Lewis Addison Armistead was born into a family with extensive military prestige. His father, General Walter Keith Armistead, the youngest of five brothers, all of whom fought in the War of 1812, was a member of the second class to graduate from West Point. One of his uncles, Lieutenant Colonel George A. Armistead achieved enduring fame during this same war as “the hero of Fort McHenry,” commanding the fort in Baltimore Harbor during the bombardment that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the words to “The Star Spangled Banner” in September 1814.
Born in New Bern, North Carolina on February 18, 1817, young Lewis aspired to the military, joining West Point on September 1, 1834. However, though a bright and willing student, Armistead would never graduate. After two and a half years at the Academy, Armistead, insulted by a fellow cadet, broke a plate over the head of his antagonist and, rather than face expulsion, chose to resign.
Undaunted by this setback in his pursuit to become a soldier, Armistead completed his military education in North Carolina and, through the influence of his father, received a commission as second lieutenant in the Sixth Infantry on 10 July 1839.
Armistead faced his first action during the Seminole Wars in Florida where he served under his father until 1842. He received his first promotion soon after in 1844 and, that same year, married Cecilia Lee Love. Armistead’s subsequent service during the Mexican War earned him three brevets, with his final promotion to major following the assault on Chapultepec.
Armistead spent the final fourteen years of his time in the United States Army on the western frontier, developing many friendships with officers he would later fight against in the Civil War. The closest of these was Captain Winfield Scott Hancock. Armistead had met Winfield Hancock and his wife Almira in 1844, and the three quickly became close friends. The two had served together in the Mexican War and formed a close bond, described by some as closer than brothers. As war approached, Armistead, now commanding a garrison in San Diego found himself again serving alongside Hancock, who was stationed in Los Angeles as quartermaster.
When Virginia seceded, Armistead faced a painful decision, for he had grown up in the traditions of the regular army. In this army he had lived much of his life, making many close friends. Yet, Armistead, ever devoted to duty, and convinced that his highest duty was to the state of Virginia, knew that he had to resign his commission. The night before Armistead’s departure, he attended a dinner party hosted by the Hancocks for the officers that would depart south the next day. It was a scene of heartrending goodbyes as the officers bade each other farewell, for some, their last meeting. Almira Hancock later described the scene:
“The most crushed of the party was Major Armistead, who, with tears, which were contagious, streaming down his face and hands upon Mr. Hancock's shoulders, while looking steadily in the eye, said, ‘Hancock, good-by; you can never know what this has cost me, and I hope God will strike me dead if I am ever induced to leave my native soil, should worse come to worse.’ Turning to me, he placed a small satchel in my hand, requesting that it should not be opened except in the event of his death.”
However, despite his love for Hancock, Armistead could not reject what he saw as his greater duty and, on 26 May 1861, he turned in his resignation from the U.S. army and entered into the Confederate army with the rank of colonel. In early 1862, Armistead, now promoted to brigadier general served dutifully at Seven Pines and later, under Lee, in the Seven Days Battles and at Second Manassas. At Malvern Hill during the Seven Days, Armistead demonstrated brilliant leadership and initiative, seizing an advanced position on the bloodied hill and, nearly entirely isolated, he held his position as a rallying point that was never rallied on, due to the blundering failures of his divisional commander.
Armistead never received another chance to perform so conspicuously in the following campaigns, but nevertheless, developed a reputation as a brave, devoted, and competent fighter. He carried about him an indomitable air, which, together with his warm-hearted and friendly nature, gained him the affectionate respect of all. He was in everything a man of duty who would pursue whatever he saw as his duty, no matter the cost.
Thus, despite his words to Hancock in parting, Armistead still chose to ride north with the Army of Northern Virginia in the Antietam campaign, though in this campaign, he would serve as provost martial and thus would be spared the pain of commanding any fighting troops during the invasion. Nevertheless, during the battle, Armistead received a wound that took him momentarily out of action.
He recovered from this wound in time to take part in the Battle of Fredericksburg and then to take part in Longstreet’s foraging expedition in early 1863. Now, as the army prepared to march north yet again, Armistead found himself pondering the words he had spoken to Hancock: “Hancock, good-by; you can never know what this has cost me, and I hope God will strike me dead if I am ever induced to leave my native soil, should worse come to worse.”
Now the worse had come to worse, and he would soon lead his brigade in an invasion of Northern soil – an invasion that would force him to march and draw sword against his closest friend, Winfield Scott Hancock, just waiting there across the Potomac River.
Winfield Scott Hancock, or “Hancock the superb” began life in Pennsylvania, born to Benjamin and Elizabeth Hancock on 14 February 1824. When Hancock and his twin brother, Hilary, reached the age of four, Benjamin Hancock, who then practiced law, moved his family from Montgomery square to Norristown Pennsylvania where there was greater opportunity for the practicing of law. Though somewhat of a troublemaker as a child, Hancock still managed to do well academically, demonstrating in all his studies, a curious and bright mind, though even then, its inclination was, for the most part, towards the military.
