Ken Burns Classroom

George Pickett

Ken Burns Film: The Civil War

Collections: Civil War and Reconstruction (1861-1877)

Subject: US History

Grade Level: 6-12

Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett
1861-1865. Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett. Civil War Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.


Famous for leading the ill-fated “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg, George Pickett was a West Point graduate who joined the Confederacy after Virginia’s secession. At Fredericksburg, Pickett’s men cut down the courageous “Irish brigade.” But his luck changed for the worse at Gettysburg, where Pickett lost a staggering number of his own men; nearly all the rest would be killed by the war’s end.

George Edward Pickett was raised in Richmond, Virginia, the eldest of eight children born to a prominent Virginia family. Well-liked by his classmates, Pickett was known more for his antics than his industry at West Point, graduating last in his class of 1846. He distinguished himself in battle during the Mexican-American War and on the frontier, along the Texas border and in Washington Territory.

When Virginia seceded from the nation, Pickett returned to serve his state, despite his personal dislike of slavery, and accepted a commission as a major in the Confederate service. Quickly promoted to colonel and then brigadier general, he led a brigade under James Longstreet’s command. Known for his immaculate appearance and flamboyant style, Pickett is best known for the bloody “Pickett’s Charge” during the Battle of Gettysburg.

He and his men arrived two days into the battle and, being fresh, were placed by Lee in the front of the Confederate line. All three of Pickett’s brigade commanders were killed or wounded in the assault and the division was shattered, receiving heavy artillery fire and repeated volleys of musket fire. Pickett was inconsolable at the loss of his men. After Gettysburg, newspaper accounts sensationalized his role in the offensive, despite the fact that Longstreet was in command that day and that Pickett himself was never criticized by Lee. His career steadily declined. At the end of the war, Pickett and his remaining troops served at the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse and surrendered with Lee’s army.

Pickett worked as an insurance agent after the war. In the years to come, when asked by reporters why his charge had failed, Pickett frequently replied: “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

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