Book Review: General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend (by Lesley J. Gordon): CWT

8/12/2001 • George Pickett, Mag: Civil War Times Reviews

General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend, by Lesley J. Gordon, University of North Carolina Press, P.O. Box 2288, Chapel Hill, NC 27515, 269 pages, $29.95.

George E. Pickett is a demanding subject for a biographer. He left behind few personal papers, and his published letters are of doubtful authenticity. His wife LaSalle Corbell Pickett successfully recast her husband’s life into a Victorian melodrama that has encrusted the inner layers of myth for more than a century. The legend of George Pickett has come to far outweigh the known facts about his life.

Pickett has received much attention from Civil War historians, but Lesley Gordon has written a fascinating and original study of Pickett’s “life and legend” by fashioning a dual biography of George and LaSalle Pickett. Given LaSalle’s central importance in creating so much of what we think we know about George, this approach is perfect for the subject and is no mere pandering to the current academic fascination with gender. Besides, Gordon recognizes that for much of Pickett’s life, his real family was the army, and she carefully recounts his military career.

Born into a planter family on January 25, 1825, George Pickett could never quite live up to the ideal of the Southern gentleman. Lazy and often thoughtless as a young man, his life lacked direction until his appointment to West Point. Even there, a mountain of demerits and his lackadaisical attitude toward study put him dead last in his graduating class. To cite just one of the interesting facts Gordon unearthed, Pickett apparently never checked out a single library book while at West Point! Unfortunately, little is known about how West Point shaped the development of Pickett’s character.

Even for Pickett’s military career, the documentation is surprisingly sparse. Sometimes, this forces Gordon to tell us a lot more about Pickett’s times than his life. She argues, for example, that experience in the Mexican War taught him that frontal assaults work, but the point is difficult to prove. Her approach, however, has far more advantages than drawbacks, and throughout the book, she makes up for gaps in the biographical material by quoting effectively from men who served with Pickett.

Gordon’s handling of evidence is sure-footed and creative. For instance, Pickett’s first wife was a Virginia planter’s daughter who died in childbirth at a desolate Texas outpost, but even such basic details are elusive. Pickett’s second wife was supposedly an Indian princess he met while serving at Fort Bellingham, Washington. It is impossible to verify whether a marriage took place, but Gordon carefully sifts through some tantalizing scraps concerning a son produced by this union.

Though a political moderate, Pickett left the United States army to serve in the Confederate army. In one of the few dubious claims made in this book, Gordon asserts that Pickett had spent a lifetime “challenging the social boundaries of white slaveholding culture” and ironically was now “defending them in armed conflict.” This conclusion, however, rests on evidence about Pickett’s personal life that Gordon admits is thin. Gordon is much more effective at analyzing George and LaSalle’s wartime courtship and marriage in the context of Southern social conventions.

The treatment of Pickett’s Confederate service pulls no punches. With a weakness for the bottle and prone to gain weight, Pickett deteriorated physically and emotionally through the course of the war. Although his early record was fairly solid, his friendship with James Longstreet contributed more to his advancement than his military prowess did. According to Gordon, Lee never gave Pickett the discretion he allowed other division commanders. During the siege of Suffolk, Virginia, Pickett was noticeably absent at night, courting LaSalle. Perhaps, as Gordon argues, LaSalle was replacing the army as Pickett’s “family.”

Of course it was the misnamed Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg that immortalized this mediocre general. Gordon nimbly steps through the minefields of contradictory evidence, postwar distortions, and special pleading to delineate just how little we know about what Pickett did on that infamous July day. There can be no doubt, however, that Gettysburg was a shattering experience for Pickett. LaSalle and George married in the fall of 1863, but Pickett’s troubles continued. A controversial execution of “deserters,” a less than triumphal return to the Army of Northern Virginia, and his lackluster performance at Five Forks led Lee to relieve him from command.

Fleeing to Canada to avoid possible arrest as a war criminal, Pickett eventually returned to Virginia with some help from Ulysses S.Grant. There he sold insurance and in 1875 died suddenly at the age of 50. An estimated 40,000 people attended the burial ceremony at Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, and the Pickett legend was born. LaSalle spent the next half-century and more refashioning the story of her husband and their marriage. In lectures and various writings that emphasized both sentiment and sectional reconciliation, she made both of them part of a plantation romance and a Lost Cause epic that had wide popular appeal. Toward the end of her life, Gordon maintains, LaSalle could no longer separate fact from fiction even in her own mind. But this book will help the reader do just that. Gordon has a marvelously moving story to tell, and tells it very well.

George C. Rable
University of Alabama