In the collective and popular historical memory of the American people, Gettysburg seems to stand alone among Civil War battles. Hundreds of books have been written about it, millions of Americans have visited the battlefield, and even a motion picture version of its story has been made. In the minds of most Americans, it is seen as the turning point, the “high water mark of the Confederacy,” and a sort of “beginning of the end” for this great American tragedy. For historians, meanwhile, it is an object of great debate, study, and discussion. They often focus on the great strategic decisions that were made by Lee and Meade because Gettysburg is very much a battle and a campaign that hinged on decisions, and upon the art and execution of command.
However, when one studies those making the command decisions, especially those making tactical decisions on the line, there is one who seems to stand out - Winfield Scott Hancock. Hancock, who was commander of the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps, performed brilliantly at Gettysburg and his battlefield leadership, his commanding presence, and his abilities as a tactician were a critical part of the Union victory. In an earlier blog entry, I wrote about Hancock’s display of moral courage, when he was forced to sacrifice the 1st Minnesota Infantry regiment in order to buy sufficient time to plug a critical gap in the Union line. However, this was just one small demonstration of Hancock’s abilities as a commander.
I might even argue that, perhaps, Winfield Scott Hancock was not only the finest field commander in the Union army, he may have very well been one of the greatest, if not the greatest, field commander in American history. He possessed all the skills required: the ability to quickly interpret the situation and act upon it decisively, superior knowledge of tactics, physical and moral courage, and a clear understanding of the soldier in the line. As he demonstrated at Gettysburg, his mere presence on the field made both privates and generals take heart, and find a little more courage than they realized that they had.
Further, as is often the case with leaders who act with decisiveness, he also was involved in his own small share of controversy, some of which would continue to be discussed and debated long after the war had ended. But, Hancock was, first and foremost, a soldier, as well as a man who would not shrink from a difficult decision. At Gettysburg, he would need to employ those gifts over and over again.
Winfield Scott Hancock was born in Montgomery Square, Pennsylvania in February 1824. The son of a school teacher, lawyer, and life-long Democrat, Hancock was remembered as a bright, spirited youth who played hard as boys will do, but also enjoyed philosophical pursuits such as debate and literature. He seemed to stand out among his peers growing up in Norristown, Pennsylvania, where his family moved in 1828, so much so that, when he was fifteen, he was given the honor of reading the Declaration of Independence to the people of Norristown on July 4th.
Almost a year later, at the tender age of sixteen, Winfield Scott Hancock would enter the United States Military Academy at West Point as part of what would be the class of 1844. He had not planned on being a soldier and his father had been intent upon him becoming a lawyer. However, as a result of a dispute over a horse between the congressman from a neighboring district and a former supporter who had wanted his son to get an appointment to West Point, Hancock was offered a position and it proved to be too good an opportunity to refuse. So, out of an argument over a horse, the career of one of America’s great soldiers began.
Hancock’s class would initially start out with 100 cadets, but dwindled to 54 by the end of the fourth-class year and only 25 by graduation. Hancock’s record at the academy shows him to have been a good student of drawing, science, and tactics, but he graduated ranked only 18th in his class. Once commissioned a second lieutenant, he was assigned to the 6th U.S. Infantry Regiment and served initially in the Red River region of what is now Oklahoma. When the war with Mexico broke out, Hancock and the 6th Infantry would eventually be assigned to Hancock’s namesake, General Winfield Scott, taking part in the landings at Vera Cruz and the campaign that would end in the capture of Mexico City. Hancock would distinguish himself at Churubusco, where he assumed command of his company when its commander was wounded and then led it in a successful charge. In what would be an initial demonstration of his talents as a field officer, he was cited for bravery and brevetted to first lieutenant.
Following the war, Hancock would be assigned to duties in St. Louis, Florida, the Mormon Campaign in Wyoming and Utah, and, finally, in Los Angeles. In all these assignments, Hancock would prove to be solid and dependable, both as a field commander and as regimental staff officer. Never once did he seek or serve in duties in any capacity but that of a soldier in the field. His devoted wife, Almira, whom he had met and married while in St. Louis, would ask him during this period of his career why he preferred to be an infantry officer over duties in Washington or at West Point. He replied, “Because I am only a soldier. This resting fancifully upon my guns, or making guns for others to shoot with, though somebody must do it, or being a professor at West Point, as you desire, is all well enough, and there must be capable officers to perform such duty, but is does not belong to me.” In other words, Hancock preferred duty in the field, at the unit level, which he saw as the true vocation of a soldier.
