Savas Publishing, 1998, ISBN 1-882810-30-9.
  • Vouri, Mike, George Pickett and the "Pig War" Crisis, essay by San Juan Island National Historical Park interpreter at the Pickett Society web site.
  • Warner, Ezra J., Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders, Louisiana State University Press, 1959, ISBN 0-8071-0823-5.
  • Pickett Society biography


Further reading

  • Reardon, Carol, Pickett's Charge in History and Memory, University of North Carolina Press, 1997, ISBN 0-8078-2379-1.

External links

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