See A. Hancock, Reminiscences of Winfield Scott Hancock (1887); biography by G. Tucker (1960).
(born Feb. 14, 1824, Montgomery county, Pa., U.S.—died Feb. 9, 1886, Governor's Island, N.Y.) U.S. general and politician. He graduated from West Point and served in the Mexican War. Appointed a brigadier general of volunteers at the start of the American Civil War, he became a corps commander in the Army of the Potomac (1863–65) and served with distinction at the Battle of Gettysburg. After the war he commanded the military division of Louisiana and Texas. For his insistence that the region's civil authorities be maintained in their “natural and rightful dominion,” he won the support of Democrats, who nominated him for president in 1880. He lost the election to James Garfield.
Learn more about Hancock, Winfield Scott with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Winfield Scott Hancock (February 14 1824 – February 9 1886) was a career U.S. Army officer and the Democratic nominee for President of the United States in 1880. He served with distinction in the Army for four decades, including service in the Mexican-American War and as a Union general in the American Civil War. Known to his Army colleagues as "Hancock the Superb", he was noted in particular for his personal leadership at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. One military historian wrote, "No other Union general at Gettysburg dominated men by the sheer force of their presence more completely than Hancock." As another wrote, "... his tactical skill had won him the quick admiration of adversaries who had come to know him as the 'Thunderbolt of the Army of the Potomac'. His military service continued after the Civil War, as Hancock participated in the military Reconstruction of the South and the Army's presence at the Western frontier.
After the Civil War, Hancock's reputation as a soldier and his dedication to conservative constitutional principles made him a quadrennial Presidential possibility. His noted integrity was a counterpoint to the corruption of the era, for as President Rutherford B. Hayes said, "... [i]f, when we make up our estimate of a public man, conspicuous both as a soldier and in civil life, we are to think first and chiefly of his manhood, his integrity, his purity, his singleness of purpose, and his unselfish devotion to duty, we can truthfully say of Hancock that he was through and through pure gold. This nationwide popularity led the Democrats to nominate him for President in 1880. Although he ran a strong campaign, Hancock was defeated by Republican James Garfield by the closest popular vote margin in American history.
The Hancock and Hoxworth families had lived in Montgomery County for several generations, and were of English, Scottish and Welsh descent. Benjamin Hancock was a schoolteacher when his sons were born. A few years after their birth, he moved the family to Norristown, the county seat, and began to practice law. Benjamin was also a deacon in the Baptist church and participated in municipal government (as an avowed Democrat).
Hancock was at first educated at Norristown Academy, but removed to the public schools when the first one opened in Norristown in the late 1830s. In 1840, Joseph Fornance, the local Congressman, nominated Hancock to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Hancock's progress at West Point was average, and at graduation in 1844 he was assigned to the infantry.
Hancock was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 6th U.S. Infantry regiment, and initially was stationed in Indian Territory in the Red River Valley. The region was quiet at the time, and Hancock's time there was uneventful. Upon the outbreak of war with Mexico in 1846, Hancock worked to secure himself a place at the front. Initially assigned to recruiting duties in Kentucky, he proved so adept at signing up soldiers that his superiors were reluctant to release him from his post. By July 1847, however, Hancock was permitted to join his regiment in Puebla, Mexico, where they made up a part of the army led by his namesake, General Winfield Scott.
Scott's army moved farther inland from Puebla unopposed and attacked Mexico City from the south. During that campaign in 1847, Hancock first encountered battle at Contreras and Churubusco. He was brevetted to first lieutenant for gallant and meritorious service in those actions. Hancock was wounded in the knee at Churubusco and developed a fever. Although he was well enough to lead his regiment at Molino del Rey, fever kept Hancock from participating in the final breakthrough of Mexico City, something he would regret for the rest of his life. After the final victory, Hancock remained in Mexico with the 6th Infantry until the treaty of peace was signed in 1848.
