Friday, July 17, 2020

George Edward Pickett: Is Fort Pickett a good idea?

Fort Pickett was established in 1942 as Camp Pickett.  It has been in more or less continuous use since then.  It was initially home to the 79th Infantry Division but has served many purposes and army units since then.  It is currently used by Virginia National Guard and Air Guard units.  It was named for George Edward Pickett.  The fort's website tells us that "the name was chosen to honor Richmond, Virginia native Major General George E. Pickett, whose ill-fated charge at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania during the US Civil War, holds a unique place in the history of warfare." 

 Almost 80 years later does it make sense to name a military facility after a general who led troops against the United States and its soldiers? I am distantly related to General Pickett and I want to tell you something about his background and my thinking on the issue.  I will conclude that I think it was a bad idea in 1942 and an even worse one today.  

My reasoning has nothing to do with the fact that he and his family were owners of enslaved people.  This is a sad and disturbing fact about my ancestors on my father's side of the family.  Even the branch of the family that left Virginia for Kentucky and then Missouri, my home state, brought enslaved persons with them.  They came to Missouri precisely because it was a state in which slavery was permitted through the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers owned enslaved persons.  Whether or not the abominable practice of chattel slavery ought to cancel out the achievements of these men is a different question from the one I will discuss here.

George Edward Pickett graduated last in his class from Westpoint and served in the United States Army until the outbreak of the Civil War.  He resigned his commission and joined the Confederate Army.  He quickly rose to the rank of Major General, a divisional commander, and demonstrated over and over again that he was well beyond his competence.  He is best known for the final decisive battle at Gettysburg that bears his name, Pickett's Charge.  Known as the High Watermark of the Confederacy, it marked the turning point in the war and the beginning of the end for the Army of Virginia.  The Fort Pickett website delicately describes this as holding a "unique place in the history of warfare."

As a boy and young man growing up in Missouri, I remember my Pickett relatives talking about "The General" with the pride that comes from a family relationship.  Pickett's wife and widow, La Salle (Sally) Corbell Pickett, was a prolific though minor novelist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Her work was part of the Lost Cause literature.  "According to Lost Cause writers, the Civil War did not start because of slavery, secession was a constitutional right, Confederate generals were knightly heroes, and the South only lost because it was outmanned and outgunned."  (Wikipedia)

From "The Heart of a

I read the first of her twelve books, "Pickett and His Men" (1899) and believed her depiction of George as possessing "the greatest capacity for happiness and such dauntless courage and self-control that, to all appearances, he could as cheerfully and buoyantly steer his way over the angry, menacing, tumultuous surges of life as over the waves that glide in tranquil smoothness and sparkle in the sunlight of a calm, clear sky." Her depiction of George as "gallant and graceful as a knight of chivalry riding to a tournament" was the epitome of the Lost Cause romanticization of the rebellion to retain the practice of chattel slavery in the United States. 

I'm sure you heard that "history is written by the winners."  However, in terms of the American imagination about the Civil War, this was reversed.  It was the South's version that most of the country bought into.  It even found its way into mainstream history books which taught that the war wasn't about slavery but states rights and economics.  That narrative conveniently never pointed out that the rebel states wanted to retain the rights to own other human beings which was essential to the economics of the South.  In his biography of General Grant, Ron Chernow quotes General James Longstreet--Robert E. Lee's "old warhorse"--"I never heard of any other cause of the quarrel than slavery."
There were enough statements by the leadership of the Confederacy to establish the goal of the rebellion.  It was indisputably to maintain the institution of chattel slavery.  The Vice-President of the Confederate States, Alexander Stephens, put the matter plainly.  The Confederacy was based on “…the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.”

Writing in the Atlantic Ta-Nihis Coates observes the obvious:  "Thus in 1861, when the Civil War began, the Union did not face a peaceful Southern society wanting to be left alone. It faced an aggressive power, a Genosha, an entire society based on the bondage of a third of its residents, with dreams of expanding its fields of the bondage further South. It faced the dream of a vast American empire of slavery. In January of 1861, three months before the Civil War commenced, Florida secessionists articulated the position directly:

 'At the South, and with our People of course, slavery is the element of all value, and a destruction of that destroys all that is property. This party, now soon to take possession of the powers of the Government, is sectional, irresponsible to us, and driven on by an infuriated fanatical madness that defies all opposition, must inevitably destroy every vestige or right growing out of property in slaves.'"
Frederick Douglass
The Lost Cause literature sought to obfuscate the obvious.  It presented a genteel southern life with cultured gentlemen, beautiful women, obedient children and happy--yes, HAPPY--enslaved persons.  Slavery had elevated them from their natural circumstances into a world of care and concern by generous and thoughtful owners.  This was the view of slavery perpetuated by that literature.  Other literature, generally not read by the white population, presented a different picture.  Read the three autobiographies of Frederick Douglass or Solomon Northrup's 
memoir "12 Years a Slave" to gain a true picture of what chattel slavery was really like.  The image of George E. Pickett that I experienced in Missouri came from that Southern propaganda.

