Date of Death: July 30, 1875
Location of Death: Norfolk, Virginia
Education: U.S. Military Academy at West Point – Class of 1846
Military Experience: Mexican War, Civil War
Major Battles: Battle of Chapultepec (Mexican War), Peninsula Campaign, Gaines’ Mill, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Five Forks
Awards/Medals/Promotions: Two brevet promotions during the Mexican War, first lieutenant and captain (1855), major CSA (June 25, 1861), colonel CSA (July 1861), brigadier general CSA (January 14, 1862), major general CSA (October 10, 1862)
George Edward Pickett was born in Richmond, Virginia on January 16, 1825. He was the oldest of eight children born to Robert and Mary Pickett who came from a long line of well known Virginians. Pickett would move to Springfield, Illinois, as a young man, to study law. He would be appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point when he was seventeen. While there were claims that Pickett was appointed by Abraham Lincoln, he was in fact appointed to West Point by John T. Stuart, a law partner of Lincoln.
Pickett obtained a rather unwanted reputation, while at West Point, that would nearly prevent him from graduating. Known as a prankster, the young cadet earned more than his share of demerits. He would eventually work off his demerits and would graduate last in his class of 1846 – a class that would include many well known Civil War general officers: Ambrose Powell “A.P.” Hill, John Gibbon, George B. McClellan, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and Jesse L. Reno.(ii)
After his graduation, Pickett would be appointed second lieutenant in the 8th U.S. Infantry. He would quickly be sent to the Mexican-American War where he would receive two brevet promotions for gallantry on the battlefield. At the Battle of Chapultepec, he would be given the U.S. flag by wounded friend, James Longstreet, and would receive much attention for carrying the colors over the wall and to the roof of the palace – all the while under fire. Over the next thirteen years, Pickett would serve on the frontier. In 1855, hewas promoted to first lieutenant and captain while serving with the 9th U.S. Infantry.(iii) His commands would take him from Texas to the Washington Territory.
While Pickett was not a supporter of slavery, he quickly cast his lot with the Confederate States of America, resigning from the United States Army on June 25, 1861. He would venture east, from Oregon, when Virginia seceded from the United States. Early in the war, he would be appointed colonel and would command the Rappahannock Line in the Department of Fredericksburg. His commander, Major General Theophilus Holmes would be instrumental in Pickett’s promotion to brigadier general on January 14, 1862.
Pickett’s Brigade was composed exclusively of Virginia regiments: 8th, 18th, 19th, 28th and 56th infantry regiments. Most of the regiments would receive their “baptism of fire” during the Peninsula Campaign. Pickett would also be leading his men into battle for the first time. They would see action at the battles of Williamsburg and Seven Pines (Fair Oaks). On June 27, at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, Pickett would be severely wounded and knocked off his horse, by a bullet to the shoulder. While he was certain he was mortally wounded, he would recuperate over the summer.(iv)
With his return to active duty, in the autumn of 1862, Pickett would receive promotion to major general. Now commanding a five brigade division, he would be present at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, but would see little action. His division would march to Suffolk, Virginia with Longstreet’s 1st Corps and would be engaged in the siege there from April 11 – May 4, 1863. They would be recalled to Spotsylvania County when CSA General Robert E. Lee engaged US Major General Joseph Hooker’s Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville from April 30 – May 6, 1863. They would not arrive in time for the battle, but would take part in Lee’s upcoming campaign.
