previous next

General Hancock and the artillery at Gettysburg.

I. By Francis A. Walker, Brevet Brigadier-General, U. S. V.

General Hunt, in his article on “The Third day at Gettysburg” [see p. 375], criticises General Hancock's conduct of his artillery, on the ground that his directing the Second Corps batteries to continue firing throughout the Confederate cannonade was both an encroachment upon his own (General Hunt's) proper authority, as chief of artillery of the Army of the Potomac, and an act of bad policy. On the latter point he says:
Had my instructions been followed here, as they were by McGilvery, I do not believe that Pickett's division would have reached our line. We lost not only the fire of one-third of our guns, but the resulting cross-fire, which would have doubled its value.

This, it will be seen, constitutes a very severe impeachment. I have had much correspondence and conversation with General Hancock on the subject; and, as the heroic leader of the Second Corps can no longer reply for himself, I beg leave to speak on his behalf.

In the first place, two antagonistic theories of authority are advanced. General Hancock claimed that he commanded the line of battle along Cemetery Ridge. General Hunt, in substance, alleges that General Hancock commanded the infantry of that line, and that he himself commanded the artillery. Winfield S. Hancock did not read his commission as constituting him a major-general of infantry, nor did he believe that a line of battle was to be ordered by military specialists. He knew that by both law and reason the defense of Cemetery Ridge was intrusted to him, subject to the actual, authentic orders of the commander of the Army of the Potomac, but not subject to the discretion of one of General Meade's staff-officers. General Meade could, under the President's order, have [386] placed a junior at the head of the Second Corps, but whomsoever he did place over the corps became thereby invested with the whole undiminished substance, and with all the proper and ordinary incidents of command.

So much for the question of authority. On the question of policy there is only to be said that a difference of opinion appears between two highly meritorious officers--one, the best artillerist of the army, the other, one of the best, if not the best, commander of troops in the army — as to what was most expedient in a given emergency. Unquestionably it would have been a strong point for us if, other things being equal, the limber chests of the artillery had been full when Pickett's and Pettigrew's divisions began their great charge. But would other things have been equal? Would the advantage so obtained have compensated for the loss of morale in the infantry which might have resulted from allowing them to be scourged, at will, by the hostile artillery? Every soldier. knows how trying and often how demoralizing it is to endure artillery fire without reply.

Now, on the question thus raised, who was the better judge, General Hunt or General Hancock? Had Henry J. Hunt taken command of a brigade of infantry in 1861, had he for nearly two years lived with the infantry, marching with them, camping among them, commanding them in numerous actions, keeping close watch of their temper and spirit, observing their behavior under varying conditions and trials, I believe that by the 3d of July, 1863, he would have become one of the most capable and judicious corps commanders of the army. But in so doing he would necessarily have forfeited nearly all of that special experience which combined with his high intelligence and great spirit to make him one of the best artillerists whom the history of war has known. Certainly a service almost wholly in the artillery could not yield that intimate knowledge of the temper of troops which should qualify him, equally with Hancock, to judge what was required to keep them in heart and courage under the Confederate cannonade at Gettysburg, and to bring them up to the final struggle, prepared in spirit to meet the fearful ordeal of Longstreet's charge. Hancock had full authority over that line of battle; he used that authority according to his own best judgment, and he beat off the enemy. That is the substance of it.

Boston, January 12th, 1887.

Ii. Rejoinder by Henry J. Hunt, Brevet Major-General, U. S. A.

General F. A. Walker, of General Hancock's staff, comments on my expressed belief that, had my instructions for the cannonade of July 3d been carried out by Captain Hazard, commander of the artillery of the Second Corps, the Confederate assault would not have reached our lines, and considers this “a very severe impeachment” of General Hancock's conduct of his artillery. I fully appreciate and honor the motive of General Walker's courteous criticism, and his very kind references to myself, but he writes under misapprehensions which are widespread and misleading, and which, as they place me in a false position, I beg leave to explain.

General Hancock's claim that he commanded all the troops of every description posted on his part of Cemetery Ridge is perfectly valid. It cannot be disputed, and I never questioned it; but all commands must be exercised subject to the established principles for the government of armies. Under these, commanders of special arms issue their own orders direct to their subordinates serving with army corps, who must submit them to the corps commanders with whom they serve. The latter, being supreme on their own lines, can modify or countermand these orders, but by doing so they make themselves responsible for the result. Thus all conflicts or theories as to authority are avoided. Our “Regulations” (Scott's), adopted in 1821, read:

The superior officer of the corps of engineers, or of the artillery, serving with one of the army corps . . . will receive the orders of the commandant thereof, to whom the said superior officer of engineers or of artillery will communicate any orders he may receive from his own particular commandant-in-chief, attached to general headquarters.

