Hancock – The Man for the Job

2020-02-15 Hancock 20200215_164718It was shortly after 12:30 p.m., July 1, 1863, in Taneytown, MD. Gen. George Meade, in command of the Army of the Potomac for only a few days, knew that two of his seven corps, the I and XI, were engaged at Gettysburg, thirteen miles away. Now he learned that Gen. John Reynolds—one of the best generals in the army—had been either killed or badly wounded. Not knowing the full situation, he needed someone to replace Reynolds and take charge. He immediately rode over to the II Corps headquarters and Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock. Leave the corps behind, he told Hancock, and ride immediately for Gettysburg. If indeed Reynolds is incapacitated, take command of the field.

It was a bold decision. Hancock had been in command of a corps for only three weeks. Now, Meade sent him to take charge of two corps fully engaged with Confederates. The other odd thing about Meade’s order was that a senior officer was already on the field—Gen. O. O. Howard of the XI Corps. Sending the junior Hancock to supersede him was highly unusual. So, who was this Hancock, that Meade would entrust him with acting as Meade’s own representative? What about him gave Meade the confidence that this new corps commander could correctly assess the situation—whatever it might be—and then competently take the reins of two corps?

Winfield Scott Hancock was a career army officer. He had distinguished himself in the Mexican War, but more recently he had shown his character in the earlier fighting of the Civil War. In May of 1862, at Williamsburg, VA, Hancock demonstrated his unwillingness to back down when he was in the right. Faced with the opportunity to flank the Confederate position, he resisted the order to withdraw. Fortunately for him, the Confederates attacked before he had to either disobey orders or obey against his better judgment. The situation ended well—his men sent the Confederates reeling back and he earned the nickname “Hancock the Superb.”

Antietam, in September of 1862, gave a foretaste of the Hancock of Gettysburg. He was commanding a brigade in the IV Corps when he received orders to take a division of the II Corps. He had never commanded a division, and these men, being of another corps, were new to him. Nevertheless, he took charge, and by his confident bearing, the men knew at once he was their commander.

But July 1, 1863 was different than Antietam. Hancock was heading into a situation of which even Meade did not know the full details. He would take charge of all the Union forces on the field, a demi-army of men who had never experienced his personal command. How did Meade know that Hancock, personally, was the best choice?

From a military standpoint, Hancock’s observation skills would be extremely useful. He had an eye for terrain, probably thanks to his skills at drawing. Just as artists carefully observe their subject, so Hancock applied that observation to the ground around him. Even as he rode to Gettysburg, he noted features of the terrain that would be useful as defensive positions, should the I and XI Corps need to retreat to the “Pipe Creek Line” that Meade had already planned out before Confederate contact was made.

Hancock also put his observation skills to work after his arrival—placing troops on Culp’s Hill to protect his right flank, putting artillery on the little knoll between Culp’s and East Cemetery Hill to cover the steep eastern slope of Cemetery Hill, and even sending a division down to the area of Little Round Top. At two miles away, the hill was not part of the battlefield. But Hancock saw that it formed part of a strong defensive position that centered on his current location on Cemetery Hill. He was, in fact, first to see the “fishhook,” the line that ran along high ground and featured a tight, compact position with short interior lines to facilitate reinforcing any area that needed help.

From a personal standpoint, Hancock had the presence and charisma to take charge. Lt. Frank Haskell, a staff officer in the II Corps, wrote, “I think if he were in citizens clothes, and should give commands in the army to those who did not know him, he would be likely to be obeyed at once.” When fellow soldiers described him, common descriptors included “magnificent,” “splendid,” and of course “superb.” They even described him as Mars, the god of war.

But it was not just his stalwart, imperturbable, soldierly bearing. Warm and friendly off the field, in battle his blue eyes “became intensely cold and had immense power on those around him,” according to Gen. “Baldy” Smith, his superior at the beginning of the war. Gen. Carl Schurz of the XI Corps, writing about Hancock on July 1, recalled, “His mere presence was a reinforcement, and everyone on the field felt stronger for his being there.”

Lest you think the effect was felt only by the generals around Hancock, the average soldier felt the same way. Lt. Edward Whittier of the 5th Maine Battery had participated in the retreat of the I Corps through town on the afternoon of July 1. When he saw Hancock, he wrote later, “I shall never forget…the inspiration of his commanding, controlling presence, and the fresh courage he imparted.”