As the war approached, Hancock found himself a captain, serving as quartermaster in Los Angeles. However, when the war actually came, he received orders to return east and assume duties with the Quartermaster Corps in Washington. This did not sit well with him and he applied for line duty as soon as he arrived in the capital. Fate would then intervene in the form of George B. McClellan, who recalled Hancock’s reputation as a young officer in Mexico and arranged for his promotion to Brigadier General, giving him command of a brigade serving under General Baldy Smith.
From there, Hancock would steadily rise in the Army of the Potomac. His service as a brigade commander in the Peninsula Campaign and at Fredericksburg garnered him a division command in II Corps, which he would lead at both Antietam and Chancellorsville. In all these engagements, Hancock would be noted by his superiors as an outstanding tactician but, perhaps, more so, both they and the average soldier would see him as a tough, charismatic leader, who possessed a true and unassailable presence on the battlefield. Everyone seemed to consider him the model of a soldier. Colonel Theodore Lyman, who later served with Hancock under Ulysses Grant, remembered him as “a tall, soldierly man, with light-brown hair and a military heavy jaw; and has the massive features and the heavy folds round the eye that often mark a man of ability.”
Despite their post-war political and policy differences, even General Grant would later write that, as a leader, Hancock was, indeed, something special.
He commanded a corps longer than any other one, and his name was never mentioned as having committed in battle a blunder for which he was responsible. He was a man of very conspicuous personal appearance. Tall, well formed, and, at the time of which I now write, young and fresh-looking, he presented an appearance which would have attracted the attention of an army as he passed. His genial disposition made him friends, and his command in the thickest of the fight won him the confidence of troops serving under him.
As Grant indicated, it was under fire that Hancock seemed to shine the brightest and it is also when he always seemed to be up front, where things were the hottest. When Hooker’s position at Chancellorsville was collapsing, Hancock was given the job of fighting the rear guard action as the Army of the Potomac retreated and attempted to reform. While he performed this job with consummate skill, one terrified private remembered Hancock’s impact on him as his unit prepared to fight near the burning remains of the Chancellor house.
Suddenly in the midst of our collapse a man on a horse rode down the line. It was awful, but that man rode down the line, tall, magnificent…He rode on a horse, not a muscle quivering, and looking us in the face said, “Gentlemen” –he called his soldiers gentlemen- “we are left to keep them in check until the second line is formed.”…I became a hero by that man’s influence. No Plutarch could have done that for me.
With the defeat at Chancellorsville, Hancock became discouraged. Hooker’s incompetence and inability to lead in battle grieved him deeply. He wrote his wife that he seriously considered resigning, so deep was his disgust, and said, “I have not recovered from our last failure, which should have been a brilliant victory.” When rumors began to fly that Hooker would be replaced and that Hancock might even be in line to succeed him, he wrote Almira, revealing his revulsion at the political influence that was so much a part of the Army of the Potomac: “I have been approached again in connection with the command of the Army of the Potomac. Give yourself no uneasiness—under no conditions would I accept the command. I do not belong to that class of generals whom the Republicans care to bolster up. I should be sacrificed.”
But, fate would again intervene and, rather than receiving command of the army, Hancock would instead ascend to the command position for which he was, perhaps, truly destined. General Couch, II Corps commander and Hancock’s immediate superior, requested a leave of absence as part of a dispute with Hooker. When Hooker refused the request, Couch requested that he be relieved as commander of II Corps. Hooker asked that he reconsider, but Couch was adamant. As a result, Couch’s request was granted and, on June 9, 1863, President Lincoln appointed Winfield Scott Hancock to command the II Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
Hancock had barely taken the reins of command when Hooker began to move the army north in parallel to Lee’s route down the Shenandoah Valley. On June 15, Hancock and II Corps left their camp near Falmouth, Virginia, covering the rear of the army. By June 28, they were near Monocacy Junction, Maryland, where Hancock learned that Hooker had been relieved of command and had been replaced by General George Meade. Hancock’s reaction to this news is unrecorded however, in all likelihood, he was not disappointed. In a letter to his wife, he had criticized Hooker for his failure to maintain the all-important initiative at Chancellorsville, citing it as the reason for the Union defeat. In addition, he and Meade had developed a strong professional friendship while serving together under McClellan, Burnside, and Hooker, and Meade had also come to admire Hancock’s skills on the battlefield.