Separate paragraphs provided rules for the military “staff” and administration,--the latter including the supply departments. “Staff-officers” are forbidden to give orders except in the names of their generals. From this rule administrative officers are specially exempted, their chiefs directing their respective departments in their own names, but subject to the control of the generals under whom they serve.

All these regulations are essential to the management of a large army, but are only partly applicable to a two-company post, the school in which most of our officers, both of the war office and of the regiments, were trained. So in the “Regulations” of 1861-3, they were all condensed into one short paragraph:

Staff-officers and commanders of artillery, engineers, and ordnance, report to their immediate commanders the state of the supplies and whatever concerns the service under their direction, and receive their orders, and communicate to them the orders they receive from their superiors in their own corps.

Closely examined, this is correct, but it is obscure and misleading. It lumps together officers of the staff and of administration as “staff-officers,” and so connects them with those of the special arms as seemingly to confirm the erroneous idea that engineer officers are staff-officers, and of course that artillery officers must be the same. It is an odd notion, which could not find a lodgment in any other army than our own, that an artillery commandant-in-chief, himself a “corps commander,” and provided with a staff of his own, is “one of the staff-officers” who runs about a battle-field carrying “the actual and authentic orders” of the general-in-chief to other corps commanders. [387] A “staff-officer” is an officer attached to the person or headquarters of a general as his aide or assistant.

To illustrate the general principle as to the service of the special arms, I quote from the “Instructions of Frederick the great” to his artillery. He was himself, by the way, an “artillery specialist” of the highest order, yet I have never heard it suggested that this unfitted him for “ordering a line of battle.” He was also a disciplinarian of the sternest school, yet he “almost preached insubordination” in order to reduce to a minimum the mischief that meddling with the artillery by any general, even the general-in-chief, might occasion. He says:

It sometimes happens that the general in command, or some other general, is himself forgetful, and orders the fire to be opened too soon, without considering what injurious consequences may result from it. In such case the artillery officer must certainly obey, but he should fire as slowly as possible, and point the pieces with the utmost accuracy, in order that his shots may not be thrown away.

As to the other question, that of policy, each general must decide it for himself, and General Hancock presumably acted according to his best judgment in the emergency suddenly presented to him when the cannonade opened. I do not know his reasons for countermanding my orders, and therefore cannot discuss them, even were I disposed to do so. As to the hypothetical case presented by General Walker, the possible effect of the enemy's cannonade on the morale of our troops, and his question, “Who was the better judge, General Hunt or General Hancock?” I may be permitted to reply, that a corps commander ought to be, so far as his own corps is concerned. It is, however, one of the necessary duties of an artillery commander to study the qualities of the other arms, for these must be considered in organizing and distributing the artillery, and are, as we see in this very case, important elements in determining its service. I had studied the Army of the Potomac, believed in its high qualities, and when, for special reasons, I instructed our batteries to withhold their fire for a given period, I knew the severity of the trial to which I was subjecting all the troops. I knew, also, that while the batteries would be the direct object of the enemy's fire, their men must stand idle at the guns and bear its full fury, while the infantry, lying on the reverse slope of the ridge and out of the enemy's sight, would be partly sheltered from it. Yet I felt no misgiving as to the fortitude of my cannoneers, and no doubt as to that of the infantry. I think I was justified by the event, for the troops on General Hancock's line, where my instructions were not followed, and those on General Newton's line (on Hancock's immediate left), where they were followed, were equal in “heart and courage” for the “fearful ordeal of Longstreet's charge.” The object of my orders, however, was to spare them this ordeal altogether by breaking up the charge before it reached our lines. Had m y orders been fully carried out, I think their whole line would have been — as half of it was driven back before reaching our position, and this would have given us our only chance for a successful counter-attack. As it was, the splendid valor of Pickett's division alone enabled the Confederates, although defeated, to preserve their morale intact. Had they been repulsed without coming into immediate contact with our infantry, their morale would have been seriously impaired, their sense of superiority humbled.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Gettysburg (Pennsylvania, United States) (3)
Cemetery Ridge (Oregon, United States) (3)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1861 AD (2)
January 12th, 1887 AD (1)
July 3rd, 1863 AD (1)
1863 AD (1)
1821 AD (1)
July 3rd (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: