Detail from the Gettysburg Cyclorama depicting the mortal wounding of Lewis A. Armistead

About six years ago a friend and I hired a licensed battlefield guide to take us around Gettysburg. Even then I knew the outline of the battle pretty well, and had walked the terrain many times, but we wanted someone to do a deep dive specifically on Day 2. This of course means a strong emphasis on Winfield Scott Hancock. When the tour was over my friend and I had a discussion with our guide about various generals from the war. I mentioned that I volunteer at Governors Island and that Hancock commanded there after the war, and indeed died on the island in February 1886. I noted that it was from Governors Island that Hancock organized Ulysses S. Grant’s funeral in August 1885. The guide asked me about the relationship between Grant and Hancock. I explained that the two were deeply ambivalent to one another but that when Grant died Hancock said and did all the right things.

I say all this because today marks the anniversary of one of the most romanticized moments of the Civil War. It was on June 15, 1861 that Hancock and wife Almira hosted Lewis A. Armistead and others who were leaving immediately afterward for San Diego and then the long journey across the country to join the Confederate Army. Interestingly Almira Hancock later remembered George Pickett as having been there that evening, though he was not. Pickett was out west, in the Washington Territory, and eventually too made his way back East. He was not however at the party, as Almira recounted it in the reminiscences of her late husband that she edited and published in 1887. Some historians speculate that Mrs. Hancock remembered Pickett being there because he passed through Los Angeles shortly thereafter, just ahead of the military authorities seeking his arrest, and that the Hancocks may have secretly and illegally offered George Pickett refuge for a day to two before he went on his way. Looking back on it more than twenty years later, the argument goes, she conflated Pickett’s clandestine stay with the party that had taken place a few weeks previously. It seems plausible.

I am not much for romanticism when it comes to the American Civil War, and I am not succumbing to it here. The scene with Armistead, Hancock and the others has been sentimentalized in books, paintings, and treacly movie scenes countless times over the years. Nonetheless the emotions experienced that day were genuine. It is a very human moment.

(image/Ron Cogswell via Wikimedia Commons)