Pickett General George E. Pickett and LaSalle Corbell


Mar 2, 2012
Tabloids have been a staple of journalism for as long as anyone can remember in Britain and America; the prurient interests of the people demand it. Editors of muckraking rags reap the riches associated with this low order of the fourth estate.
McClure's Magazine flourished briefly as a platform for the literati -- Mark Twain, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, etc., before the yardbirds of yellow journalism captured its soul. From the 1890s 'til its demise in 1929, McClure's was the province of the "poison pens." Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Ray Stannard Baker were some of McClure's best "rakers" -- or writers. Anyone who had an axe to grind could submit to the 10-cents-a-copy monthly periodical.
Sally Ann (LaSalle) Corbell Pickett, widow of the immortal C.S.A. General George E. Pickett Gettysburg, needed money in 1908, so she sold her collection of love letters. Since LaSalle Corbell was the 18-year-old bride of the 38-year-old, Pickett, the old letters fetched a handsome sum -- even though General Pickett had been dead for 33 years. McClure's Magazine proved the hottest topic at the 45th anniversary of the Gettysburg battle.
The Bitter War of Disunion had but few moments of pomp and glamour amidst the gore and destruction of the southern way of life. However, a genuine love story will out no matter the circumstances -- and such was the nature of tender, young LaSalle and her cavalier, George Pickett.
Old letters can build quite a story, even when none of the responses are known to the reader. LaSalle Pickett did not have to invent her letters as popular novelists did -- she had real ones from a legendary general who was twice her age when he penned them. The enthusiastic public caused McClure's to sell out each month during the serialization.
Widow Pickett decided to publish after her last surviving child died. What if she embellished the truth a bit in the preface? After all, her late husband's reputation had been bandied about maliciously by veterans of both sides of the North-South war. Pickett's famed charge at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, represented the high-water mark of the Confederacy. The fact that this charge failed to hold its objective has been the subject of finger-pointing and innuendo. Following Lee's retreat back into Virginia, the dashing cavalryman who epitomized the South's version of Prince Rupert, took leave to wed his beautiful sweetheart in what must have been the most romantic moment of the war.
While Pickett waited with his division under the shade of trees fringing the wheat field that fateful afternoon at Gettysburg, Confederate Colonel Porter Alexander opened up a barrage of artillery with over 150 big guns aimed at Cemetery Ridge a mile and a half distant. In the heat of that battle with the acrid smoke of the guns clouding the field, Pickett sat astride his war horse, Old Black, and penned what he thought would be his last ever letter to his fiance.
"Our line of battle faces Cemetery Ridge. Our detachments have been thrown forward to support our artillery which stretches over a mile along the crests of Old Ridge and Cemetery Ridge. The men are lying in the rear, my darling, and the hot July sun pours its scorching rays almost vertically down upon them. The suffering and the waiting are almost unbearable...My brave Virginians are to attack in front. Oh, may God in mercy help me as he never helped before! I have ridden up to Old Peter [General Longstreet]. I shall give him this letter to mail to you if... Oh, my Darling, do you feel the love of my heart, the prayer, as I write that fatal word?"
"Now I go, but remember always that I love you with all my heart and soul, with every fiber of my being; that now and forever I am yours -- yours, my beloved. It is almost 3 o'clock. My soul reaches out to yours -- my prayers. I'll keep up a skookum tum tum [Chinook word for brave heart] for Virginia, and for you my Darling. Your Soldier."
Pickett survived the battle unscathed, but two of his three brigade commanders, Garnett and Armistead, were killed, while the third, Kemper, was badly wounded. However, a division commander normally directed the battle from a position in the rear. Detractors alleged that Pickett sought shelter in a barn during the 30 minute assault. Defenders maintained that he actually led his men until urged to pull back. The army was well aware that Pickett was smitten by a pretty girl, and some suspected that the General determined then and there that he'd be among the survivors that day.
No one labeled her a liar, but LaSalle took literary license with the facts. She claimed in the preface to her McClure's piece that she was a mere slip of a girl, age 15, when "my Soldier," as she referred to Pickett, swept her in his arms in their wedding at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Petersburg. "God Bess you! My son was with you at Gettysburg," was the whispered greeting LaSalle heard from several women wearing black.
Pickett's family was an old Virginia planter family that dated back to the 17th century. They claimed cavalier status from the English Civil War, and George was determined to perpetuate that ideal -- in his appearance with perfumed ringlets down to his shoulders -- and in his bold and reckless disregard of danger. As a lieutenant he'd been the first American over the parapets of the citadel in the Mexican War.
Who cared that Pickett was the "goat," or bottom man in the West Point Class of 1846? Her soldier's best friend at The Point had been George B. McClellan, and the Union general they called "Little Mac," had graduated number 2. The two men, though fighting on opposite sides, remained best friends.
Her soldier had little time for a honeymoon as he was a major general in command of a division in Longstreet's Corps. Since the War devolved around Richmond after the repulse at Gettysburg, LaSalle's soldier often slipped in for a romantic rendezvous at their rented house in that city. A month after J.E.B. Stuart and Wade Hampton's stunning defeat of Judson Kilpatrick's cavalry at Buckland Mills, October 19, 1863, Mrs. General Pickett informed her husband that she was expecting their first child. The battle that was celebrated in Richmond as "the Buckland Races" was a total rout for the North.
Letters reveal that when George E. Pickett, Jr., was born and the news reached Union lines three loud cheers from the enemy were raised in honor of Pickett and bonfires were lit. Under a flag of truce, a Union officer brought a package containing a baby's silver service engraved "To George E. Pickett, Jr., from his father's friends U.S. Grant, Rufus Ingalls, George Suckley." Such is the West Point camaraderie that even in the midst of a civil war the bonds of classmates remain unbroken.
The General's wife tells how after the fall of Richmond and the Union army had entered the city that her door bell rang. Standing there was a tall and very sad-looking man -- President Abraham Lincoln. He had stopped by to see the infant son of his dear friend, General George Pickett.
Following the war, the Picketts fled to Montreal where they lived for a while as exiles in the famed St. Laurent Hotel. The General rejected the offer of the Khedive of Egypt to take over command of his army on the Nile.
President Ulysses S. Grant entertained the Picketts several times in the White House after he, Pickett, declined to be nominated for governor of Virginia. Eventually George Pickett accepted a directorship of a New York life insurance company office in Norfolk. Their two sons enrolled in V.M.I., and Lasalle expected to live out her life with her dashing general, but he contracted scarlett fever and died on July 30, 1875 at age 50.
LaSalle Corbell Pickett took it upon herself to represent General Pickett and the South at the annual Gettysburg Battle reunions. She became the grand dame of the battlefield on those days and was cheered by Union men and Confederates alike. Her husband's love letters can be found in The Heart of A Soldier (1913; reprinted 1995).