“Armistead at Gettysburg” by Keith Rocco
The bonds of friendship forged by soldiers are some of deepest and long lasting that are formed anywhere. Those bonds are formed by military professionals in the small rather closed society that is the regular United States military over years of deployments, isolated duty, combat and a culture that is often quite different than that of civilian society.
When the people of a nation goes to war against each other the military is often the last to split and when it does men that were friends and comrades turn their weapons against each other and seldom with pleasure. Mass levies of civilian volunteers motivated by ideological, sectional or religious hatred tend to take up such causes with great aplomb. But those that serve together, even those that may believe in their cause are often torn between oaths that they swore to defend their country and their family and home. When their decisions are made they often part with great sadness knowing that they could one day meet each other on a battlefield.
The American Civil War has many such tales. One of the most remembered due to it being a key story line in Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels is that of Union General Winfield Scott Hancock and Confederate General Lewis Armistead. This friendship was immortalized in the movie Gettysburg which is based on Shaara’s novel.
Major General Winfield Scott Hancock USA
Hancock was from Pennsylvania was a career soldier and Infantry officer, a graduate of West Point Class of 1844. He served in Mexico and held numerous positions and in 1861 he was stationed in California as a Quartermaster under the command of Colonel (Brevet Brigadier General) Albert Sidney Johnston. One of his fellow officers, who he and his wife Almira became fast friends with was Captain Lewis Armistead, a twice widowed Virginian who also served as a commander of the New San Diego Garrison under Johnston’s command. Armistead was a nephew of the officer who defended Fort McHenry from the British in the War of 1812, a battle which occasioned Francis Scott Key to pen the Star Spangled Banner. Armistead had academic difficulties at West Point and also had an altercation with Jubal Early in which he broke a plate over Early’s head. His father helped him obtain a commission as an Infantry officer and his career was similar to many other officers of his day, Mexico, the Great Plains, Kansas, Utah and California.
As the war clouds built and various southern states seceded from the Union numerous officers were torn between their oath, their friendships with their fellow officers and their deep loyalty to their home state and families even if they personally opposed secession. In the end it was a decided minority of of Southern born officers that remained loyal to the Union, the most prominent of these men were General Winfield Scott and Major General George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga. Thomas’s action cost him his relationship with his immediate family who deemed him to be a traitor. Both men were pilloried and demonized in the most base ways by many in the South, during and after the war. Some Southerners who served the Union were executed when captured, George Pickett, who called for Thomas’ death ordered 22 North Carolinians captured fighting for the Union in Kinston North Carolina and he was not alone.
Brigadier General Lewis Armistead CSA
Armistead and other officers asked Hancock, who was a Democrat advice on what he would do if war came. Hancock’s reply was simple. “I shall not fight upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided”
The Hancock’s hosted a going away party for their friends departing from the service to join the Confederacy. Almira Hancock wrote that “Hearts were filled with sadness over the surrendering of life-long ties.”with the Johnston’s wife Eliza singing the popular Irish song Kathleen Mavourneen:
“Mavourneen, mavourneen, my sad tears are falling, To think that from Erin and thee I must part!
It may be for years, and it may be forever, Then why art thou silent, thou voice of my heart?…”
Armistead was tearful and said “Hancock, good-by; you can never know what this has cost me, and I hope God will strike me dead if I am ever induced to leave my native soil, should worse come to worse.”
At Gettysburg Armistead spoke his fears to his comrades, including Brigadier General Dick Garnett, another of his comrades from the California days as they met the night before the fateful charge of July 3rd. The next afternoon Armistead and Garnett led their brigades of Pickett’s Division against Hancock’s II Corps which was defending Cemetery Ridge.
During the engagement Garnett was killed just before reaching the Union lines and Hancock gravely wounded. Armistead, leading his brigade breached the Union line with his black hat atop his sword was wounded in the right arm and shoulder and fell near one of the Union artillery pieces, a point now known as “The High Water Mark” of the Confederacy. As Armistead lay wounded he was approached by Major Bingham of Hancock’s staff who was responding to Armistead’s making a Masonic sign of distress. When Bingham told Armistead of Hancock’s injury Armistead was grieved and told Bingham to “Tell General Hancock for me that I have done him and you all an injury which I shall regret the longest day I live.” He gave Bignham a wrapped Bible and Prayer book to give to Almira Hancock, inscribed were the words “Trust in God and fear nothing.”
“Minnesota Forward” Hancock directing the Defense by Dale Gallon
Armistead would die from infections caused by his wounds which were initially not thought to be life threatening. Hancock would go on to continued fame and be one of the most admired and respected leaders of the Army during and after the war. He was gracious as a victor and spoke out against reprisals committed against Southerners after the war. He was the Democratic nominee for President losing a close election to James Garfield, losing the popular vote by under 40,000 votes. It was an era of great political corruption and Hancock was one of the few major public figures Even his political opponents respected him for his integrity and honesty. Former President Rutherford B Hayes said “[i]f, when we make up our estimate of a public man, conspicuous both as a soldier and in civil life, we are to think first and chiefly of his manhood, his integrity, his purity, his singleness of purpose, and his unselfish devotion to duty, we can truthfully say of Hancock that he was through and through pure gold.”
A few years after his death Republican General Francis A Walker, lamenting the great corruption of the time said:
“Although I did not vote for General Hancock, I am strongly disposed to believe that one of the best things the nation has lost in recent years has been the example and the influence of that chivalric, stately, and splendid gentleman in the White House. Perhaps much which both parties now recognize as having been unfortunate and mischievous during the past thirteen years would have been avoided had General Hancock been elected.”
The story of Hancock and Armistead is one that reminds us of how hardened ideologues can divide a nation to the point of civil war. It is a story that should give pause to any political or spiritual leader that incites people to war against their neighbor and use their ideology to enslave or brutalize their political opponents.
The blood of the approximately 50,000 soldiers that were killed or wounded during the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg is ample reminder of the human suffering brought about by unrestrained ideologues.