Between June 29 and July 1, Hancock’s command moved steadily northward, first to Uniontown and then, finally, to Taneytown, where they went into bivouac about 11:00 A.M on the morning of July 1. Hancock immediately reported to Meade’s headquarters, which was also in Taneytown, and, in discussions with the new commanding general, he “was informed as to his intention with reference to giving battle to the enemy, the orders for preparatory movements being then ready for issue.” More specifically, Meade “stated, in general terms, that his intention was to fight on Pipe Creek; that he had not examined the ground, but, judging from his maps, it was the strongest position he could find; that the Engineers were examining and mapping it, and that he had made an order for the movement to occupy that line. General Reynolds was in the advance in command of the left wing of the army, consisting of the First, Third, and Eleventh corps, with General Buford's cavalry.”
Hancock returned to II Corps and soon learned, as did Meade, that Buford and Reynolds had engaged elements of the Army of Northern Virginia just west of Gettysburg. However, soon thereafter, Meade also learned that General Reynolds had been mortally wounded. That meant that General Howard, commanding XI Corps, would be left to assume command on the field. Meade needed a man on the scene whom he trust and rely upon, and Howard was not that man. However, apparently, Winfield Hancock was. Meade went to Hancock’s headquarters shortly before 1:00 P.M. and ordered him to proceed to Gettysburg at once and, when there, to assume command of all Union forces. The official orders that were issued detailed what Meade wanted Hancock to do.
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
July 1, 1863--1.10 p.m.
Commanding Second Corps:
GENERAL: The major-general commanding 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.
Reynolds has possession of Gettysburg, and the enemy are reported as falling back from the front of Gettysburg. Hold your column ready to move.
Very respectfully, &c.
Major-General, Chief of Staff.
Hancock immediately reminded Meade that both Howard and Sickles, who was commanding III Corps, were senior in rank to himself. However, Meade said he had a message from Secretary of War Stanton, which authorized him to make any changes in commanders as he saw fit. With that, Meade handed Hancock his written orders, and, by 1:30 P.M., Hancock was on the road to Gettysburg.
Initially, Hancock elected to ride in the rear of an ambulance, where he poured over maps of the area along with his chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel C. H. Morgan. In addition, he carefully studied the instructions contained in Meade’s Pipe Creek Circular. Since Meade had tasked him to both take command of the tactical situation as he found it upon arrival, as well as to determine Gettysburg’s suitability as a battlefield, Hancock was making certain that he understood the nature of the terrain of both areas. Once he was satisfied he had a feel for the local topography, Hancock mounted his horse and, followed by his staff, set out for Gettysburg at a gallop.
As he approached Gettysburg on the Taneytown Road, he heard the booming of artillery and the crackle of distant rifle fire. Soon, he also encountered the confusion of horses, wagons, and artillery trying to make their way to the front against the flow of those who were trying to flee the battlefield. He continued on and, at approximately 3:30 P.M., he arrived on Cemetery Hill, where General Howard was trying to reform the shattered remnants of I Corps and XI Corps. Hancock rode up to the cemetery gatehouse, where he met Howard. What ensued between the two men and the command process that occurred immediately thereafter would be the subject of controversy and debate in the years that followed the war.
Hancock’s official report merely states that he “arrived at Gettysburg and assumed the command.” But, in the years following the war, Howard would insist that he had not surrendered authority. Rather, Howard stated that Hancock did not arrive until 4:30 P.M., and, then, reported that he had merely been sent to represent Meade on the field. At that point, Howard says that he told Hancock, “This is no time for talking. You take the left of the pike and I will arrange these troops to the right.” Hancock reportedly agreed to these terms and Howard insisted he only later learned that Hancock was to have been in command.
However, Hancock would always dispute Howard’s claims and the bulk of evidence supports his version of the story. According to Hancock and members of his staff, when Hancock met Howard, he informed the XI Corps commander that he had been ordered to assume command and possessed written orders to that effect. Howard declined to see the orders and not only turned over command, but also said that he was glad Hancock had come. This version of events is also supported by the account of Captain E. P. Halstead, a member of Doubleday’s staff who witnessed the meeting. In addition, Halstead also says that Hancock told Howard that he had been assigned to “select a field on which to fight this battle in the rear of Pipe Creek.” Then, Halstead recalled, Hancock looked around and said, “But I think this is the strongest position by nature upon which to fight a battle that I ever saw, and if it meets your approbation I will select this as the battlefield.” Howard readily agreed and Hancock said, “Very well, sir, I select this as the battlefield.”
