Tuesday, July 25, 2017  

Before the Charge: George Pickett on the Rappahannock


By Dale Harter – He is a Civil War historian and the librarian at St. Margaret’s School
in Tappahannock.

He wore his perfumed hair in long ringlets and his mustache curled. He preferred ruffled shirts and was fond of strong drink. One historian said “very few Confederate generals sat for the camera more often.”

Although George Edward Pickett always will be linked to one of the most famous events in American military history—the charge of his Virginians at Gettysburg, Pa., on July 3, 1863—his controversial Civil War career began
on the Middle Peninsula.

Born Jan. 28, 1825, he was the son of Robert and Mary Pickett, owners of a Henrico County plantation called Turkey Island. His parents sent him to Illinois tolive with an uncle, Andrew Johnston, apparently hoping he might tame their high-spirited and impetuous son. In 1841, Johnston helped him obtain an appointment to the United States Military Academy.

Neither studious nor disciplined, he accumulated an average of 165 demerits per year at the academy. At graduation in 1846, he ranked last in a class that included George Brinton McClellan and Thomas Jonathan Jackson. West Point provided Pickett with an avocation, and the U.S. Army awarded him an officer’s commission.

As one biographer noted, Pickett “found his life’s calling” during the Mexican War. He was promoted twice for bravery, the second for helping storm and conquer the Mexican fortress at Chapultepec. He served in the army until June 1861, when he resigned to cast his lot with the Confederacy.

If Pickett expected to immediately relive the glory of his Mexican War days, he surely was disappointed. The first great battle already had been fought at Manassas by the time he arrived in Richmond in search of a Confederate officer’s commission. His West Point pedigree and his combat experience earned him an appointment as a major on Sept. 14.
Pickett was promoted to colonel and given command of the District of the Lower Rappahannock on Sept. 23. The district consisted of the Middle Peninsula, from Tappahannock south to Vaughan’s Landing in Middlesex County, as well as the entire Northern Neck. His command fell under the Department of Aquia and Maj. Gen. Theophilus Hunter Holmes, another Mexican War veteran.

Pickett established his headquarters in Tappahannock, where he found local military leaders already prepared to defend their homeland. After the fall of Fort Sumter, the local gentry had begun organizing companies with colorful names like the “Essex Sharpshooters,” the “Middlesex Southerners” and the “Westmoreland Greys.” In September, most of these units were consolidated as the 55th Virginia Infantry Regiment.

Maj. William Ward, a former Episcopal rector who had briefly attended West Point, helped train local soldiers. Ward had moved across the river in 1860 from Richmond County to take charge of Lucy Gray’s boarding school on Prince Street. Ward used the seminary and his family to instruct young officers like Austin Brockenbrough and Lal Roane, both sons of prominent Tappahannock families.

In her recollections of the war, Ward’s daughter Evelyn wrote: “These young men would come into Father’s study and he would drill them. He would have our older sisters in too, with brooms and the pokers held for guns just as we did when we played soldier, and would march them up and down the room.”

Ward’s memoirs also included a story she heard Pickett tell while in Tappahannock. While fanciful, it is perhaps the only first-hand account any local citizen recorded about Pickett when he was in the town.

Ward recalled, “I remember listening to him when he told that in the Mexican War at one time a mine was dug under a city to defeat a siege. He, then a slim young lieutenant, was the first man squeezed through. He found himself in a room full of Mexican ladies. They all ran to him, screaming, and threw their arms around his knees, his neck, anywhere they could reach, begging for protection.”

Pickett also spent time down river at Fort Lowry. Built out of marsh sod slabs by slaves and free blacks, the fort was the major defense against Union gunboats advancing up the Rappahannock. “Fairview,” the home of Thomas Waring, served as the fort’s headquarters, and Pickett probably visited it frequently. The 55th Va. and eight pieces of artillery provided the fort’s firepower.

For the next five months, Pickett prepared his troops and fortifications for an invasion. As early as June 1861, federal authorities had known provisions for Confederate forces were being shipped from Baltimore to Tappahannock. Confederate authorities notified Pickett in late October that an attack up the river was imminent. Union forces eventually launched a successful expedition in 1862, after Pickett had left the district.

At Fort Lowry, Pickett oversaw construction of a hospital, guardhouse, adjutant’s office, sentry boxes and winter housing. Further downriver at Camp Ashby, in Urbanna, soldiers from the 55th built huts, stables and a forage house. Pickett also established small posts at Mill Creek and Vaughan’s Landing, Tappahannock, Bowler’s Wharf, Owen Hill Landing and Whiting Creek.

