I took Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1974) off the shelf on Friday and idly opened to the foreword. I’ve always loved how it includes dramatic biographical sketches of the major players at Gettysburg (Longstreet, for instance, is “bearded, blue-eyed, ominous, slow-talking, crude,” while J.E.B. Stuart is a “laughing banjo player” and Jubal Early a “dark, cold, icy man, bitter, alone”). A fact about George Pickett, of Pickett’s Charge fame, caught my eye:
“Received an appointment to West Point through the good offices of Abraham Lincoln, a personal friend, and no one now can insult Abe Lincoln in Pickett’s presence, although Lincoln is not only the enemy but the absolute utterest enemy of all.”
It’s not that I didn’t believe Shaara, but I decided to go in search of confirmation. What I found was Pickett and His Men, a 1913 book by Pickett’s widow, LaSalle Corbell. Shaara happens to mention her as “a girl half [Pickett’s] age, a schoolgirl from Lynchburg . . . to whom he has vowed ne’er to touch liquor.” She confirms the Pickett-Lincoln connection and adds this juicy anecdote concerning a knock on the door that came shortly after Richmond fell on April 2, 1865:
“Is this George Pickett’s place?”
“Yes, sir,” I answered, “but he is not here.”
“I know that, ma’am,” he replied, “but I just wanted to see the place. I am Abraham Lincoln.”
“The President!” I gasped.
The stranger shook his head and said:
“No, ma’am; no, ma’am; just Abraham Lincoln, George’s old friend.”
Lincoln proceeds to kiss Pickett’s baby while “an expression of rapt, almost divine tenderness and love lighted up the sad face.”
“I had sometimes wondered at the General’s reverential way of speaking of President Lincoln,” Corbell wrote, “but as I looked up at his honest, earnest face and felt the warm clasp of his great, strong hand, I marvelled no more that all who knew him should love him.”
Whew. That’s pretty strong stuff from a Confederate general’s wife. It’s not that I didn’t believe her exactly, but I decided once again to go in search of confirmation. The newspapers of the day did not cover Lincoln’s visit in great detail. “The Richmond papers are, with one exception, non est,” the New York Times reported. As for what sort of folks the president might have been talking to, here is the Times again:
“It is asserted that two or three of the most prominent citizens sought and obtained an interview with Mr. Lincoln during his short stay here. I have been requested not to mention their names.”
Such was Mr. Lincoln’s reputation in the Confederate capital. As it turns out, however, LaSalle Corbell’s reputation would suffer its own blows. Along with Pickett and His Men, she also published in 1913 a collection of letters between herself and the General, and this is where we come full circle:
“In the ensuing decades, the published George Pickett letters became part of the canon of American Civil War literature,” write three scholars in the journal Literary and Linguistic Computing (2001). “Numerous historians cited them, and excerpts appeared in anthologies and collections. Michael Shaara mined them for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels, and Ken Burns highlighted them in his 1990 television documentary The Civil War.”
The upshot? She made them all up. Oh, and she probably plagiarized much of Pickett and His Men, too.
Citing the work of University of Virginia historian Gary Gallagher, the authors note that “Gallagher contended that the tone of the published Pickett letters was too flowery and sentimental for the general to have written, and that they appeared to resemble LaSalle Pickett’s many Lost Cause writings. General Pickett had more knowledge than he possibly could have had at the time the letters were written, and his use of ‘black dialect’ was also suspect.”
But did Lincoln pucker up and kiss Pickett’s baby in Richmond? I don’t suppose we’ll ever know for sure.