“I shall not fight upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided.” Winfield Scott Hancock
I am back home after leading another trip to Gettysburg with a new group of students.
I always come away from Gettysburg with a new appreciation of the sacrifice that was made there by so many Americans. I am always humbled and learn something new. I only wish that most Americans and our leaders of both political parties as well as most media types and pundits could grasp what I experience on each visit to this “hallowed ground.”
Quite honestly I do not think that the vast majority Americans understand, appreciate or value in the slightest the sacrifices of the men who fought and in many cases died to preserve the Union at Gettysburg. Even among those who do I think that the object of their appreciation are the military aspects of the battle often taken in isolation, not the profound strategic dimensions of what this battle as well as the fall of Vicksburg in the west at the same time had on the war.
Nor do they appreciate the massive political, ideological and social effects bought about by those Union victories in ending the war and how those effects redound to us today. This is especially true of the pundits, politicians and preachers, the “Trinity of Evil” as I call them whose shrill voices urge on divisions between our people; including some that call out for violence to maintain their groups social, economic or religious advantages over others. Quite a few even lament the fall of the South and the institution including the washed up rock and roll musician of the political right Ted Nugent who wrote in the Washington Times in July 2012: “I’m beginning to wonder if it would have been best had the South won the Civil War.”
All of that concerns me as an American and a historian; because I realize how dangerous such historical ignorance and visceral propaganda is in the life of any nation. Thus when I go to Gettysburg, or for that matter any other battlefield of our American Civil War the sacrifices of those men and what they fought to maintain is again imprinted on my heart.
Abraham Lincoln eloquently noted about those soldiers who fought to turn back the Confederate tide at Gettysburg in his Gettysburg Address:
“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
While I am an idealist I am also a pragmatist. I respect the right of others, even those that disagree with things that I very much believe in and support. Like it or not the keystone of our governmental system is one of compromise. That being said having relatives that fought on both sides of the American Civil War that I am not a sectionalist. Nor am I a person that attempts to use the political system to ensure that others have to follow my religious beliefs or to enrich certain groups. The democracy that is part of our republic’s system of government is not a perfect system by any means. In fact as the great English Prime Minister Winston Churchill noted “democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others.”
Thus I appreciate military men who maintain their oath to the nation in times of great conflict not abandoning it to support causes that they know are wrong because the people of their state, or interest group seek to divide that Union. Winfield Scott Hancock was one of those kind of men, as was George Meade, and John Buford, all of whom played key roles in defeating the Confederates at Gettysburg.
Hancock, who earned the title “Hancock the Superb” was the commander of the Union II Corps at Gettysburg. Upon the death of John Reynolds early on the first day of battle Hancock was appointed by Meade as commander of the Federal Left Wing, in effect becoming Meade’s deputy commander for the rest of the battle. He was seriously wounded as Pickett’s Charge came to its bloody end at “the Angle” and his dear friend Confederate General Lewis Armistead lay mortally wounded a few hundred yards away.
Hancock is an interesting character. He was from Pennsylvania but was a Democrat. He was not a Republican like Lincoln. Hancock was not a political ideologue but was since he was a Democrat he was suspect by some in the party establishments of both parties and never was given independent command.
Hancock gave his advice to Armistead and others who were preparing to leave the Union in early 1861 including Armistead and his commanding officer Brigadier General Albert Sidney Johnston. He made himself clear:
“I shall not fight upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided.”
During the war he served with distinction and Ulysses Grant wrote of him:
“Hancock stands the most conspicuous figure of all the general officers who did not exercise a separate command. He commanded a corps longer than any other one, and his name was never mentioned as having committed in battle a blunder for which he was responsible. He was a man of very conspicuous personal appearance…. 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 2d corps always felt that their commander was looking after them.”
After the war he supervised the execution of those convicted of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and in various postings in the occupied South attempted to mitigate some of the actions of those bent on vengeance and others who tried to exploit the defeated people of the south for political or economic gain.
Hancock ran for President and lost a narrow election in 1880 to James A. Garfield. After that he returned to the Army and died at the age of 61at his headquarters of complications from diabetes.
He was praised by political opponents. Former President Rutherford B. Hayes wrote:
“if 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.”
Another political opponent Republican General Francis A. Walker lamented not supporting Hancock in 1880 after the great corruption that engulfed the country during “Gilded Age” of the “Robber Barons” the 1880s. Walker wrote:
“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.”
As I stood at the statue that marks Hancock on Cemetery Hill this weekend I again was struck by the bravery, courage and integrity of that remarkable man.