Hancock then set about vigorously positioning his forces and trying to restore some sense of order. First, he had XI Corps complete its occupation of Cemetery Hill by having them take positions behind the stone walls in their front and throw out skirmishers towards the outskirts of town. General Schurz, whose men had been mauled defending the north side of Gettysburg, commented that Hancock’s “mere presence was a reinforcement, and everybody on the field felt stronger for his being there.” Hancock’s aide, Colonel Francis Walker, later wrote that much of the activity, while intended to prepare for a continuation of the fighting, was also designed to present “the bravest show of force that can be made” so as to deter the Confederate forces from attacking until more of the army could reach the field.
He next deployed the badly worn elements of Doubleday’s I Corps to the left of the XI Corps, extending the Union line down the slopes of Cemetery Hill and across the Taneytown Road onto Cemetery Ridge. Doubleday recalled Hancock riding over to him and telling him that he was in command of the field. As he did so, he directed Doubleday to send Wadsworth’s division to the right, across the Baltimore Pike to Culp’s Hill. However, Hancock’s chief of staff remembered the exchange to be slightly more heated and typical of Hancock’s commanding presence. Lieutenant Colonel Morgan wrote that Hancock had observed Confederate forces moving up the ravine between the town and Culp’s Hill. He immediately sent a staff officer over to Doubleday for troops to block the advance. When the staff officer met Doubleday, he was given a series of excuses as to why I Corps had no one to send. Hancock apparently rode up as this discussion was ensuing and, upon hearing Doubleday’s remarks, rose up “indignantly” in his stirrups and told the I Corps commander, “Sir, I am in command on this field; send every man you have got!”
Hancock then personally directed the 5th Maine Artillery to also take up a position on Culp’s Hill along with Wadsworth’s division. The young commander of the battery described his memories of Hancock on this occasion and it serves as yet another example of Hancock’s ability to inspire a sense of urgency and confidence.
In the center of the plateau was a group of general officers and orderlies. It was a scene of utmost activity, and yet there was no confusion. Prominent in the group—on horseback, erect, unmoved amid the throng of retreating, defeated, and well-nigh worn-out soldiers—sat a man born to command, by birth and education a soldier of high degree, competent to evolve order out of the chaos of retreat, cool, calm, self-possessed, the master of himself and his place. I rode up to him and, saluting, reported with the battery with which I was serving. Turning quickly to his right and rear, and pointing to the knoll on the northwestern slope of Culp’s Hill, he said: “Do you see that hill, young man? Put your battery there and stay there.” I shall never forget the inspiration of his commanding, controlling presence or the fresh courage he imparted, his whole atmosphere strong and invigorating.
Not long thereafter, the lead division of XII Corps, under General Williams, arrived on the scene and was deployed to the right and rear of Wadsworth division. General Geary’s division came up the road next, and Hancock, who was concerned about having the line’s left turned, positioned them to the south near Little Round Top. Finally, Hancock ordered all the trains to the rear in order to clear the roads for the rest of the army as Meade ordered them forward.
In the midst of all this activity, at about 4:15 P.M., Hancock dispatched one of his aides, Major Mitchell, to General Meade to tell him that the army’s position at Gettysburg offered a good position for defense and that he could now hold it until nightfall. Then, a little over an hour later, he sent another aide, Captain Parker, to Meade with a written message for the commanding general.
5.25 P.M., JULY 1, 1863
GENERAL: When I arrived here an hour since, I found that our troops had given up the front of Gettysburg and the town. We have now taken up a position in the cemetery, and cannot well be taken. It is a position, however, easily turned. Slocum is now coming on the ground, and is taking position on the right, which will protect the right. But we have, as yet, no troops on the left, the Third Corps not having yet reported; but I suppose that it is marching up. If so, its flank march will in a degree protect our left flank. In the meantime Gibbon had better march on so as to take position on our right or left, to our rear, as may be necessary, in some commanding position. General G. will see this dispatch. The battle is quiet now. I think we will be all right until night. I have sent all the trains back. When night comes, it can be told better what had best be done. I think we can retire; if not, we can fight here, as the ground appears not unfavorable with good troops. I will communicate in a few moments with General Slocum, and transfer the command to him.
Howard says that Doubleday's command gave way.
General Warren is here.
