Pickett was born in Richmond, Virginia, the first of the eight children of Robert and Mary Pickett, a prominent family of Old Virginia ofEnglish origins, and one of the "first families" of Virginia. He was the cousin of future Confederate general Henry Heth. He went toSpringfield, Illinois, to study law, but at the age of 17 he was appointed to the United States Military Academy. Legend has it that Pickett's West Point appointment was secured for him by Abraham Lincoln, but this is largely believed to be a story circulated by his widow following his death. Lincoln, as an Illinois state legislator, could not nominate candidates, although he did give the young man advice after he was accepted; Pickett was actually appointed by Illinois Congressman John T. Stuart, a friend of Pickett's uncle and a law partner of Abraham Lincoln.
Pickett was popular as a cadet at West Point. He was mischievous and a player of pranks, "... a man of ability, but belonging to a cadet set that appeared to have no ambition for class standing and wanted to do only enough study to secure their graduation." At a time when often a third of the class washed out before graduation, Pickett persisted, working off his demerits and doing enough in his studies to graduate, ranking last out of the 59 surviving students in the Class of 1846. It is a position held with some backhanded distinction, referred to today as the "goat", both for its stubbornness and tenacity. The position usually relegated its holder to a posting commanding infantry in some far away outpost, which if no conflict arose, would offer little opportunity to advance. Two of the most famous "goats" were Pickett and George Armstrong Custer. Both of them had the good fortune to graduate shortly after a war broke out, when the army had a sudden need for officers, greatly improving their opportunities.
After the firing on Fort Sumter, Virginia seceded from the Union, and native son Pickett journeyed from Oregon to serve his state, despite his personal detestation of the institution ofslavery. Arriving after the First Battle of Bull Run, he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army on June 25, 1861; he had been holding a commission as a major in the Confederate States Army Artillery since March 16. Within a month he was appointed colonel in command of the Rappahannock Line of the Department of Fredericksburg, under the command of Maj. Gen.Theophilus H. Holmes. Holmes's influence obtained a commission for Pickett as a brigadier general, dated January 14, 1862.
Pickett made a colorful general. He rode a sleek black charger named "Old Black," and wore a small blue kepi-style cap, with buffed gloves over the sleeves of an immaculately tailored uniform that had a double row of gold buttons on the coat, and shiny gold spurs on his highly polished boots. He held an elegant riding crop whether mounted or walking. His mustache drooped gracefully beyond the corners of his mouth and then turned upward at the ends. His hair was the talk of the Army: "long ringlets flowed loosely over his shoulders, trimmed and highly perfumed, his beard likewise was curling and giving up the scent of Araby."
Pickett's first combat command was during the Peninsula Campaign, leading a brigade that was nicknamed the Gamecocks (the brigade would eventually be led by Richard B. Garnett in Pickett's Charge). Pickett led his brigade ably in the battles of Williamsburg and Seven Pines, earning commendations from his superiors. At Gaines's Mill he was shot off his horse while leading his brigade in its first assault. Pickett continued to move forward with his men for a while, leading his horse on foot. A second assault by Pickett's brigade, led by Col. Eppa Hunton, along with the brigade led by Cadmus Wilcox, broke the Union line. Pickett feared he'd taken a mortal blow to his shoulder, but the wound was initially assessed by others as minor. The shoulder wound turned out to be severe enough that Pickett was out of action for the next three months, and his arm would remain stiff for at least a year.
When Pickett returned to the Army in September 1862, he was given command of a two-brigade division in the corps commanded by his old colleague from Mexico, Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, and was promoted to major general on October 10. His division would not see serious combat until the Gettysburg Campaign the following summer. It was lightly engaged at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December, suffering no fatalities. Longstreet's entire corps was absent from the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, as it was detached on the Suffolk Campaign.
