Monday, May 26, 2014

Corps Commander Winfield Scott Hancock

Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock
Library of Congress

On the Photograph of a Corps Commander.

Ay, man is manly. Here you see
The warrior-carriage of the head,
And brave dilation of the frame;
And lighting all, the soul that led
In Spottsylvania's charge to victory,
Which justifies his fame.
A cheering picture. It is good
To look upon a Chief like this,
In whom the spirit moulds the form.
Here favoring Nature, oft remiss,
With eagle mien expressive has endued
A man to kindle strains that warm.
Trace back his lineage, and his sires,
Yeoman or noble, you shall find
Enrolled with men of Agincourt,
Heroes who shared great Harry's mind.
Down to us come the knightly Norman fires,
And front the Templars bore.
Nothing can lift the heart of man
Like manhood in a fellow-man.
The thought of heaven's great King afar
But humbles us—too weak to scan;
But manly greatness men can span,
And feel the bonds that draw.

--Herman Melville, from Battle-Pieces and Aspects of War

In this month of May 150 years ago, Hancock as commander of the Union's Second Army Corps or II Corps led the attack on U-shaped rebel works called "The Mule Shoe" at Spotsylvania, Virginia:
"At the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House the II Corps again attained a glorious place in history by Hancock's brilliant and successful assault on the morning of May 12." (Wikipedia)
Horrible hand-to-hand fighting, the longest of the war, took place in a stretch of the Mule Shoe known as "Bloody Angle." Today at the Bloody Angle Trail, Tour Stop 3 specifically commemorates Hancock's charge:
Tour Stop 3: Second Corps Attacks
General Winfield Scott Hancock's Second Corps attacked across the open ground, past where you are standing, and against the works at Stop #2.
"I remember the thin picket line of the enemy, with their bewildered look. There was a little patter of bullets, and I saw a few of our men on the ground; one discharge of artillery. . . and we were up on the works with our hands full of guns, prisoners and colors."
--General Francis Barlow, USA
Brilliant success? or bloody miscue? However costly and temporary,

"Spotsylvania confirmed the position of Winfield Hancock as the premier corps commander in the Army of the Potomac." 
--David M. Jordan, Winfield Scott Hancock: A Soldier’s Life (1995) 
Recent critical studies duly credit Stanton Garner with identifying Melville's Corps Commander as Winfield Scott Hancock. That he did, but before Garner there was Robert Penn Warren, editor of the daring 1971 volume, Selected Poems of Herman Melville. In the textual notes Warren plainly states what to him must have seemed obvious:
The poem is linked with "The Armies of the Wilderness." The hero of the poem is General Winfield Scott Hancock (1824-1886), commander of the II Corps, who at dawn on the last day of the Battle of Spotsylvania, May 12, led a massive attack on a narrow front (a favorite tactic of Grant's), at the Mule Shoe Salient in the center of Lee's line. Hancock broke through, captured two general officers and several thousand men and would, no doubt, have converted Spotsylvania into a decisive battle, had not General John B. Gordon's savage counterattack flung him back to the first line of trenches, where he was contained at the famous Bloody Angle until past midnight, by which time Lee had consolidated a new line. In 1880, Hancock was candidate for President on the Democratic ticket. The poem, in celebrating the manliness of the Federal officer, hints at the theme of manliness which creates a brotherhood beyond particular side or commitment."  (Robert Penn Warren, Selected Poems of Herman Melville 369-70)
Warren then refers back to pages 19-20 in his introduction, which emphasized the point that one's "fellow-man may be a fellow, not by ideology, but only in his manhood."

Update1: And before Warren there was Hennig Cohen making the connection to Hancock in the important 1963 edition of Battle-Pieces, "one of the landmark studies of Melville's engagement with the visual arts" (Christopher Sten, Savage Eye page 286, note 24).

Megan Williams only goes back as far as Garner, whom she tasks with backing up the Hancock claim:
Without providing supporting evidence, Garner argues that Melville honors General Winfield Hancock in this poem (Garner 325).
But Garner had no idea of needing to support such a plain fact. (Garner was cautiously arguing something more debatable and more interesting, that Melville actually met Hancock in person).