So let's be clear.  Upon his graduation from West Point and his commissioning,  Pickett took an oath to preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.  He decided to join the rebellion of the Confederacy and then served in the resulting war that took 750,000 American lives.  Eight percent of all white males age 13 through 43 died including a devastating 18 percent of that age group in the South.  This war to preserve the right to own other human beings was not a benign effort to preserve a genteel way of life.  It was an assault on justice in defense of white supremacy and Pickett was a leader in that effort.

All of that is horrid enough but there is more.   After the disaster of Gettysburg, Pickett was eventually placed in command of the Department of North Carolina.  When the war began, the available trained North Carolina troops were sent to Virginia to protect Richmond, the Confederate capital.  Home guard units were organized in North Carolina but little attention was paid to defending against Union invasions.  In 1862 the Union forces attacked and took control of New Bern, an important port on the Neuse River with direct access to the Atlantic. From the beginning of the war, many North Carolinians held Union sympathies and did not support succession.  Many of these enlisted in home guard units rather than join the Confederate Army.  As the recruiting pressure mounted even to impressment gangs, they presented themselves to Union forces and enlisted.  In almost all cases, they were never part of the Confederate army.

In 1864 with his division still recovering from its mauling at Cemetary Ridge, Pickett was ordered to retake New Berne.  As with most of his endeavors in the Civil War, he and his troops were not successful.  Most historians lay the blame at his failure to prepare, organize and properly deploy his troops.  However, he did capture more than 200 Union soldiers from a relief column that the Confederates surprised.  Included in these 200 were 22 Union soldiers whom Pickett ordered hanged, claiming they were Confederate Army deserters.  Both Pickett and General Robert E. Lee advocated executions for deserters to stem the hemorrhaging of their troops, particularly in the last two years of the war.  While a few of those executed might have come from Confederate units, most were North Carolinians with Union sentiments who joined the Union units in their area.  When the war ended, Pickett was under investigation for this action as a war crime.  He and his family fled to Montreal in fear of those charges.  He returned to the United States only when granted a promise of non-prosecution at the urging of General Grant, a classmate at West Point and fellow soldier during the Mexican War.

Full disclosure:  I am related to Pickett.  We share a common ancestor:  William Pickett (1700-1766.)  He was my 5th Great Grandfather and George's Great Grandfather.  This makes us second cousins four times removed.  A slight but verified relationship.  In light of the foregoing information, it makes little sense to me to continue with the name Fort Pickett.  It perpetuates an idea that somehow the Civil War wasn't that bad and that those who led it are worthy of emulation.  I think George Edward Pickett V summed up my position:

“I support removal of all statues commemorating and celebrating the Southern Confederates in public locations. They should be permanently removed and either destroyed or sunk in the ocean for a fishing/diving reef: the Graveyard of the Confederacy.

“As to the statues on battlefields, such as Gettysburg, where both Union and Confederate soldiers are represented, it is my opinion that they serve a valid historical purpose in that context, where people can learn about history and the terrible consequences when people refuse to treat all people as equal.”
I think the same applies to all ten bases named for Confederate generals.  While some of them may have been better military leaders than Pickett, they still fought against the United States to protect the institution of slavery.  We should not memorialize these men and set them as examples to others.  All ten are located in states that rebelled.  Their existence perpetuates a view of the Civil War as it was depicted in the Lost Cause.  Statues of these and other Confederate leaders that dot the landscape of the southern United States are not only part of that interpretation effort but also reflect the white supremacy politics of the era of their erection:  the second rise of the Klu Klux Klan in the early 20th Century and the opposition to full civil rights for black Americans in the sixties and seventies.  These monuments were not historical statements about the Civil War but contemporary statements to the descendants of enslaved persons that they were still under the heel of the Old South and its politics of enslavement.  

We all need to remember the history of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation and the fight against equality and justice.  This is not best done by heroic statues honoring those who engaged in and supported those efforts.  It is best done by honest and complete interpretative material in battlegrounds, museums, school curricula and celebrations.  The Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte is a fine example of how this can be done.  In a statement reflecting on nationwide reaction to the murder of George Floyd, the head of the museum wrote these words:  
None of us at Levine Museum pretends to have the answer, but what we do know is that healing begins with history.  If you do not understand the history that got us to this place, then you will not make a difference.  If you don’t know the history, then you are not talking about the right things or addressing the right questions.  
Levine Museum of the New South connects the past with the present to realize the promises of a New South – a place of justice and equity and opportunity for all.  We use history to build community. 
Indeed, let us use history to build community.

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