It is one of the greatest ironies in a war not lacking in irony. The most famous single action of the Civil War, the doomed Confederate attack on the Union center on the third day at Gettysburg, now bears the name of an obscure divisional commander who did not lead the charge, whose corps commander did not approve of the charge, and whose men did not make up the majority of those who ultimately did make the charge.
In fact, had Maj. Gen. George Pickett not been the last Confederate general to arrive on the field at Gettysburg, his name would have remained as little known as, say, Colonel Lucius J. Gartrell. Instead, it has become synonymous with all the romance and futility of the South's "Lost Cause."
The 38-year-old Pickett at least looked the part of the gallant cavalier, with long, dark hair cascading in ringlets over his collar, a dandy's pointed beard, polished boots and riding crop, and a brand-new, blue-trimmed Confederate uniform. Nor was his personal bravery in question; he had won plaudits for his actions as a young lieutenant in the Mexican War, stood up to the English at Puget Sound, and battled Indians on the frontier. Still, having graduated dead last in his class at West Point, he was no military genius.
On the afternoon of July 3, 1863, Pickett galloped over to Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, his corps commander and personal friend, on Seminary Ridge. "General, shall I advance?" he asked. Longstreet was too overcome by emotion to speak; he nodded his head. "I am going to move forward, sir," said Pickett.
In 30 minutes, it was all over. Pickett's division, along with the six other Confederate brigades making the charge, had been shot to pieces. Of Robert E. Lee, who had ordered the charge, Pickett later said, with some justification, "That old man slaughtered my division."
The HistoryNet.com is brought to you by Weider History, the world's largest publisher of history magazines. HistoryNet.com contains daily features, photo galleries and over 5,000 articles originally published in our various magazines.
If you are interested in a specific history subject, try searching our archives, you are bound to find something to pique your interest.