Lt. Sidney Cooke was part of the 147th New York, one of the first infantry regiments to reach the field. The day had been long and hard for them, and they formed part of the flood of Union soldiers retreating through town—disorganized, but not routed. Cooke’s recollections give a glimpse into the mind of an average soldier in the two shattered corps that evening: “Every man knew how hopeless resistance would be, but Hancock sat his horse, superb and calm as on review; imperturbable, self-reliant, as if the fate of the battle and of the nation were not his to decide. It almost led us to doubt whether there had been cause for retreat at all.”

Any officer whose mere arrival can cause battered, bloodied soldiers who are being chased through the crowded narrow streets of a strange town to think that they are all right now and there was no need for alarm or retreat after all—that man is the one for the job.

Gen. Meade could not have known that the two corps would be shattered by the time Hancock arrived on the field, but he knew that whatever situation the general might find, Winfield Scott Hancock was equal to the task.

A Tale of Two Horses: The Inspiration of “A Very Hell of Fire”

How can a broken toy horse inspire a diorama? Strange as it sounds, such is the case for our diorama of Gen. Meade’s headquarters at Gettysburg. It all started with a gift.

“Saddlebred” is one of the first four Funrise “International Show Horse Collection” horses ever given to Rebecca. (You might think that we should add “and Ruth,” but this Saddlebred is Rebecca’s. You might ask how we keep track, when we have scores of Show Horses, but we know our favorites!) We’re not sure when it happened, but in playing with him as children, we broke off his right hind leg.

Then, in 1995, Rebecca made our first Civil War cats, Generals Lee and Grant, and our interest in the Civil War began. Saddlebred, of course, joined the cavalry along with all of his friends. For a few years, he got along just fine in the Confederate cavalry—sometimes with his broken leg taped on, and sometimes not. And then…destiny knocked on his door.

2020-01-18 20200111_163250In our reading, we came across an account from New York Times correspondent Samuel Wilkeson, written shortly after the battle of Gettysburg. While it was probably difficult for any correspondent to write newspaper articles about the battles they had witnessed, this time was particularly difficult for Wilkeson, as he mourned the death of his son in the first day’s fighting. Nevertheless, he persevered. In his account, he described the massive artillery bombardment that preceded Pickett’s Charge. As Wilkeson described what he saw in the yard and vicinity of the Leister House, where Gen. Meade had his headquarters, we read these words:

Through the midst of the storm of screaming and exploding shells, an ambulance, driven by its frenzied conductor at full speed, presented to all of us the marvelous spectacle of a horse going rapidly on three legs. A hinder one had been shot off at the hock.

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Wait, shot off at the hock? We had two toy horses matching that description! Saddlebred, missing his right, and another horse, missing his left. The quote did not specify which leg it was, so we looked at the poses of the two horses and decided that Saddlebred looked more like he was galloping. Having the perfect horse, we decided we just had to make a diorama of the scene that Wilkeson had described.

2020-01-18 P1220575 ambulanceBecause Saddlebred would portray the ambulance horse, he (obviously) dictated that the scale be 2-inch-tall cats, rather than the 1-inch size that we were likely using at the time. Because the description of the ambulance horse is flanked by a description of the horses in the yard and an account of damage to the house, the ambulance was clearly galloping past the headquarters. So, we built the house and yard. Ruth likes making buildings and vehicles, so she made the Leister house and the ambulance, while Rebecca made the picket fence and garden. We based the features off of period photographs as well as current photos of the house, which still stands on Taneytown Road behind the Angle. Thanks to photos taken shortly after the battle, we were able to portray specific damage to the house, and we even found sticks that matched the shape of the trees in its yard!

Today, on an average day in Civil War Tails, Saddlebred himself might go unnoticed, but the diorama he started always presents visitors with different aspects of the battle than they might notice in our other dioramas. With few cats in sight, the focus lands on the injured horses in the yard and the damage to the house, drawing attention to the plight of the animals during the battle and the civilians who were left to pick up the pieces of their lives after the armies moved on. When a young child looks at the diorama, we like to point out the ambulance. They know what today’s ambulances look like, so this helps them relate to and understand what they are seeing. Sometimes, we even tell Saddlebred’s story—how a broken toy horse inspired the diorama and found his purpose sharing history. Not bad for a ~30-year-old model horse!

