Becomes a hero during the Battle of Gettysburg

Although Hancock saw action in many of the most important battles of the Civil War, he is probably best known for his performance during the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania in July 1863. General George Meade (1815-1872; see entry) had taken command of the Army of the Potomac a few days before the battle took place. He had so much faith in Hancock's judgment that he sent the young officer ahead to decide whether or not the Union forces should fight there. Hancock arrived at Cemetery Ridge, a large hill on the outskirts of Gettysburg, on July 1. He immediately announced, "I select this as the battlefield." Hancock then calmly began preparing the Union forces for battle. His professional attitude helped restore confidence and order to the troops. He organized them into a long defensive line across the hilltops, ready for a Confederate attack.

Meade finally arrived with reinforcements just before the battle began. Hancock took command of his Second Corps, which was charged with holding the center section of the Union position. During heavy fighting on July 2, Hancock noticed that Confederate forces were about to break through the left flank. He led a group of his men in an assault that protected the position, near a strategic hill called Little Round Top.

On July 3, Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807-1870; see entry) launched a full-scale attack on the middle of the Union defenses. Lee began the assault by firing heavy artillery into the Union lines. The first artillery shell blew up the table where Hancock had just finished eating lunch. But rather than taking cover, Hancock rode along the ridge—in range of enemy fire—in order to inspire his troops. When a fellow officer warned that he risked being killed, Hancock replied, "There are times when a corps commander's life does not matter."

After the artillery attack ended, Lee sent fifteen thousand Confederate troops toward Hancock's position. The Union commander directed his troops in a spirited counterattack. At one point, as Hancock rode along the lines surveying his troops, an enemy bullet smashed through his saddle and drove bits of wood and a nail into his thigh. He was seriously wounded, but he waited until the Confederate forces turned back before he allowed his troops to remove him from the battlefield. The Union ended up claiming a significant victory at Gettysburg, and the U.S. Congress officially thanked Hancock for his role in it.

The view of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, from Cemetery Ridge. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

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