Just about everybody was fond of George Pickett, one of the most affable officers in the Army of Northern Virginia. He combined conviviality with a swashbuckling image. "Dapper," and "dashing," were the two words most frequently on the lips of witnesses; one spoke of his "marvelous pulchritude." Moxley Sorrel, Lieut. Gen. James Longstreet's aide, called him "a singular figure indeed!" He was medium-sized, slender and well-built, and carried himself gracefully and erect. He rode a sleek black charger, and wore a small blue cap, with buff gloves over the sleeves of his immaculately tailored uniform. He held an elegant riding crop whether he was riding or not, his boots were always polished, and his gold spurs were shiny, as were the double row of gold buttons on his coat-front. Pickett wore a mustache that drooped gracefully beyond the corners of his mouth and then turned upward at the ends, and his hair was a subject of conversation all by itself--"long ringlets flowed loosely over his shoulders, trimmed and highly perfumed, his beard likewise was curling and giving out the scent of Araby." Pickett's locks were the subject of a light moment on the march north to Gettysburg, when a female admirer asked General Robert E. Lee for a lock of his hair. He replied that he had none to spare . . . but suggested she ask Pickett. The joke produced plenty of laughter from the staff, but Pickett, who was present, was not amused.
Pickett came from an Old Virginia family, and was thus known, if not related, to everybody of importance east of Richmond. He went West to Springfield, Illinois to study law as a young man. When he was appointed to West Point from there, a lawyer named Abe Lincoln, who like everybody else took to the youngster, gave him some helpful bits of advice on his departure. At the Academy, Pickett's strengths and weaknesses were brought into relief. He was the class clown and was, of course, one of the most popular cadets, but he also showed evidence of a meager intellect and an aversion to hard work, and ended up graduating dead last in the Class of 1846.
Still, he had more than his share of glorious moments. Catapulted into the Mexican War within months of graduation, it was he who was the first to climb the parapet in the storming of the Chapultapec fortress, and, having taken the flag from the wounded James Longstreet, unfurled it over the castle with bullets whistling all around him, an exploit that made newspapers all over the country. Twelve years later, stationed in Puget Sound, he made news again and won the commendation of the government by providing the climactic moment of a territorial dispute called the "Pig War," this time by facing down a British force of three warships and one thousand men while commanding an American garrison of just sixty-eight. "We'll make a Bunker Hill of it," were his defiant words, reprinted nationwide for an admiring public. While there, he also performed outstanding service to the Indians. He learned their language, translated the Lord's Prayer and several hymns, and became a teacher to them; they called him "Great Chief."
Naturally, he went with Virginia after Fort Sumter. He had to return cross-country from Oregon, and thus missed the Battle of First Manassas. Made colonel and assigned to the defense of the lower Rappahannock in September 1861, he showed energy and attracted the attention of his superior, Maj. Gen. T.H. Holmes. Probably through the efforts of Holmes, he was commissioned brigadier general in February 1862. Later that same month he was given a brigade made leaderless after Brig. Gen. Philip Cocke, its fifty-two year old general, left his command on sick leave the previous fall, grew despondent, and put a pistol ball through his temple the day after Christmas. Pickett led his new regiments to the Peninsula in the spring of 1862, and they earned the nickname "The Game Cock Brigade" in fighting at Williamsburg, Seven Pines, and Gaines' Mill (this brigade would be Garnett's at Gettysburg). At Gaines' Mill, Pickett was knocked off his horse by a bullet in the shoulder, just before the charge that carried the day. Though the wound would add to his military mystique, the episode was actually less than heroic: Pickett was found by staff officer John Haskell soon afterward in a hollow "bewailing himself," crying out for litter bearers because he was mortally wounded. Haskell examined the wound, saw it was not critical, and rode away, since, he said, Pickett was "perfectly able to take care of himself."
Pickett mended slowly however, taking three months to return to the army. (The arm would still be stiff the next summer at Gettysburg.) When he reported for duty, in late September 1862, he received a windfall promotion to major general, due almost entirely to the influence of then-Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, his corps commander and big brother in spirit--in addition to old Mexican War ties, their friendship had been cemented by Pickett's kindness upon the death of Longstreet's children the previous winter. Pickett received command of a division of two brigades in Longstreet's corps in the fall of 1862, but would have little chance to show what he could do with it until Gettysburg. At Fredericksburg, the division was only lightly engaged, not one man was killed. At Chancellorsville, Pickett wasn't present--his division had been detached, along with two others under Longstreet, to the uneventful Suffolk Campaign in southeastern Virginia.
By the time of Gettysburg, Pickett must have been itching for a chance to prove himself as a division commander. He was still receiving a sort of solicitous attention from Longstreet. Moxley Sorrel told how "taking Longstreet's orders in emergencies, I could always see how he looked after Pickett, and made us give him things very fully; indeed, sometimes stay with him to make sure he did not get astray." Sorrel himself didn't have a very high regard for Pickett, characterizing him sarcastically as a "good brigadier" long after he had graduated to major general. Sorrel also had little patience with Pickett's active love life: Pickett at age thirty-eight was a widower who was head-over-heels in love with a teenage Virginia girl, and in the Suffolk campaign had "commuted" back and forth between his fiancee and the front, which provoked Sorrel to conclude, "I don't think his division benefited by such carpet-knight doings in the field."
