On Memorial Day we think of those who served. Here let’s look at an old story about a military man’s affections. It’s the story of Lo Armistead and Win Hancock—close friends, career officers who’d served side by side in the U.S. Army. Then history took one of its turns and they wound up on opposite sides at Gettysburg, where one was killed by the other’s troops. It is one of the most moving tales of the Civil War, and is warmly told in Michael Shaara’s classic novel, “The Killer Angels.”
It’s a good story to have in our minds as coming years unfold.
In June 1863, 155 years ago, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s 70,000-man Army of Northern Virginia slipped across the Potomac River and invaded the North.
Brig. Gen. Lewis “Lo” Armistead, 46, was with him. Lo was an abbreviation of his nickname, Lothario, wryly bestowed because that’s what he wasn’t. He was quiet, considered shy, twice widowed, and from a family of fighters. Armisteads had served in all of America’s wars. Now and then something broke through his composure: Everyone in the Army knew he’d left West Point after breaking a plate over fellow cadet Jubal Early’s head. Shaara: “He was an honest man, open as the sunrise.” And he was brave.
He was eventually based in Southern California, where his quartermaster, Winfield Scott Hancock, became his close friend.
Armistead was seven years older and from Virginia, while Hancock was from Pennsylvania, but they had much in common. Hancock had also attended West Point, though he graduated. Both had served in the Mexican War, both been lauded for gallantry and promoted to higher rank. Hancock was humorous and liked to paint. Years later, in his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant would remember Hancock as “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 him the confidence of troops serving under him.”
By the end of the Civil War he too had a nickname: “Hancock the Superb.”
When the war came the officers of the U.S. Army had to decide where they stood. Hancock stood firm with the Union; Armistead went with the Confederacy. We don’t know all Armistead’s thinking but Shaara suggests some of it in his portrayal of the thoughts of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, also Armistead’s friend and under whom he served. Longstreet did not think much of “the Cause.” To Longstreet, “the war had come as a nightmare in which you chose your nightmare side.”
Shaara suggests Armistead saw it pretty much the same. But unlike many on his side, Longstreet wasn’t in denial as to the war’s cause. “The war was about slavery, all right,” he said, in Shaara’s telling. That wasn’t why he fought, “but that was what the war was about.”
When the war came, Armistead, Hancock and others had a gathering to say goodbye. Shaara imagines a soldier’s farewell: “Goodbye, good luck, and see you in Hell.” But to Armistead it was more than that: “They had been closer than brothers.” Tears were shed. In Shaara’s story, Armistead tells Hancock: “Win, so help me, if I ever lift a hand against you may God strike me dead.” In other sources, Armistead says: “Goodbye. You can never know what this has cost me.”
It was the last time they would see each other.
Some time afterward Armistead sent Almira, Hancock’s wife, a package to be opened on the event of his death.
Two years into the war, Gettysburg. Armistead heard Hancock was there and asked Longstreet if he might see him. Sure, said Longstreet, if you can find his position, get a flag of truce and go on over. (This was not completely unheard of in that war: Opposing officers would find each other in field glasses and wave hello or tip their hats.)
But everything was too chaotic, nobody knew where they were, and it didn’t happen.
July 3 was Pickett’s Charge. Armistead was one of Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s brigade commanders.
Lee judged the Union army to be reinforced on the wings but soft in the center. That center was a long sloping field leading to a clump of trees at a ridge. He would send in 15,000 men and split the Union lines. It would be hard—a mile uphill, over open ground, with Union artillery trained on them behind a low stone wall. But the Confederate artillery would smash the Union artillery before the charge commenced. And then they’d break the Union line, and the Union.
It was of course one of the epic miscalculations in modern military history.
At some point Armistead heard who was up there waiting at the stone wall. It was the Second Corps. It was led by Win Hancock. Armistead knew: He wouldn’t break.
The charge began, Armistead led his brigade out of the woods and onto the field. Quickly the Union artillery opened up. Shells came raining down; canisters of metal balls whirled through the air. Explosions, musketry. Union men were out in the open, kneeling and firing. Men fell all around. The smoke thickened and the troops could barely see, so Armistead put his black felt hat on the tip of his sword, held it up and called, “Follow me.”
Troops fell, gaps closed. About 30 yards from the wall, “unable to advance, unwilling to run,” the charge stalled and stopped. Armistead knew it was over. He was hit in the leg but kept going. He reached the wall and made it to the other side. He was hit again and doubled over, then hit yet again. He sat down.
A Union officer came over. Armistead asked for Gen. Hancock. The officer apologized: Hancock had been hit.
Armistead asked the officer to give him a message: “Tell General Hancock that General Armistead sends his regrets.”
Armistead died in a Union hospital tent.
Pickett, amazingly, survived, but was bitter about Lee to the end. His division sustained 60% casualties. Of 13 colonels, seven died and six were wounded. The Confederate army would never recover.
Longstreet was with Lee at Appomattox. Soon after the war he became a Republican—and supported his friend Grant in his efforts to rebuild the South. Naturally they never forgave him.
Hancock survived his wounds and the war. In 1880 he ran for president as a Democrat. He lost to Republican James A. Garfield of Ohio, who’d fought at Shiloh. It was close—he lost the popular vote by only 9,000. But Hancock the Superb, hero of the Union Army, swept the South.
In time it became known what was in the package Lo Armistead sent Almira Hancock. It was his personal Bible.
All these stories are part of our history and should never be lost. If we lose them we lose ourselves, and we lose, too, part of the gift we give our immigrants, which is stories that explain the thing they have joined.
The stories should be told plain but with heart, too.
We’ve overcome a great deal. We see this best when we don’t deny our history but tell the whole messy, complicated, embarrassing, ennobling tale.
Happy Memorial Day. Show generosity to a foe this weekend. Or better, be brave and show love.