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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 400


This is the grave of the traitor George Pickett.

Pickett was unfortunately born in 1825 to an elite Virginia family in Richmond. For awhile he was going to go into the law and even left the South to do so, working for his uncle in Illinois and then going to Springfield for his legal studies. But he heard that siren song of southern elite masculinity–military service–and ended up at West Point. After his death, his widow claimed that it was Abraham Lincoln who won him his seat there, but this is almost certainly not true, as there’s not much evidence they really knew each other and Lincoln was only a state legislator and didn’t have the power to nominate candidates. Anyway, he went to West Point–and finished last in his class of 1846.

But last was still good enough and he became a second lieutenant and was sent to Mexico, where he by chance happen to carry the American colors when the U.S. took Chapultepec in the heart of Mexico City. This is a seminal moment in Mexican history today, a sign of American injustice as the nation stole half of Mexico to expand slavery and a place of great heroism thanks to the NiƱos Heroes, a group of teenage cadets who refused to surrender to Pickett and other American officers. Anyway, this got Pickett some attention at the time, though the battle is almost completely unknown by the American public today. After the war, Pickett served in various areas, mostly in the West. He slowly rose the ranks. He once challenged Winfield Scott Hancock to a duel, that violent act at the core of southern elite masculinity. Hancock, not a southerner, wisely declined. He was in Bellingham, Washington in 1855 and his house there is the oldest house standing on its original foundations in the Pacific Northwest, which is the kind of white pioneer history that really gets Northwest residents excited.

When the South committed treason in defense of slavery in 1861, Pickett jumped at the opportunity. He resigned his commission and joined the treason forces. He rose rapidly in the Confederate army, getting his first combat mission in the Peninsular Campaign, was shot in the shoulder but unfortunately lived, came back for Antietam, and annoyed Longstreet because he kept taking off from the front lines to visit his girlfriend, who was like 16 years old. In any case, Pickett is known for one thing and that is Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. I am no military strategy person, lord knows, but having visited the site, if someone told me to charge entrenched union forces across that huge field with no cover, I would have looked at them like they were mad. And perhaps such was Robert E. Lee. But Pickett did what he was told, at the cost of a mere 6,000 casualties. Lee actually told him to gather up his division and charge again, but Pickett turned to him and famously said, “General Lee, I have no division.”

Anyway, after this, Pickett went to North Carolina, where he notoriously ordered the execution of 22 U.S. soldiers after the Battle of New Bern, when he failed to capture that American occupied town. The U.S. soldiers were from North Carolina. Pickett claimed they were Confederate deserters, but more likely they were killed because they did not want to commit treason in defense of slavery. After the war, Pickett fled to Canada, thinking he would be punished for this action, but Grant left him off the hook. That was a mistake. Pickett should have been hanged from the highest tree for being a general who committed treason alone, not to mention these war crimes.

When Pickett returned to the United States, he moved to Norfolk, where he worked as an insurance agent and bought a farm. He was grated a full pardon by Congress in 1874 and died in 1875. He was only 50 years old and was done in by some sort of liver malfunction, which may have had to do with heavy drinking, but it’s not really clear.

George Pickett is buried at Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia. Or probably anyway. The memorial is kind of an estimate as to where Pickett’s mouldering bones actually lay. The monument itself was raised in 1888 and no one was quite sure by then. Pickett’s much younger wife LaSalle didn’t die until 1931. Hollywood wouldn’t allow her to be buried there as women weren’t allowed in the military section. Supposedly, Pickett’s grandson, who was a military officer himself, told Hollywood that he would disinter his grandfather and move him to Arlington if they weren’t allowed to be buried together, but this reads as highly questionable to me, as why would traitors be allowed to be buried at Arlington and how would he even manage that and, of course, is his body actually there? So it seems apocryphal. Moreover, she actually wasn’t buried at the site until 1998, having initially been buried in northern Virginia.

Amazingly, this is the 400th post in this series. If anything, this series proves what being more than a little OCD can do when channeled into interesting projects. No half measures for this historian! This, like so many of the recent grave visits, was funded by LGM reader contributions. That’s pretty great and I really appreciate it. If you would like this series to visit another 400 graves, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Other treasonous officers I could visit include John Mosby, in Warrenton, Virginia, and James Longstreet in Gainesville, Georgia. I do have a trip planned to North Carolina in May to attend a conference and many graves and that’s definitely what I am saving up for, though with enough, I might sneak off to other conference/grave combo opportunities this spring in Columbus and Philadelphia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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