Winfield Hancock already looked the part of one of American's most magnificent soldiers even before Gettysburg. The brilliant and observant staff officer Frank Haskell saved his highest superlatives for the Second Corps chief: "Hancock was the tallest [of the army leaders--six feet two inches] and in many respects the best-looking, dignified, gentlemanly and commanding. He was tall and well proportioned, had a ruddy complexion, brown hair, and he wore a mustache and a tuft of hair upon his chin . . . . Had General Hancock worn citizen's clothes, and given commands in the army to those who did not know him, he would be likely to be obeyed at once, for he had the appearance of a man born to command." "One felt safe to be near him," another said. The freshness of his white shirts, which always seemed spotless when everyone else's were dingy, were often mentioned. As a Maine artilleryman wrote, "his very atmosphere was strong and invigorating . . . . I remember (how refreshing to note!) even his linen clean and white, his collar wide and free, and his broad wrist bands showing large and rolling back from his firm, finely molded hands." Grant himself recalled him as having been "tall, well-formed and . . . young and fresh-looking, he presented an appearance that would attract the attention of an army as he passed. His genial disposition made him friends, and his personal courage and his presence with his command in the thickest of the fight won for him the confidence of troops serving under him. No matter how hard the fight, the Second Corps always felt that their commander was looking after them."
Hancock's pre-war career had been ordinary enough. He was born and raised in Norristown, Pennsylvania, less than 100 miles from Gettysburg, where as a schoolboy he showed fondness for things military, organizing a military company among his schoolmates. He entered West Point at sixteen, and graduated in 1844, ranked 18th out of 25 graduates. After a two year hitch in Texas, he acquired battle experience in the Mexican War. Afterward, when the endless routine of army posts drove many other officers back into civilian life, he continued in the army and accumulated additional experience--in the Mormon Expedition, the Seminole War, Missouri and Kansas. Also, as one observer wrote, "he loved 'papers,' rejoicing in forms and regulations and requisitions." Thus, in these years between 1850 and 1861, he developed another of the traits that would make him a great commander, becoming thorough and attentive to detail in staff work that provoked or baffled others. He ended his pre-war career as a captain in command of the quartermaster's depot in Los Angeles where, after Sumter, he presided at a legendary farewell dinner for Albert Sidney Johnston, Lewis Armistead, and other officers who had resigned to "go South."
In the first fall of the Civil War, with rare good judgment, the War Department made him brigadier general. He differed from most Regular Army officers in that he liked volunteer soldiers and did his best to make them feel that they were as good as Regulars, and his men repaid him for that attitude. On the Peninsula, with a mixed brigade--Pennsyvania, New York, Wisconsin, and Maine--he fought so well at Williamsburg that McClellan telegraphed, "Hancock was superb today." (The adjective stuck in the public mind. He would campaign for President as "Hancock the Superb" nearly thirty years later.)
At Antietam in September 1862, Hancock's brigade was held in reserve with the rest of the Sixth Corps. While the battle still raged, Hancock was chosen to replace the fatally wounded Maj. Gen. Israel Richardson in command of the First Division, Second Corps. Hancock arrived after the division's attack on the enemy center had lost its momentum, however, and he merely presided over the men while they held their position in the Sunken Road.
Promoted to major general on November 29, 1862, Hancock led Richardson's old division for the first time at Fredericksburg, where he was ordered to make a futile attack into the teeth of the Confederate defenses on Marye's Heights. A bullet went through his coat and grazed his abdomen; two thousand of his men fell in front of the Stone Wall before the slaughter ended.
At Chancellorsville, Hancock and his division performed brilliantly in the dangerous assignment of covering the pullback of the Army of the Potomac on May 2. Although unhurt in the many-sided fighting that day, he was struck with several small fragments of shell. When there was a vacancy just after that battle as a result of Second Corps commander Darius Couch's refusal to continue serving under army commander Joe Hooker, Hancock was the obvious choice to step into the command of the corps. He was officially given command of the corps on May 22, just six weeks before Gettysburg. Hancock was thirty-nine.
Hancock not only looked but acted like a soldier. There was a great breezy bluffness about the man. One of his strengths was his loud bull voice, and in an army of expert swearers, witness after witness testified that Hancock had an unrivaled command of the profane idiom--he was the champion of precise cursing, used effectively and with vigor. His men liked to tell how, at the Battle of Williamsburg, he had galloped up, outdistancing his staff, to order his troops to the charge: "the air was blue all around him," one of them recalled admiringly. One colonel said Hancock "always swore at everybody, above all on the battlefield." At Chancellorsville, Hancock had started a habit of placing regiments in important positions in person, vaulting from his horse, grabbing the first man on the left of the regiment's front line, physically planting the soldier firmly on the desired spot and roaring, "Will you stay here?" Whether the shaken enlistee could manage to make a sound or not, Hancock would order the colors to align accordingly and the regiment to form, then remount and ride off.
