One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 12, Number 11
November 2004

I once read a comment by some famous author years ago to the effect that every Southern boy at some point in his life dreams of that summer afternoon of July 3, 1863, not long after one o’clock when he, too, might have stood on Seminary Ridge with General Pickett and his men as they prepared to make the most famous charge in American military history. I can’t truthfully say that I ever experienced those sentiments, but from my formative years of growing up in the heartland of Virginia, I have always had a fondness for Pickett and his men.

I think the emotional attachment originated in the summer of 1942 during the first year of WWII when my father and I listened one afternoon to radio station WRVA in Richmond broadcast the ceremonies that officially opened Fort Pickett as a new army base in Southside Virginia. As the band played such martial airs “Stars and Stripes Forever” and “Dixie” in the background, the sonorous announcer eloquently repeated General Pickett’s immortal exhortation to his troops: “Up, men, and to your posts! Don’t forget today that you are from Old Virginia!” As a young boy caught up in the enthusiasm and patriotism of the first year of WWII, Pickett’s inspirational words were like an intoxicant to me. My excitement and pride were further heightened when my father reminded me that my grandfather, great-grandfather, great-uncle, all from the same household, had all served in General Pickett’s division.

While my passions about the War for Southern Independence have not diminished over the years, my infatuation and enthusiasm for General Pickett have waned considerably. I suspect that there would be little, if any, advocacy in Virginia today to honor the man by naming an army installation after him. In my opinion, he probably belongs in that great crowd of mediocre leaders in every army or organization who, following the Peter Principle, rise to the level of their incompetence. For example, A. P. Hill, Dick Ewell, and John Hood were very good division commanders, but in over their heads when it came to commanding a corps. Similarly, Pickett was a very good and gallant brigade commander. Unfortunately for him and the Army of Northern Virginia, necessity required him to command a division.

Irony of ironies, George Edward Pickett achieved everlasting fame because of his failed charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. (It’s like saying—”I won because I lost!”) The defeat created a romantic image that has obscured his real personality and abilities.

Born in 1825 in Richmond, Pickett entered West Point in 1842. His flamboyant style and undisciplined life clashed with the rigid standards at the academy, and he sank to the bottom of the fifty-nine-member class that graduated in 1846. He served courageously in the Mexican War, and afterwards was assigned to duty on the Texas frontier and Washington territory before entering the Confederate Army as a major of artillery in June of 1861.

Pickett was promoted to brigadier general and given command of a Virginia brigade in February of 1862, fought skillfully at Williamsburg in May, and was wounded at Gaines’s Mill on June 27. He missed both Second Manassas and Sharpsburg while convalescing at home from his wound. Returning to service in the fall of 1862, he was commissioned as major general and given command of a division in the re-organization of the Army of Northern Virginia following the heavy casualties sustained during the latter half of 1862. His men saw little action at Fredericksburg in December, and in the spring of &8217;63 his and Hood’s division were detached with Longstreet to Southeast Virginia and missed the action at Chancellorsville.

Pickett’s Division rejoined Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in Longstreet’s 1st Corps as it moved north into Pennsylvania in June of 1863. Pickett himself was something of a latecomer to battle-leading. Having been wounded at Gaines’s Mill, he had not sustained any action since, and the Pennsylvania campaign would mark his first serious test in divisional command. He was a ptotégé of Longstreet’s, and widely celebrated in the army for his long and heavily perfumed ringlets.

Bringing up the rear of Lee’s army. Pickett and his men arrived on the slopes of Seminary Ridge early on the morning of the third day at Gettysburg on July 3rd. That afternoon some 6,000 Virginians in Pickett’s brigades of Kemper, Garnett, and Armistead along with about 7,000 men from Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s divisions led the assault against the Federal II Corps positions on Cemetery Ridge. Although six of the nine brigades selected to lead the attack were from A. P. Hill’s Third Corps, Pickett’s fresh division formed the core of the spearhead from the beginning, and the assault, which was directed by Longstreet would come to be universally known as “Pickett’s Charge,” rather than the “Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge,” or “Longstreet’s Charge,” or some other appropriate name.

Great controversy ensued for many years after the war among the veterans themselves as well as historians who felt that the Virginians had fashioned a glorified image of the battle and Pickett’s heroic rule in the neglect and denigration of the North Carolinians and others who made up a majority of the assault force. However, the validity of the Virginia version remains largely intact as most accounts now credit Pickett’s men as being the only organized command to break the Union line, albeit only temporarily.

The division suffered extremely high casualties on July 3rd. Over 2,800 men, or about 42 percent of Pickett’s force, did not return to Virginia, including 60 percent of its officers. The losses were devastating: Generals Garnett and Armistead were killed, General Kemper was wounded and captured, and nine colonels were killed, seven were wounded, and three were wounded and/or captured.

Included on the casualty list was Colonel Henry Gantt of Scottsville who was badly wounded leading the 19th Virginia Infantry Regiment, the largest regiment in Garnett’s Brigade with 426 men. The unit was composed mostly of men from Albemarle County, and had 40 killed, 44 wounded, 49 wounded and captured, and 35 captured, for a total of 168, or a casualty rate of about 40 percent. Colonel John Bowie Magruder’s 57th Virginia of Armistead’s Brigade, also composed of many men from the local community, suffered even more with a casualty rate approaching 50 percent. Magruder, who lived at Keswick, was mortally wounded at the high water mark of the Confederacy’s attack on Cemetery Ridge. Subsequently, an ancestor of mine, Major Clement R. Fontaine, then became regimental commander of the 57th.

Pickett was emotionally distraught and devastated by the losses incurred by his division during the Gettysburg debacle, and not even the consoling words from General Lee””General Pickett, your men have done all that men could do; the fault is entirely my own””could overcome his melancholia. Neither he nor his Division was ever the same again, and for the next year and a half, he was essentially a garrison general.

After returning to Virginia, the remnants of the division were detached from the Army of Northern Virginia to the Richmond area early in September for the purpose of recruiting and refitting. Later that fall, the division moved to Eastern North Carolina and was engaged in several actions until March of 1864 when it returned again to the vicinity of Petersburg and Richmond. During the winter of 1863–64, my grandfather, then age 19, transferred into the 57th Virginia and became a member of the division as Pickett led it on the abortive North Carolina campaign.

Pickett’s men helped to repulse the enemy’s advance up the James River in May 1864, and held the Bermuda Hundred line until March 1865. In late March with the Petersburg campaign winding down, Lee pulled Pickett’s division out of the Howlett Line and rushed it westward to the crucial road juncture of Five Forks with orders to “hold at all hazards.” Pickett and the remnants of his once-proud division were not up to the job, and while the general along with Fitz Lee joined Tom Rosser for a shad bake two miles away, Seridan’s Federals routed the Confederates on April 1.

What was left of Pickett’s once-proud Virginia division dissolved a few days later at Sailor’s Creek. Believing that his division was essentially destroyed, Lee is believed to have sent an order relieving him of his duties, but Pickett evidently did not receive the order, and continued riding at the head of his Five Forks and Sailor’s Creek survivors. Seeing Pickett ride by on the eve of surrender, Lee, who always referred to an officer by his name and rank, is reported to have commented coldly: “Is that man still with this army?”

Lee and Pickett met one more time in Richmond, in the spring of 1870, just prior to Lee’s departure on his Southern trip, when Colonel John S. Mosby brought Pickett to Lee’s hotel room. According to Mosby, Lee received the general with his full reserve, a reserve that could be icy but civil, and coupled with perfect courtesy. There was obvious unpleasantness, and an uncomfortable feeling between the two men, and the meeting was short. As the two visitors walked back down the hall, Pickett’s long-held resentment burst out bitterly against Lee, calling him “that old man,” and saying, “He had my division massacred at Gettysburg.” “Well,” Mosby replied in an immortal rejoinder, “it made you immortal.”

Part of Pickett’s problems late in the war was his obeisant attachment to his sixteen-year-old bride, LaSalle Corbell, whom he married on September 15, 1863. Pickett constantly applied for leave, and when refused, he abandoned his command responsibilities and simply sneaked into Richmond to see her. His fellow generals and staff chided him for his maudlin behavior and frequent absences when his presence was desperately needed.

Briefly fleeing to Canada after the war, he returned to Virginia and sold life insurance in Richmond. He died in Norfolk in 1875 at age 50, and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond near many of his men who fell in his immortal charge at Gettysburg. Although immortalized for his failure, no less than Abraham Lincoln perhaps put the entire issue into perspective when he was asked to comment on the valor of the Union men who defended the heights at Cemetery Ridge: “Yes,” Lincoln replied, “but think of the men who stormed these heights.”