In early June, 1863, Robert E. Lee set off from the Rappahannock Line. Marching west, through Orange and Rappahannock counties, they would enter the Shenandoah Valley. Lee used this valley to mask his movements, leaving Hooker largely blind to what his intentions were. In late June they would arrive near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Pushing east, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia would engage US Brigadier General John Buford’s Federal cavalry division just west of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 1. This would be the opening salvo of the three day Battle of Gettysburg. Longstreet would push two division towards Gettysburg, commanded by major generals Lafayette McLaws and John Bell Hood, arriving south of the city on the morning of July 2. Pickett’s Division would be left to guard the supply trains and lines of communication at Chambersburg. He would arrive on the evening of July 2, after the terrible struggle at Little Round Top, the Wheat Field and the Peach Orchard. With much of his army exhausted, Lee determined to strike the center of the Federal line on Cemetery Ridge on the third day. It was his assumption that the Union line at that position had to be weakened by sending reinforcements to each flank on July 2. Longstreet would be in overall command of the combined “strike force” which would include Pickett’s Division, and two divisions from Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s 3d Corps (J. Johnston Pettigrew and Isaac Trimble). Following a two hour artillery barrage, by Colonel Edward Porter Alexander’s artillery battalion, Pickettadmonished his division, “Up, men, and to your posts! Don’t forget today that you are from Old Virginia!”(v) His all Virginia division started their sanguinary march across the fields south of Gettysburg. All the time under severe artillery fire, the men were cut down in rows. While Brigadier General Lewis Armistead’s brigade was able to punch a hole through the Federal lines, he would receive no support from the other two brigades in Pickett’s division, commanded by brigadier general Richard Garnett and James Kemper. Armistead and Garnett would both be killed and Kemper would be wounded and captured. Pickett’s Division would suffer staggering losses at Gettysburg which included all thirteen of his regimental commanders. Often called the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy, the Battle of Gettysburg, and Pickett’s Charge in particular, certainly demonstrated the fighting élan of the boys from Virginia. After returning to the Confederate lines at Seminary Ridge, Lee ordered Pickett to rally his division – fearing a Federal counterattack. Allegedly, Pickett responded, “General Lee, I have no division.”(vi) Pickett was said to be inconsolable and regretted the loss of his men for the remainder of his life.
After the Battle of Gettysburg, he would be sent to command the Department of Southern Virginia and North Carolina. In the spring of 1864, with US Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant pushing Lee in the battles of the Overland Campaign, Pickett would be sent to command the defenses of Richmond. Under the command of General P.G.T. Beauregard, he would take part in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, effectively “bottling up” US Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James. In June 1864, his division would be sent to reinforce Lee at Cold Harbor. It would be positioned near the center of the Confederate line and would not see significant action.(vii)
Following Lee’s movement to Petersburg, in June 1864, Pickett’s division would be with Longstreet’s 1st Corps, primarily along the Bermuda Hundred front. By late March 1865, the situation became tenuous for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. After the Battle of Fort Stedman, on March 25, Lee was forced to bring Longstreet’s corps to the south edge of Petersburg. With Federal pressure mounting to take control of the railroads supplying Lee, he detached Pickett’s Division to protect his supply line – and his right flank. This would culminate in the Battle of Five Forks where Pickett’s division faced off against US Major General Phil Sheridan’s cavalry and the V Corps infantry. With only 5,000 troops to hold off the huge Federal force, Pickett quickly had his left flank overpowered and a pell-mell retreat towards the main Confederate lines followed. Unfortunately, Pickett was not on the field – he was at a shad bake several miles north of the battle and arrived too late to have any impact on the fighting. The loss at Five Forks made Lee’s lines at Petersburg untenable. He would be forced to retreat to Appomattox, where he surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865. Pickett would be removed of command, by Lee, after the Battle of Sailor’s Creek on April 6. There is some controversy regarding this order as Pickett was still signing official documents at “Major-Gen, Commd’g” as late at April 11 and was at Appomattox Court House when Lee surrendered.(viii)
Despite the terms of his parole, Pickett would flee to Canada after the war. He returned to Richmond in 1866 and worked as an insurance agent. Like so many other Confederate officers, especially those who graduated from West Point, Pickett had difficulty receiving amnesty. While President Grant supported pardoning Pickett, he would not receive his pardon until an Act of Congress passed on June 23, 1874 – one year before his death. General Pickett died in Norfolk, Virginia on July 30, 1875 and is buried at historic Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.
(i) There is some confusion about Pickett’s actual birth date. The open edit online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, lists his birth date as January 16, 25 o 28, 1825. FindAGrave.com has his birthday listed as January 16, 1825. Ezra J. Warner, in Generals in Gray, lists his birth date as January 28, 1825.
(ii) See West Point Class of 1846 on CivilWarHome.com
(iii) Eicher, John H. and Eicher, David J., Civil War High Commands, published by Stanford University Press in 2001, Pg. 428.
(iv) Tagg, Larry, The Generals of Gettysburg, published by Savas Publishing in 1998, Pg. 237.
(vi) Ibid, Pg. 240.