“I feel that in parting from them I am severing the strongest ties of my military life”: Winfield Scott Hancock leaves the Second Corps

On Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26, 1864, the Army of the Potomac lost one of its finest fighting commanders. Winfield Scott Hancock, tenacious leader of the Second Corps, was relieved by Andrew Humphreys and sent to Washington, D.C. to lead in the formation of the First Corps, Veteran Reserve. He was leaving because his health could simply no longer sustain the rigors of the campaigning against the Confederacy. The wound from Gettysburg never fully healed, forcing Hancock to ride in an ambulance throughout most of the Overland Campaign.[1] Pushing through the horrendous pain, Hancock could stand no more and had to relinquish temporary command in the initial attacks against Petersburg in mid-June to attend to his wounds.[2] He resumed command soon thereafter, “much relieved from the discharge of quite a large piece of bone from the wound.”[3]

            But the wound continued to flare up throughout the summer and fall until it finally became readily apparent that Hancock would no longer be able to continue the strenuous, day-to-day command of the Second Corps.

Winfield Scott Hancock

Winfield Scott Hancock

         Before leaving the front, Hancock sent out the following to the soldiers of the vaunted Second Corps:

GENERAL ORDERS, HEADQUARTERS SECOND ARMY CORPS,

No. 44.

Before Petersburg, November 26, 1864.

SOLDIERS OF THE SECOND CORPS:

Being about to avail myself of a brief leave of absence, previous to entering upon another field of duty, in accordance with instructions I transfer the command of this corps to Major General A. A. Humphreys, U. S. Volunteers. I desire at parting with you to express the regret I feel at the necessity which calls for our separation. Intimately associated with you in the dangers, privations, and glory which have fallen to your lot during the memorable campaigns of the past two years, I now leave you with the warmest feelings of affection and esteem.

Since I have had the honor to serve with you, you have won the right to place upon your banners the historic names of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Po [River], Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Reams’ Station, Boydton Road, and many other contests. The gallant bearing of the intrepid officers and men of the Second Corps on the bloodiest fields of the war, the dauntless valor displayed by them in many brilliant assaults on the enemy’s strongest positions, the great number of guns, colors, prisoners, and other trophies of war captured by them in many desperate combats, their unswerving devotion to duty and heroic constancy under all the dangers and hardships which such campaigns entail, have won for them an imperishable renown and the grateful admiration of their countrymen.

The story of the Second Corps will live in history, and to its officers and men will be ascribed the honor of having served their country with unsurpassed fidelity and courage. Conscious that whatever military honor has fallen to me during my association with the Second Corps has been won by the gallantry of the officers and soldiers I have commanded, I feel that in parting from them I am severing the strongest ties of my military life. The distinguished officer who succeeds me is entitled to your entire confidence. His record assures you that in the hour of battle he will lead you to victory.

WINF’D S. HANCOCK,

Major-General of Volunteers.[4]

 

The men of the Second Corps, which Hancock had commanded since Gettysburg, with a brief interlude to recover from a grisly wound received on the last day of that gruesome battle, would end the war at Appomattox under the command of Andrew Humphreys. Hancock would be missed by his men. Humphreys, recognizing the shoes he was about to try and fill, wrote, “It is natural that I should feel some diffidence in succeeding to the command of so distinguished a soldier as Major-General Hancock. I can only promise you that I shall try to do my duty and preserve your reputation unsullied, relying upon you to sustain me by that skill and courage which you have so conspicuously displayed on so many fields.”[5]

In a postwar history that he wrote Humphreys added that “[Hancock] had served in the Army of the Potomac with the greatest distinction from its earliest operations at Williamsburg down to the time of his leaving it, being conspicuous in all its battles and operations.”[6]

The soldiers of the Second Corps were especially saddened to see Hancock depart. One officer of the famed Irish Brigade, now but a shell of its former self, wrote later, “To try to express in words the sorrow of officers and men at parting with the great soldier with whom they had been so long associated would be a useless effort.” This reaction within the Irish Brigade was especially pertinent—it was part of the corps’ First Division—the command that Hancock had first entered into the Second Corps with at Antietam.[7]

And so exited Winfield Scott Hancock from the cast of the Army of the Potomac.

______________________________________________________________

[1] John J. Hennessy, “I Dread the Spring: The Army of the Potomac Prepares for the Overland Campaign” in The Wilderness Campaign, edited by Gary W. Gallagher (UNC Press, 1997), 88.

[2] Edwin C. Bearss and Bryce Suderow, The Petersburg Campaign: Volume 1, The Eastern Front Battles, June-August, 1864 (Savas Beatie, 2012), 135.

[3] John Wien Forney, Life and Military Career of Winfield Scott Hancock (Hubbard Brothers, 1880), 321. http://books.google.com/books?id=1MILAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA321&lpg=PA321&dq=winfield+scott+hancock+bone+discharge&source=bl&ots=tsAJ6AgnHW&sig=Tx8V1t2dk5jZZpR0TAmfJimzu18&hl=en&sa=X&ei=fz1oVKuNO4icygTniYGIDw&ved=0CB4Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=winfield%20scott%20hancock%20bone%20discharge&f=false

[4] Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, XLII, pt. 3, 713-714. http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=moawar&cc=moawar&idno=waro0089&node=waro0089%3A2&view=image&seq=715&size=100

[5] Ibid, 714. http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=moawar;cc=moawar;idno=waro0089;node=waro0089%3A2;view=image;seq=716;size=100;page=root

[6] A.A Humphreys, The Virginia Campaign of 1864-1865 (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883), 307.

[7] St. Clair Mulholland, The Story of the 116th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion (F. McManus, JR & Co, 1903), 331-332. Hancock replaced the mortally wounded Israel B. Richardson.

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2 Responses to “I feel that in parting from them I am severing the strongest ties of my military life”: Winfield Scott Hancock leaves the Second Corps

  1. Will Hickox says:

    I’ve always been amazed by the tenacity of the 2nd Corps men and the long list of battles they witnessed. “Clubs are trumps” indeed. But the way the army’s leadership overused them was criminal, and it came to a head at Ream’s Station. Hancock, with his wounds and exhaustion, sort of symbolizes the state of the corps late in 1864. The 2nd revived somewhat under Humphreys but didn’t play a leading role in the war’s last year.

    • Ryan Quint says:

      Thanks for commenting. You are absolutely right; the Second Corps was without the doubt the heaviest used corps during the Overland Campaign and the early stages of the Petersburg Campaign, and their losses were simply not sustainable. If you search the Emerging Civil War website, I also have a piece about Ream’s Station which reiterates exactly what you say.

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