By John Deppen
On East Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg National Military Park, an equestrian statue of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock stands facing west toward the Evergreen Cemetery gatehouse. The general looks north toward the town, with his right hand outstretched, as if to calm panicked troops or direct a battery into place. The statue marks the approximate location of Hancock’s arrival on the Gettysburg battlefield on the afternoon of July 1, 1863. It was at this spot that Union troops were attempting to rally after being driven through the town by the victorious Confederates of Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell and Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill.
Given the critical role Hancock played on all three days of the struggle, his statue might have been placed in several locations on the battlefield. Federal officers and soldiers remembered his powerful, vigilant presence at many points of danger. Hancock’s inspiration and skillful tactical decisions contributed significantly to the Union victory at Gettysburg. In the words of biographer David M. Jordan, “Gettysburg was Hancock’s field.”
Hancock Became the Man for the Job
On the afternoon of July 1, 1863, Winfield Scott Hancock of Pennsylvania, commanding the II Corps, received an order from Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, chief of staff of the Army of the Potomac: “The major-general commanding [George Meade] has just been informed that General Reynolds has been killed or badly wounded. He directs that you turn over the command of your corps to General Gibbon; that you proceed to the front, and, by virtue of this order, in case of the truth of General Reynolds’ death, you assume command of the corps there assembled, viz, the Eleventh, First and Third, at Emmitsburg. If you think the ground and position there a better one to fight a battle under existing circumstances, you will so advise the general, and he will order all the troops up. You know the general’s views, and General Warren, who is fully aware of them, has gone out to see General Reynolds.”
The time on the dispatch was 1:10 pm. Hancock conferred with Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, expressing concern over the fact that he was junior to other corps commanders who were either already on the battlefield, such as Maj. Gen. Oliver Howard, or approaching the scene of action, such as Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles. Meade, who had replaced Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker as army commander only days earlier, dismissed these concerns, armed with his new authority from Washington to make appointments as he saw fit. Meade needed someone in Gettysburg to take control of a troubling and uncertain situation. He chose Hancock.
Although Meade’s choice was based in part on his friendly relations with his fellow Pennsylvanian, Hancock’s military reputation was by far the deciding factor. When Union forces collapsed at Bull Run in July 1861, Hancock was a captain in Los Angeles, Calif. He had served in the army since 1840, when he entered West Point at the age of 16. Called to Washington in the aftermath of the defeat, Hancock narrowly missed hopeless anonymity in the quartermaster’s department when Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan took notice of him. In September 1861, Hancock was appointed a brigadier general of volunteers and proceeded to demonstrate the qualities that made him one of the best officers in the army.
Hancock trained his brigade well. He did not share the contempt for citizen volunteers felt by many of his regular army comrades. As a graduate of West Point and a veteran of the Mexican War, Hancock was able to use his professional learning and experience to shape his volunteer brigade into a disciplined fighting unit. Although they learned that their commander was strict and stern, the men came to appreciate Hancock for the lessons he taught them.
Hancock was also a skilled and experienced quartermaster and army administrator. He knew that effective leadership came not only from personal bravery, but also from the ability to organize and supply his troops adequately. Hancock spent long hours working through piles of requisitions and other army paperwork. The excellent condition of his brigade reflected this particular skill of Hancock’s, for which his men were most grateful.
Distinguishing Himself in Williamsburg
At the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862, Hancock led the 5th Wisconsin, the 49th Pennsylvania, and the 6th Maine from his brigade, as well as two regiments from another brigade, into combat. Hancock’s untested men stood their ground and repulsed an attack by Brig. Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederates. It was during this hard-fought action that Hancock earned his famous sobriquet from his benefactor, McClellan. The commanding general wrote to his wife that “Hancock was superb today,” and ever after the name “Hancock the Superb” made its way into the newspapers.
When Maj. Gen. Israel Richardson fell mortally wounded at Antietam on September 17, 1862, Hancock assumed command of the 1st Division of the II Corps. In November, when an exasperated President Lincoln removed McClellan from command, there was talk of mutiny and resistance to Lincoln’s authority. Despite his personal fondness and gratitude toward McClellan, Hancock took no part in such talk. He believed that officers and soldiers were in Federal uniform to serve their country and not any particular general.