Though he was a career soldier and had been a division commander for ten months, in the summer of 1863 Pickett had never led his division in battle. However personally well-liked, it was largely the opinion of the other officers that he owed his high rank to the patronage of Longstreet and not native ability.
| On July 1, Pickett's division was at Chambersburg, detached from the
other two divisions of Longstreet's corps, which were at Greenwood, about seven
miles to the east. All three were waiting to march over South Mountain toward
the battle raging at Gettysburg about 20 miles away. Pickett's division,
guarding the army's rear, was ordered to remain in Chambersburg until relieved
by Imboden's tardy cavalry brigade, and it wasn't until that night that Pickett
received orders to move toward Gettysburg.|
Pickett's men got a late start, and made much of their march during the hot daylight hours of July 2, arriving exhausted about three or four miles east of Gettysburg late in the afternoon. Although Pickett reported to Lee that the men would be ready to pitch into the fighting that evening if given a couple of hours rest, Lee sent back word to go into camp--they wouldn't be used that day.
Pickett and his men rested in their bivouac on the Chambersburg Pike until the morning of July 3. Although Lee intended an attack early that morning, the balky Longstreet waited to issue marching orders to Pickett until 3:30 A.M., making Lee's dawn attack impossible. Lee made a new plan, wherein Pickett's three fresh Virginia brigades, plus all four of Heth's brigades, two of Pender's and two of Anderson's, would assault the middle of the Union line. The focus would be a Clump of Trees on Cemetery Ridge where the Rebel army had nearly made a breakthrough at the end of the previous day's fighting. This plan was put into execution, and would become one of the most famous assaults in the history of warfare--known forever as "Pickett's Charge."
After daylight, Pickett led his division forward to a spot "into a field near a branch," probably Pitzer's Run, a few hundred yards behind the main Confederate line on Seminary Ridge. The men fell out and relaxed in the morning air for about twenty minutes. Then they formed battle lines and advanced east a few hundred yards before they were ordered to lie down. They advanced again through Spangler's woods and lay down again behind another crest, on which Confederate artillery were perched. Pickett's division would form the right wing of the afternoon's assault. Pickett drew up his men in two lines, with Kemper and Garnett in the first line, right to left, and Armistead behind. Pickett at this time was "cheerful and sanguine," according to artilleryman Col. Porter Alexander, and in fact "thought himself in luck to have the chance." Another colonel remembered Pickett "in excellent spirits," expressing great confidence in the Confederates ability to "drive" the Yankees after the artillery had demoralized them.
About 1 o'clock in the afternoon the Confederate artillery began their bombardment of the Union line where the assault would be directed. About 150 guns opened up at once--the biggest artillery barrage in the history of the North American continent--and thundered with bone-jarring ferocity for nearly two hours. Pickett made a dangerous ride along the lines with answering Union shells bursting and cannonballs whistling all around him.
Just before 3 o'clock, while he was writing a letter to "Sally" Corbell, his fiancée, a note came to Pickett from Alexander: "For God's sake, come quick, or we cannot support you. Ammunition nearly out." Pickett read the note, then took it to Longstreet. "General, shall I advance?" he asked. Longstreet, with no confidence in the attack, could not speak, but merely nodded. Pickett saluted and said, "I shall lead my division forward, sir," and galloped over to his waiting division. Pickett's men rose to their feet and Pickett made "a brief, animated address," as Confederate generals were expected to do, ending with "Charge the enemy, and remember old Virginia!"
Pickett began his advance from the bottom of a swale, but within five minutes came to the top of a low rise where the whole line came into view of the Yankees. According to everyone present on both sides, the Rebels' perfect order and steady advance gave a sense of overwhelming power--"beautiful, gloriously beautiful," wrote one Yankee--and made one of the grandest spectacles in the annals of warfare. Pickett himself was by all accounts alert and active during the entire short affair. He sent aides in all directions. He was seen galloping to the left to steady the men there, and one aide remembered him personally ordering the division to double-quick at the end of the advance. But Pickett's whereabouts during the latter stages of the assault which bears his name is a mystery. He probably halted at the Codori farm, a couple of hundred yards behind the farthest advance (exactly where he should have been as a division leader, exercising command from a position where he could observe the situation). It probably took twenty minutes in all for the Confederate host to cross the shallow valley and hit the stone fence behind which the Federals crouched. After another fifteen minutes or so, though they breached the Federal line on the ridge at the Clump of Trees for a few precious minutes, the assault ended in a monumentally tragic loss of life and the annihilation of Pickett's division. Two-thirds of the division lay crumpled on the field or languished as prisoners. Pickett was the one who finally called retreat, according to Longstreet.
The heaps of Confederate dead left after the ill-considered assault could be seen as the price Lee and the Rebel army paid for their arrogance after a year of smashing, odds-defying victories over the Army of the Potomac. Immediately afterward, Pickett was seen in tears. When Lee asked him to reform his division to repulse a possible counterattack, he replied, "I have no division now." He became embittered, and blamed Lee for the "massacre" of his brave Virginians. For their part, there was no hint from Longstreet nor Lee that Pickett had performed less than correctly--he kept his command until near the end of the war, though he never rose further.
For further reading:
Gordon, Lesley J. "The Seeds of Disaster: The Generalship of George E. Pickett After Gettysburg." in Leadership and Command in the American Civil War, Campbell, CA, 1996
Longacre, Edward G. Pickett, Leader of the Charge: A Biography of General George E. Pickett, C.S.A.. 1995
Patterson, Gerald A. "George E. Pickett." Civil War Times Illustrated 5, May 1966
Pickett, George E. The Heart of a Soldier: As Revealed in the Intimate Letters of General George E. Pickett, C.S.A.. New York, 1913
Pickett, LaSalle C. Pickett and his Men. Philadelphia, 1913
Selcer, Richard F. "George Pickett: Another Look." Civil War Times Illustrated 33, Jul/Aug 1994
Stewart, George. Pickett's Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863. Boston, 1959