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Winfield S Hancock: Not so Superb After Gettysburg?

Discussion in 'Civil War History - General Discussion' started by Bee, Nov 13, 2017.

  1. Bee

    Bee 1st Lieutenant Asst. Regtl. Quartermaster Gettysburg 2017

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    One of the revelations in reading Grant biographies was the not so superb overview given of Hancock at the beginning of the Overland Campaign:

    This left Winfield Scott Hancock as the most reliable corps commander in Meade's army. Even he was less than flawless. His aggressiveness concealed his inability to reconnoiter either the enemy's position or or the ground over which he was to advance. Such had been the case on May 10 [1864] and it would be the same again. Before departing to join Burnside, Comstock picked out the place where Hancock would form his corps in preparation for the attack; however, neither Meade nor Hancock examined the terrain in front of them. Brooks D Simpson, Triumph Over Adversity, [P 309]
    My questions are: Do you think that this was the result of:
    • Hancock suffering from his injury
    • The nature of difficult terrain
    • Hancock was overrated to begin with
     
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2017

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  3. rpkennedy

    rpkennedy Major

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    Personally, I believe it was his wound. He was still unable to sit a horse when the Overland Campaign began and had trouble staying in the saddle for extended periods for much of the campaign. Compared to Gettysburg when he was basically in the saddle for nearly 3 full days, it was a major change. His wound forced him to be far less active and energetic than the Hancock of 1861-63.

    Ryan
     
  4. MaryDee

    MaryDee Sergeant Major Trivia Game Winner

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    I'd also say, from what I've read, that most of the problem was his wound, which never really healed. It's hard to inspect terrain or otherwise run a battle from an ambulance or with the limited riding he could do. It finally forced him off the battlefield, which is why he ended up in charge of trying the Lincoln assassination conspirators.

    In modern times, he wouldn't have been allowed back on duty if he weren't completely healed. Of course those were the days when army commanders were allowed to run around with serious concussions (Hooker at Chancellorsville).
     
  5. rpkennedy

    rpkennedy Major

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    He gave up command in November 1864 but probably should have done so several months before, possibly in July or August.

    Ryan
     
  6. Burning Billy

    Burning Billy Sergeant

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    I agree.

    I'm curious if any posters will go with overrated. The list of men to command a corps in the Civil War is fairly short, and against that list the only name that stands out as possibly being better is Longstreet. If I were a civil war army commander I'd rather have Hancock commanding a corps, even on his worst day, than the likes of Dan Sickles or Leonidas Polk on their best. :D
     
  7. chucksr

    chucksr Corporal

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    Are there any other examples of Hancock's lack of skill as a corps commander? One alleged failing is hardly enough to criticize a flag officer with the war record that Hancock had achieved.
     
  8. christian soldier

    christian soldier Sergeant

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    Bee. I think Dr. Simpson answers your question and I totally agree with his assessment : "Hancock's aggressiveness concealed his inability to reconnoiter either the enemy's position or the ground over which he was to advance." Apparently, he constantly committed this same mistake again and again. His injury would not enable him to reconnoiter an enemy's position or determine the proper terrain over which to conduct an attack. He could rely on competent members of his staff to perform these most important tasks. Hancock was a good commander but certainly not superb. According to military strategist Frederick the Great, "A commander must always be guided by the terrain and its features." David.
     
  9. JerseyBart

    JerseyBart Brigadier General Moderator Forum Host

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    Ewell lost a leg, not the same after.
    Hancock grievously wounded in the groin, not the same after.

    Anyone else? Likely.

    If you spill your blood, guts and body parts and return changed, you get a pass. If that person is unfit for duty it would be his superiors’ duty to find him a new one.
     
  10. chucksr

    chucksr Corporal

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    This then certainly excludes, Grant, Lee, Longstreet, A.P. Hill, Ewell, Meade (relied on Hancock, who is already excluded previously), Hood, and leaves us with maybe three "commanders"---Sherman, Thomas, and Johnston.
     
  11. christian soldier

    christian soldier Sergeant

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    chucksr. Correct me if I am wrong, but are you stating that my quotation from Frederick the Great is incorrect and does not apply to any civil war battle in which the commanders you have mentioned participated in? Please clarify your remark. David.
     
  12. cash

    cash Brev. Brig. Gen'l

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    I know that's what Michael Shaara wrote in his novel, but was it true? I don't think so. Ewell was the second coming of Jackson at Second Winchester. He acted aggressively at Gettysburg when it was right for him to be aggressive, and when it was right for him to not be too aggressive he wasn't too aggressive.


    Not as capable while the wound still wasn't healed.

    I don't buy the returned changed part. I do buy that an officer with a painful wound that wasn't healed and was unable to perform key functions due to the wound and was distracted due to the pain wouldn't be as capable as prior to being wounded--until the wound healed.
     
