I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with the new book by author Tom McMillan, Armistead and Hancock: Behind the Legend of Two Friends at the Turning Point of the Civil War (Stackpole Books, 2021). You can find out more about the book here.
Tom describes himself as “a passionate amateur historian.” Armistead and Hancock is his third book on history and second on the Civil War. McMillan serves on the board of trustees of Pittsburgh’s Heinz History Center and as a docent at the Espy GAR Post in Pittsburgh, and he previously served on the board of the Friends of Flight 93. “I recently retired after a 43-year career in sports media and communications,” he adds. “My previous Civil War book, Gettysburg Rebels, won the Bachelder-Coddington Award in 2017.”
CM: Your book focuses on the friendship between Conf. Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead and Federal Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock. Without giving up the book, can you briefly summarize how they became friends in the first place?
TM: First of all, Chris, thanks for this opportunity. It was a fascinating research journey. A lot of people assume that Armistead and Hancock met at West Point, but that wasn’t the case. Armistead was the older man by seven years. They met on the frontier in 1844, at a place called Fort Towson. The served together at two different sites on the frontier.
CM: Their friendship was pretty typical of a lot of officers who served together in the pre-war army but found themselves on opposite sides in the Civil War, but it has received special attention because of “The Killer Angels.” Tell me about the impact of that.
TM: That’s the entire reason for the book! The Killer Angels and the movie Gettysburg made such an indelible impression on an entire generation of battlefield visitors that the story of Armistead and Hancock rose above all the others — and became part of Gettysburg lore. But a lot of people forget that the book was a novel, so I wanted to dig into the story and try to separate fact from fiction. Much of it surprised me. At its core, though, the friendship is a window into the personal aspect of the Civil War — these men were literally friends one day, enemies the next.
CM: How was their real relationship different (or the same) from what was depicted in the novel and movie?
TM: Well, to answer this question would be to reveal too much of the essence of the book (he says while smiling). But I think readers will find that it was different than what they’ve read or heard.
CM: What got you interested in writing a book-length exploration of their friendship?
TM: The movie version was enticing, but I figured that a lot of it was probably dramatized. And it was. I wanted to learn more about what “really” happened betweene these two generals and was frustrated that there was nothing available in book form. I was amazed — and intrigued — that no one had tried it, so I decided to try myself. The more I learned, the more I became convinced that it was worthy of a book-length work.
CM: What stands out for you as the defining feature of their friendship?
TM: Maybe just that the bond of fellow soldiers is tough to break. Once you serve together on the frontier, and once you fight together in a foreign war — the Mexican War — that bond remains through all sorts of turmoil. I think the friendship meant a little more to Armistead because he had such a tragic personal life.
CM: Were there any big surprises for you, as a writer, that you discovered in the course of your research?
TM: I realized from my earliest days of research that I’d known so little about Armistead and Hancock before the Civil War. Their back-stories explain a lot! I was amazed by the rich military history of the Armistead family and wasn’t aware that both men had family members serving with them in the Battle of Gettysburg. In fact, Armistead had three brothers who served in the Civil War. Hancock’s post-war life was both interesting and somewhat controversial. I could go on and on. To summarize: A lot surprised me.
CM: What do you hope readers will take away from the book when they’re finished?
TM: We all hear stories from the Civil War, and are drawn to them, but it’s important and rewarding to do your own research — to try to find the story behind the legends. They’re just as fascinating, sometimes more so. Mostly though, I hope readers just enjoy it,
And here are a few short-answer questions:
CM: What was your favorite source you worked with while writing the book?
TM: For any historian – but especially an amateur historian like me – there is always a special thrill to conducting research at the National Archives.
Reading letters and documents that were actually written by these people transports you back in time. The West Point library was incredible, and my experience there included the opportunity to hold Armistead’s U.S. Army commissions. As for a single source, I don’t know that I leaned on anything more than Wayne Motts’s biography of Armistead, written in 1994. Remarkably, it was the only biography ever written about the general who achieved the deepest penetration into the Angle at Pickett’s Charge.
CM: Who, among the book’s cast of characters, did you come to appreciate better?
TM: It struck me that I had known so little about Armistead’s life story. Much of what we read about him in Civil War history is confined to his actions at Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge. The military history of his family was quite remarkable, the influence of his father was profound, and I was unaware of much of his army career before Gettysburg. It brought things into focus. So much has been written in book form about Hancock over the years, but very little about Armistead.
CM: What’s a favorite sentence or passage you wrote?
TM: From the start I knew it would be the passage about the famous “teary-eyed farewell” between Armistead and Hancock in California in 1861, dramatized by the novel and movie. I don’t know that we can ever know everything that happened, but I hope the book brings some clarity and gets us closer. Or at least fuels some more debates!
CM: What modern location do you like to visit that is associated with events in the book?
TM: The easy answer is Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg, where both Armistead and Hancock were wounded … or the George Spangler Farm, the Union Eleventh Corps field hospital where Armistead died (and which has been restored by the Gettysburg Foundation). But there was a certain mystique to walking the campus of West Point, where both generals had been students — trying to place myself there in the nineteenth century. I was a bit overwhelmed by the history of the place.
CM: What’s a question people haven’t asked you about this project that you wish they would?
TM: Was Armistead’s nickname really “Lo?” See the book’s Appendix 😉