Pickett Goes to a Shad Bake…and loses the U.S. Civil War

In late March 1865, generals on the Union and Confederacy sides were playing something of a chess game in Virginia. General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant smelled the end of the war on the horizon. Lee’s army was decimated by wounds and desertions. Morale of the Confederate army was at its lowest point. Lee was trying his best to hold his line and keep Richmond from falling.

The Union, as you might imagine, were trying to accomplish the opposite. Generals Warren and Sheridan were trying to maneuver an attack against the line on Confederate General George Pickett’s right flank. The Union generals thought they had him cornered, but Pickett surprised Warren by advancing and pushing him back. By doing this, however, Pickett realized he had unwittingly exposed himself and correctly surmised that General Warren knew this as well. He was forced to pull his men back to the lines at the crossroads at Five Forks. He immediately received the worst thing in history: a terse message from his boss.

General Lee: “Regret exceedingly your forced withdrawal, and your inability to hold the advantage you had gained. Hold Five Forks at all hazards.”

If Pickett was stressed about this, he didn’t show it. He set his line and, not knowing that two divisions were maneuvering to exploit his weakness, he was fairly confident he could hold it against General Warren. On the afternoon of April 1, scouts describing the area as quiet and thinking no action would be taken that day, he went to the camp of General Rosser, who had extended an invitation to a shad bake.

Before writing this article, I had never once heard the word ‘shad’ and had I been asked to define it, would have gone with a derogatory name for someone who had slept with a sheep or perhaps archaic past participles of shed, shit, or show. The collocative coupling of shad bake threw me through a loop and I deduced it was an animal. In the end, shad is a fish. It is a voluminous fish found in the North Atlantic, which then swims up fresh water streams to spawn.

It has a place of great importance and derision in the American story and it has been said that it is “the fish that fed the (American) nation’s founders.” Shad were introduced to colonists by the Native peoples of New England and the Lenape of the Delaware. William Penn negotiated with the Lenape over shad fishing in the Schuylkill River in the 1680s, having realized its delicacy in both pickling and smoking. At Valley Forge, George Washington’s men were said to have been saved from famine by an early thaw that tricked local shad populations into early spawn.

While the voluminous shad might have fed America’s founding fathers, they might not have been so happy about this. The shad has been called an inside-out porcupine and the devil’s fish because of its thousands of miniscule bones. Picking them out is an laborious, frustrating chore. The legions of shad might be explained away by the fact that they were the last fish anyone wanted to eat. Thus it was only in desperation and when no other food was available that people ate the shad. By the late 18th century it became known as a poor man’s food.  

But the shad fad was not dead. The shad bake has its roots in the traditions of the native tribes of Connecticut. They apparently taught the colonists the baking method of nailing the shad to wooden planks around a fire and angling them in such a way that the excess oils dripped off the fish into dishes below. Thought the shad might have been the last fish anyone wanted to eat, the early 1800s saw a middle class interest in travel and Americana and so the shad bake was rebranded as a quintessential springtime event. It has remained so in communities in New England, throughout the MidAtlantic states, and in the South.

When George Pickett accepted Rosser’s invitation to what would become a terribly infamous shad bake, it was regional rite of spring for tidewater Virginians. It was just after the shad run has been made and so the local tradition was in process. Pickett, probably desperate for a hot meal and a little relaxation after many stressful months, eagerly accepted the invitation. For this, it’s hard to retroactively blame the man, even with the union so close. He was an experienced commander and should have known what was coming. However, that he failed to tell anyone in his camp where he would be is slightly hard not to judge. He did not tell his second in command nor any other soldier that he’d be in Rosser’s camp, which has been hypothesized as trying not to deplete the shad.

While Pickett was enjoying his shad and probably a few beverages, Warren attacked. The full assault occurred without Pickett and, since he had failed to tell anyone where he was going, nobody could find him. Also, between Rosser’s camp and Five Forks there was a thick forest that dampened the sound. So nobody in Rosser’s camp knew what was happening. By the time they (he and Pickett) were alerted, there was nothing they could do. By the time Pickett got to his men, nearly a half of them were wounded, dead, or captured. In concert with the Third Battle of Petersburg the following day, Lee was forced to abandon Petersburg, which led to the capture of Richmond and surrender of his army on April 9 at Appomattox.

George Pickett was an eccentric character, who wore an intricately tailored uniform with gold buttons, his long hair was perfumed and hung in ringlets over his collar. Depending on who you listen to (i.e. his wife or history books) he was beloved by his men or he was seen as intensely arrogant. The fact that 10% of his men deserted towards the end of the war could be exemplary of the latter. What’s seems more certain is that he held a grudge against Lee for sending his men on the famous Pickett’s Charge during Gettysburg, a full on charge which failed at a massive loss of his men. Perhaps his shad-themed negligence was subconscious retribution. However,    Pickett leaving his post wasn’t new. When he became engaged he often left to see his wife without permission and he would evidently go off for a good time and a stiff drink on occasion.

While many accounts of this infamous shad bake include the phrase “and possibly drinking brandy” I have found no fact-based evidence to support this claim. Moreover, though Pickett died of a liver abscess which is questioned as to be from “alcohol or amoebic” causes, I have found very little by way of the man’s drinking habits. With that all said, if Pickett were drinking at the shad bake, it was likely whiskey or brandy.

Alcohol in the Civil War was as rampant as possible. With Union soldiers, whiskey and beer would have been prolific. Beer was more prevalent in the German divisions and whiskey more prevalent in other Union (and Irish) division camps. Because the Union was better supplied than the Confederacy, the southern soldiers relied on mostly whiskey and what they could buy or loot from distilleries they passed on their march. However, due to the problems that alcohol caused to men’s health and other related issues such as violence and dereliction of duty, by the middle of the way both sides were putting more stringent regulations on alcohol use by the soldiers. The Civil War was seen as one of the great impetuses for the early temperance movement, as stories got out about the miserable effects it had on men and nurses saw firsthand how alcoholism could destroy a person’s brain and body.

As late in the war as April 1865 General Rosser’s alcohol supply (if any existed) would probably have been whiskey. Whiskey would have certainly help diners deal with the bones. So, drink that and while you drink it, just remember that if you were late to work today or had a rough day at work, at least your mistake didn’t lose a war and change the course of American history. Bottoms up!

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