Your obedient servant,
WINF'D S. HANCOCK,
Major-General, Commanding Corps.
Once the message was en route to Meade, Hancock found General Slocum, commander of XII Corps, and transferred overall command of the field to him. With that action complete, Hancock headed down the road to find his own corps, which had advanced during the day and was now only three miles away. In a little less than two hours, Hancock had acted decisively by electing to have the Army of the Potomac fight from its current position south of Gettysburg, restoring some confidence and military order, and deploying his forces in such a manner that they could fend off any renewed attack. In addition, his eye for the terrain and his sense of the battlefield had led him to position Union forces in what would eventually become the Army of the Potomac’s main line of battle and one that would indeed be difficult for Lee to overrun.
On the morning of July 2, Hancock and his corps marched the final three miles from Taneytown to Gettysburg, arriving about 7:00 A.M. Meade, who had arrived early in the morning, had elected to continue the deployment of the army along the same line Hancock had begun the evening before. The XII Corps was digging in along Culp’s Hill on the far right, with the XI Corps to their left on Cemetery Hill. Hancock was ordered to place II Corps on the XI Corps’ left and extend the Union line down Cemetery Ridge to the south. Sickles’ III Corps was to align to Hancock’s left and extend the line further south until it touched the base of Little Round Top. Meanwhile, V Corps was to be held in reserve, as was the rapidly approaching VI Corps.
In placing his men, Hancock put Hays’ 3rd Division on the right, Gibbon’s 2nd Division in the center, and Caldwell’s 1st Division on the left, supported by batteries from the 1st U.S., 1st Rhode Island, 4th U.S., and 1st New York Artillery. Further, Hancock ordered that each division be deployed with one of its brigades held in the rear as a reserve.
The morning and afternoon were quiet except for occasional skirmishing and brief artillery exchanges along the line. However, as late afternoon approached, that would change. Lee had ordered an assault upon what he thought was an open Union left flank. His original plan called for elements of Longstreet’s corps to first attack and seize the Peach Orchard, then pivot left and roll up the Union flank, supported by an assault by Anderson’s division of Hill’s corps. However, by the time Longstreet’s men reached their line of departure for the attack, they found that the Peach Orchard was occupied and the Union left extended far beyond what they had been told.
Part of this resulted from faulty intelligence information but the rest occurred because General Sickles had taken it upon himself to reposition III Corps. Sickles had decided that he did not care for the ground his corps occupied and he moved his men forward to the Emmitsburg Road, deploying them so that they occupied the Peach Orchard, then curved left to the Devil’s Den area. Further, through a series of miscommunications and staff errors, Meade was unaware of this redeployment of III Corps. Worse, Sickles’ movement placed his men far forward of the rest of the army, with his flanks floating and unsupported, and stretched his lines far too thin. Hancock had observed the movement of Sickles’ men and could readily see they were headed for potential disaster. Upon seeing Humphries’ division of III Corps move forward and disconnect itself from the support of II Corps, Hancock turned to his staff and said, “Gentlemen, that is a splendid advance. But, those troops will be coming back again very soon.” His comments would prove prophetic.
At about 4 P.M., Longstreet launched his attack. The plan of attack, however, had been changed when Sickles’ men were found to be deployed in their new positions. Now, the assault would be conducted en echelon from right to left, with Hood’s division starting on the far right against the left of the Union line, followed by McLaws against the Peach Orchard, and then Anderson’s men would move against the left center of the Federal line. The attack was a vicious one and, while Sickles’ men defended their ground fiercely, they soon were falling back. V Corps units were called forward to stop the Confederate advance on the far left as Birney’s division fell back from Devil’s Den.
Meade sent word to Hancock to send a division to Birney’s assistance and to have it report to General Sykes, commanding V Corps. Hancock quickly dispatched Caldwell’s division from his left to Sykes and had Gibbon bring up his reserve brigade in order to extend the II Corps line. Then, as the Union line in the Peach Orchard began to give way, Hancock was told that Sickles had been badly wounded and that Meade was ordering Hancock to assume command of the entire left wing of the army.
Hancock immediately headed south down the line bringing with him Willard’s brigade to support Birney. But Hancock had not gone very far when he met Birney, who reported that his entire line had collapsed and his original position had been lost, leaving only Humphries’ division in place. However, Hancock soon learned that Humphries was also falling back. Hancock quickly ordered Willard to counterattack but Willard was killed moments later as he stood by Hancock’s side. Willard’s men still went in and managed to slow the Confederate advance. Hancock then ordered Humphries to reform his men on the left of II Corps on Cemetery Ridge.
