General George Pickett’s widow wrote a falsified tribute to his wartime service
LaSalle Corbell Pickett (1843-1931) most often comes to mind as a widow who labored tirelessly to burnish her husband’s reputation. She married Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett in 1863 and outlived him by 56 years. Although 20 at the time of her marriage, “Sallie” Pickett cast herself after the war as the “child-bride of the Confederacy,” and frequently attended commemorative events at Gettysburg and elsewhere, lectured, and wrote for periodicals. In 1899, she published Pickett and His Men, an unabashed tribute to “my husband, the noble leader of that band of heroes whose deeds are sparkling jewels set in the great history of the Army of Northern Virginia.” She also wrote, among other things, a quartet of books in black dialect known collectively as the In de Miz series (1900-01) and a novel titled The Bugles of Gettysburg (1913).
In the spring of 1913, New York publisher Seth Moyle offered readers The Heart of a Soldier: As Revealed in the Intimate Letters of Genl. George E. Pickett, C.S.A. Destined to become LaSalle Pickett’s most influential Civil War-related book, The Heart of a Soldier contains 44 letters supposedly written to her by the general between September 1861 and the mid-1870s. One review pronounced the letters the “finest literary product of the Civil War,” and an advertisement predicted they would “make the literary fame of their soldier-author as immortal as his military glory.” The book sold well enough to justify a slightly revised second edition, edited by Arthur Crew Inman and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1928 as Soldier of the South: General Pickett’s War Letters to His Wife.
The Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863 and the Battle of Gettysburg form the centerpiece of The Heart of a Soldier. Pickett’s innermost thoughts and feelings emerge from these pages, often in breathlessly dramatic phrasing. Enthusiasm and confidence before the grand assault that became known as Pickett’s Charge give way to anger and bewilderment following its bloody repulse. “Even now I can hear them cheering,” reads one passage describing the beginning of the attack, “as I gave the order, ‘Forward!’ I can feel the thrill of their joyous voices as they called out all along the line, ‘We’ll follow you, Marse George. We’ll follow you—we’ll follow you.’ Oh, how faithfully they kept their word—following me on—on—to their death, and I, believing in the promised support, led them on—on—on— Oh, God!” A number of historians, the novelist Michael Shaara, and documentary film-maker Ken Burns, impressed with the vividness and immediacy of the letters, have quoted them in reaching broad audiences.
Almost from the time of its publication, however, LaSalle Pickett’s edition of her husband’s letters proved controversial—accepted by some writers, rejected by others, and questioned at least in part by most. In fact, The Heart of a Soldier is worthless as a source on the general’s Confederate career. It should be considered an epistolary novel concocted by LaSalle Pickett, who used her vivid imagination and plagiarized shamelessly in fabricating the letters. Proof of her authorship, rather than her husband’s, lies in the pages of Walter H. Harrison’s Pickett’s Men: A Fragment of War History (1870). Pickett’s inspector general for much of the war, Harrison participated in most of the division’s operations and supplemented what he had seen by consulting surviving records and conducting interviews with former officers. LaSalle Pickett’s plagiarism of Harrison permeates all 18 letters in The Heart of a Soldier that deal significantly with battles from Seven Pines through Appomattox—more than 40 instances ranging in length from one sentence to entire paragraphs, together with dozens of paraphrases.
Two comparative passages illustrate the extent of LaSalle Pickett’s literary theft. Harrison offers this about Pickett’s Charge: “The three brigades moved across this field of death and glory as steadily as a battalion forward in line of battle upon drill. The three brigade commanders were conspicuously in front of their commands, leading and cheering them on.” Mrs. Pickett attributes to her husband this language: “My three brigades…moved across that field of death as a battalion marches forward in line of battle upon drill, each commander in front of his command leading and cheering on his men.”
Harrison’s account of Pickett’s last battle describes the crossroads where the fighting occurred: “Situated in a flat, thickly wooded country, Five Forks, as its name indicates, is simply a crossing, at nearly right angles, of two country roads, and the deflection of a third road, bisecting one of those angles.” LaSalle Pickett has her husband state that “Five Forks is situated in a flat, thickly wooded country and is simply a crossing at right angles of two country roads and a deflection of a third bisecting one of these angles.”
Although Harrison stood first among her sources, LaSalle Pickett also exploited other ex-Confederates’ writings. The letters dated July 3 and July 4, 1863, which feature conversations between Lee and Longstreet and Longstreet and Pickett, strongly suggest that she used Longstreet’s articles on Gettysburg in the Southern Historical Society Papers and The Annals of the War, as well as Edward Porter Alexander’s letter on the cannonade preceding Pickett’s Charge in the Southern Historical Society Papers. One example concerns a conference between Lee and Longstreet early on July 3. Lee rode to First Corps headquarters that morning, where, according to Longstreet, the commanding general pointed toward Cemetery Hill and said, “The enemy is there, and I am going to strike him.” LaSalle Pickett places her husband at this conference and has him report, “’The enemy is there, General Longstreet, and I am going to strike him,’ said Marse Robert in his firm, quiet, determined voice.”
The Heart of a Soldier and most of LaSalle Pickett’s other writings fit into the Lost Cause literature of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. They dwell on what the white South considered tragic aspects of the Confederate experience, such as the defeat at Gettysburg, and celebrate a chivalric people battling impossible odds to preserve their superior civilization. But The Heart of a Soldier belongs in a special category apart from typical Lost Cause special pleading—as a fraud that added no luster to her husband’s reputation and deceived future generations of readers.