At Fredericksburg on December 13, Hancock’s division marched into a wall of flame on Marye’s Heights. His troops could not break the Confederate line, but they advanced farther than any other Union troops on that tragic and costly day. In the winter of discontent that followed, Hancock stayed clear of the infighting among his fellow generals. Joseph Hooker unseated the hapless Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside and promised to lead the battered army to victory.
Hooker made many changes in the Army of the Potomac, not the least of which was establishing a system of corps badges designed by Butterfield. The II Corps symbol was the trefoil, or cloverleaf. This symbol began to appear on the uniforms, hats, and flags of Hancock’s division. The affection and pride the officers and men felt for their corps symbol is reflected in its presence on many monuments at Gettysburg and other battlefields. A trefoil decorates Hancock’s tomb in the Montgomery County Cemetery in Norristown, Penn.
Chancellorsville Turns the Tide for Hooker
At Chancellorsville in May 1863, Hooker’s performance fell far short of his promise. General Robert E. Lee and Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson turned the tables on Hooker and ruined his promising offensive. In the face of a Confederate onslaught on May 3, Hancock and his division were called upon to protect the retreat of Hooker’s army. Hancock, astride his horse in the thick of the fight, demonstrated the essential qualities of command during the Civil War: calm thought, decisive instincts, and personal courage. His soldiers needed to hold on so that a new line of defense could be prepared, and they did. Seeing him in the flaming chaos of Chancellorsville, one Union soldier said of Hancock, “I became a hero by that man’s influence.” Few soldiers said the same of Hooker.
In the wake of Chancellorsville, Maj. Gen. Darius Couch, disgusted over Hooker’s ineptitude, requested relief from duty with the Army of the Potomac. Hancock took his place as commander of the II Corps on June 9, the day Union and Confederate cavalry clashed at Brandy Station. In less than two years Hancock had risen from a regular army captain to a major general commanding an infantry corps. He was respected and admired throughout the army as an outstanding officer. One of the few leaders who lived up to his nickname in a crisis, it was Hancock to whom Meade turned when the crisis erupted at Gettysburg.
Hancock Surveys Gettysburg
As he traveled to Gettysburg on July 1, Hancock, riding in a wagon, examined a map of the area. He recognized the importance of the town as a strategic crossroads for both armies. Frustrated with the slow pace of the wagon and recognizing the need for urgency, Hancock mounted his horse and galloped ahead with his staff. As he neared the battleground, Hancock took note of the heights south of the town. Any defensive position would need to incorporate the hills and ridges that extended for more than a mile toward Round Top, a large wooded hill west of the Taneytown Road. Tension among Hancock’s party no doubt increased when they rode past an ambulance carrying the body of Reynolds, killed earlier in the day leading his I Corps men into action.
Hancock arrived on Cemetery Hill at about 4:00 pm. He met Oliver Otis Howard, commander of the XI Corps and the senior officer on the field, and informed him of Meade’s directive placing Hancock in command. What happened next long remained a source of controversy. Some accounts have Howard resisting the order petulantly and cowing the junior Hancock into submission. Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday wrote such an account in a postwar book on the Chancellorsville and Gettysburg campaigns. But the idea of Hancock meekly submitting to Howard was completely out of character for the Pennsylvanian, who was prone to fiery bursts of profanity when his orders were not followed precisely. Hancock himself read Doubleday’s account and wrote in the margins, “No! This is all wrong. General Howard made no objection whatever—no scene occurred!”
Howard, however, wrote to Meade on the evening of July 1, expressing his grief and saying that Hancock’s assumption of command “has mortified me and will disgrace me.” Other officers claimed they witnessed the two generals together that afternoon, but no two accounts of the meeting are exactly the same. The debate about what actually happened between Hancock and Howard on Cemetery Hill continued well after the war, with much heat but little light being shed on the subject. Today both generals have statues on Cemetery Hill, but they face away from each other, their dispute seemingly immortalized in bronze.
