Winfield Scott Hancock

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Winfield Scott Hancock

Born February 4, 1824
Montgomery Square, Pennsylvania
Died February 9, 1886
Governors Island, New York

Union general known as "the Superb"

Became a hero during the Battle of Gettysburg

Winfield Scott Hancock was one of the most efficient and successful corps commanders in the Union Army. His bravery, intelligence, quick decision-making, and professional attitude earned the respect of his troops and helped make him a war hero. Although he fought in many of the most important battles of the Civil War, Hancock is best known for his performance at the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania in July 1863. He selected the site of this historic battle, set up the Union defenses, and helped turn back the full-scale Confederate attack on the final day of fighting. A career military man, Hancock served as a military district commander during Reconstruction. He ran for president in 1880 and lost by one of the closest margins in history.

Named after a war hero

Winfield Scott Hancock was born on February 4, 1824, in southeastern Pennsylvania. He was named after General Winfield Scott (1786–1866; see entry), a brilliant military man who had been a hero during the War of 1812 (a struggle from 1812 to 1815 between the United States and Great Britain for possession of lands in the West). Hancock's father, Benjamin, was a teacher and later became a lawyer. His mother, Elizabeth, operated a ladies' hat shop out of the family home. Hancock also had a twin brother, Hilary.

The Hancock family moved to Norristown, Pennsylvania, when the boys were two years old. Hancock attended school there and proved himself to be a good student with a quick mind. In 1840, he was admitted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York. This prestigious school served as the training ground for many top army officers. Hancock was a well-respected and popular student, but he ranked in the lower third of his class upon graduation in 1844.

Hancock then entered the U.S. Army and served in the Mexican War (1846–48), a conflict between the United States and Mexico over huge sections of land in the West. Led by Hancock's namesake, General Scott, U.S. forces claimed a series of dramatic victories that forced Mexico to give up its claims on California and other western lands in exchange for $15 million.

Fights for the Union during the Civil War

Shortly after the Mexican War ended, Hancock married Almira Russell and had two children. He remained in the army and eventually was posted in California, where he lived when the Civil War began in 1861. The Northern and Southern sections of the country had been arguing over several issues, including slavery, for many years. Growing numbers of Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played a big role in the Southern economy and culture. As a result, many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life.

America's westward expansion only increased the tension between the North and South. Both sides wanted to spread their political views and way of life into the new states and territories. Finally, the ongoing dispute convinced a group of Southern states to secede (withdraw) from the United States and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. Some residents of California wanted to join the Confederacy. But Hancock was determined to fight to preserve the Union. He used his troops to break up meetings of secessionists and help keep California as part of the United States.

As fighting began in the East, Hancock longed to join the action. He went to Washington in September 1861 and received the rank of brigadier general in the Union's main army, the Army of the Potomac. This promotion meant that he commanded a brigade of over three thousand soldiers, including infantry (foot soldiers), artillery (heavy guns), and cavalry (soldiers on horseback) units. His brigade took part in the first major Union offensive, known as the Peninsula Campaign. Union general George McClellan (1826–1885; see entry) transported the Army of the Potomac to the Virginia peninsula by water, hoping to catch Southern forces by surprise and capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. Although Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry) managed to hold off the Union assault, Hancock performed well while leading a critical attack. Afterward, McClellan reported back to President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) that "Hancock was superb!" Northern newspapers picked up the report and often referred to Hancock as "The Superb" from that time on.

In September 1862, Hancock was promoted to the rank of major general and took over command of the First Division in the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac. He fought well that month at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland, and then received another promotion to commander of the Second Corps. As a corps commander, Hancock led his troops into battle in December at Fredericksburg and the following May at Chancellorsville in Virginia. The Union Army suffered a defeat at Chancellorsville, but Hancock's corps protected the rear so that their battered forces could escape.

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.

Enters politics after the war

Hancock's wound from Gettysburg kept him on the sidelines for the next six months. After that, though, he regained his command and fought bravely in the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia (May 5–7, 1864). In August 1864, he was promoted to the rank of major general after leading his troops through the Confederate lines in the Battle of Spotsylvania (May 8–19, 1864). In November 1864, Hancock's war wound began acting up again. He returned to Washington, D.C., and recruited veterans to serve as cooks, nurses, and sentries (military guards) for the fighting forces.

After the war ended in a Union victory in 1865, Hancock remained in the army. For the next two years, he served in military campaigns against Indian tribes in the West. In 1867, however, he was appointed commander of the Fifth Military District in the South during Reconstruction (1865–77). The United States continued to struggle with important and complicated issues after the Civil War ended. For example, government officials had to decide whether to punish the Confederate leaders, what process to use to readmit the Southern states to the Union, and how much assistance to provide in securing equal rights for the freed slaves. This difficult period in American history was known as Reconstruction.

President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; see entry), who took office after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, controlled the earliest Reconstruction efforts. He pardoned (officially forgave) many former Confederates and set lenient (easy) conditions for the Southern states to return to the Union. But many Northerners, and especially Republican leaders in the U.S. Congress, worried that Johnson's Reconstruction policies would allow Confederate leaders to return to power and continue to discriminate against blacks. As a result, Congress took over the Reconstruction process in 1867 and sent federal troops into the South to enforce its policies.

As commander of some of these federal troops, Hancock was expected to follow Congress's orders. But he felt that Congress's policies were too harsh toward the South, and he was reluctant to use the military to enforce them. Instead, he attempted to restore civilian (nonmilitary) rule in Texas and Louisiana. His actions angered Congress. President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry), who took office after Johnson's term ended in 1868, transferred Hancock out of the South.

Hancock continued to serve in the U.S. Army for his remaining years. In 1880, the Democratic political party selected him as their candidate for president. The Democrats chose Hancock because he was a war hero. But since he had spent his entire career in the military, he had very little political experience. The press criticized his lack of experience and claimed that he did not even understand tariffs (a type of tax on goods that are imported into the country). Nevertheless, Hancock ended up losing a very close race to James Garfield (1831–1881). Hancock received only 7,023 fewer popular votes than his opponent, out of nearly nine million total votes cast. Over the next few years, Hancock developed diabetes (a disease in which the body cannot produce the hormone insulin, which enables it to digest sugars). He died on Governors Island, New York, on February 9, 1886.

Where to Learn More

Gambone, A. M. Hancock at Gettysburg . . . and Beyond. Baltimore: Butternut & Blue, 1997.

Green, Carl R., and William R. Sanford. Union Generals of the Civil War. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1998.

Hancock, Almira Russell. Reminiscences of Winfield Scott Hancock. New York: C. L. Webster, 1887. Reprint, Scituate, MA: Digital Scanning, 1999.

Jordan, David M. Winfield Scott Hancock: A Soldier's Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Tucker, Glenn. Hancock the Superb. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960.

W. S. Hancock Society. [Online] (accessed on October 10, 1999).