Now, Hancock headed back to his right and found gaps in his line with no one to fill them. At one point, he saw a body of troops moving from his left and thought they were a part of III Corps falling back. He and his aide, Captain Miller, rode towards this group, but soon discovered it was actually an advancing column of the enemy. In fact, they were Wilcox’ brigade of Anderson’s division and they were pressing down on one of the gaps in Hancock’s line. They opened fire on Hancock and Miller, and Miller was hit twice. Hancock ordered Miller to ride to the rear, while he spurred his horse down into a swale, which temporarily sheltered him from further fire. It was at this point that Hancock quickly ordered the gallant 1st Minnesota forward, allowing him to bring reserves forward and fill the gap in the army’s line.
Hancock continued to move up and down his line, patching it wherever he thought there was a threat. As darkness approached, the Union reserves and Hancock’s tactical decision-making began to make a difference. The Confederate assault on the left and center lost its momentum and was forced back. However, firing was soon heard to the right as Ewell’s corps launched assaults against Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill.
First, knowing full well that XI Corps was in weakened condition, and in what was later termed by General Henry Hunt as a “happy inspiration,” Hancock decided on his own to send support to Howard’s men. He was standing with General Gibbon and said, “We ought to send some help over there. Send a brigade. Send Carroll.” Carroll’s men were soon on their way and their arrival on Cemetery Hill helped XI Corps turn Ewell’s men back. But Hancock also knew that XII Corps had sent him forces to support the left-center of the line and feared that Ewell’s attack on Culp’s Hill might require some additional support for Slocum’s corps. Again, without consultation, he told Gibbon to send two regiments to support Slocum’s men.
Hancock’s actions during the late afternoon and evening of July 2 again displayed his tactical and leadership abilities. It also, once more, demonstrated Meade’s well-found confidence on him. Doubleday would later describe Hancock as “indefatigable in his vigilance and personal supervision” on that afternoon, crediting his leadership with saving Cemetery Ridge.
On the morning of July 3, Hancock reported that the II Corps had been so weakened by its losses on July 2, that he was forced to place every man on the line. Further, Carroll’s brigade, which had been sent by Hancock to support Howard the night before, remained on Cemetery Hill with XI Corps. As a result, Hancock’s line in the center was somewhat thin, with no ready organic reserve of infantry available. The morning passed quietly, except for the firing that could be heard off to the right, where XII Corps was busy repulsing an attack by men from Ewell’s corps, and some skirmishing in front of Cemetery Ridge.
At 1:00 P.M., Hancock was having lunch with General Gibbon in the rear of Gibbon’s division. He was in the middle of dictating an order about fresh beef for his men, when Lee’s artillery opened up a massive barrage, one like nothing ever seen in warfare up to that moment. Lee’s army had assembled some 164 guns for the barrage, which was designed to either seriously damage the Union batteries on Cemetery Ridge or drive them off entirely prior to a final desperate infantry assault by Pickett’s division As Francis Walker would recall, the artillery fire was so intense that “the whole space behind Cemetery Ridge was in a moment rendered uninhabitable.”
As soon as the artillery assault began, Hancock mounted his horse and, accompanied by his color bearer, he slowly rode behind the line, letting every soldier see “that his general was with him in the storm.” As he rode by the cowering infantrymen, he would encourage the men, and make sure all was in preparation for the attack he knew would come as soon as the artillery fire subsided. Hancock knew his soldiers and knew that, under such terrible fire, they needed to see and hear their corps commander. But, he also knew that infantry would not psychologically withstand such a barrage for long and that they needed to see their own artillery answering the Confederate guns. But, the Federal guns were still silent.
Hancock rode to his batteries and found they were not returning fire because General Henry Hunt, chief of the Army of the Potomac’s artillery, had ordered that the guns to hold their fire for fifteen minutes and then to only fire back “deliberately and slowly.” Defying Hunt’s directions, Hancock ordered the batteries to open fire immediately. As the Federal guns on Cemetery Ridge opened up, batteries on Little Round Top and Cemetery Hill soon joined them. Hunt later criticized Hancock’s pre-emptive command as not only unnecessary but also damaging to the Federal defense. Hunt would maintain that Hancock’s order caused II Corps artillery to exhaust their long-range ammunition too soon and that; as a result, Pickett’s men were able to penetrate the II Corps line. He complained that regulations on this matter were too obscure and that Hancock should not have been allowed such authority. He bluntly stated that, “On this occasion it cost us much blood, many lives, and for a moment endangered the integrity of our line if not the success of the battle.”
