George Pickett: Early Life and U.S. Military Career
George Pickett was born into a respected family in Richmond, Virginia, on January 25, 1825. After studying law in Illinois, he attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, graduating in 1846. Pickett was known as a jovial and likable cadet, but he was a poor student and finished last in his class of 59.
Pickett entered the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant and was quickly called into service during the Mexican-American War (1846-48). He would return from the war a hero after raising the American flag over a captured castle during the Battle of Chapultepec. Pickett next served on the Texas frontier, where he was promoted to captain. During this time he married Sally Harrison Minge, the great-great-grandniece of President William Henry Harrison. She and their baby died during childbirth in 1851.
Pickett would later serve in Washington Territory and in 1856 commanded the construction of a fort in Bellingham, Washington. While in Washington Pickett married his second wife, a Haida Indian named Morning Mist, but she would die during the birth of their son James in 1857. Two years later Pickett commanded a small complement of troops during an incident known as the Pig War, a border dispute in British Columbia that nearly led to a confrontation between American and British forces.
George Pickett: Civil War
Claiming loyalty to his home state, Pickett resigned from the army shortly after Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861. He travelled east to the Confederate capital of Richmond, where he secured an appointment as a colonel in command of defenses on the Lower Rappahannock River.
By 1862 Pickett had earned a promotion to a brigade command under General James Longstreet. He served with distinction during the Peninsula Campaign at the Battles of Williamsburg and Seven Pines. Pickett was severely wounded in the shoulder at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill in June 1862, and was unable to rejoin his men until September. He was promoted to major general the next month, and his division saw light duty at the Battle of Fredericksburg before taking part in the Suffolk Campaign in southeastern Virginia and eastern North Carolina in the spring of 1863. During this time Pickett began a romance with a Virginia woman named LaSalle “Sallie” Corbell, and the two would later marry in September 1863.
George Pickett: The Battle of Gettysburg
Pickett’s most famous Civil War action came at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863). Pickett’s forces arrived late to the battle, missing out on the first two days of heavy fighting. When General Robert E. Lee elected to mount an attack on the center of the Union lines on July 3, Pickett’s fresh division was selected to lead the offensive. Following a barrage of preliminary cannon fire, Pickett’s division advanced toward the Union high ground on Cemetery Ridge. The resulting charge proved a disaster, and Pickett’s men were forced to withdraw after being cut down by heavy cannon and musket fire.
Pickett’s division suffered staggering casualties during the attack, with nearly 50 percent of his men killed, captured or wounded, including all of his brigade commanders. When Lee later asked about the state of his division, a despondent Pickett is said to have answered, “General Lee, I have no division.”
While Pickett’s division was just one of three units involved in the offensive—the others were commanded by General J. Johnston Pettigrew and General Isaac Trimble—the attack at Gettysburg would come to be known as “Pickett’s Charge.” Its failure would follow Pickett for the rest of his career, and he would remain bitter about the loss until his death.
George Pickett: Later Civil War
After Gettysburg, Pickett was given a departmental command in North Carolina. In February 1864 he was ordered to capture New Bern, North Carolina, from Union forces, but his assault—which included coordinated attacks by both land and sea—failed to take the town. In the aftermath of the battle, Pickett ordered the hanging of 22 prisoners upon learning they were former Confederate troops who had shifted their allegiance to the Union. This action would result in an investigation for war crimes after the end of the Civil War.
Pickett returned to Virginia in April 1864 and served during the defense of Petersburg before reuniting with the Army of Northern Virginia for the Overland Campaign. His final major engagement at the Battle of Five Forks in April 1865 proved to be another disappointment. In a famous blunder, Pickett was separated from his division and having lunch with some fellow officers at the time of a Union attack. When he finally arrived on the field, his lines had been broken and his division was in disarray. The defeat at Five Forks prompted Lee to order a Confederate retreat and led in part to his surrender at Appomattox Court House days later on April 9, 1865.
George Pickett: Later Life
After the Confederate surrender Pickett was reunited with his wife and an infant son in Richmond, but the family fled to Canada upon learning that Pickett was being investigated for war crimes over the hangings in North Carolina. They returned to Virginia in 1866 after a letter of support from Union General Ulysses S. Grant—one of Pickett’s former classmates at West Point—ended the investigation.
Pickett went on to turn down several job offers, including an appointment in the Egyptian military, and chose to spend his later years as a farmer and insurance agent in Norfolk, Virginia. He died in 1875 at the age of 50. Pickett’s widow LaSalle Corbell Pickett would later become an enthusiastic biographer of her husband and gained minor fame as a lecturer and writer, although many of her claims about Pickett’s career have since been proven to be fabrications.