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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.