Friday, September 13, 2013

George Pickett the Great Commander

George Pickett the Great Commander


George Edward Pickett

Historian Thomas Desjardin noted, “General George Pickett commanded only about half of the troops who made the assault known today as 'Pickett's Charge'.”

The historical novel “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara describes Pickett as follows, “Gaudy and lovable, long-haired, perfumed. Last in his class at West Point, he makes up for a lack of wisdom with a lusty exuberance.”

Pickett did love a good time, but also a stiff drink. He was noted for his love of alcohol while a cadet at West Point. He was also noted for his arrogance. When Lee was asked for a lock of his hair, he turned it down saying he could hardly afford to give up any, but they might ask Pickett because of his long ringlets. The joke upset Pickett who didn't think it a bit funny.

James Dearing noted, “Pickett is not noted for keeping his temper...he ripped out with a whole handful of pretty strong words.”

Major John C. Haskell talking about Pickett's being wounded in the shoulder at Gaines Mill portrayed Pickett as anything but heroic. He claimed after Pickett was wounded, he was found “standing by his horse in a small hollow...bewailing himself. He called to me to send a litter as he was mortally wounded. I had none and was too busy with my men. He was very slightly wounded and perfectly able to take care of himself.”

Eppa Hunton who was known to dislike Pickett complained about he and his staff lying low on their horses when in an exposed position at Suffolk. Hunton of course rode erect to inspire his men. Hunton also noted that Pickett was a great and honorable soldier up until the time he engaged and married. He then began to lose his desire for battlefield heroics. There is a lot of truth in this statement.

Longstreet ever the friend grew tired of Pickett leaving his command during the night. Pickett decided to ask Sorrel for permission instead. Longstreet's aide Moxley Sorrel declined to take responsibility for Pickett's absence in case his division was attacked. Sorrel wrote, “Pickett went all the same, nothing could hold him back from that pursuit. I don't think his division benefited from such carpet-knight doings on the field.”

Historian Lesley Gordon stated, “His frequent absences, constant complaining, and bungling of even the simplest of orders, however, marked Pickett as an unreliable division leader.”

Following his failure at Gettysburg, he was sent to take New Berne and again failed miserably. The stress of responsibility was growing. His temper was showing a short fuse. When twenty-two men who had once been members of the North Carolina Home guard, yet had deserted to join the Union were captured, Pickett had a chance to take out his frustrations on someone other than himself. He had the prisoners hanged against the protest of Union General John J. Peck.

One Confederate overheard Pickett yell at two of the prisoners just before the court martial trial began, “God damn you, I reckon you will hardly ever go back there again, you damned rascals; I'll have you shot, and all other damned rascals who desert.”

It's quite possible that Pickett's friendship with Lieutenant General James Longstreet was the reason he was retained in command despite all his failures. The two men had been friends since the Mexican War when they'd fought side by side. Moxley Sorrel, an aide to Longstreet wrote, “I could always see how Longstreet looked after Pickett, and made us give him things very fully; indeed sometimes stay with him to make sure he did not get astray.”

When Bragg began to berate Pickett for his panicking about the Federal troop movements, Pickett requested to return to Longstreet's corps. Longstreet went so far as to write a letter to the war department asking that Pickett be returned to his command. On May 9, 1864, it seems that George Edward Pickett possibly suffered a nervous breakdown. Despite this setback, he would soon return to command of his old division.

Lee and Longstreet sent Pickett with his division and other troops under his command to Five Forks, the extreme right flank of Lee's army. There Pickett would command 19,000 men against Sheridan's 50,000 men. The odds were long, but they'd always been long for the Confederate army. Pickett marched toward the field on March 30 and his handling of his troops was questioned by many that witnessed his advance. The next morning, Pickett's men attacked Sheridan's troops and drove them from the field, With daylight still remaining and the Federal army in full retreat, Pickett inexplicably called off the attack. The next day on April 1, 1865, with Sheridan's men regrouped and moving against his force, Pickett did the unthinkable. Despite Lee's orders for him to hold Five Forks at all hazards, Pickett left the field. Pickett and cavalry commander Fitzhugh Lee moved several miles to the rear to attend a shad bake hosted by cavalry brigade commander Tom Rosser. While they ate and possible drank brandy, Pickett ignored reports of the attack against his troops.

As his line collapsed, Pickett mounted his horse and raced from the field. When one of Rooney Lee's couriers attempted to deliver a message to Pickett, he shouted for the man not to talk to him and continued his retreat. Pickett would lose over 4,000 men in the fiasco. It was the beginning of the end for General Lee's army.

Just before the surrender of the army, Robert E. Lee saw Pickett and asked his aides, “Is that man still with this army?” 

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