Rarely in warfare has the arrival of a single officer on a battlefield been more timely and consequential than Hancock’s at Gettysburg. One of his subordinates gave the picture: before he came, “wreck, disaster, disorder, almost the panic that precedes disorganization, defeat and retreat were everywhere.” After he appeared on Cemetery Hill, “soldiers retreating stopped, skulkers appeared from under their cover, lines were re-formed”: in place of a rabble seeking Cemetery Hill as a sanctuary, an army with a purpose–under a leader who could lift it to extraordinary efforts–confronted the Confederates.
There was something dominating and inspiring about Hancock. The men of his corps were essentially the same as those of any other, but at the end of the war they could say that the Second had captured more enemy guns and more enemy colors than all the rest of the army combined. After Grant had taken command and had gone through the Wilderness, Hancock could tell him proudly that the corps had never lost a color or a gun, though oftener and more desperately engaged than any other. The Galena tanner was to use the corps cruelly at Cold Harbor, but it nevertheless finished the war, and with a record of a larger number of engagements and an aggregate of more killed and wounded than any other corps in the Northern armies.
(High Tide at Gettysburg, Glenn Tucker, 1958, p. 192)
It’s a theme of the egalitarian part of American identity that individuals make no difference. One person is as good as another after all, before the tide of history as before anything else.
It’s a fiction of course.
Winfield Scott Hancock is now remembered by Civil War buffs, fans of Ron Maxwell’s battle films (Gettysburg and Gods and Generals) and virtually no one else.
And yet, at every moment when it seemed victory was in the Confederacy’s grasp during the crucial spring and summer of 1863, Hancock was there to save the day. Historians debate the “high tide of the Confederacy”. Some say the first day at Chancellorsville, some the first, second or third days at Gettysburg. At some point on each of those days, the Confederate armies seemed on the verge of routing and destroying the Army of the Potomac which was the guarantor of the Federal government in Washington D.C.
At the crucial point on each of those days, it was Hancock’s leadership that determined the outcome and saved the day. It was his men who rallied and staved off Stonewall Jackson’s charge at Chancellorsville after the Confederates had collapsed the Union flank with a brilliantly conceived and executed surprise attack; his presence (after George Meade gave him the command ahead of two higher ranking generals who were already in the field) that stabilized the panicked Yankee retreat on the first day at Gettysburg and held the crucial high ground for the Federals (according to Tucker, it was literally Hancock’s decision both to take a stand at Gettysburg and where exactly the stand would be made); his decisions regarding troop movements that stymied Lee’s furious attacks on both flanks on the second day; and it was Hancock who held Cemetery Ridge (where Lee had correctly surmised the Union line would be both weakest in manpower and least expecting an attack) against Pickett’s Charge on the third day.
Though he never commanded an army–his various superiors considered him too valuable to recommend for promotion elsewhere–one could make a strong case that Hancock was at least as essential to the preservation of the Union as Lincoln or Grant.
After the war, he was the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 1880, losing a close election to James Garfield (the popular vote was the closest in American history, though Garfield won pretty comfortably in the Electoral College–naturally, allegations of fraud were thrown about in the close states, especially New York–there is nothing new under the sun). As the Hero of Gettysburg was a strong supporter of states’ rights, the opposition painted him as a man likely to hand back the Union victory to the post-Reconstruction South (which voted for him overwhelmingly).
Such is politics.
Garfield was assassinated a few months into his presidency. Hancock continued his military service until his death in 1886, by which time he had, among other things, served as president of the National Rifle Association.
Such is life.
A few statues have been erected in his honor and there’s an elementary school named after him in his native Pennsylvania.
Removing statues of Union heroes is a thing these days, so visit while you can. Because, however bad you think things are, you can rest assured they’d have been a whole lot worse without him.