  13. Bee

    Bee 1st Lieutenant Asst. Regtl. Quartermaster Gettysburg 2017

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    I was wondering about delegation: apparently his scouts did not do as well of a job as he did.
     
  14. chucksr

    chucksr Corporal

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    Frederick the Great's quote, as quoted, is general enough to acclaim or vilify any flag officer but using the preface to that quote to claim that Hancock failed to use knowledge of terrain "...again and again" is not correct--matter of fact, as I recall, it was his knowledge of terrain that reassured Meade to stay on Cemetery Hill and Ridge--a great call. But, if you wish, using Frederick's general criteria, the flag officers I listed all made mistakes in recognizing and/or utilizing terrain properly--some on multiple occasions.
    In short, I don't think the criticism of Hancock is justified--in particular or in comparison with contemporaries of flag rank.
     
  15. christian soldier

    christian soldier Sergeant

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    Hancock obviously did not apply this principal during the Overland Campaign, if Dr. Simpson is to be believed. Any of the general officer's you have previously mentioned that did not apply this basic principal of Frederick the Great, I bet lost the battle. Also, the Cemetery Hill position was already reconnoitered and established as good fighting ground long before Hancock arrived on the scene. Furthermore, when I used the words, "again and again" in my sentence, I was responding to Bee's stated question as mentioned in the above post. In conclusion, I would put Frederick the Great's military record up against Hancock's military record any day of the week. Just my opinion for what it is worth. David.
     
  16. christian soldier

    christian soldier Sergeant

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    Bee. I would think that a Corps commander could rely on at least one good staff officer to survey terrain and perform the necessary tasks at hand. David.
     
    NH Civil War Gal and mofederal like this.
  17. Bee

    Bee 1st Lieutenant Asst. Regtl. Quartermaster Gettysburg 2017

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    Even MORE for what it's worth: the rest of the paragraph contains a critique of Meade for the same reason, which foreshadowing suggests further blunders to come (Cold Harbour)
     
  18. mofederal

    mofederal 2nd Lieutenant Member of the Month

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    You need to remember that Hancock was in need of good staff officer's after Gettysburg. Frank Haskell was one of his best, and he had obtained a Colonel's commission and command of the 36th Wisconsin. He was killed at Cold Harbor. His wound would have meant incredible pain, and I read somewhere what they pulled out of the wound, when it was eventually discovered. He should have asked for reassignment earlier and let someone else take command. I believe he felt an obligation to his men.
     
  19. JPK Huson 1863

    JPK Huson 1863 Colonel Forum Host

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    Oh Lord, who'd be famous? Rather eat a live chicken. The thing is there's been 150 years to dig into these old replays, analyze, replay again and become critical over men who were out there doing astonishing things. Think about it. Even poor Howard- a cleric, for goodness sake, must have been bewilderingly, staggeringly overwhelmed but still refused to back down. It was his job and he would take it on, out of honor, not ego. Not sure he didn't know he was overmatched, for instance, but could he trust responsibility to the next guy?

    No Sickles fan, but Holy Heck, leg blown off, the man lights a cigar to put rumors of his death to rest, being carted away. Battlefields, combat soldiers and commanders - is it honestly possible for proverbial armchair quarterbacks, anyone who did not do that, themselves, to imagine it's possible to critique one of them, much less a Hancock? Both sides- you see men of incredible records get this. " Yea, but was he really.... ? "

    I don't know. These horrific , chaotic, quickly moving battles were not like a chess game- each side gets to say " Hang on, planning my next move ", everyone crosses their legs, sips brandy by the fire and waits politely. What's over rated? We know now some who received largely undeserved kudos- I'm inclined to shush on all of them. They got on horses, or worse, walked, got shot at, blown up, suffered horrific wounds, came back and asked for nothing. Sorry for the slight deviation- but if Hancock isn't safe, we'll be sliding right down the line to all who deserved our respect.
     
  20. Bee

    Bee 1st Lieutenant Asst. Regtl. Quartermaster Gettysburg 2017

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    I am a scientist. It is my nature to probe, analyze, and seek to better understand. No disrespect intended or desired.
     
  21. Andy Cardinal

    Andy Cardinal Sergeant

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    I think Hancock was never quite the same after his Gettysburg wound. It was not fully healed when he returned to duty. Hancock was best when he was on his horse where his presence on the front line inspired his men. The fact that his wound essentially forced him to give up his command shows that his wound was still a problem, and I remember an account of him sitting on the ground pouring water from a canteen over his thigh while the army marched to Petersburg.

    I also think the nature of the fighting was different in 1864 than it had been before. I wouldn't call Hancock's performance lacking in the Wilderness, and it was his troops that did the heavy fighting at Spottsylvania and broke through at the Mule Shoe. Grant & Meade relied on Hancock to carry out the difficult orders and do the heavy fighting throughout the Overland Campaign. I think, like many of his men and officers, Hancock became worn down by the heavy fighting and losses in May and June.
     

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