Friday, October 1, 2021

Booknotes: Armistead and Hancock

New Arrival:
Armistead and Hancock: Behind the Gettysburg Legend of Two Friends at the Turning Point of the Civil War by Tom McMillan (Stackpole Bks, 2021).

The "brother versus brother" appellation attached to the American Civil War has always had both literal and figurative meanings. One of the most often cited examples of close Old Army comrades (professional brothers) separated by conflicting allegiances is the friendship between Union major general Winfield Scott Hancock and Confederate brigadier general Lewis A. Armistead. Knowledge of the pair's relationship entered the popular imagination most after the publication of Michael Shaara's historical novel Killer Angels and the Gettysburg movie adapted from it, but the story certainly had a long history before that. As author Tom McMillan notes in his new book Armistead and Hancock: Behind the Gettysburg Legend of Two Friends at the Turning Point of the Civil War, the topic received a modern shot in the arm with the publication of Bruce Catton's Army of the Potomac trilogy. According to McMillan, though mention of the Armistead and Hancock friendship first appeared in published form in 1880, Catton's Glory Road was the first book to use Almira Hancock's Reminiscences (1887) as a source for the famous California farewell dinner story featured in both novel and movie. Of course, the best stories always receive the most scrutiny and apparently some contrarian writers have even come to the conclusion that the two were not friends.

In Armistead and Hancock, McMillan "sets the record straight. Even if their relationship wasn’t as close as the legend has it, Hancock and Armistead knew each other well before the Civil War. Armistead was seven years older, but in a small prewar army where everyone seemed to know everyone else, Hancock and Armistead crossed paths at a fort in Indian Territory before the Mexican War and then served together in California, becoming friends—and they emotionally parted ways when the Civil War broke out. Their lives wouldn’t intersect again until Gettysburg, when they faced each other during Pickett’s Charge."

Creative license and invented dialogue are part and parcel to historical novels and movie adaptations, and McMillan finds no evidence to support there being any truth behind the sentimental Armistead-Hancock scenes displayed in the movie in the midst of campaign and battle. However, the author's research has arrived at the certain conclusion that the pair were indeed friends beginning in 1844 with their frontier service together in Indian Territory. On a side note, the book's appendix casts serious doubt on Armistead ever having the nickname "Lo." That moniker only appeared in the controversial Pickett letters published by that general's wife, a collection that Gary Gallagher has deemed inauthentic and "worthless as a source."

More from the description: "Part dual biography and part Civil War history, Armistead and Hancock: Behind the Gettysburg Legend clarifies the historic record with new information and fresh perspective, reversing decades of misconceptions about an amazing story of two friends that has defined the Civil War."

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