A Fresh Presence for the I and XI Corps
Regardless of the controversy, Hancock’s arrival had an immediate impact on the worn troops of the I and XI Corps. An officer of the 16th Maine wrote, “When the shattered forces of the I Corps reached the Ridge [Cemetery Hill], one of the first things we saw, was the magnificent form of General Hancock.” A soldier in the 5th Maine Battery remembered the “inspiration of his commanding, controlling presence” and “the fresh courage he imparted.” Although outwardly calm, Hancock worried that the Confederates would renew their attacks and sweep the Federals off the heights. Assisted by Howard and other officers, Hancock dispatched troops to occupy nearby Culp’s Hill, and placed infantry and artillery in position on Cemetery Hill. When the lead elements of Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum’s XII Corps approached, Hancock ordered them into position near Round Top and its smaller, rocky-faced neighbor to the north, Little Round Top. Brigadier General John Buford, a professional soldier with a keen eye and who was already considered a hero for his tenacious cavalry defense earlier in the day along McPherson’s Ridge, wrote that “in a few moments [Hancock] made superb disposition to resist any attack that might be made.”
Hancock’s next task was to inform Meade about the nature of the Union position. At 5:25 pm he sent word to his commander that the Union position as he saw it “cannot well be taken. It is a position, however, easily turned.” By this time there was little combat. Hancock informed Meade, “I think we can retire; if not, we can fight here, as the ground appears not unfavorable with good troops.” Meade, casting aside his tentative plan to force the Confederates to attack him along Pipe Creek, ordered the Army of the Potomac to converge on Gettysburg. Hancock turned command over to Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum, who arrived on the battlefield around 6:00 pm.
Hancock then rode back to Taneytown to confer personally with Meade. Concerned about the Union left flank, Hancock sent word to Brigadier John Gibbon to halt the II Corps and post it to the west of the Taneytown Road near Round Top. When Hancock resumed direct command of the corps early in the morning of July 2, he moved it into position along Cemetery Ridge, where it remained for most of the battle.
At noon on July 2, the II Corps line faced west toward Seminary Ridge. On the right was the 3rd Division under Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays (a West Point classmate of Hancock’s) with three brigades. In the center stood the 2nd Division commanded by Gibbon with three brigades, and holding the left was the 1st Division, Hancock’s former command, led by Brig. Gen. John Caldwell with four brigades. Hays’ men were linked with the survivors of the XI Corps, while the III Corps under Sickles protected Caldwell’s flank.
Sickles Follows His Own Orders
The colorful Daniel Sickles disliked the position of his corps on the battlefield. Ordered by Meade to occupy the ground vacated by elements of the XI Corps who marched to extend the Union line at Culp’s Hill, Sickles desired to occupy higher ground along the Emmitsburg Road. He felt the position would be excellent for his artillery. At Chancellorsville Sickles had been ordered to abandon high ground in his front, and Confederate artillery had punished his men as a result. He was determined not to repeat this error.
Without proper authorization from Meade, Sickles moved his men forward on the afternoon of July 2, unhinging the entire Union left. Sickles left Little Round Top unoccupied, a dangerous oversight that nearly resulted in catastrophe. Hancock later recalled the impressive sight of the III Corps moving forward, but was befuddled by the move. “I recall looking on and admiring the spectacle, but I did not know the object of it.”
Before Meade could correct the error, the Confederates of Longstreet’s I Corps slammed into the III Corps’ extended and vulnerable new line. While VI Corps troops moved to support Sickles’ left near Devil’s Den and Little Round Top, Hancock received orders to send his leftmost division, Caldwell’s, to bolster Sickles’ weakening line. Hancock also received word that Sickles was wounded, and that Meade wanted him to take command of the III Corps.
Caldwell’s division stormed into the Wheatfield and found itself in a vicious fight. When the Federals in the Peach Orchard on Caldwell’s right collapsed, his men retreated with the survivors of the III Corps. In the midst of the crisis, Hancock worked furiously to patch things together on the wavering Union left. He pulled a brigade from Hays’ division on the right of the II Corps and marched it to the point of danger. Guiding infantry into position to protect an exposed battery, Hancock, in the words of historian Christian Samito, “sprang from his charger and grabbed the first man he saw, a stocky private named George Durgin. Taking him to the left, Hancock shouted, ‘Will you stay here?’ The soldier confidently replied, ‘I’ll stay here, General, until hell freezes over!’ Ordering the rest of the 19th Maine to form on Durgin’s position, Hancock remounted and rode away.”
A Doomed Charge For a Courageous Regiment
At another endangered point of the Union line along Cemetery Ridge, Hancock came under fire from a brigade of Alabamians under Brig. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox who were striving to exploit an opening in the Federal defenses. Looking for troops to stem the tide, Hancock had only the undersized 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. He ordered them to charge the enemy lines, knowing that they would suffer terrible losses. The regiment charged and bought Hancock 10 minutes to bring up reinforcements to plug the gap. Hancock later wrote of the regiment, which lost 215 out of 262 engaged that day, “No soldiers, on any field, in this or any other country, ever displayed grander heroism.”
The battered Union left reformed along Cemetery Ridge and repulsed the remainder of the Confederate attacks. Federal units counterattacked the exhausted Rebels and recaptured some of the ground lost during the afternoon. As evening came on, Hancock heard the sound of heavy fighting from the direction of Cemetery Hill. Sensing danger, he ordered Gibbon to send Colonel Samuel Sprigg Carroll’s brigade to reinforce the Union position on the hill. The brigade arrived in time to throw back an enemy attack that had broken through the Federal infantry and threatened an artillery position near the cemetery. Concerned that Culp’s Hill was also in danger that evening, Hancock dispatched two regiments to bolster the Union position there.
Hancock’s decisiveness at key moments on the afternoon and evening of July 2 helped to prevent the collapse of the Union left and right. One officer wrote that Hancock “was indefatigable in his vigilance and personal supervision, ‘patching the line’ wherever the enemy was likely to break through.”
Meade Summons His Commanders After Nightfall
On the night of July 2, with his army battered but holding firm, Meade summoned his corps commanders to a meeting at his headquarters in the Leister farmhouse. He had commanded the Army of the Potomac for less than a week and he sought counsel. The wounded Sickles was absent, but Hancock and the other corps commanders were present. Division commanders Gibbon, Maj. Gen. David Birney, and Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams attended the meeting as well. Brig. Gen. Gouverneur Warren rested in a corner, having been wounded slightly in the afternoon.
Chief of Staff Butterfield put forth matters to be considered by the group. The army could hold its present position, or retreat to a different one. It could attack, or await the next assault of the Confederates. If the army stayed in position, the generals needed to decide how long they would wait.
All the officers present voiced their opinions. Hancock said the army needed to firm up its present position, given the fighting and chaos during the second day. He believed that the army should attack only if communications were threatened or cut. When asked how long the Union army should hold its ground, Butterfield noted Hancock’s response, “Can’t wait long, can’t be idle.” After hours of discussion, with all the officers concurring that the army should not retreat, Meade decided to hold his ground. As the meeting broke up, Meade approached Gibbon and declared, “If Lee attacks tomorrow, it will be in your front.” Gibbon and the rest of II Corps held the center of the Union line along Cemetery Ridge.
Hancock slept in an ambulance parked near the Leister house with Gibbon and Maj. Gen. John Newton, who had taken over command of I Corps from Doubleday. On the morning of July 3, as Hancock surveyed the disposition of his troops along Cemetery Ridge, Meade approached him with concern that the center was more thinly held than other points of the line; the flanks of the Federal position had been reinforced because they had been the focus of the Confederate attacks on the previous day. But Hancock felt confident that his II Corps could meet any challenge thrown at them by Robert E. Lee.
Like a “Knight of Olden Time,” Hancock Rallies His Troops
At midday, Hancock, Gibbon, Newton, and Meade were joined by cavalry corps commander Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasanton in an impromptu luncheon. Feasting on what Gibbon described as “a tough old rooster,” the officers wondered about the next phase of the battle. Not long after Meade, Newton, and Pleasanton departed they heard a single cannon shot, followed by a second. Then 125 massed Confederate guns opened on the Federal positions. The next phase had begun and the plan quickly became obvious: The massive barrage was trained on the center of the Union line. The Confederates were determined to crack it and win the battle in a massive charge. According to Gibbon, “The whole air above and around us was filled with bursting and screaming projectiles.” The bombardment drove Meade from his headquarters and wreaked havoc behind the Union front lines.