Hancock served in a number of assignments as an army quartermaster and adjutant, mostly in Fort Snelling, Minnesota and St. Louis, Missouri. It was in St. Louis that he met Almira ("Allie") Russell and they married on January 24 1850. Ally gave birth to two children, Russell in 1850 and Ada in 1857, but both children died before their parents. Hancock was promoted to captain in 1855 and assigned to Fort Myers, Florida. Hancock's young family accompanied him to his new posting, where Allie Hancock was the only woman on the post.
Hancock's tour in Florida coincided with the end of the Third Seminole War. His duties were primarily those of a quartermaster, and he did not see action in that campaign. As the situation in Florida began to settle down, Hancock was reassigned to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He served in the West during the partisan warfare of "Bleeding Kansas," and in the Utah Territory, where the 6th Infantry arrived after the Utah War. Following the resolution of that conflict, Hancock was stationed in southern California in November 1858. He remained there, joined by Allie and the children, until the Civil War broke out in 1861, serving as a captain and assistant quartermaster under future Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston. In California, Hancock became friendly with a number of southern officers, most significantly Lewis A. Armistead of Virginia. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Armistead and the other southerners left to join the Confederate States Army, while Hancock remained in the service of the United States.
|Hancock stands the most conspicuous figure of all the general officers who did not exercise a separate command. He commanded a corps longer than any other one, and his name was never mentioned as having committed in battle a blunder for which he was responsible. He was a man of very conspicuous personal appearance.... 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 2d corps always felt that their commander was looking after them.|
|—Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs|
Hancock returned east to assume quartermaster duties for the rapidly growing Union Army, but was quickly promoted to brigadier general on September 23 1861, and given an infantry brigade to command in the division of Brig. Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith, Army of the Potomac. He earned his "Superb" nickname in the Peninsula Campaign, in 1862, by leading a critical counterattack in the Battle of Williamsburg; army commander Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan telegraphed to Washington that "Hancock was superb today" and the appellation stuck. McClellan did not follow through on Hancock's initiative, however, and Confederate forces were allowed to withdraw unmolested.
In the Battle of Antietam, Hancock assumed command of the 1st Division, II Corps, following the mortal wounding of Maj. Gen. Israel B. Richardson in the horrific fighting at "Bloody Lane." Hancock and his staff made a dramatic entrance to the battlefield, galloping between his troops and the enemy, parallel to the Sunken Road. His men assumed that Hancock would order counterattacks against the exhausted Confederates, but he carried orders from McClellan to hold his position. He was promoted to major general of volunteers on November 29 1862. He led his division in the disastrous attack on Marye's Heights in the Battle of Fredericksburg the following month and was wounded in the abdomen. At the Battle of Chancellorsville, his division covered Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker's withdrawal and Hancock was wounded again. His corps commander, Maj. Gen. Darius N. Couch, transferred out of the Army of the Potomac in protest of actions Hooker took in the battle and Hancock assumed command of II Corps, which he would lead until shortly before the war's end.
Hancock's most famous service was as a new corps commander at the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1 to July 3 1863. After his friend, Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, was killed early on July 1, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, sent Hancock ahead to take command of the units on the field and assess the situation. Hancock thus was in temporary command of the "left wing" of the army, consisting of the I, II, III, and XI Corps. This demonstrated Meade's high confidence in him, because Hancock was not the most senior Union officer at Gettysburg at the time. Hancock and the more senior XI Corps commander. Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, argued briefly about this command arrangement, but Hancock prevailed and he organized the Union defenses on Cemetery Hill as more numerous Confederate forces drove the I and XI Corps back through the town. He had the authority from Meade to withdraw the forces, so he was responsible for the decision to stand and fight at Gettysburg. Meade arrived after midnight and overall command reverted to him.
On July 2, Hancock's II Corps was positioned on Cemetery Ridge, roughly in the center of the Union line, while Confederate General Robert E. Lee launched assaults on both ends of the line. On the Union left, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's assault smashed the III Corps and Hancock sent in his 1st Division, under Brig. Gen. John C. Caldwell, to reinforce the Union in the Wheatfield. As Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill's corps continued the attack toward the Union center, Hancock rallied the defenses and rushed units to the critical spots. In one famous incident, he sacrificed a regiment, the 1st Minnesota, by ordering it to advance and attack a Confederate brigade four times its size, causing the Minnesotans to suffer 87% casualties. While costly to the regiment, this heroic sacrifice bought time to organize the defensive line and saved the day for the Union army.
