American Civil War: Major General George Pickett

George Pickett during the Civil War
Major General George Pickett, CSA. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

George Edward Pickett was born January 16/25/28, 1825 (the precise date is disputed) at Richmond, VA. The eldest child of Robert and Mary Pickett, he was raised at the family's Turkey Island plantation in Henrico County. Educated locally, Pickett later traveled to Springfield, IL to study law. While there, he befriended Representative John T. Stuart and may have had some contact with a young Abraham Lincoln.

In 1842, Stuart secured an appointment to West Point for Pickett and the young man left his legal studies to pursue a military career. Arriving at the academy, Pickett's classmates included future comrades and adversaries such George B. McClellan, George Stoneman, Thomas J. Jackson, and Ambrose P. Hill.

West Point & Mexico

Though well-liked by his classmates, Pickett proved a poor student and was better known for his antics. A renowned prankster, he was viewed as someone of ability but who only sought to study enough to graduate. As a result of this mentality, Pickett graduated last in his class of 59 in 1846. While being the class "goat" often led to short or inglorious career, Pickett quickly benefited from the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. Posted to the 8th US Infantry, he took part in Major General Winfield Scott's campaign against Mexico City. Landing with Scott's army, he first saw fighting at the Siege of Vera Cruz.

As the army moved inland, he took part in the actions at Cerro Gordo and Churubusco.

On September 13, 1847, Pickett came to prominence during the Battle of Chapultepec which saw American forces capture a key fortification and break through Mexico City's defenses. Advancing, Pickett was the first American soldier to reach the top of Chapultepec Castle's walls.

In the course of the action, he retrieved his unit's colors when his future commander, James Longstreet, was wounded in the thigh. For his service in Mexico, Pickett received a brevet promotion to captain. With the end of the war, he was assigned to the 9th US Infantry for service on the frontier. Promoted to first lieutenant in 1849, he married Sally Harrison Minge, the great-great-grandniece of William Henry Harrison, in January 1851.

Frontier Duty

Their union proved short-lived as she died in childbirth while Pickett was posted at Fort Gates in Texas. Promoted to captain in March 1855, he spent a brief period at Fort Monroe, VA before being sent west for service in the Washington Territory. The following year, Pickett oversaw the construction of Fort Bellingham overlooking Bellingham Bay. While there, he married a local Haida woman, Morning Mist, who gave birth to a son, James Tilton Pickett, in 1857. As with his past marriage, his wife died a short time later.

In 1859, he received orders to occupy San Juan Island with Company D, 9th US Infantry in response to a growing border dispute with the British known as the Pig War. This had commenced when an American farmer, Lyman Cutler, had shot a pig belonging to the Hudson's Bay Company which had broken into his garden.

As the situation with the British escalated, Pickett was able to hold his position and deterred a British landing. After he was reinforced, Scott arrived to negotiate a settlement.

Joining the Confederacy

In the wake of Lincoln's election in 1860 and the firing on Fort Sumter the following April, Virginia seceded from the Union. Learning of this, Pickett left the West Coast with the goal of serving his home state and resigned his US Army commission on June 25, 1861. Arriving after the First Battle of Bull Run, he accepted a commission as a major in the Confederate service. Given his West Point training and Mexican service, he was quickly promoted to colonel and assigned to the Rappahannock Line of the Department of Fredericksburg. Commanding from a black charger he dubbed "Old Black", Pickett was also known for his immaculate appearance and his flashy, finely tailored uniforms

The Civil War

Serving under Major General Theophilus H. Holmes, Pickett was able to use his superior's influence to receive a promotion to brigadier general on January 12, 1862. Assigned to lead a brigade in Longstreet's command, he performed competently during the Peninsula Campaign and took part in the fighting at Williamsburg and Seven Pines. With the ascension of General Robert E. Lee to command of the army, Pickett returned to battle during the opening engagements of the Seven Days Battles in late June. In the fighting at Gaines' Mill on June 27, 1862, he was hit in the shoulder. This injury necessitated a three-month leave to recover and he missed the Second Manassas and Antietam campaigns.

Rejoining the Army of Northern Virginia, he was given command of a division in Longstreet's Corps that September and was promoted to major general the following month. In December, Pickett's men saw little action during the victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg. In the spring of 1863, the division was detached for service in the Suffolk Campaign and missed the Battle of Chancellorsville. While in Suffolk, Pickett met and fell in love with LaSalle "Sallie" Corbell. The two would be wed on November 13 and later had two children.

Pickett's Charge

During the Battle of Gettysburg, Pickett was initially tasked with guarding the army's lines of communication through Chambersburg, PA. As a result, it did not reach the battlefield until the evening of July 2. During the previous day's fighting, Lee had unsuccessfully assaulted the Union flanks south of Gettysburg.

For July 3, he planned an attack on the Union center. For this he requested that Longstreet assemble a force consisting of Pickett's fresh troops, as well as battered divisions from Lieutenant General A.P. Hill's corps.

Moving forward after a protracted artillery bombardment, Pickett rallied his men with the cry of, "Up, Men, and to your posts! Don't forget today that you are from Old Virginia!" Pushing across a wide field, his men neared the Union lines before being bloodily repulsed. In the fighting, all three of Pickett's brigade commanders were killed or wounded, with only Brigadier General Lewis Armistead's men actually piercing the Union line. With his division shattered, Pickett was inconsolable over the loss of his men. Falling back, Lee instructed Pickett to rally his division in case of a Union counterattack. To this order, Pickett is often quoted as replying "General Lee, I have no division."

Though the failed attack is more accurately known as Longstreet's Assault or the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Assault, it quickly earned the name "Pickett's Charge" in the Virginia newspapers as he was the only Virginian of high rank to take part. In the wake of Gettysburg, his career began a steady decline despite receiving no criticism from Lee regarding the attack. Following the Confederate withdrawal to Virginia, Pickett was re-assigned to lead the Department of Southern Virginia and North Carolina.

Later Career

In the spring, he was given command of a division in the Richmond defenses where he served under General P.G.T. Beauregard.

After seeing action during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, his men were assigned to support Lee during the Battle of Cold Harbor. Remaining with Lee's army, Pickett took part in the Siege of Petersburg that summer, fall, and winter. In late March, Pickett was tasked with holding the critical crossroads of Five Forks. On April 1, his men were defeated at the Battle of Five Forks, while he was two miles away enjoying a shad bake.

The loss at Five Forks effectively undermined the Confederate position at Petersburg, forcing Lee to retreat west. During the retreat to Appomattox, Lee may have issued orders relieving Pickett. Sources conflict on this point, but regardless Pickett remained with the army until its final surrender on April 9, 1865. Paroled with the rest of the army, he briefly fled to Canada only to return in 1866. Settling in Norfolk with his wife Sallie (married November 13, 1863), he worked as an insurance agent. As with many former US Army officers who had resigned and gone south, he had difficulty obtaining a pardon for his Confederate service during the war. This was finally issued on June 23, 1874. Pickett died on July 30, 1875, and was buried in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery.

 

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General George Pickett." ThoughtCo, Sep. 12, 2017, thoughtco.com/major-general-george-pickett-2360592. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, September 12). American Civil War: Major General George Pickett. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/major-general-george-pickett-2360592 Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General George Pickett." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/major-general-george-pickett-2360592 (accessed December 13, 2017).