While the river separated him from the Northern Neck, he still was responsible for its defense. After meeting at Lancaster Court House in October 1861, concerned citizens from Northumberland and Lancaster Counties informed Pickett that their military forces would be unable to defend them against Union invaders. In November, Maj. Richard Beale, the Confederate provost marshal in Westmoreland County, warned Pickett and Maj. Gen. Holmes that some citizens might “if they did not openly take sides with, would at least refuse to fight the Yankees.”

Holmes, in turn, ordered Pickett to visit Beale on the Northern Neck. After meeting with Beale, Pickett reported that “some strenuous and immediate measures should be taken” to prevent discontent among the citizens. “A greater portion of our loyal men, the chivalry and high-toned gentlemen of the country have volunteered, and are far from their homes,” wrote Pickett. “There is a strong element among those who are left either to be non-combatants or to fall back under the old flag. I do not consider we have any time to lose.”

To avert this, Pickett recommended removing the militia in Westmoreland and Northumberland Counties and replacing them with another Virginia regiment. Although Holmes approved and forwarded his recommendation to Confederate Secretary of War Judah Benjamin, Pickett apparently grew impatient. Rather than waiting for an official response, he rode to Richmond to voice his concerns.

While Pickett got what he wanted, he lost part of his command in the process. Benjamin did approve Pickett’s request by assigning Col. John M. Brockenbrough’s 40th Virginia Infantry Regiment to the Northern Neck. But instead of having the Richmond County native serve under Pickett, he gave Brockenbrough responsibility for all Northern Neck forces and ordered him to coordinate with Pickett to defend the Rappahannock. Pickett responded in writing on Dec. 28, asking to be relieved from his duties.

Nevertheless, Pickett remained in command on the Middle Peninsula until mid-February 1862. While Maj. Ward, in Tappahannock, and others worked on getting Pickett reassigned and promoted, he continued to improve defenses along the river. Pickett was promoted to brigadier general on Feb. 12 and took charge of a brigade under another old Mexican War comrade, Maj. Gen. James Longstreet.

When he left, Pickett took two Essex men with him as part of his staff: Thomas Croxton, of Tappahannock, and Edward Baird, from Epping Forest. Croxton, who had been a corporal in the 9th Va. Cav. Regt., was detached to Pickett in October 1861, but resigned due to ill health by the end of May 1862. After the war, he lived in the Moore Wright House (now the Essex Inn) in Tappahannock and served two terms in Congress.

Pickett had a longer relationship with Baird, who also had been in the 9th Va. Baird’s neighbor, Confederate Secretary of State R. M. T. Hunter, helped him obtain a position as an aide to Pickett in February 1862. Baird remained with Pickett throughout the war and witnessed the highs and lows of the general’s career. After the war, he served as superintendent of Essex County schools.

Pickett proved most competent when commanding a brigade. His troubles began when he was promoted to major general and given command of an entire division containing five brigades. Only three of these brigades, all from Virginia, made the fateful march to Gettysburg.

Shouting “don’t forget you are from old Virginia,” on July 3, 1863, Pickett led an attack by an estimated 13,500 men across an open field outside Gettysburg, in a last-ditch effort by Gen. Robert E. Lee to defeat the Union Army of the Potomac. “Pickett’s Charge” ended in bloody defeat, but the commander and his men gained immortality. The failed attack signaled the beginning of the end of the Confederacy.

Accusations and blame for the charge and the loss of the battle began to fly before nightfall. Lee, and others, said it was his own fault. Many blamed Longstreet, Pickett’s longtime friend. Ironically, the man who replaced Pickett in the Northern Neck also received a share of the blame. Col. John M. Brockenbrough and his brigade, which included the 55th Va., failed miserably when ordered to support Pickett’s attacking columns. Controversy concerning Pickett and his famous charge continue today.

Pickett’s career went from bad to worse. At Five Forks, Va., April 1, 1865, Pickett’s forces were routed while he attended a shad bake. Although relieved of command by Lee, he stayed with the army and surrendered at Appomattox Court House. He died July 30, 1875, in Norfolk, and was buried at Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery.

Edward Baird made sure his memory of the flamboyant Pickett lived on along the banks of the Rappahannock. Speaking to the Essex County Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Baird exclaimed, “To me he was gallantry personified.”

“Brilliant in his strategy he had the courage of a man with the tenderness of a woman.”