A prominent Confederate commander during the American Civil War, George Edward Pickett is most remembered for leading a failed assault at Cemetery Ridge during the Battle of Gettysburg, for which he bore little responsibility.
Historians disagree on the date of George Edward Pickett’s birth. Baptismal records show that he was born on January 16, 1825, in Richmond, Virginia. Other accounts have Pickett’s date of birth as January 25 or January 28. Whatever the correct date, Pickett was born in Richmond and raised on his prominent Virginia family’s plantation, Turkey Hill, in Henrico County. He was the first of eight children born to Robert and Mary Pickett.
Pickett received his early education at private academies in the Richmond area. Later, he studied law in Springfield, Illinois. While living there, Congressman John T. Stuart (Abraham Lincoln’s law partner and a friend of Pickett’s uncle, Andrew Johnston) nominated Pickett for an appointment to the United States Military Academy in 1841.
U.S. Military Officer
After graduating last in his class at West Point in 1846, Pickett became a brevet second lieutenant and joined the 8th U.S. Infantry on July 1, 1846. He soon transferred to the 2nd U.S. Infantry and earned the full rank of second lieutenant on March 3, 1847.
Pickett quickly found opportunities to distinguish himself on the battlefield during the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). He received a brevet promotion to first lieutenant on August 20, 1847, “for gallant and meritorious conduct” in the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco. On September 13, 1847, officials brevetted Pickett to captain on for climbing a 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.
After the Mexican-American War, Pickett served for thirteen years in the American West. In 1849, officials promoted him to the rank of first lieutenant. On January 28, 1851,
Marriages and Personal Tragedies
Pickett married Sally Harrison Steward Minge of Richmond Virginia. Within the year, she died during childbirth at Ft. Gates, Texas on November 13, 1851. After being transferred to Fort Bellingham in the Washington Territory, Pickett attained the rank of captain in 1855. The next year, he married, a Haida Indian woman, possibly named Sâkis Tiigang, meaning “Morning Mist.” Adding to Pickett’s personal tragedy, his second wife died, after giving birth to their son James Tilton Pickett, in 1857.
After the outbreak of the American Civil War, Pickett accepted a position as a major in the Confederate Army on March 16, 1861, although he did not resign his United States Army commission until June 25. Less than one year later, Pickett received a promotion to the rank of brigadier-general on January 14, 1862. He took part in the battles of Williamsburg (May 5, 1862), Seven Pines (May 31–June 1, 1862), and Gaines’ Mill (June 27, 1862). During the latter engagement, Pickett was severely wounded and left combat for the rest of the summer. He returned to the field in the autumn of 1862, winning promotion to major general on October 10. Pickett was present at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862), but his division stood in reserve.
Pickett was not present for the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863). Instead, his division was with Major General James Longstreet, investing the Union garrison at Suffolk, Virginia near the Atlantic Coast (April 11–May 4, 1863). While serving there, Pickett met his third wife, Sallie Ann (LaSalle) Corbell. The couple married on September 15, 1863, shortly after the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863), in which Pickett played a prominent role.
Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg
At Gettysburg, Confederate General Robert E. Lee chose Picket as one of three division commanders to lead an assault on Union forces entrenched on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863. Later known as Pickett’s Charge, the frontal assault was a disaster that was a pivotal event during the battle, resulting in Union victory.
Service in North Carolina
Following Gettysburg, Pickett’s career and subsequent reputation declined. On September 23, 1863, he received command of the Department of North Carolina. In February 1864, he led an unsuccessful attempt to wrest New Bern, North Carolina from Union control. During the same month, he ordered twenty-two Union prisoners hanged for treason, after discovering they were former Confederate soldiers who had switched sides.
Surrender at Appomattox Court House
In May 1864, Pickett rejoined the Army of Northern Virginia in time for the Petersburg Campaign. On April 1, 1865, while Pickett was away from his troops attending a shad bake, Union forces attacked and defeated his division at the Battle of Five Forks, prompting General Lee to order the evacuation of Richmond and to retreat towards Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Although the evidence is inconclusive, some historians claim that Lee relieved Pickett of his command on April 6, 1865. If Lee did relieve Pickett, apparently Pickett was unaware of it, as he took part in the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.
Following the Civil War, Pickett fled briefly to Canada, in fear of reprisal for the hanging of the Union prisoners in 1864. When Ulysses Grant announced that he would not press charges, Picket returned to Norfolk, Virginia in 1866 to farm and to work as an insurance agent. It was not until June 23, 1874 that Congress passed legislation granting Picket a pardon for his role in the war.
Pickett died in Norfolk, Virginia, on July 30, 1875, at the age of fifty. His remains are buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.