On February 14, 2009, we celebrate the 185th birthday of Winfield Scott Hancock¹. Hancock, a major general, would contribute significantly to Union successes in the Eastern Theater of the war.
Winfield, and his identical twin brother, Hilary Baker, were born on February 14, 1824, to Benjamin Franklin Hancock, and Elizabeth Hoxworth Hancock. Natives of Pennsylvania, they were born in Montgomery Square, Pennsylvania – a small hamlet northwest of Philadelphia. Young Winfield was named for famed U.S. General Winfield Scott. After teaching school, Benjamin would move his family to Norristown, where he would practice law. Winfield would attend Norristown Academy, later transferring to a public school. In 1840 Hancock would be nominated to attend West Point, where he would graduate in 1844 – 18th in his class of 44. After graduation, Hancock would be appointed brevet second lieutenant in the 6th U.S. Infantry.
With the outbreak, of the Mexican War, Hancock was involved in recruiting, in Kentucky. He was so successful that it nearly prevented him from joining his regiment. He would finally make it to the front, rejoining his regiment at Puebla, Mexico. Performing gallantly at Contreras, and Churubusco, Hancock would receive brevet promotion to first lieutenant. He would lead his regiment at Molino del Rey, but due to a fever, he would not take part in the final breakthrough, at Mexico City. The 6th U.S. Infantry would stay in Mexico until the final peace treaty was signed, in 1848.
After the Mexican War, Hancock would be assigned to Fort Snelling, in Minnesota and later in St. Louis. He would meet Almira Russell, in St. Louis, and they would be married on January 24, 1850. They would have two children, Russell in 1850 and Ada in 1857. In 1855, Hancock would be promoted captain, and would be assigned to Fort Myers, Florida, where his primary responsibilities would be as quartermaster. With the end of the Seminole War, he would be assigned to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to help quell the violence that would earn Kansas the moniker, “Bleeding Kansas.” Later, he would be sent to Utah, during the Mormon uprising. He would finally be stationed in California, where he would be assistant quartermaster for future Confederate general, Albert Sidney Johnston. It was in California, that Hancock would become close friends, with future adversary, Lewis A. Armistead.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Hancock would return east, becoming quartermaster of the rapidly growing U.S. Army. He would be promoted brigadier general, on September 23, 1861 and would be given brigade command in US Brigadier General William F. Smith’s division. He would lead his brigade, during the Peninsula Campaign and would lead an important counterattack at the battle of Williamsburg. His leadership here, would lead the Army of the Potomac’s commanding general, George B. McClellan to mention his action as superb. The nickname stuck, and he would be known as “the superb” from thence forward.
In September, 1862, Hancock would be given division command, in the II Corps, following the mortal wounding of US Major General Israel B. Richardson, near the “Bloody Lane.” After Antietam, Hancock would be promoted major general on November 29, 1862. He would continue to lead his division, and at Fredericksburg he would lead a failed assault on Marye’s Heights, where he would be wounded in the abdomen. In May 1863, Hancock’s division would be instrumental in covering the withdrawal, of Federal forces, from Chancellorsville – another terrible Union defeat. He would again be wounded, during action, but would receive a promotion, to command of the II Corps, when US Major General Darius Couch asked to be transferred, from the Army of the Potomac, due to complaints against US Major General Joseph Hooker, commanding general. Hancock would continue to command the II Corps until very late in the war.
Hancock, would provide his most important service, in early July 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg. With the death of US Major General John Reynolds, early on the first day, new army commander, US Major General George G. Meade, would send him to Gettysburg, to take overall command of the I, II, III and the XI Corps. Meade would not arrive until late on the first day, by which time Hancock had organized a strong line, from Culp’s Hill, on the north, down Cemetery Ridge, nearly to Little Round Top on the south. On July 2, the second day of fighting, Hancock’s II Corps would be positioned near the center, of the Federal line. With CS General Robert E. Lee attacking both Yankee flanks, simultaneously, Meade would be in a rough position – exacerbated by the fact that US Major General Daniel Sickles would have his entire III Corps out of position, creating an salient nearly one mile square. Seeing the trouble, on his left, Hancock would send his First Division, commanded by US Brigadier General John Caldwell, to aide Sickles. The second brigade, of Caldwell’s division, was the famed Irish Brigade. Prior to marching to the relief of Sickles, Father William Corby, the chaplain of the Irish Brigade, would give the soldiers general absolution for their sins. An officer in attendance would describe the surreal scene, “The brigade stood in a column of regiments, closed in mass. Father Corby addressing the men said that each one would receive the benefit of absolution by making a sincere Act of Contrition and firmly resolving to embrace the first opportunity of confessing his sins, and reminded them of the high and sacred nature of their trust as soldiers…..Then, stretching his right hand toward the brigade, Father Corby pronounced the words of absolution….The service was more than impressive, it was awe-inspiring.”²
Caldwell’s division, would provide the necessary mass to thwart the Confederate assault, that gained momentum, as it pushed through the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field and into the “Valley of Death.” With a strong stand, at Little Round Top, the Confederates were forced back to Seminary Ridge.