On July 3, Hancock continued in his position on Cemetery Ridge and thus bore the brunt of Pickett's Charge. During the massive Confederate artillery bombardment that preceded the infantry assault, Hancock was prominent on horseback in reviewing and encouraging his troops. When one of his subordinates protested, "General, the corps commander ought not to risk his life that way," Hancock is said to have replied, "There are times when a corps commander's life does not count. During the infantry assault, his old friend, now Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead, leading a brigade in Maj. Gen. George Pickett's division, was wounded and died two days later. Hancock could not meet with his friend because he had just been wounded himself, a severe injury caused by a bullet striking the pommel of his saddle, entering his inner right thigh along with wood fragments and a large bent nail. Helped from his horse by aides, and with a tourniquet applied to stanch the bleeding, he removed the saddle nail himself and, mistaking its source, remarked wryly, "They must be hard up for ammunition when they throw such shot as that. News of Armistead's mortal wounding was brought to Hancock by a member of his staff, Captain Henry H. Bingham. Despite his pain, Hancock refused evacuation to the rear until the battle was resolved. He had been an inspiration for his troops throughout the three-day battle. Hancock later received the Thanks of the U.S. Congress for "... his gallant, meritorious and conspicuous share in that great and decisive victory."
Hancock suffered from the effects of his Gettysburg wound for the rest of the war. After recuperating in Norristown, he performed recruiting services over the winter and returned in the spring to field command of the II Corps for Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 Overland Campaign, but he never regained full mobility and his former youthful energy. Nevertheless, he performed well at the Battle of the Wilderness and commanded a critical breakthrough assault of the Mule Shoe at the "Bloody Angle" in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, shattering the Confederate Stonewall Division. His corps suffered enormous losses during a futile assault Grant ordered at Cold Harbor.
After Grant's army slipped past Lee's army to cross the James River, Hancock found himself in a position in which he might have ended the war. His corps arrived to support Baldy Smith's assaults on the lightly held Petersburg defensive lines, but he deferred to Smith's advice because Smith knew the ground and had been on the field all day, and no significant assaults were made before the Confederate lines were reinforced. One of the great opportunities of the war was lost. After his corps participated in the assaults at Deep Bottom, Hancock was promoted to brigadier general in the regular army, effective August 12 1864.
Hancock's only significant military defeat occurred during the Siege of Petersburg. His II Corps moved south of the city, along the Weldon Railroad, tearing up track. On August 25, Confederate Maj. Gen. Henry Heth attacked and overran the faulty Union position at Reams's Station, shattering the II Corps, capturing many prisoners. Despite a later victory at Hatcher's Run, the humiliation of Reams's Station contributed, along with the lingering effects of his Gettysburg wound, to his decision to give up field command in November. He left the II Corps after a year in which it had suffered over 40,000 casualties, but had achieved significant military victories. His first assignment was to command the ceremonial First Veterans Corps. He performed more recruiting, commanded the Middle Department, and relieved Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan in command of forces in the now-quiet Shenandoah Valley. He was promoted to brevet major general in the regular army for his service at Spotsylvania, effective March 13 1865.
At the close of the war, Hancock was assigned to supervise the execution of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. Lincoln had been assassinated on April 14 1865, and by May 9 of that year, a military commission had been convened to try the accused. The actual assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was already dead, but the trial of his co-conspirators proceeded quickly, resulting in convictions. President Andrew Johnson ordered the executions to be carried out on July 7. Hancock was directed to supervise the executions of those condemned to death. Although he was reluctant to execute some of the less-culpable conspirators, especially Mary Surratt, Hancock carried out his orders, later writing that "every soldier was bound to act as I did under similar circumstances.
