Lee vs. Pickett: Two Divided By War, by Dr. Richard F. Selcer, Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, Pa., 1998, $12.95.
If you were to stand on a busy street corner and ask the people walking by to name one incident from the American Civil War, the response would likely be “Pickett’s Charge.” The person answering might not remember the outcome of the ill-fated assault on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, nor even who Maj. Gen. George Pickett was, but the phrase “Pickett’s Charge” reverberates with an air of familiarity.
Now change your polling audience to a group more knowledgeable about the war, such as a Civil War roundtable, and ask what would be the one quote that best sums up the relationship between Robert E. Lee and George Pickett. The odds-on favorite would be Pickett’s comment to Colonel John S. Mosby after the two former Confederate officers had visited Lee in 1870, just a few months before Lee’s death. “That old man butchered my division at Gettysburg,” Pickett said to Mosby as they were leaving.
A close second would be Lee’s remark made during the retreat to Appomattox Court House. Seeing Pickett walking by with his troops, Lee turned to one of his aides and asked caustically, “Is that man still with the army?”
Now ask the same well-read group for a quote that best sums up the relationship between Lee and Pickett prior to July 3, 1863. The silence would likely be deafening.
Such is the basis for Dr. Richard Selcer’s new book, Lee vs. Pickett: Two Divided by War. Selcer contends that the animosity between the two Confederates indelibly linked by the bloody assault against Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg can be traced back to the spring of 1862, when Lee first took command of the Army of Northern Virginia. The question is not whether problems existed between Lee and Pickett prior to Pickett’s Charge, but rather why Lee retained Pickett as a division commander until his army’s demise at Appomattox.
Several things become readily apparent as one reads Lee vs. Pickett. The first is that the author does not think very highly of Pickett. Second, despite the fact there is very little firsthand information to be found about the problems between Lee and Pickett, there is more than enough second-hand information, given by those who were close to the two men in question, to indicate that Selcer is onto something with his contentions. One of the most compelling points is the fact that Pickett was the only officer of the rank of either lieutenant or major general who served under Lee to never be praised nor recognized for his service by the Confederate chieftain in writing, either in official reports or postwar reminiscences.
Nonetheless, some of Selcer’s theories about the strained relationship are a bit thin, such as his claim that the problem was partly Oedipal in nature. Still, the author provides food for thought as he traces the relationship between the two generals.
Lee vs. Pickett may not be the final word regarding this controversy. Someone may be inspired to dig deeper into the subject and possibly uncover new, more revealing information about the differences between two of the Civil War’s most recognizable figures. Until such time, Lee vs. Pickett: Two Divided by War will stand as a groundbreaking study of a fascinating relationship.
B. Keith Toney