On July 3, the third, and last day of battle, Hancock’s II Corps would receive one of the most famed of all charges. CS General R.E. Lee, not succeeding in flank attacks, believed that the Federals had weakened their center, to strengthen their flanks. After a quiet morning, CS Lieutenant General James Longstreet would have his artillery chief, CS Colonel Edward Porter Alexander signal the start of what would be forever known, as Pickett’s Charge. With nearly three Confederate divisions, CS Major General George E. Pickett, would cross nearly a mile of open ground, under intense fire, from the artillery massed on Cemetery Ridge. Pickett’s charge would be directly into Hancock’s II Corps. Hancock would be wounded, in the groin, in the action, and his friend, CS Brigadier General Lewis Armistead would be mortally wounded, within a few yards of his friend. Unfortunately, the two would not be reunited before Armistead’s death. The Confederate assault, would be unsuccessful, as the II Corps would stymie the attack – with only a few Confederate soldiers breaking through their line. The U.S. Congress would vote a letter of thanks, to Hancock, “…for his gallant, meritorious and conspicuous share in that great and decisive victory.”
Hancock would return home, to Norristown, to recover from his Gettysburg wound – a wound that would bother him, for the remainder of the war. While he was recovering, he would be involved in recruiting soldiers, until his return, in the spring of 1864, to his II Corps. While still reporting to Meade, a new commander now commanded all the U.S. armies – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. The war had entered a new phase – “hard war,” and some of the hardest fighting would be in the eastern theater. Hancock would lead his corps at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor. His leadership, at Spotsylvania Court House, would help destroy the Confederate salient, called the “mule shoe,” and would decimate Stonewall Jackson’s 2nd Corps, commanded by CS Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell. At Cold Harbor, the II Corps would suffer significant losses during futile charges against a well entrenched Confederate army.
After Cold Harbor, U.S. Grant would push his army, south of the James River, in an attempt to cut Lee’s supply line. The II Corps would join US Major General William F. Smith, near Petersburg, but would fail to take advantage of CS General P.G.T. Beauregard’s small garrison, with Hancock deferring to Smith’s judgment. This was an unfortunate turn, as Hancock had a chance to firmly entrench, behind Lee’s supply lines, effectively cutting him off from the fertile south, and possibly ending the war. During the coming months, when the Federals laid siege to Petersburg, and Richmond, Grant would continue to expand his lines, while Lee was forced to constrict his. On August 25, 1864, Hancock, and his II Corps, would be tearing up track, south of Petersburg, when they would be overrun by CS Major General Henry Heth’s division. Known as Ream’s Station, this would be the only defeat that Hancock would suffer, during the Civil War.
Due to the lingering effects, of his Gettysburg wound, Hancock would transfer from command of the II Corps, to recruiting duty. Eventually, he would command the First Veterans Corps, a largely ceremonial post and would relieve US Major General Phil Sheridan, in the now quiet Shenandoah Valley. He would also oversee the executions of the Lincoln assassination conspirators.
In 1866, U.S. Grant, would have Hancock promoted major general in the regular army. He would be sent west, to command the Military Department of Missouri, based at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. His time in the west, was brief, as President Andrew Johnson would have him replace Phil Sheridan, as military governor of Louisiana. It was in this position, that he would issue General Order Number 40, that would essentially allow the civilian government to quickly replace the military government. This would be well received by the conservative Democrats, but would be excoriated by the Republicans. He would be considered a possible Democratic Presidential candidate, in 1868, but would not win the nomination.
With Grant winning the presidency, Hancock would be transferred to the Department of Dakota, essentially a muddy outpost. With the death of Meade, in 1872, Hancock would become the senior major general in the U.S. Army. He would be transferred, by Grant, to the Department of the Atlantic, headquartered at Governor’s Island, New York City.
Hancock would become the Democratic nominee, for President, in 1880. He would be unsuccessful and would be defeated by James A. Garfield, another veteran of the Civil War.
After his defeat, Hancock would return to command the Department of the Atlantic. He would not seek public office again. He would become president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), in 1881. His last major public appearance, would be at the funeral of U.S. Grant, where he presided over the ceremonies. Hancock died, on February 9, 1886 of complications from diabetes. He was at his post, on Governor’s Island, when he died. He would be buried in Norristown, Pennsylvania.
Winfield S. Hancock was a very able military commander. He successfully commanded the II Corps, Army of the Potomac, during some of the most critical battles of the Civil War. He cared about his men, and would most often be seen, leading from the front, such as when he was wounded, at Gettysburg. Hancock is a true hero, and definitely a PATRIOT.