Union troops are fleeing through the streets of Gettysburg from Seminary Ridge, and the fields north of town. They have been outnumbered and utterly routed. It is this chaotic scene that Maj. General Winfield Scott Hancock rides into right about now, 150 years ago.
Hancock had been sent by General Meade to figure out what was going on, and to take over command of the field if necessary. As I mentioned the other day, Meade’s initial thought was to try and lure the Confederates into a fight along the Pipe Creek Line, and he wanted to stay behind to coordinate that effort should it come to pass. Hancock had seen the ground at Pipe Creek, and was an extremely able commander, so Meade trusted him to go to Gettysburg and examine that ground and make the choice about where the army should fight. It was a tremendous responsibility. Of course we know now that Hancock liked what he saw, and he sent word back to Meade that the rest of the army should move to Gettysburg.
The bigger problem in this instance was General Howard in his role as the overall commander on the field at Gettysburg. While both he and Hancock were Major Generals, Howard had held the rank for a longer period of time, so he was Hancock’s superior – he wasn’t supposed to be taking orders from Hancock. This caused a little bit of a struggle between the two initially, but somehow they were able to work it out. Both men contributed to rallying the troops and creating defensive positions on Cemetery and Culp’s Hills.
It turned out that they were able to take their time with this work because – surprisingly – no further Confederate attacks came that night.