Documentation exists for certain events that occurred 100 or more years ago, while for others evidence is elusive. The latter situation applies to the relationship of a young, attractive wife, and her older husband who served the Confederacy during the Civil War.
LaSalle “Sallie” Corbell described coming across George Edward Pickett on Old Point Comfort beach in Virginia in 1852, when she was 9 and he 27 years old. Sallie related this story years later in her memoirs that portrayed a fantasy life with her “Good Prince.”
The man who became Sallie’s husband is best known for the climactic battle at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, when Maj. Gen. George Pickett led his infantry division across a mile-long field into the face of a firestorm emanating from Cemetery Ridge. The Union army’s repulse of “Pickett’s Charge” annihilated his division and crowned a victory over Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg.
Much of what is known about Sallie Pickett comes from her memoirs, which are lacking corroborating information. What is true, however, is George Pickett married twice before Sallie Corbell became part of his life; his first wife died in childbirth in 1851, and the second soon after a child was born in 1854.
The Civil War brought Sallie and George together in June 1862, when Pickett suffered a shoulder wound at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill in Virginia. According to Lesley J. Gordon’s article “The Marriage of LaSalle Corbell and George E. Pickett” in “Intimate Strategies of the Civil War,” Sallie nursed him back to health.
However, Pickett’s performance at Gettysburg and later on other battlefields left much to be desired in the eyes of Gen. Lee, his commanding officer. As a result, Sallie’s future husband spent the rest of the conflict in backwater assignments away from the main scene of warfare.
Not to be denied, in later years Sallie claimed, “Time has not lessened the fame of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg [and there is] no possibility that future history will produce its counterpart.” She steers away, however, from Pickett’s role in the collapse of Lee’s defensive line around Petersburg, Va., in April 1865, when the Union army overran the Rebel position while Pickett was absent attending a shad bake behind the lines.
In the meantime, George and Sallie decided to get married in September 1863 at St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Petersburg. It came at a lull in the fighting, and, according to Sallie, was a rousing affair, with President Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina in attendance — but, only a brief announcement appeared in a local newspaper.
By June 1864, LaSalle gave birth to George Pickett Jr., “her new little soldier.” Nonetheless, life could not have been easy living with a husband described as “a failed, short-tempered, complaining general [whose] health was poor.”
Exacerbating the situation, after the war, Pickett had no occupational skills. The couple moved in with her parents, but soon fled to Canada upon learning the federal government was investigating George Pickett for war crimes while assigned in North Carolina.
With George sick and depressed, Sallie took a job teaching Latin and became the main provider for her small family. George appealed to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, his former West Point classmate, who issued a parole to Pickett and intervened on his behalf with President Andrew Johnson.
Life became no easier for the couple once back in the U.S., because George failed as a provider, causing Sallie to carry more than her share of the family burden. When Pickett became seriously ill and died in 1975, Sallie was only 32 years old and George Jr. was 12.
Sallie, strong-willed and self-sufficient, landed a job in Washington, D.C., and sent George Jr. to the prestigious Virginia Military Institute. She devoted her remaining years to writing numerous books, poems and an autobiography, in an attempt to resurrect her husband’s reputation.
LaSalle Corbell Pickett lived until 1931 and age 87. Due to burial rules at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Sallie’s remains would not be joined with her husband’s until 1998.
Sallie’s marriage was not perfect, but she had fought the good fight. She left an image of her husband that met her desires and expectations, even though George Pickett was unable to live up to that standard in real life.
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign”; available at Bethany Beach Books. His latest book, “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863” is due out in August 2019, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point