Union guns, some 77 of them, opened fire in reply, creating an awesome noise. The terrific blasting trembled the ground for one hour, then another. Hancock’s infantry hugged the earth and took what cover they could find. During the cacophony and carnage, Hancock argued with Union artillerist Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, who wanted to conserve ammunition for the Confederate infantry attack he knew was coming. Hancock wished to bolster the morale of his men by having as many Federal cannon firing as possible. Hancock attempted to order Union guns not directly under his authority into action, but at least one artillery officer, Lt. Col. Freeman McGilvery, resisted Hancock’s commands. Hancock did not press the issue, since he knew as well as anyone that Lee’s infantry was coming, and there was no time to waste.
Hancock well understood he needed to set an example for his men as they waited helplessly under the cannonade. He decided to ride along his line so that his soldiers could see him and take heart. But his horse apparently did not care for the idea and balked. Borrowing a horse from another officer, Hancock, with an orderly carrying the corps flag, set off along his line as a storm of shot and shell exploded around him. Captain Henry Bingham, one of Hancock’s staff officers, recalled his chief’s bravery at this moment: “It was a gallant deed of heroic valor, such as a knight of olden time might have performed.” Men cheered and Hancock rode on.
When the bombardment—which damaged the Federal batteries on Cemetery Ridge but did not seriously harm Hancock’s infantry—died off, Union soldiers looked to the west and were appalled at what they saw. More than 12,000 Confederate infantrymen were advancing in formation toward them. Hancock remembered that “their lines were formed with a precision that exhorted the admiration of the witnesses of that memorable scene.” As the long gray lines marched toward their destiny, Union cannon opened fire once again. Gaps opened in the attacking ranks but were quickly closed. As the lead brigades came closer, the Federal artillery switched to canister rounds, causing even greater destruction. When the Confederates clambered over the fences lining the Emmitsburg Road, they suffered heavily from canister and the blazing rifles of Hancock’s infantry.
Hancock Falls At the Height of the Fighting
The Confederate attack focused on Gibbon’s line. His 2nd Brigade, the so-called “Philadelphia Brigade” under Brig. Gen. Alexander Webb, held a position at an angle in the stone wall just below the crest of the ridge. It was at this point that the first wave of Southerners from Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s division struck. Elements of Webb’s command fell back from the wall but kept up a fire that pinned the Confederates down on the opposite side of the rocks. Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead, leading a supporting brigade in Pickett’s attack formation, plunged into the confusion with his hat on his sword and, with a few hundred Virginians following him, punched a hole in Hancock’s line at the stone wall.
In the prewar regular army, Hancock and Armistead had served together in the Sixth Infantry and become friends. They had said their farewells at the beginning of the war, hoping that they would not encounter one another on the battlefield. On the hot, smoke-filled afternoon of July 3, the soldiers of Hancock and Armistead fought to the death. After achieving his breakthrough, Armistead fell mortally wounded inside Hancock’s lines. He sent his regrets and his personal possessions to Hancock, but in the swirling confusion and carnage, however, the two friends never saw each other. Armistead died two days later.
Hancock worked to repair the breach in his lines by ordering additional regiments to support Webb’s men. To the colonel of the 19th Massachusetts, who asked to take his men into the desperate combat at the angle, Hancock replied in typical fashion, “Get in there pretty god-damned quick!” Farther down the left of the line, Hancock and Brig. Gen. George Stannard put the 3rd Brigade of I Corps into motion to attack the right flank of Pickett’s men. Stannard’s Vermonters blasted the Virginia brigade of Brig. Gen. James Kemper, who fell wounded. Kemper’s men staggered under fire from their front and right flank. During this fight, a bullet struck Hancock in the upper right thigh, penetrating upward into his groin.
Hancock fell as the fighting reached its climax. Lieutenant George Benedict, an aide to Stannard, recalled the stunning sight of the bleeding Hancock dropping to the ground: “Hooker [another aide to Stannard] and I with a common impulse sprang toward him, and caught him as he toppled from his horse into our outstretched arms. General Stannard bent over him as we laid him upon the ground, and opened his clothing where he indicated by a movement of his hand that he was hurt, a ragged hole, an inch or more in diameter, from which the blood was pouring profusely, was disclosed …”
Gettysburg Was Over
Someone applied a makeshift tourniquet to the wound. A nail from Hancock’s saddle had been driven into the thigh, and a surgeon hastily removed it. Despite the severe injury, Hancock refused to be removed from the field until he knew for certain that his men had repulsed the attack.
