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George E. Pickett was a Confederate general best known for being one of the commanders of the great attack on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg
Pickett was born in Richmond on January 16, 1825. (Some records show both January 25 and January 28) His parents, Robert and Mary, had eight children, of which he was the oldest. Their family was an old and established Virginia family of Huguenot background. George grew up on his family’s plantation on Turkey Island in the James River about 15 miles southeast of Richmond. Future Confederate general Henry Heth was his cousin.
As a teenager he went to Quincy, Illinois to serve as a law clerk for his uncle, Andrew Johnston. This led him to studying law at the firm of Johnston’s friend, John T. Stuart, in Springfield. Stuart’s partner in the firm was Abraham Lincoln. This has led to the story that it was Lincoln who obtained Pickett’s appointment at West Point. But it was almost certainly Stuart who did so, since he was a U.S. Congressman and could nominate a candidate whereas Lincoln, a state representative, could not.
Pickett joined over 20 future Civil War generals in the West Point Class of 1846, including George McClellan and Thomas Jackson. He was popular but not particularly studious, ending up as class “goat,” or last in the class standings out of 59 cadets. This was not quite so horrible as it sounds, as over a third of the class did not even graduate; Pickett had persevered and worked off enough of his many demerits to receive his commission, like fellow goats Henry Heth and George Custer.
Pickett joined the 8th United States Infantry Regiment at the start of the Mexican War. At the Battle of Chapultepec his wounded friend, Lieutenant James Longstreet, handed him the colors, which Pickett carried over the wall and placed on the roof of the palace.
After the war he served on the Texas frontier, rising to captain. He married his first wife, Sally Harrison Minge, in 1851. She died in childbirth later that year. In 1853 he challenged Winfield Scott Hancock to a duel; Hancock declined. He would challenge Hancock again ten years later on Cemetery Ridge.
Pickett was transferred to Washington Territory in 1856. He married a Native American woman, Morning Mist, and had a son together, but she died shortly thereafter. Pickett then commanded United States troops in the territorial dispute with Britain known as the Pig War (for its only casualty). His refusal to back down with his tiny command in the face of overwhelming British numbers gained him national attention.