Major General George E. Pickett is widely recognized because of his association with a single event. On the sultry afternoon of July 3, 1863, his Virginia division made up slightly more than a third of the column that mounted the most famous assault in American history. Known ever after as “Pickett’s Charge,” the attack was a spectacular failure that nonetheless quickly became synonymous with unflinching courage in the face of certain doom.
Pickett himself has come down through history wrapped in the cloak of a romantic warrior adrift in a war that was increasingly dominated by hard-eyed soldiers such as Ulysses S. Grant. Much of the credit for this image is due to LaSalle Corbell Pickett, who married Pickett as a teenager in 1863 and carefully tended his reputation for the rest of her long life. Mrs. Pickett invented stories about her husband, altered or fabricated letters that she published as his correspondence to her, and otherwise sought to obscure the fact that his wartime career only occasionally ascended to the level of mediocrity. Forced to rely on Mrs. Pickett’s highly suspect versions of her husband’s private letters, most historians have concluded that little could be done with Pickett beyond chronicling his military career.
Edward G. Longacre undertook his scholarly biography of Pickett aware that “obstacles of unusual size and number strew the path of the writer wishing to locate the man beneath the glibness and the glitter.” Working in widely scattered manuscripts and a variety of published sources, Longacre found Pickett more complex than “the shallow and simplistic” man described by many Confederates. Indeed, Longacre’s preface speaks of “a man who could converse intelligently, even astutely, on political, social, and economic topics; who could translate works of literature into a Native American tongue; and who could insert French andLatin passages into his personal correspondence.” Longacre concedes that Pickett’s lounging at a shad bake as Federal forces launched an attack on his troops at Five Forks, Virginia, was reprehensible, but lauds his efforts at Williamsburg, Seven Pines, and Gaines’ Mill in 1862 and at Petersburg in 1864. More important, he suggests that Pickett likely realized the assault at Gettysburg would fail, but feigned confidence in part to keep his men’s morale high. Overall, Longacre seeks to revise significantly the usual portrait of Pickett.
The book’s text unfortunately does not support many of Longacre’s revisionist generalizations. Describing Pickett as “a class clown” at West Point, Longacre provides scant evidence that anything but meager intellect and aversion to hard work landed the Virginian at the bottom of the famous class of 1846. Readers will search the text in vain for evidence of thoughtful observations from Pickett about politics, economics, or any other substantive subject. What did Pickett think about slavery, the sectional crisis, and other leading issues of the time? Except for LaSalle Pickett’s obviously tainted postwar testimony, the narrative is silent.
The book highlights–perhaps unintentionally–how meager a record Pickett compiled as a Confederate general. A competent brigadier at Williamsburg, Seven Pines, and Gaines’ Mill, he saw no further significant action until Gettysburg, where he collapsed mentally in the wake of the assault on July 3. He faltered again in his next crucial test, at Petersburg in May 1864, suffering what Longacre describes as “something akin to a nervous breakdown.” Sick for much of the rest of 1864, Pickett last held the limelight at Five Forks, a debacle for which he richly deserved harsh criticism. Longacre suggests, “There are a number of possible explanations for Pickett’s non-selection” as commander of the First Corps after Lieutenant General JamesLongstreet was wounded in the Wilderness on May 6, 1864. In fact, the only reasonable explanation would seem to be that Lee fully understood that little in Pickett’s record indicated competence at the division level, much less potential for success at higher levels.
Although marred by virtually unreadable maps and occasional errors (for example, Grant did not marry an Indian woman while stationed in Oregon before the Civil War, and Gettysburg was not a “rail hub” in 1863), Longacre’s narration of Pickett’s career as a United States and Confederate soldier generally is dependable. Readers hoping for more than a sound chronology, however, will likely be disappointed. A marginal figure in terms of his impact on Confederate military fortunes, Pickett emerges as a man of limited intellectual capacity who could be personally brave, but lacked the requisite moral courage to succeed as ageneral officer. Most disappointing, the private Pickett never comes into focus because of the paucity of his own testimony.
Pickett certainly deserves examination as a symbol of Confederate valor. Why have so many people embraced this deeply flawed officer as representing much that they find admirable? The sources exist for this type of study. But until researchers gain access to better primary source material about Pickett, the private man will remain elusive.
Gary W. Gallagher Pennsylvania State University