Hancock's time in the West was brief. President Johnson, unhappy with the way Republican generals were governing the South under Reconstruction, sought replacements for them. The general who offended Johnson the most was Philip Sheridan, and Johnson soon ordered General Grant to switch the assignments of Hancock and Sheridan, believing that Hancock, a Democrat, would govern in a style more to Johnson's liking. Although neither man was pleased with the change, Sheridan reported to Fort Leavenworth and Hancock to New Orleans.
Hancock's new assignment found him in charge of the Fifth Military District, encompassing Texas and Louisiana. Almost immediately upon arriving, Hancock ingratiated himself with the white conservative population by issuing his General Order Number 40 of November 29 1867. In that order, written while traveling to New Orleans, Hancock expressed sentiments in support of President Johnson's policies, writing that if the residents of the district conducted themselves peacefully and the civilian officials perform their duties, then "the military power should cease to lead, and the civil administration resume its natural and rightful dominion. Hancock's order encouraged white Democrats across the South who hoped to return to civilian government more quickly, but discomforted blacks and Republicans in the South who feared a return to the antebellum ways of conservative white dominance.
|"The great principles of American liberty are still the lawful inheritance of this people, and ever should be. The right of trial by jury, the habeas corpus, the liberty of the press, the freedom of speech, the natural rights of persons and the rights of property must be preserved. Free institutions, while they are essential to the prosperity and happiness of the people, always furnish the strongest inducements to peace and order."|
|Winfield Scott Hancock, General Order Number 40 November 29 1867.|
In 1872, General Meade died, leaving Hancock the army's senior major general. This entitled him to a more prominent command, and President Grant, still desirous to keep Hancock from a Southern post, assigned him command of the Department of the Atlantic, headquartered at Governor's Island, New York City. The vast department covered the settled northeast area of the country and, with one exception, was militarily uneventful. The exception was the army's involvement in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. When railroad workers went on strike to protest wage cuts, the nation's transportation system was paralyzed. The governors of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Maryland asked President Hayes to call in federal troops to re-open the railways. Once federal troops entered the cities, most of the strikers melted away, but there were some violent clashes.
All the while Hancock was stationed in New York, he did his best to keep his political ambitions alive. He received some votes at the Democrats' 1876 convention, but was never a serious contender as New York governor Samuel J. Tilden swept the field on the second ballot. The Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, won the election, and Hancock refocused his ambition on 1880. The electoral crisis of 1876 and the subsequent end to Reconstruction in 1877 convinced many observers that the election of 1880 would give the Democrats their best chance at victory in a generation.
The Republicans nominated James A. Garfield, a Congressman from Ohio and a skillful politician. Hancock and the Democrats expected to carry the Solid South, but needed to add a few of the Northern states to their total to win the election. The practical differences between the parties were few, and the Republicans were reluctant to attack Hancock personally because of his heroic reputation. The one policy difference the Republicans were able to exploit was a statement in the Democratic platform endorsing "a tariff for revenue only. Garfield's campaigners used this statement to paint the Democrats as unsympathetic to the plight of industrial laborers, a group that would benefit by a high protective tariff. The tariff issue cut Democratic support in industrialized Northern states, which were essential in establishing a Democratic majority. In the end, the Democrats and Hancock failed to carry any of the Northern states they had targeted, with the exception of New Jersey. The popular vote was the closest in American history—fewer than 20,000 votes separated the candidates—but Garfield had a solid electoral majority of 214 to 155.
Hancock died in 1886 at Governors Island, still in command of the Military Division of the Atlantic, the victim of an infected carbuncle, complicated by diabetes. He is buried in Montgomery Cemetery in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Although he outlived both of his children, he was survived by the three grandchildren fathered by his son, Russell. Hancock's wife, Almira, published Reminiscences of Winfield Scott Hancock in 1887.
Trust in God & Fear Nothing: Confederate Gen. Lewis Armistead and Union Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock-Like Many of Their Contemporaries-Were Good Friends Who Found Themselves on Opposite Sides in the Civil War
Jul 10, 2006; The humid air hung thick and heavy on July 3, 1863, blanketing the men of Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead's brigade as they...