It was no surprise when this bright young lad entered West Point Military Academy in 1840 at the age of sixteen. Though bright and studious, Hancock, partly because of his younger age, graduated eighteenth of twenty-five. Because of his lower ranking, Hancock had no choice in his assignment after graduation, receiving a commission as second lieutenant in the Sixth Infantry Regiment, stationed out West in the Indian Territory where he would serve two uneventful years.
When the Mexican War began, Hancock received orders to continue on recruiting duty in Cincinnati where he would remain for over half the war while his colleagues gained glory and promotion on the battlefield. Finally, in April of 1847, he received the long-awaited orders to depart for Mexico. Here he fought with tremendous gallantry, receiving repeated mention in the reports of his superiors. Towards the end of the war, he was made regimental quartermaster, in which position he served for a year after the war, after which he served as adjutant in the same regiment for another six years before returning to his old task as quartermaster, though this time in a different regiment and with a new promotion to captain.
In this position, he served in Florida and Utah before departing for California where he found his old friend Lewis Armistead. However, the stirrings of secession soon cut short the peace they enjoyed, many friends of Hancock, most importantly Armistead, heading south, while Hancock himself remained, determined to fulfill what he saw as his duty to the United States and to the army. It was a hard parting for the two, closer than brothers, but both felt that they could not abandon what each saw as his duty. Yet, though one left for the south and the other traveled north, the friendship between the two would not lessen in any way, nor did their admiration and respect for the other, which was, if anything, heightened, as each followed determinedly after his duty.
Over the next few months after the spark of the Civil War, Hancock remained in California, gallantly defending the United States flag against secessionists who sought to gain hold of United States commissary articles. Yet despite the importance of his position in California, Hancock, ever a man of action and energy, sought a position further east, eventually receiving an assignment as quartermaster to General Robert Anderson’s army in Kentucky. However, even as he prepared to depart from Washington, General McClellan, then General-in-Chief of the army recommended Captain Hancock for a promotion to brigadier general.
In April 1862, Hancock led a brigade in the Peninsular Campaign under McClellan. During this campaign, Hancock would earn the title that would be forever after associated with his name: Hancock the superb. Major General Edwin Sumner, Hancock’s divisional commander, issued orders to attack the Confederate line at Fort Magruder in what would later be known as the Battle of Williamsburg, described by one observer as “a battle without a plan.”
When ordered to assault the enemy’s right, Hancock approached the Confederate works before settling down to await promised reinforcements before making the assault. However, Hancock held his position for six hours without any support, four times sending urgent requests for reinforcements which would have enable him to engage the enemy before they could be reinforced. Finally, Hancock, hard-pressed by now reinforced Confederate troops, rode down the length of his line, passing on the words, “Fix bayonets!”
Faced with a dramatically superior force of Confederate troops, Hancock courteously ordered, “Gentlemen, charge with the bayonet.” Historian Charles Denisor would later describe the resulting rout of the Confederate forces as “one of the most signal ever witnessed on any field of any war.” Later that night, McClellan would wire Washington D.C., “Hancock was superb today.”
Hancock retained this reputation later that year in September, eventually assuming command of the First Division at “Bloody Lane.” Hancock’s adjutant, Francis Walker later wrote,
“An hour after Hancock rode down the line at Antietam, to take up the sword that had fallen from Richardson's dying hand, one could not have told, he himself hardly knew, that he had not commanded a division for a year. So thoroughly had he prepared himself for promotion during his service with a brigade, so sure was he of his powers, that he stepped forward to the higher command, upon the field of battle, amid its wreck and disorder, without a moment of hesitation or doubt; and at once became the leader of that division as fully and perfectly as Sumner had been, as Richardson had been. The staff knew it; the troops felt it; every officer in his place, and every man in the ranks, was aware before the sun went down that he belonged to Hancock's Division.”
This division Hancock would again lead at Fredericksburg, though this time with the rank of major general. Here, his men advanced to within pistol shot of the stone wall below Marye’s Heights, remaining there until he had suffered over two thousand casualties before retiring in good order. Hancock’s troops, including the Irish Brigade, served in this battle with the greatest gallantry, though it resulted in no gain.
At Chancellorsville, this division would act as the rearguard for the army. When all other units had left the field of battle, Hancock held his division in two lines of battle near Chancellor House. Back to back, these two lines repulsed attack after attack from Confederate forces, artillery firing down the lane between and holding the entire Confederate army present until its own orderly retreat to the Rappahannock.
Throughout the war, Hancock never provided the slightest reason to doubt the merit of his title “Hancock the superb.” As Francis Walker wrote, “Each succeeding battle had but heightened Hancock's reputation for exact obedience to orders, for almost magical influence over men, for great tactical skill, for unflinching resolution, whether in attack or defense; while his administrative ability, and the strict discipline of his command, in camp or on the march, had clearly pointed him out as the rising soldier of the Potomac Army.”
Yet even in this exalted position, Hancock did not forget his friend, Lo Armistead, whom he always remembered with great fondness as one who was as a brother to him. His duty, however, he could not neglect. And so he fought on.