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Controversy swirls around Pickett's sword

Hot market for artifacts of Civil War fuels abuse of buyers and sellers

Gettysburg : 138th Anniversary

July 08, 2001|By Jeff Gammage | Jeff Gammage,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

George Edward Pickett V is no historian. He's no antiquities expert. And despite his famous name, he's certainly no celebrity. Nobody comes knocking on his door to shake his hand or debate the causes of the Civil War.

He doesn't even go by the name George E. Pickett V. Never has. He goes by Ed. Ed Pickett. A regular name for a regular guy.

Pickett, 45, is the proprietor and sole employee of a small doors-and-windows business. He teaches a weekly yoga class at the YMCA and on off days spends time with his kids or goes to the beach to surf. His wife, Jo, is a surfer, too.

It was no fun growing up as George E. Pickett V. For one thing, nobody else in school had a number after his name. For another, his classmates teased him, forever pointing out that Pickett's Charge was a disaster: More than half the 11,000 who charged Cemetery Ridge were killed, wounded or captured.

Pickett's parents divorced when he was 6. His mother taught first grade, and while they weren't poor, money was tight, and no extravagant gifts were given or expected on Christmas or birthdays. Instead, Wilna Pickett would lead her son to the trunk that contained the remnants of the general's life.

"Remember," she'd tell her son, "some of this stuff is yours."

Pickett didn't know what it was worth - and he didn't care. To him, a good time was heading to Nags Head when the surf was up. He bore his heritage uneasily. Pickett grew up hearing he should become a soldier, like his father, a colonel who served two tours in Vietnam. After high school he went to West Point, as his father had, but he left after a couple of months. The surfer and the Army were a bad match.

So when Pritchard arrived on his doorstep in 1995, Pickett knew little about his namesake ancestor. He was amazed to hear the appraiser explain the importance of each item, its part in events that decided the course of a nation.

`A history lesson'

"It was like a history lesson for me," Pickett said.

Pickett had bigger concerns than the musty contents of an old trunk. He was trying to build a house. His sister was suing him in a dispute over another house. He was 40 years old, earning $40,000 a year, the provider for four children - none named George E. Pickett VI.

To be offered two years' pay in exchange for some old papers and pieces of uniforms seemed unimaginable.

As he and Pritchard sorted through the trunk, they came across the sleeve of a uniform, marked by what looked like a bullet hole and bloodstain. Pritchard quickly connected the sleeve to the general's being shot at the battle of Gaines' Mill, Va.

"He knew that he had been wounded and that this, with the blood on it, that it was likely the sleeve," Pickett later said in court. "And I said, `Well, far out.'"

In 1997 the remains of LaSalle Corbell Pickett, the general's third and last wife, were discovered in an abandoned mausoleum on the edge of Arlington National Cemetery. Her ashes were borne to Richmond and interred beside those of her husband, and news accounts of the ceremony - which featured waving Confederate flags and the playing of Dixie - included comments from Mrs. Pickett's great-great-grandson, Ed. In Pennsylvania, the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg heard the story and invited Pickett to be a guest of honor at their banquet.

That was how Ed Pickett came to be in Gettysburg in June 1998. And it was there that he discovered he'd been whipped as thoroughly as his namesake.

During his speech, Pickett mentioned that he recently sold many of his ancestor's possessions, but he'd kept his family photographs, some of which he'd brought with him. Those he would never part with.

Pickett was introduced to Earl Coates, president of the Friends, and as they chatted someone mentioned Coates' expertise in Civil War uniforms.

"Could you tell me something?" Pickett asked. "What is a Confederate kepi worth?"

Coates was startled. Did Pickett mean the general's kepi? As Pickett talked, Coates realized he was describing the very gold-braided kepi that Gen. Pickett can be seen wearing or holding in numerous photographs.

"Well," Coates said, "just off the top of my head, I'd say between $50,000 and $100,000."

Pickett looked at him for a long moment before he spoke: "That's more than I got for everything."

Pickett didn't yet know it, but his weekend was about to get a whole lot worse.

He began telling Coates what he'd sold and what he'd been paid, but it was hard to hear in the middle of a noisy banquet. They decided to meet at the Friends office on Monday. Meanwhile, Coates went home and did a little detective work, finding out what the City of Harrisburg had paid for Pickett's artifacts.

When Pickett arrived Monday morning, Coates told him to sit down. Then he handed him a pad with a number written on it.

Good advice

Pickett stared at the figure. He didn't say anything. He thought it must be a mistake.

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