The Cult of the Lost Cause and the Invention of General Pickett
George Pickett – Major General George E. Pickett – was our family’s marquee Confederate relation, distant cousin though he was. Every schoolchild in America has heard of him, thanks to the ill-fated infantry charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. For a long time what I knew about him was pretty much what everyone learned in 8th grade: Pickett’s failed charge, on July 3rd, 1863, was the turning point, the moment when the Confederates started to lose.
The War, that is. In the peacetime that followed, victory went to the South. Defeated in battle, the Confederates and their descendants proved themselves unequaled in myth-making, casting their catastrophe at Gettysburg as an exhibition of individual gallantry and high glory, undertaken in a great but lost cause.
These propagandists maintained (and still maintain) that the Civil War was never about upholding slavery. Instead, in this counter-narrative, the Confederate rebels were waging an honorable fight to protect and preserve the Southern way of life against Northern aggression. In the national imagination, Pickett’s Charge became the touchstone for all that was brave and noble and unflinching about the Confederate spirit.
How did this happen? Aren’t the victors supposed to write the history books? Yes, but after the Rebel army surrendered at Appomattox, another more formidable force took the field. It was composed largely of women. The Ladies Memorial Associations of the immediate postwar period morphed into the United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded in 1894.
The objective of the “Daughters” was to promote a whitewashed – and white supremacist – interpretation of “the late unpleasantness.” Their weapons were reunions, speeches, monuments, medal-awarding, proclamations, quasi-religious rituals such as wreath-laying ceremonies and, especially, promoting textbooks whose purpose was to teach the “true history” of the antebellum South to future generations.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy headquarters, in Richmond, Virginia, was set on fire and covered in graffiti during the protests in late May, 2020.
The playbook for these activities originated with the honorary president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy – none other than General Pickett’s third wife, the indefatigable LaSalle “Sallie” Corbell Pickett. Like Pickett himself, Sallie was a child of Virginia aristocracy, and after his death, she devoted her lengthy widowhood to glorifying her late husband’s reputation, and to propagating the myth of the Lost Cause. She insisted on his heroism, patriotism and historical importance – once describing Pickett’s Charge as “one of those deeds of arms that are immortal with its imperishable glory, overshadowing all other events in martial history . . .”
George & LaSalle Pickett
After her husband died, Sallie succeeded in reinventing herself as a professional Confederate widow, a popular writer, speaker and champion of the Old South. She attended veteran reunions, parades and monument dedications, signing autographs and becoming so popular that she was known as Mother Pickett.
In lectures to Northern audiences, Sallie told many a story of happy and contented slaves. As she once insisted: “There was no word held in more reverential love and fear by the faithful Southern slave than the one word ‘Master.’ (Kunno Sperits and Others, 1900) On stage she famously performed what she insisted was “phonetically genuine” slave dialect, carefully recorded by herself.
The stories she told about her husband were no more credible than the slave dialect. As one writer observed, Sallie Pickett’s postbellum career as a writer and Lost Cause icon “was marked by a curious admixture of charlatanry and self-delusion.” She faked an entire set of wartime correspondence from her husband, and published it in The Heart of a Soldier, as Revealed in the Intimate Letters of General George E. Pickett, CSA. She even forged a letter from Abraham Lincoln singing the General’s praises.
Sallie Pickett was also hiding another secret. Her husband had lived with a Native American woman and had a son by him. With her counterfeit archives and her tireless proselytizing, she built a framework on which later popularizers of the Civil War could drape their sanitized portrayals.
Historian Gary W. Gallagher established that Sallie Pickett invented these letters from her husband.
And so they have. Sallie Pickett’s tall tales of the Lost Cause live on in some of the most popular modern accounts of the Civil War. Her fabricated letters from her husband are still in print and are still widely cited. Shockingly, they have served as a primary source for mainstream presentations of the Civil War – everything from Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Killer Angels, to the book’s movie adaptation Gettysburg, to Ken Burns’ epic public television documentary, The Civil War. (The Public Television website accompanying the Civil War documentary asserts, without attribution, that Pickett accepted a commission in the Confederate Army “despite his personal dislike of slavery.”)
Just as Sallie Pickett would have wished, Michael Shaara depicts General Pickett as the archetypal Southern cavalier. (It came as no surprise to learn that the Pickett Society has erected a bench in Shaara’s honor at Gettysburg.) The novel lays it on thick. I remember listening to the audio version and feeling beguiled by Shaara’s descriptions of Pickett’s “lusty exuberance.”
The general is “gaudy and lovable, longhaired, perfumed,” as he rides “bronze curled and lovely, regal and gorgeous on a stately mount.” From a distance he looks “like a French king, all curls and feathers.” Hopping out of the saddle sets his “ringlets aflutter.” Oh those curls! William Faulkner fell for them even before Shaara took notice. In a famous passage of Intruder in the Dust, Faulkner describes Pickett with his “long oiled curls” in the moments just before the charge.
Shortly after this moment, following orders from Robert E. Lee, the flamboyant general sent his men across an open field straight into a hellish cannonade and volleys of rifle fire from the waiting Union forces. Half of Pickett’s men were killed, wounded or captured on the spot. Following the battle, Pickett wrote a bitter, finger-pointing after-action report that Lee then suppressed on the grounds of maintaining morale.
A little more than six months later, the despondent Pickett, now in command of troops in North Carolina, ordered the hanging of 22 captured Union soldiers, POWs who were accused of having deserted from the Confederate Army. After the war, he narrowly escaped a war crimes trial when Ulysses S. Grant wrote an equivocal but ultimately effective letter in his support.
Pickett was no longer the “permanent boy,” (as Michael Shaara describes him). He retreated to Norfolk, Virginia, where he tried to support his family selling insurance. He died at age 50 of a liver abscess, a defeated man. Sallie Pickett, who was only 32 at the time of his death, set out to rehabilitate her late husband’s reputation, casting him as the embodiment of all that was moral and superior about the Old South.
She had more than 50 years in which to do it – and that turned out to be plenty of time. We are still living with the bitter consequences of her revisionist narrative today.
As for the Daughters of the Confederacy, they are still much in the news. Starting in the 1890s, their campaign to glorify the mystique of the Lost Cause has involved erecting some 700 Confederate memorials, including the statue of Robert E. Lee on horseback that occasioned the deadly protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, 2017.
At that time, the Daughters of the Confederacy released a statement expressing their dismay that hate groups have taken the Confederate flag and other symbols as their own: “We are descendants of Confederate soldiers, sailors and patriots. Our members are the ones who have spent 123 years honoring their memory with various activities in the fields of education, history and charity, promoting patriotism and good citizenship. Our members are the ones who, like our statues, have stayed quietly in the background, never engaging in public controversy.”
Contrary to the Daughters’ press release, the Confederate statues do speak, loudly enough to send a message of white supremacy to all who pass by. As Mayor Mitch Landrieu observed in his powerful speech on the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans, “there is a difference. . . between remembrance of history and the reverence of it.” The Cult of the Lost Cause, he said, “had one goal and one goal only: through monuments and through other means to rewrite history, to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.
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