While it is true that he had commanded the corps for only a few weeks at Gettysburg, the men knew him already as the major general of their First Division. Besides, it did not take long under the leadership of such an officer to make you know that you were one of "Hancock's men." Besides being a great natural leader of men, he was an excellent tactician. Grant later remarked that he knew of no blunder Hancock had made on the battlefield. Although outranked by all the other infantry corps commanders except the Fifth Corps's Maj. Gen. George Sykes, he was commanding general Meade's most highly trusted friend.
At Gettysburg Hancock wore a black felt slouch hat "stiff enough for the brim and crown to hold their shapes," an officer's undress uniform coat buttoned at the top and open at the waist, a sword belt under the coat, and a staff officer's sword.
| With the exception of Robert E. Lee, no general at Gettysburg dominated
men by the sheer force of his presence more completely than Hancock. One of
the greatest soldiers in American history, he was, unlike Lee, at the top of
his powers in early July 1863. His presence and direction were crucial on all
three days of the battle.|
Rarely in warfare has the arrival of one man on a battlefield been more timely and consequential than Hancock's at Gettysburg on July 1. Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz of the Eleventh Corps, who was there in the panic of the aftermath of the first day's fighting and saw Hancock arrive with orders from Meade to take charge, testified "The appearance of General Hancock at the front was a most fortunate event. It gave the troops a new inspiration. They all knew him by fame, and his stalwart figure, his proud mien, and his superb 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." Abner Doubleday, another major general at the scene, agreed: "Hancock was our genius, for he at once brought order out of confusion and made such admirable dispositions that he secured the ridge and held it." One of Hancock's subordinates painted the same 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 reformed." A Maine artilleryman could never forget the "inspiration of his commanding, controlling presence, nor the fresh courage he imparted. . . ."
Meade arrived to assume control in the middle of the night, and on the morning of July 2, Hancock's Second Corps arrived and was posted in the Union center, from Cemetery Hill a mile or so south to where Sickles's Third Corps took over. At the climax of the afternoon fighting, when Longstreet's attack on the Union left was thundering ominously close to Hancock's depleted portion of the line, Meade learned that Sickles had been wounded. He immediately put Hancock in command of the Third Corps in addition to his own, placing him effectively in control of all the Union troops in the battle area, from Cemetery Hill to Little Round Top. He then had perhaps his finest hour improvising the defense which held back the long gray lines of Anderson's division in the late afternoon. He seemed to be everywhere at once, placing regiments by hand as he had done at Chancellorsville and directing desperate charges by individual regiments--such as the heroic self-immolation of the 1st Minnesota.
July 3 was plotted like good fiction--Pickett's Charge, the Confederacy's ultimate effort, was aimed right at Hancock. Hancock was constantly in view of his men, inspecting his lines and remaining close at hand to respond as quickly as possible to any emergencies. Even though the war's most famous assault headed directly toward his own command, Hancock still managed to exceed his authority, giving orders to Newton's troops and Hunt's cannoneers. In the final stages of the fighting, riding over to Stannard's (First Corps) brigade to give it an order, he was wounded in the front of the right thigh. The wound put him out of action, but the last of the Confederate attackers were turned back only a few minutes later, and the battle was over.
At first Hancock thought he had been shot with a tenpenny nail. It was, in fact, a bullet which had hit the pommel of his saddle and carried splintered pieces into the wound. A tourniquet was made from a handkerchief and was twisted with a pistol barrel to stop the flow of blood. A surgeon on the field probed the wound with his finger and removed the nail and pieces of wood, and the bullet was removed more than a month later, but he would never be the same. After a lengthy and painful recuperation, Hancock returned to the Second Corps in December 1863, but his wound quickly opened when he started riding and broke open continually over for the next year, forcing from the field for weeks at a time. He finally retired from active duty during the Petersburg siege in November 1864.
For further reading:
Hancock, Mrs. W.S., ed. Reminiscences of Winfield Scott Hancock. New York, 1887
Jordan, David. Winfield Scott Hancock: A Soldier's Life. Indianapolis, 1988
Tucker, Glenn. Hancock the Superb, Indianapolis. 1960
Walker, Francis A. General Hancock. New York, 1894