The name of George Pickett is forever remembered in Gettysburg, where the immortal charge that bears his name is etched in stone among the monuments on the battlefield and in cemeteries across the South.
His name is also remembered far across the nation, in the town of Bellingham, Washington, where, in 1856, as a soldier for the Federal army, he worked on the construction of a fort, and built a home for his expectant wife.
The Pickett House, actually built by settlers in appreciation of George Pickett, still stands at 910 Bancroft Avenue. Constructed from lumber, a prevalent commodity in the Pacific Northwest, the house where Pickett lived looks much the same as it did when the Picketts lived there.
Pickett, who was born in 1825, grew up on his father’s plantation along the James River in rural Virginia. In the antebellum years, not all plantations were wealthy ones; in fact, plantation was a common name for a farm – and a farm is more apt an adjective for the Pickett property in Virginia. Pickett, who also had a brother, Charles, and a sister, Virginia, was a frank and openly honest man. Considered a free spirit, he disliked doing what his family and peers expected of him. For a time he lived in Springfield, Illinois with his uncle, Andrew Johnston. At his uncle’s law office, Pickett became acquainted with another lawyer and friend to Johnston named Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln and Pickett immediately bonded, and Pickett sometimes confided in Lincoln rather than his compunctious uncle.
Pickett told Lincoln that he would rather go to West Point – where his cousin Harry Heth was going – than study law. Promising to see what he could do, Lincoln mentioned Pickett to his friend and future relative John Todd Stuart, an Illinois Congressman. Through Congressman Stuart, Pickett received the coveted appointment to the famed military academy – and Pickett never forgot Lincoln’s kindness.
Pickett graduated from West Point at the bottom of his class in 1846, in time for war with Mexico. He showed his mettle in the Battle of Chapultepec, and met several influential friends in that conflict, including James Longstreet.
In the years between West Point and the Civil War, Pickett married his sweetheart Sally Minge, but the marriage was short lived. Sally died in childbirth, along with the infant, and Pickett was devastated.
It was perhaps providential that Pickett received orders to build a fort in the Pacific Northwest, and to quell the uprisings in the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound.
The people of the settlement then called Whatcom – which is present day Bellingham – were overjoyed with Captain Pickett’s arrival. In addition to the uneasy concentration of the British on the islands, the natives saw all whites as enemies and didn’t differentiate between the English and the Americans. Many settlers were killed by the tribesmen, and in response many wanted to retaliate. Pickett, as the government representative in that lawless land, was able to stop the killing of settlers, much to the relief of the Americans.
While stationed in Washington, Pickett found love a second time. A young squaw named Morning Mist caught his attentions and the couple soon married. When the new Mrs. Pickett discovered that she was expecting a child, her husband considered moving back to a more civilized area for the birth. He was undoubtedly concerned about losing his wife and baby, as had been his lot a few years before.
The people of Whatcom, hoping that Pickett would remain, built a house for him. The lumber cottage, with two large rooms downstairs and a loft accessible by a ladder, was luxurious according to the standards of the day, at least in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest in the mid-nineteenth century. The house was completed in time for Pickett’s son’s birth in 1857. The boy, named James Pickett, was born in the Pickett House.
Mrs. Pickett, unfortunately, did not recover after the birth, and died a few weeks later. Pickett was again distraught and tried to overcome his grief by working. He oversaw the construction of Fort Bellingham, and continued his face-off with the British on the San Juan Islands. In 1859, a significant uprising between the native population and the British caused Pickett to move to the island with Federal troops, keeping the tensions at bay.
Pickett was in Washington when he heard the news about the secession of Virginia from the Union. He immediately planned his departure to join the Confederacy. He left his young son, just three years old, with a family he knew and trusted. He openly acknowledged James as his son, but realized that, as a soldier, he might not survive the war – and thought that leaving James with people he knew was safer than taking a chance on having him end up in an orphanage.
Though George Pickett survived the war, father and son never saw each other again.
James Pickett – or Jimmy – grew up in the Pacific Northwest. He became a budding artist and worked for several newspapers in Seattle and Portland. He eventually settled in California. After George Pickett died in 1875, the third Mrs. Pickett, the former LaSalle Corbell, sent James his father’s sword – the one he used throughout the war, including at Gettysburg. When James died of tuberculosis in 1889, at age 31, the sword disappeared.
While Pickett’s sword remains lost to this day, there is still a tangible reminder of Pickett’s Charge at the Pickett House in Bellingham. A diorama of the famous charge on Gettysburg’s third day is on display at the house where Pickett lived.
In addition to the plethora of monuments and the pages dedicated to the famous charge in myriad books, at a small wooden house near the Canadian border in Bellingham, Washington, there is also a Gettysburg connection – and a determination that the memory of Pickett, and his place in American history, is never forgotten – from sea to shining sea.
Sources: The Pickett House Museum, Bellingham, WA. Kaur, Kamalia Rose. “The Pickett House Museum”, January 25, 2015. Tucker, Glenn. High Tide at Gettysburg
. Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky & Konecky Publishers, 1958, p. 335. Warner, Ezra. Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders
. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959, p. 239.