When Gen. John Reynolds was killed on the first day of fighting at Gettysburg, the Union Army of the Potomac lost a general whom many considered the best in the army. Hearing of Reynolds’ death, Gen. George Meade knew he needed a commander on the field who would make wise decisions and lead and inspire the men. He sent for Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock.
Meade was well aware that sending Hancock would ruffle some feathers. Gen. Oliver O. Howard of the XI Corps was already present, commanding the XI and I Corps after Reynolds’ death. The problem was that Howard was senior to Hancock in rank; Meade was asking Howard to follow a junior’s orders. But Meade knew the men needed Hancock.
Gen. Hancock stood an imposing 6’4″ tall and had the presence and personality to go with his size. He was well-known for his proficiency in swearing and for the spotless white shirts he wore, but this did not mean he was all bluster. One officer wrote, “One felt safe to be near him.” Another stated that even if Hancock were in civilian clothes, the men would follow his orders because of his commanding presence.
Gen. Meade’s confidence in Hancock was not misplaced. Over the course of the battle, it seemed that anywhere help was needed, Gen. Hancock was there, bringing up support–whether manpower or psychological. On July 1st, when he reached the field, Hancock worked with Howard to rally the Union troops and establish a defensive line on Cemetery Hill.
On July 2nd, Hancock sent reinforcements to bolster the III Corps line in the area of the Wheatfield. As the Confederate attack progressed up Cemetery Ridge, Hancock noticed a Confederate brigade approaching a gap in the Union line. The only Union troops nearby were the 1st Minnesota Regiment. Hancock ordered them to charge, then hurried off to find more men to plug the gap. The 1st Minnesota’s plucky charge stopped the Confederates, more by surprise than anything, and bought the needed time. That evening, when Confederates took East Cemetery Hill, Hancock sent over reinforcements to help repulse the Confederate attack.
On July 3rd, Hancock’s II Corps became the focal point of the Confederates’ great charge. At 1 p.m., over 120 Confederate cannons opened fire on the center of the Union army. Seeing the terrible pounding his men were taking, Hancock knew he had to show his men that he was there, right with them, and he must encourage them by his example. As shells exploded around him and cannonballs bounded past, he rode down the entire length of his line, calm and unflappable. When begged to dismount, Gen. Hancock replied, “There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count!” Seeing him, his men, in the words of an officer, “found courage longer to endure the pelting of the pitiless gale.”
Finally, when Gen. George Pickett’s Confederates struck Hancock’s line, Hancock saw the opportunity to flank them. Even as he rode to the left end of his corps, he remained aware of everything going on around him and sent reinforcements to the Copse of Trees to stop the Confederate breakthrough there.
While with the Vermont brigade on the left, as they moved to flank the Confederates, Hancock fell seriously wounded. If not for Gen. George Stannard’s quick work to improvise a tourniquet, Hancock might have bled to death. Despite the wound, Hancock refused to leave the field while the fighting raged.
While Hancock did not single-handedly win the battle for the Union, he, of anyone, perhaps came the closest, through his presence of mind and strong leadership.