Walker would respond to this challenge and write that; first, Hancock was in command of the line of battle. He had been given that authority by General Meade and was not required to observe the “discretion of one of General Meade’s staff officers.” Further, he would argue that Hancock knew what was best from both the tactical and morale points of view. Walker stated quite correctly that, for over two years, Hancock had “lived with the infantry, marching with them, camping among them, commanding them in numerous actions, keeping close watch on their temper and spirit, observing their behavior under varying conditions and trials.” Therefore, Walker argued, Hancock, and not Hunt, was the most qualified to determine the best overall course of action.
When Pickett and Pettigrew’s infantry began their assault, Hancock again was seemingly everywhere, conferring with his commanders and personally directing and encouraging the troops. Colonel Francis Randall, commander of the 13th Vermont Infantry, remembered that as the Confederate infantry bore down on his position, “Our general officers were quite solicitous for this position, General Hancock repeatedly coming to me and giving me the benefit of his advice and encouragement.”
As the enemy closed on Gibbon’s front, Hancock ordered General Stannard to send two regiments of his Vermont Brigade of I Corps forward to hit the attacking Confederate infantry on their right flank with an enfilading fire. This order was carried out with devastating effectiveness on Pickett’s men. But, as he rode next to Stannard and was providing directions to Colonel Randall, he was hit near the groin by rifle fire. Randall helped him from his horse and, along with Hancock’s color-bearer, tried to stem the flow of blood. The wound was very severe and had Hancock’s color-bearer not known how to apply a tourniquet, Hancock would most likely have bled to death. Even then, despite the severity of his wound, Hancock refused to leave the field. Raising himself on his elbow, he continued to give orders and, as one regiment passed going forward, he shouted to their commander, “Go in Colonel, and give it to them on the flank!” Finally, as the Confederate attack was repulsed, he allowed the corps surgeon to attend to him and carry him to the rear.
Hancock’s wound was deep, incredibly painful, and would require multiple surgeries before the bullet could be removed. It would be months before Hancock could return to full duty and he was, at times, in near constant pain. He finally returned to command of II Corps just in time for the beginning of Grant’s great summer campaign of 1864. But, when the army moved south, he had to formally request permission to ride in a spring wagon because riding on horseback was still too painful for him to endure.
Some would say that, while he would remain perhaps the best corps commander in the Union army, he was never completely himself again. Therefore, in many ways, Gettysburg was the zenith of Hancock’s military career. His ability to project confidence, courage, and leadership paid undeniable dividends. This was especially true in those waning hours of the first day of battle, when he rode onto Cemetery Hill and provided some badly needed command presence. Despite being placed in a situation that had to be uncomfortable professionally, Hancock seems to have projected himself to be a man who was, and should be, in command. In addition, his keen tactical sense was also in great evidence, as he skillfully placed the forces on the scene into a position that could not easily be taken and provided a basis for Meade to deploy his eventual line of battle.
Then on the second day of fighting, Meade would again readily confer greater command authority on Hancock when Sickles went down and the left was in danger of collapse. Again, Hancock was everywhere, patching a line of battle together with battered remnants of III Corps as well as with the reinforcements Meade sent forward. In addition, his quick and forceful use of the 1st Minnesota bought what might have the most vital fifteen minutes that day’s battle. It was also an example of the kind of moral courage that separates great commanders from the rest.
Finally, on that momentous third day at Gettysburg, he would ride the line, exposing himself to enemy fire, in order to insure his men could see their general and know he was sharing the danger with them. Today, some might see such theatrics as overly sentimental and even foolhardy, but they were a critical piece of the command and leadership formula in 1863 and Hancock knew that fact perhaps better than anyone. While his order for the artillery to open fire and counter the Confederate batteries could be disputed on a technical and doctrinal basis, his belief that it was needed if the infantry were to withstand the enemy barrage is difficult to argue against. Finally, when the massive Confederate infantry assault began, he once more was on the line, providing encouragement and tactical leadership, even after he had been badly wounded.
Hancock led by example as truly as anyone ever has, he knew his craft, and he had an unfailing sense of the battlefield. All of those traits were key factors in the Union victory at Gettysburg.