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Who Has Changed You?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is New Year’s week, so it’s time for the annual self-reflection and analysis that often leads to yet another New Year’s Resolution that may or may not…survive the month. Today, we consider a slightly different type of reflection and analysis.

Last year, we mewsed about how character is what people will remember of us. We looked at several individuals from the Civil War and how their friends remembered them, and then we encouraged you to think about yourself, and what you would need to change to become who you want to be. It’s easy to focus on superficial changes, such as weight loss, when perhaps we should consider the inner person and whether there are changes to make there.

Today, we encourage you to take some time to ponder the people who have impacted your life. We probably have many people (in real life or in books) who we would say inspire us. But we rarely take the time to ponder why they do.

Pick a person, whether a relative or a person from history, who has been a big part of your life. Then, look at why that person has affected you. How has he impacted your life? How has she inspired you? What is the root behind that person’s actions or words that you remember so well? Finding the root of an action is how we find the character trait—one facet of the inner person that they were.

Sometimes, the connection is obvious. Perhaps you remember the ready smile that was always on a dear relative’s face, showing his or her inner joy and love. But sometimes it is more obscure. Perhaps someone gave you a second chance, and it is only now, years later, that you look back and realize that that one action showed how much that person valued you and cared about you.

Reading a biography and seeing the influences in someone else’s life can help you to look for influences in your own life story. Did he or she have a motto to live by? Who inspired it or taught it to them? Who taught them their work ethic or passion? Who enabled them to pursue the education or career or interest that shaped their future? Who instilled them with a love of country (or family or helping others or…)?

We don’t become who we are in a vacuum. Little nudges from people in our lives (whether in person or in print) shape us. Finding those special people and analyzing why they had an impact on you will make you grateful to them—and inspire you to be like them as you impact others’ lives!

The Battle of Fredericksburg

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After the battle of Antietam in September of 1862, President Lincoln replaced Gen. George McClellan with Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Burnside marched the Army of the Potomac south to the Rappahannock River opposite the town of Fredericksburg. He hoped to use pontoons to cross the river before the Confederates caught up, so he could advance on Richmond. But a delay of the pontoons forced the army to halt and wait.

Meanwhile, the Confederates reached Fredericksburg, across the river. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps took position behind a stone wall on Marye’s Heights, a ridge near the town. Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps formed on Longstreet’s right.

2019-12-14 20191214_130804 cropBurnside determined to break through the Confederate line, then turn and smash the two sections, destroying the Confederate army. Several of his generals disagreed, arguing that such an attack would fail because the Confederates had a strong position with open fields in front of them, leaving the Union attackers unprotected from enemy fire as they advanced. Burnside remained unmoved. After the meeting where he outlined his plan, he asked Col. Rush Hawkins, a brigade commander, what he thought. Hawkins replied, “If you make the attack as contemplated it will be the greatest slaughter of the war; there isn’t infantry enough in our whole army to carry those heights if they are well defended.”

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Two days later, on December 13, Burnside attacked anyway. The Union lines advanced across the fields into a hail of Confederate bullets and shells coming from troops solidly entrenched behind the stone wall. One single shell killed or wounded 18 men in the Irish Brigade. Several times, the Union troops stopped under this withering fire to tear down fences that blocked their way. They continued to within 25 yards of the Confederates before the overwhelming fusillade stopped them. Units became intermingled as more and more men fell. Again and again the Union soldiers threw themselves against the Confederate line. Fourteen charges were made, and each one failed.

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In an attempt to escape the Confederate fire, many soldiers hid in small ravines or lay down behind dead horses. Many did not even try to fire at the Confederates. One bullet would cause the whole Confederate line to return fire. Some men loaded their rifles, then jumped up, fired, and fell as quickly as they could to avoid being shot. But soon the Confederates learned to watch for them in order to shoot them as soon as they rose.

On the Union left, several regiments managed to break the Confederate line. They held their positions for about an hour, until lack of ammunition forced them to retreat.