Within minutes Armistead’s breakthrough was sealed and the Confederate thrust against the Union center was shattered. The remainder of the 1st Minnesota, still in line after the slaughter of July 2, plunged into the retreating Rebels, capturing several prisoners and a battle flag. When Meade saw large columns of Confederates heading to the Union rear, he initially thought there had been a breakthrough. Then he saw they were unarmed and realized they were prisoners.
One of Hancock’s aides brought up an ambulance to take the wounded general to the rear. Hancock stopped the ambulance long enough to dictate a dispatch to Meade informing him of developments: “I have never seen a more formidable attack, and if the Sixth and Fifth Corps have pressed up, the enemy will be destroyed.… Not a rebel was in sight upright when I left …” Meade sent his thanks to Hancock, but declined to make a counterattack. The next day Lee and the battered Army of Northern Virginia made preparations to begin their agonizing, rain-soaked retreat toward the Potomac and home. The Battle of Gettysburg was over.
Forever Touched By his Wounds
Along with the temporary loss of Hancock, the II Corps paid a heavy price for its valor at Gettysburg. Gibbon fell with a serious wound. Brig. Gen. Samuel Zook of Caldwell’s division was dead, as were 12 colonels and lieutenant colonels. Every one of the corps’ five battery commanders was wounded, four of them mortally. Total losses for the corps amounted to 4,350 out of approximately 10,000 men in the ranks. To its credit, the corps captured 27 Confederate battle flags and about 5,000 prisoners over the three days of the battle.
Hancock traveled home to Norristown, Penn., to begin his recovery. In August he received a note from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton: “Of the many gallant officers wounded on the great field of Gettysburg, no one has more sincerely my sympathy, confidence and respect than yourself.” For weeks Hancock suffered as doctors tried to remove the bullet that struck him. When Dr. Louis Read visited the general, Hancock said that “he felt as if he was going to die, and that he had been probed and tortured to such an extent that death would be a relief.” Dr. Read, taking a practical approach to his medicine, placed Hancock in a chair atop a dining room table so that the general might be in approximately the same position he was when shot. Dr. Read probed deeply into the wound and managed to extract the bullet. This morbid artifact is now in the possession of the Historical Society of Montgomery County in Norristown.
Hancock’s recovery improved, but he would never again be as energetic and vigorous as he was at Gettysburg. He put on weight as a result of his inactivity during the fall and winter. He would return to command the II Corps in the bloodiest fights of the 1864 campaign, but his wound perpetually bothered him, sometimes forcing him to travel in an ambulance. Fragments of bone emerged from the wound, causing much pain. From the Wilderness to Spotsylvania Court House, from Cold Harbor to Petersburg, Hancock and the II Corps fought valiantly and suffered much. In November 1864, Hancock, exhausted and in pain, stepped down as commander of the corps.
Running for Office After the War
Ordered by Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant to recruit a corps of veterans for the spring campaign in 1865, Hancock pursued his task diligently. He was unable, however, to bring enough veterans into the ranks; three long, bloody years of war had been enough for too many men. Grant then sent Hancock to Winchester to command a force that would be part of an offensive thrust meant to end the war, but events moved faster than anyone anticipated. When Lee surrendered on April 9, the war was effectively over, for Hancock and everyone else.
In the aftermath of Gettysburg, Lincoln and Stanton expressed anguish and frustration with Meade’s failure to pursue Lee vigorously and defeat him decisively. Hancock himself later reported, “I think that our lines should have advanced immediately, and I believe we should have won a great victory.” The Northern public, however, was happy to have any kind of a victory to celebrate. In January 1864, Congress voted its thanks to the officers who had defeated the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg. The generals they thanked were Joseph Hooker, George Meade, and Oliver Howard. The omission of Hancock provoked a swift response from his friends and supporters. It was not until April 1866, however, that Congress took note of Hancock’s role at Gettysburg.
