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Hancock held Cemetery Ridge

The concluding event of the Gettysburg re-enactment highlights the fateful charge led by Confederate Maj. Gen. George Edward Pickett on the third and final day of the Gettysburg campaign.

After a bombardment of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge with heavy artillery fire, about 15,000 men - including Pickett's entire division and a portion of A.P. Hill's corps - charged, and briefly breached, the first Union line.

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While many accounts of Pickett's Charge suggest a back-and-forth battle with victories and losses on either side, the words and deeds of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock testify to a decisive Union victory that was never really in doubt. The general's confidence is echoed in his own official report on the events at Gettysburg.

Hancock was one of the most capable and experienced commanders in the Union army, and his report of the battle maintains an emotional distance from its subject matter. The bulk of the report is a thorough recounting of the events at Gettysburg, with a particular emphasis on decisive Union victories and special attention reserved for Union casualties.

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The charge itself, ordered by Gen. Robert E. Lee, was preceded by an artillery bombardment beginning at about 1 o'clock in the afternoon.

Hancock writes in his report that "apparently by a given signal, the enemy opened upon our front with the heaviest artillery fire I have ever known." The Union infantrymen found themselves the target of fire from more than 125 guns.

According to David M. Jordan, in his biography Winfield Scott Hancock: A Soldier's Life, a significant portion of the fire was aimed behind the Union 2nd Corps line and onto the back slope of Cemetery Ridge, "where a heavy toll was exacted among stragglers, horses, provost guards, medics and support personnel." Still, the Union batteries suffered great losses during the bombardment, and the infantry was sufficiently cowed.

Saving ammunition

Union gunners were forced to respond with an already depleted supply of ammunition. "We were separated from our supplies by a distance of 25 miles," Hancock would later explain during a series of congressional hearings on Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's conduct as overall commander of the Union forces during the battle.

"We were short of ammunition and were continually husbanding it, and, frequently, during that cannonade, orders were sent to expend as little ammunition as possible, or it would be exhausted." The interview, published in Bill Hyde's book The Union Generals Speak, indicates that the corps had been unable to fill their boxes with ammunition the night before, "even from the artillery reserve."

Making note of the situation in his report, Hancock is particularly complimentary of the artillery of the corps, who although "imperfectly supplied with ammunition, replied to the enemy most gallantly, maintaining the unequal contest in a manner that reflected the highest honor on this arm of the service."

Meanwhile, the infantry troops could do nothing but await their role in the battle. They ducked behind whatever shelter they could find, Hancock notes, "covering themselves as best they might by the temporary but trifling defenses they had erected and the accidents of the ground. Scarcely a straggler was seen, but all waited the cessation of the fierce cannonade, knowing well what it foreshadowed."

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With the Confederate bombardment still at its height, Hancock mounted his horse and rode along the front of his line in order to inspire the troops, even as artillery fire rained down around him. He remained at the front line until the actual charge began. "It was a dangerous and gallant act," writes Jordan, "but it helped to give heart to his men, clutching desperately to the ground, and to nerve them for the ordeal which still lay before them."

A spirited attack

After about two hours, the bombardment ended, Jordan notes, and "between 12,000 and 15,000 gray-clad men emerged from the woods behind the Confederate artillery and started moving toward Cemetery Ridge." Hancock would suggest in his report that "their lines were formed with a precision and steadiness that extorted the admiration of the witnesses of that memorable scene."

The charging infantrymen were not addressed until they entered within 700 yards of the Union troops, at which time "a feeble fire of artillery was opened upon it, but with no material effect, and without delaying for a moment its determined advance." Hancock would later tell Congress that the advancing soldiers "attacked with wonderful spirit; nothing could have been more spirited."

For the most part, though, the Union infantry held strong. Regiments at the right end of the Union line were effective, essentially decimating the Confederate left. Likewise, the fire of Vermont regiments on the Union left, together with artillery fire from Little Round Top, forced the Confederate right to drift closer to the center.

It was at the center, however, that the Union was at its weakest. "Here," writes Jordan, "where the stone wall in front of the trees had an angle which was in effect a bulge in the line, was a potential weak point - a thinly held salient - and here was where the weight of Pickett's attack hit." Amid the smoke of the battle, the Confederates were able to breach the Union line. They penetrated the wall and captured the artillery pieces that had been left behind there.In his report, Hancock recalls being approached by Col. Arthur Devereux, who "applied to me for permission to move his regiment to the right and to the front, where the line had been broken."

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Hancock approved the move, and although there followed some degree of confusion among the Union lines, the ploy was successful. "The ambition of individual commanders to promptly cover the point penetrated by the enemy, the smoke of battle, and the intensity of the close engagement, caused this confusion. The point, however, was now covered."

With the realignment of Union forces, Jordan explains, the battle was essentially over. "Of those Confederates who were not shot or clubbed to the ground, many surrendered and the rest fled. The great assault was over, Pickett's charge had failed, and Gettysburg was a Union victory."

In the battle's waning minutes, Hancock was severely wounded when a rebel ball punctured his groin. He spent the battle's denouement issuing orders from a seat on the ground. "I was wounded at the close of the assault," he later told Congress, "and that ended my operations with the army for that campaign."

Bruce Stocking, who portrays Hancock in films and re-enactments and serves as historian of the W.S. Hancock Society (www.wshancocksociety.org), considers the official report a valuable technical resource, but he is quick to note that it does not offer much insight into the emotional nature of the battle itself. Like many such official reports, Hancock's is "very professional in nature," says Stocking. "The general doesn't get into his personal feelings on anything until you get to the end of the report."

Still, a careful reading of the document does offer some insight into the personality of the general himself. Throughout his testimony, Hancock tends to give credit for things he may have done himself - directives he ordered that were simply followed through on - to members of his staff. "That was basically his nature," Stocking said.

Third-person accounts of Hancock's demeanor on the battlefield are also useful in measuring the role that the general played during Pickett's charge. Stocking suggests a man who was prone to getting caught up in the moment.

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'Emotional person'

"Hancock, during any fight, was a very emotional person. His temper would go up during intense action," Stocking said. More than that, the general was prone to resort to colorful language while on the field, and historian Earl Hess, in his book Pickett's Charge - The Last Attack at Gettysburg, recounts at least one incident in which Hancock let loose with "a stream of profanity which one might have expected from a drunken sailor."

Stocking contends that this was one of the general's greatest assets, suggesting that his emotion on the field could be essential to motivating his troops. "The general was very confident in his abilities, but not necessarily arrogant. Rather he had great confidence in the men he was leading."

Addressing the stoic tone of the general's official report, Stocking is quick to highlight the differences between "Hancock the man who writes the report and signs off on it and Hancock the human being," but indicates that it is the combination of the two that best explains the decisive Union victory at Pickett's Charge.

Nicholas Prindle is a senior, majoring in creative writing, at Loyola College in Baltimore. This article was written as part of an academic internship at The Sun.


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