Finally, night fell, but it did not bring an end to the death and suffering. Some men tried to escape across the pontoon bridges in the darkness, but many could not leave the field. As the night dragged on, many men died from their wounds or froze to death. In all, the Union army lost over 12,500 killed, wounded, or missing at Fredericksburg. The Confederates lost a little over 5,000.

Battlefield Preservation and Why We Care

Why should we care about battlefield preservation? You might expect this Mewsing to be about reasons such as the goal of preserving the ground where our nation’s history was made, the thrill that history buffs get when standing where their heroes stood, or the understanding historians can gain from seeing the lay of the land or walking the terrain. Those are significant reasons for battlefield preservation. But as makers of historically accurate dioramas, we have come to appreciate battlefield preservation in an additional way.

Thanks to preservation, visitors to a battlefield can see features of the terrain that the soldiers had to deal with. We can get a sense of the scale involved, when we know where a particular regiment’s flanks were. Were they squeezed into a tiny spot? Were they stretched so far that they must have been in single file? Was the terrain easy or impossible to cross? Our dioramas take this one step further by helping people to interpret the ground they have just walked, what they have seen, and the facts that they are learning. But it takes accurate terrain on a diorama for visitors to recognize features such as Little Round Top or Devil’s Den. This is where battlefield preservation is so vital.

Our diorama of Little Round Top, “The Boys Are Still There,” is eleven feet long with 2,600 boulders on it. Each hand-shaped boulder is based off of hundreds of photographs of the actual boulders on the hill. If no one had had the foresight to preserve Little Round Top, the accuracy of our miniature boulders and hill would be impossible. Visitors would not be able to look at the diorama populated with soldiers and say, “Oh! We were on that rock! We were near that monument! That’s right in the middle of the action!” Just as importantly, we would not be as well-equipped to tell the stories, through our dioramas, of the men who fought and died here.

Without the preserved ground, the veterans would not have placed monuments and markers. While there is always a certain amount of human error in recalling the events of decades earlier, some monuments are specifically placed so as to mark where a beloved officer fell. The monument for the 140th New York stands where Col. Patrick O’Rorke’s soldiers believed their colonel fell on the crest of Little Round Top. Knowing this and seeing the physical location of the marker will help us to place our cat-soldier of O’Rorke precisely.

Sometimes there is no marker raised by humans, but the ground itself provides the marker. Such is the case with the Oates boulder on the spur of Little Round Top. Col. William Oates (15th Alabama) drew a map showing where his brother, Lt. John Oates, fell mortally wounded. Looking at his sketch and the actual ground, it is possible to identify the location and boulder where Col. Oates wanted—but was not permitted—to raise a marker for the 15th Alabama.

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Seeing our museum visitors make connections as they look at a to-scale diorama with accurate terrain and features is one of the greatest joys of running Civil War Tails. Thanks to the historical records and faithful battlefield preservation, we can help people make those connections, see the battle in a way they never expected, and gain an appreciation for what the participants went through. We really can bring soldiers’ stories to life 156 years later.

This Giving Tuesday, consider supporting the people who make such historically-accurate projects—and through them an accurate representation of our history—possible. There are many local organizations, including the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation which has preserved trenches from the Battle of Cedar Creek in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (which, by the way, is Ruth’s favorite battle, and the subject of a future Civil War Tails diorama!). If you would like to support preservation on a national scale, the American Battlefield Trust is an extremely successful and efficient organization. Previously known as the Civil War Preservation Trust, the ABT now preserves sites not only from the Civil War, but also the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. A recent example of their work is the restored Lee’s Headquarters, here at Gettysburg, where we can finally see the house as it stood 156 years ago.

By preserving battlefields, historical sites, and historical buildings and objects, we can have an impact on someone far in the future. The first person to think of preserving land at Gettysburg could never imagine the impact the National Military Park would have. They certainly never would have guessed that preserving the land would allow for a historically accurate diorama with several thousand clay cat-soldiers and 2,600 clay rocks depicting what happened here!

The Adventures of the Headless Horsecat

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‘Twas a dark and stormy night…. and the Headless Horsecat was spotted at Civil War Tails! He was caught on camera, climbing the rigging of USS Housatonic–but why??

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Looks like he was channeling the storm’s lightning into St. Elmo’s Fire!!

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We hope everyone had a safe and happy Halloween!