Hancock’s national fame was such that the Democratic Party, of which he had been a lifelong member, nominated the general for president of the United States in 1880. Hancock narrowly lost the election to another former Union officer, James Garfield, who ran on the Republican ticket. When his wife informed him of the defeat early the next morning, the still indefatigable Hancock replied, “That is all right. I can stand it.” Every former Confederate state cast its electoral votes for Hancock in recognition of his generosity and strict adherence to constitutional authority during his brief service as a military governor in Texas and Louisiana during Reconstruction. Hancock remained in the army until his death from diabetic complications on February 9, 1886.
“Hancock the Superb’s” Gallant Legacy
Of all the Union generals at Gettysburg, few contributed more to the victory than Hancock. On July 1, it was Hancock who rode ahead to the battlefield in Meade’s place and took command at a crucial moment. He helped to rally Union forces and expand the defensive position set up by Howard on Cemetery Hill. On July 2, it was Hancock who took command of much of the Union left in a dangerously unstable situation. His presence and direction prevented the collapse of the Federal position. His willingness to take the initiative and dispatch troops to other threatened points helped to repulse Confederate assaults. On July 3, Hancock and the II Corps stood firm against Lee’s last great effort at Gettysburg. His movement of reinforcements to seal the breach in his line and his guidance of Stannard’s flank attack proved critical in repulsing Pickett’s advance.
Hancock’s tactical decisions were certainly important, but he made another valuable contribution to the Federal victory, one difficult to quantify or put in precise terms. The fact that “Hancock the Superb” was on the field bolstered the morale of an army that had not won a victory (if it could be called that) since Antietam 10 months earlier. Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz, one of Howard’s division commanders, described Hancock’s arrival on July 1: “It gave the troops a new inspiration. They all knew him by fame, and his stalwart figure, his proud mien, and his soldierly bearing seemed to verify all the things that fame had told about him. His mere presence was a reinforcement, and everybody on the field felt stronger for his being there.”
No other Union general at Gettysburg carried such an aura with him into battle. Had Meade himself been on Cemetery Hill instead of Hancock that fateful afternoon, it is doubtful he would have inspired a similar reaction. Meade was a competent and skillful officer, but he was not the beau ideal of a soldier. In fact, Meade might not have been recognized immediately by the weary survivors of the I and XI Corps, since he was new to his role and not well known among soldiers outside of his former command, the V Corps.
General Francis Walker, a former aide to Hancock and historian of the II Corps, wrote a biography of his former chief in 1894. Of Hancock at Gettysburg, Walker wrote: “In every great career, whether civil or military, there is some one day which is peculiarly memorable; which, by some reason in part of favorable opportunities or especially conspicuous position … becomes and to the end remains the crown of that career; the day which that leader’s name instinctively suggests; the day to which, in disappointment or retirement, his own thoughts go back as the—for him—day of days. Such to Hancock was Gettysburg.”
Today, Winfield Scott Hancock is nearly invisible in the landscape of American memory. He is often confused with his namesake, Winfield Scott, or another prominent American, John Hancock. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a gallant soldier but a mere colonel at Gettysburg, is more famous than the major general who commanded four corps during the battle. George Pickett, a Confederate division commander who, before the war’s end, was relieved of his command for blundering, is a legend compared to the Union corps commander who defeated him on Cemetery Ridge.
In the trinket shops of Gettysburg, there are few Hancock T-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, or throw pillows, and yet, Hancock is everywhere at Gettysburg. He is in the Wheatfield, where Caldwell’s men fought to defend Sickles’ line, and he is along the banks of Plum Run, where the 1st Minnesota crashed into Wilcox’s Alabama Brigade. He is among the guns on Cemetery Hill, where Carroll’s brigade fought off Ewell’s attack in the darkness of July 2, and he is at the Leister house, conferring with Meade and his generals. He is near the Copse of Trees on Cemetery Ridge, watching his men repulse Pickett’s charge. Stoically, he sits on his horse near the cemetery gatehouse, his hand outstretched, watching vigilantly for the enemy’s next move.
Gettysburg was, and is, Hancock’s field.