Williams wants an opening for Grant, which is perfectly fine and allowable to the extent that, as she observes:
"By refusing to give this commander a name, Melville makes this poem a deliberately generic treatment of heroism that could be applied to any Civil War general."
Source: Megan Williams, "Sounding the Wilderness": Representations of the Heroic in Herman Melville's Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, Texas Studies in Language and Literature (Summer 2003: 152 of 141-17) at JSTOR; also Through the Negative, 112.
Grant might be man enough to embody the heroism of generic "manly greatness." However, Grant is just nobody's Corps Commander. The title Corps Commander denotes a particular level of military authority and responsibility in the command structure from Regiment to President, as the National Park Service helpfully explains. Yes the promotion of Grant in March 1864 created an "awkward command situation" while Meade still formally led the Army of the Potomac. Even so,
 "As lieutenant general of the U.S. Army, Grant was answerable only to Lincoln."  (History.com)
Andrew Miller accepts Hancock as the right fellow-man (again after Garner, ignoring Warren and Cohen), but gets bogged down in Neo-Platonism and phrenology (Journal of American Studies). Really, the physiology does not seem all that complicated. It does enrich one's reading experience I think to have one or another photograph handy, of many such available. Miller provides one yet fails I fear to see what Melville is talking about. Good, that's why Melvilliana is here.
Look! Will you look at that fine figure of a man:
Head up! (warrior-carriage)
Chest out! (brave dilation)
Looking sharp! (eagle mien--oh! how focused and determined are those eyes!)
 Oops, what just happened? Was that my narcissism showing? So Timothy Sweet would allege:
"Melville describes a bond between man and an image in a political vacuum. He hints that narcissism is the real ground of the wartime camaraderie Whitman valorized. The viewer of the photograph is supposed to identify himself, ‘a fellow man,’ with the idealized subject of the photograph; but he remains locked in his own narcissistic gaze." (Traces of War, quoted by Hsuan Hsu in War, Ekphrasis, and Elliptical Form)
Quoting and approving Sweet, Hsuan L. Hsu extends the idea, and the irony.  For Hsu, Melville's poem On the Photograph of a Corps Commander

"does not so much indulge in narcissism as parody the narcissistic circularity of a gaze that would aestheticize the war by viewing it in a political vacuum.”
Source: Hsuan Hsu, War, Ekphrasis, and Elliptical Form in Melville's Battle-Pieces in Nineteenth Century Studies (2002): 58.

Irony on top of irony. Exquisite, except now I'm drowning.

Help! Help!

Oh thank heaven there's Geoffrey D. Sanborn with a life saver:
... —it may seem nearly impossible to read this poem “straight.” And yet there are no signs of irony in it. From its opening affirmation that “man is manly” to its closing contrast between the overbearingness of God’s grandeur and the attractiveness of “manly greatness,” it is a pure song of praise, one that bears strong resemblance to Ishmael’s similarly unironic paeans to Queequeg.47 Like Queequeg, the corps commander has a lofty bearing, a dauntlessly daring spirit, and “excellent blood in his veins” (55); like Queequeg, he is “good/To look upon,” a “cheering picture” that “lift[s] the heart.” However bizarre it may seem, in light of Melville’s reputation as a thorough-going skeptic, he asks us, here and elsewhere, to lift our gates, to affirm with him the belief that “there is a something about every man elevated above mediocrity, which is, for the most part, instinctively perceptible” (Corr 121).
Bravo! Now that's one great paragraph, from pages 117-18 of Sanborn's latest book Whipscars and Tattoos. Footnote 47 acknowledges the aforementioned article by Hsuan Hsu. Sanborn's concluding quotation is taken from Melville's 3 March 1849 letter to Evert Duyckinck, as printed in Melville's Correspondence at page 121.
The real General Hancock inspired noble feelings and language. You have to know that I think to get, or say begin to get Melville's poem.
Winfield Hancock already looked the part of one of American's most magnificent soldiers even before Gettysburg. The brilliant and observant staff officer Frank Haskell saved his highest superlatives for the Second Corps chief: "Hancock was the tallest [of the army leaders--six feet two inches] and in many respects the best-looking, dignified, gentlemanly and commanding. He was tall and well proportioned, had a ruddy complexion, brown hair, and he wore a mustache and a tuft of hair upon his chin . . . . Had General Hancock worn citizen's clothes, and given commands in the army to those who did not know him, he would be likely to be obeyed at once, for he had the appearance of a man born to command." "One felt safe to be near him," another said. The freshness of his white shirts, which always seemed spotless when everyone else's were dingy, were often mentioned. As a Maine artilleryman wrote, "his very atmosphere was strong and invigorating . . . . I remember (how refreshing to note!) even his linen clean and white, his collar wide and free, and his broad wrist bands showing large and rolling back from his firm, finely molded hands." Grant himself recalled him as having been "tall, well-formed and . . . young and fresh-looking, he presented an appearance that would attract the attention of an army as he passed. His genial disposition made him friends, and his personal courage and his presence with his command in the thickest of the fight won for him the confidence of troops serving under him. No matter how hard the fight, the Second Corps always felt that their commander was looking after them."
--Larry Tagg, quoting Frank Haskell and others in The Generals of Gettysburg

In remembrance this Memorial Day of the fallen at the Battle of Spotsylvania, May 1864.

Later (5/11/2015): A Currier & Ives print shows the "Glorious Charge of Hancock's Division," further confirming Hanock's popular association with Spottsylvania--you can see it online at the Library of Congress and the melvilliana post on Hancock's Charge.

Related melvilliana posts:

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