Book Review: General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend

By B. Keith Toney
8/11/2001 • Civil War 1863, George Pickett, Mag: America's Civil War Reviews, Picketts Charge

General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend, by Lesley J. Gordon, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, $29.95.

At 3 o’clock in the afternoon of July 3, 1863, some 12,000 men of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia started across nearly one mile of open farmland in southern Pennsylvania. Fifty minutes later, the failed Confederate assault was over, and within days the most recognized military action in American history had a name–Pickett’s Charge.

But what of the man whose name is associated with this grand exercise in futility? Who was George Pickett, and how did he come to be one of the most recognizable individuals–at least by name–of the Civil War? These are the questions Lesley J. Gordon seeks to answer in General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend.

Tracing Pickett’s life from his birth into one of the most prominent families of Virginia to his death in Norfolk in 1875 at the relatively young age of 50, Gordon reveals how a basically unremarkable man came to be seen as a great hero of the South. Other historians and biographers have noted the influence Pickett’s wife, LaSalle, had on creating the legend of the general, but Gordon provides perhaps the fullest picture, at least to date, of the machinations involved in crafting the image of Pickett as a great warrior.

The book also details the facts of George’s early life, debunking many of the myths that have arisen and persisted in the years since his death. For instance, Gordon provides a clear-cut answer to the question of whether Pickett took an Indian wife and fathered a child by her during his term of service in the Pacific Northwest.

Gordon also explains Pickett’s role in the so-called Pig War, a territorial dispute between the United States and England over San Juan Island that threatened to escalate into a shooting war between the two nations. According to the popular legend, Pickett’s level-headedness and mastery of international diplomacy defused the crisis. The facts, however, as detailed by Gordon, are somewhat different.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book is the view it provides of Pickett through the eyes of his contemporaries. Gordon also examines Pickett’s varied relationships with women. There can be little doubt that he was a romantic at heart, but was he also, as some claimed, a coward? Was he as dimwitted and happy-go-lucky as some portrayed him, or was he a tragic figure? In the final analysis, he was simply a man, flawed as all men are, and doing his best to overcome his failings.

Another facet of the book that will ap-peal to many is its attention to the role of women and their relationships with men in the 19th century. That such issues are covered here should come as no surprise to anyone who knows Gordon’s reputation as a leading historian. But despite an occasional digression, the book remains faithful to its subject–George Pickett–and the other aspects are discussed in their proper context without becoming intrusive.

General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend is well-written and exhaustively researched and documented. Gordon’s work certainly deserves a read by anyone wanting to know more about one of the most recognizable military figures in American history.

B. Keith Toney