- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2006

It was an occasion that a journalist or historian would prefer to forget. Despite intensive research and review, the deceased finally would be laid to rest, but the birth date on the tombstone would be recognized as incorrect — and too late to be changed before the ceremony.

Add to the above that it was a formal burial in Richmond’s historic Hollywood Cemetery and that the deceased was the widow of Gen. George E. Pickett, and the error becomes even more important.

The wooden box containing the bronze urn with LaSalle Corbell Pickett’s ashes was being carried on a horse-drawn caisson, and numerous re-enactors were accompanying it. It was March 21, 1998, and Mrs. Pickett’s remains finally were to be placed next to her husband’s. A deeply meaningful funeral, carefully planned, was being carried out by the Virginia Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. All was going as planned except for a persistent light rainfall that added to the somber occasion.

Just as the ceremony was beginning, an elderly gentleman quietly approached this writer and said the fateful words: “You know the birth date on the stone is wrong, don’t you?” Then he proved it.

In many respects, it seemed that LaSalle Pickett, “Mrs. General George E. Pickett,” as she frequently referred to herself, truly had had the last laugh. For years she had been identified as the “Child Bride of the Confederacy” because, by the information from her own lips, she was born in 1848 and therefore had been a mere child of 15 when she married the 38-year-old Pickett, who led the famous charge at Gettysburg.

She even had changed her name as an adult from Sallie Ann to LaSalle, initially saying it was the name of one of her grandfathers, but genealogical research failed to confirm that. Also, the time when she was said to have met George Pickett on a beach near the Eastern Shore of Virginia, when he was grieving the loss of his first wife, made her a child of 5 or 6. Later, even the general said that was not the site of their initial encounter and that she had been five years older.

The gentleman who called attention to the error on the tombstone was Edwin C. Cotten, great-nephew of LaSalle Corbell Pickett. All the information we had used had come down through Pickett descendants. Mr. Cotten, however, had one ace in his pocket — the Corbell family Bible, where LaSalle’s father had carefully noted the birth: “Sallie Ann Corbell, daughter of John David [Corbell] and Elizabeth, his wife, was born the 16th of May, 1843.” Above the entry is written “our first born.” The handwriting is clear and unequivocal.

From the same family Bible page, the listing of Sallie’s siblings makes the 1848 date highly unlikely. Sister Emily Elizabeth was born on Oct. 10, 1847, and brother Leopold Marcellus was born on Aug. 6, 1849.

Through the years, just as Sallie Ann became LaSalle, so the year of her birth somehow became 1848, making her a child of 15 when she married George Pickett on Sept. 13, 1863. The story was incised for all to see on the granite marker in Hollywood Cemetery. When she died in Washington in 1931, even her obituary in The Washington Star gave her date of birth as 1848; she had successfully carried the amended date all of her life.

Inquiry was made by Pickett’s great-grandson Christiancy Pickett as to whether the date could be changed, and the stonemason said it would be feasible simply to take out part of the circles of the eight, making the eight into a three.

However, in a letter to the writer three weeks after the funeral, Chris Pickett said, “I see no sense in re-engraving the stone, that was the name she wanted to be known by and that was also the date she apparently wanted the public to believe, otherwise the moniker of ‘Child Bride of the Confederacy’ would not have fit. My father once told me that one of the worst things you could do was to ask a lady her age. We ought to let ‘sleeping dogs lie,’ to use an ancient expression.”

And so a historian’s nightmare continued.

Whether she was really 88 or the 83 she preferred to use, LaSalle Pickett led a full life, speaking and writing well into her senior years and retaining her beautiful and striking appearance. Chris Pickett said she was at least 6 feet tall and that he always thought he had gotten his height from this intriguing great-grandmother, whom he remembered visiting.

Articles appear sporadically, and the error is perpetuated, but for historical accuracy, it needs to be corrected. The “Child Bride of the Confederacy” was not 15, but a very respectable 20 years of age when she married the general she called “my soldier.” To many of us who had read stories of his wartime rides to be with her each evening, staying till dawn, knowing that she was a young lady of 18 to 20 and not a child made his overnight visitations a little more acceptable.

The error becomes compounded when historians give credence to the 1848 date, basing that on information provided in the death certificate. Even today, the surviving family members provide that information, and in LaSalle’s case, they simply are repeating what they have been told and what they know she wanted.

Contacted by telephone for this article, Mr. Cotten was delighted to know that the true story would be published. As he said, “It’s time that the facts are finally made known.”

The accurate date takes nothing from the outstanding life of LaSalle or Sallie Ann but adds one aspect to the saga of her life — the truth of her age. Thanks to an efficient father’s record-keeping — and a vigilant great-nephew — the matter finally is settled.

Martha M. Boltz is a member of the Montgomery County Civil War Roundtable and a frequent contributor to the Civil War page. She served on the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s planning committee for the 1998 reburial of LaSalle Corbell Pickett.

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