- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2006

In 1863, J. Prosinger, an obscure Southern composer, wrote the distinctive march “Pickett’s Charge” in memory of an act of tremendous courage that robbed the South of far too many lives with nothing of value to show for it.

Robert E. Lee accepted full responsibility for the so-called charge, in reality more of a steady advance, as he had overruled James Longstreet, who had been compelled to give the order. One always thinks of this regrettable error of judgment and its terrible consequences whenever Pickett’s name is mentioned, but this gallant officer served with distinction before as well as during the Civil War.

George Edward Pickett was born in Richmond on Sept. 13, 1825, and was graduated from West Point in 1846. During the Mexican War, he fought at Contreras and Churubusco, acquitting himself so well at Chapultepec that he was awarded the brevet of a first lieutenant. Later he served in Washington Territory and at Army posts elsewhere in the West. On June 25, 1861, he resigned his commission, and a month later, he became a colonel in the Confederate Army. Henceforth, his war experience would be almost entirely confined to Virginia.

In January 1862, by then commanding a division in the Army of Northern Virginia, he was promoted to brigadier general. Pickett saw action at Gaines Mill (third of the Seven Days’ battles) on June 27, in an indecisive battle that cost Lee too many men. In October, he became a major general. He was at Fredericksburg in December when Lee thrashed an unbelievably inept Gen. Ambrose Burnside.

Pickett’s famous charge occurred on July 3, 1863, the third day of Lee’s disaster at Gettysburg, against strongly positioned Federals on Cemetery Ridge. What happened can be likened to an event depicted in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s angry poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” which tells of a similar blunder during Britain’s Crimean War of 1854. Had Lee ever read the poem, one wonders.

“Stormed at with shot and shell, while horse and hero fell, / They that had fought so well came through the jaws of death, / Back from the mouth of Hell, all that was left of them.”

In “Greencastle Jenny,” Helen Gray Cone (1859-1934) told how Pickett and his men went by on their way to a rendezvous with the enemy, all the more tragic because it had such little hope of success: “Marching lightly that summer hour, / To death and failure and fame forever.”

Will Henry Thompson (1848-1918) also paid tribute to Pickett and his men in his epic poem “The High Tide at Gettysburg,” although wrongly assuming it was Lee who had given the order: “Then, at the brief command of Lee, moved out that matchless infantry, / With Pickett leading grandly down, to rush against the roaring crown / Of those dread heights to destiny.” Cavalry at Balaklava; infantry at Gettysburg: the latter a costly blunder the South could ill afford.

Pickett never forgave Lee for the loss of so many of his men, and when they met for the last time, shortly before Lee’s death, a cold hostility still prevailed.

In May 1864, Pickett was at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff when Union Gen. Ben Butler gave an order to retreat before Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard defeated him. The Battle of Five Forks was fought on April 1, 1865, a bad day for Pickett, who was beaten decisively by Gen. Philip Sheridan with half of his force taken prisoner. It was almost the end of fighting in Virginia, anyway.

Pickett was at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, when Ulysses S. Grant allowed Lee, a man he respected and admired, to surrender with dignity. The physical condition of the surviving soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia shocked the Federals present, at the same time arousing their admiration that such ragged and almost starving men had been able to keep going for as long as they did.

The War Between the States did not end on that historic day, but there would be no more fighting for George Pickett. He settled down as a civilian and died in 1875. History was not quite done with him, however. The final curtain did not descend for another 123 years. On March 21, 1998, a moving little ceremony took place when the remains of Pickett’s widow were buried beside her husband’s.

He had married LaSalle Corbell, a native of tiny Chuckatuck, Nansemond County, Va., on Sept. 13, 1863. Born May 16, 1848, she had long been determined to marry George Pickett when she was old enough and had corresponded with him meanwhile. On their wedding day, he was 38, and she was just 15.

Widowed at 27, she never remarried, spending many years in Washington, D.C., and in 1919 becoming honorary president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. She died on March 22, 1931, and was buried in the Abbey Mausoleum, near Arlington National Cemetery. Sixty-seven years later, it was agreed she should lie at last (as surely she would have wished) beside her husband in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, a site normally reserved for Confederate officers and men.

The interment was witnessed by family descendants and men wearing Confederate Army uniforms. The beautiful Southern Crossstreamed in the breeze while a band played “Dixie.” This tune was right, of course, but did the band also play J. Prosinger’s “Pickett’s Charge,” or was that melodic tribute to brave but in many instances doomed men deemed to be inappropriate for such an occasion?

Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.

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