Before the Gettysburg Campaign, Pickett fell in love with a Virginia teenager, LaSalle "Sallie" Corbell (1843–1931), commuting back and forth from his duties in Suffolk to be with her. Although Sallie would later insist that she met him in 1852 (at age 9), she did not marry the 38-year-old widower until November 13, 1863.
Pickett's division arrived at the Battle of Gettysburg on the evening of the second day, July 2, 1863. It had been delayed by the assignment of guarding the Confederate lines of communication through Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. After two days of heavy fighting, Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, which had initially driven the Union Army of the Potomac to the high ground south of Gettysburg, had been unable to dislodge the Union soldiers from their position. Lee's plan for July 3 called for a massive assault on the center of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge, calculating that attacks on either flank the previous two days had drawn troops from the center. He directed General Longstreet to assemble a force of three divisions for the attack—two exhausted divisions from the corps of Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill (under Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew and Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble), and Pickett's fresh division from Longstreet's own corps. Although Longstreet was actually in command, Lee referred to Pickett as leading the charge, which is one of the reasons that it is generally not known to popular history by the name "Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Assault." In addition, much of the mythology of the Charge arose from newspaper reports. As Pickett was the only Virginia commander of his rank, the Virginia newspapers both played up their native son's role and made the assault a more "glamorous" event.
Following a two-hour artillery barrage meant to soften up the Union defenses, the three divisions stepped off across open fields almost a mile from Cemetery Ridge. Pickett inspired his men by shouting, "Up, Men, and to your posts! Don't forget today that you are from Old Virginia." Pickett's division, with the brigades of Brig. Gens. Lewis A. Armistead, Richard B. Garnett, and James L. Kemper, was on the right flank of the assault. It received punishing artillery fire, and then volleys of massed musket fire as it approached its objective. Armistead's brigade made the farthest progress through the Union lines. Armistead was mortally wounded, falling near "The Angle", at what is now termed the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy". Neither of the other two divisions made comparable progress across the fields; Armistead's success was not reinforced, and his men were quickly killed or captured.
Thure de Thulstrup's Battle of Gettysburg, showing Pickett's Charge.
Pickett's Charge was a bloodbath. While the Union lost about 1,500 killed and wounded, the Confederate casualties were several times that. Over 50% of the men sent across the fields were killed or wounded. Pickett's three brigade commanders and all thirteen of his regimental commanders were casualties. Kemper was wounded, and Garnett and Armistead did not survive. Trimble and Pettigrew were the most senior casualties, the former losing a leg and the latter wounded in the hand and later mortally wounded during the retreat to Virginia. Pickett himself has received some historical criticism for surviving the battle personally unscathed, establishing his final position well to the rear of his troops, most likely at the Codori farm on the Emmitsburg Road. Thomas R. Friend, who served Pickett as a courier, wrote that he "went as far as any Major General, Commanding a division, ought to have gone, and farther."
As soldiers straggled back to the Confederate lines along Seminary Ridge, Lee feared a Union counteroffensive and tried to rally his center, telling returning soldiers that the failure was "all my fault." Pickett was inconsolable. When Lee told Pickett to rally his division for the defense, Pickett allegedly replied, "General Lee, I have no division." Pickett's official report for the battle has never been found. It is rumored that Gen. Lee rejected it for its bitter negativity and demanded that it be rewritten, and an updated version was never filed
To his dying day, Pickett lamented the great losses his men suffered at Gettysburg. Late in his life, Colonel John Mosby who served under J.E.B. Stuart but had no direct interaction with Lee to draw from, claimed an interaction he observed between Lee and Pickett was cold and reserved. Others present who knew General Lee well refuted this, stating Lee acted in his usual reserved, gentlemanly fashion. Mosby claimed after their meeting Pickett said bitterly "That man destroyed my division." Most historians find the encounter as Mosby interpreted it unlikely, especially as when asked why Pickett's Charge failed, Pickett was on record elsewhere as having said "I've always thought the Yankees had something to do with it."