American Civil War: Major General Winfield Scott Hancock

Major General Winfield S. Hancock. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Winfield Scott Hancock - Early Life & Career:

Winfield Scott Hancock and his identical twin, Hilary Baker Hancock, were born February 14, 1824 at Montgomery Square, PA, just northwest of Philadelphia. The son of school teacher, and later lawyer, Benjamin Franklin Hancock, he was named for noted War of 1812 commander Winfield Scott. Educated locally, Hancock received an appointment to West Point in 1840 with the aid of Congressman Joseph Fornance. A pedestrian student, Hancock graduated in 1844 ranked 18th in a class of 25. This academic performance earned him an assignment to the infantry and was commissioned as a brevet second lieutenant.

Winfield Scott Hancock - In Mexico:

Ordered to join the 6th US Infantry, Hancock saw duty in the Red River Valley. With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846, he received orders to oversee recruiting efforts in Kentucky. Successfully fulfilling his assignment, he continually requested permission to join his unit at the front. This was granted and he rejoined the 6th Infantry at Puebla, Mexico in July 1847. Marching as part of his namesake's army, Hancock first saw combat at Contreras and Churubusco in late August. Distinguishing himself, he earned a brevet promotion to first lieutenant.

Wounded in the knee during the latter action, he was able to lead his men during the Battle of Molino del Rey on September 8 but soon was overcome by fever. This prevented him from taking part in the Battle of Chapultepec and capture of Mexico City. Recovering, Hancock remained in Mexico with his regiment until the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in early 1848. With the end of the conflict, Hancock returned to the United States and saw peacetime duty at Fort Snelling, MN and St. Louis, MO. While in St. Louis, he met and married Almira Russell (m. January 24, 1850).

Winfield Scott Hancock - Antebellum Service:

Promoted to captain in 1855, he received orders to serve as the quartermaster at Fort Myers, FL. In this role he supported US Army actions during the Third Seminole War, but did not take part in the fighting. As operations wound down in Florida, Hancock was transferred to Fort Leavenworth, KS where he aided in combating partisan fighting during the "Bleeding Kansas" crisis. After a brief period in Utah, Hancock was ordered to southern California in November 1858. Arriving there, he served as assistant quartermaster under future Confederate commander Brigadier General Albert Sidney Johnston.

Winfield Scott Hancock - The Civil War:

An avowed Democrat, Hancock befriended many Southern officers while in California, including Captain Lewis A. Armistead of Virginia. Though he did not initially support the Republican policies of newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln, Hancock remained with the Union Army at the beginning of the Civil War as he felt that the Union should be preserved. Bidding goodbye to his southern friends as they left to join the Confederate Army, Hancock travelled east and initially was given quartermaster duties in Washington, DC.

Winfield Scott Hancock - A Rising Star:

This assignment was short-lived as he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers on September 23, 1861. Assigned to the newly formed Army of the Potomac, he received command of a brigade in Brigadier General William F. "Baldy" Smith's division. Moving south in the spring of 1862, Hancock saw service during Major General George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign. An aggressive and active commander, Hancock mounted a critical counterattack during the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5. Though McClellan failed to capitalize on Hancock's success, the Union commander informed Washington that "Hancock was superb today."

Seized upon by the press, this quote earned Hancock his nickname "Hancock the Superb." After taking part in the Union defeats during the Seven Days' Battles that summer, Hancock next saw action at the Battle of Antietam on September 17. Forced to take command of the division after the wounding Major General Israel B. Richardson, he oversaw some of the fighting along the "Bloody Lane." Though his men wished to attack, Hancock held his position due to orders from McClellan. Promoted to major general on November 29, he led the First Division, II Corps against Marye's Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Winfield Scott Hancock - At Gettysburg:

The following spring, Hancock's division helped cover the withdrawal of the army after Major General Joseph Hooker's defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville. In the wake of the battle, the II Corps commander, Major General Darius Couch, left the army in protest of Hooker's actions. As a result, Hancock was elevated to lead II Corps on May 22, 1863. Moving north with the army in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, Hancock was called into action on July 1 with the opening of the Battle of Gettysburg.

When Major General John Reynolds was killed early in the fighting, new army commander Major General George G. Meade sent Hancock ahead to Gettysburg to take command of the situation on the field. Arriving, he took control of Union forces after a brief squabble with the more senior Major General Oliver O. Howard. Asserting his orders from Meade, he made the decision to fight at Gettysburg and organized Union defenses around Cemetery Hill. Relieved by Meade that night, Hancock's II Corps assumed a position on Cemetery Ridge in the center of the Union line.

The next day, with both Union flanks under attack, Hancock dispatched II Corps units to aid in the defense. On July 3, Hancock's position was the focus of Pickett's Charge (Longstreet's Assault). During the artillery bombardment that preceded the Confederate attack, Hancock brazenly rode along his lines encouraging his men. In the course of the subsequent attack, Hancock was wounded in the thigh and his good friend Lewis Armistead was mortally wounded when his brigade was turned back by II Corps. Bandaging the wound, Hancock remained on the field for the rest of the fighting.

Winfield Scott Hancock - Later War:

Though he largely recovered over the winter, the wound plagued him for the remainder of the conflict. Returning to the Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1864, he took part in Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign seeing action at Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. Arriving at Petersburg in June, Hancock missed a key opportunity to take the city when he deferred to "Baldy" Smith, whose men had been fighting in the area all day, and did not immediately assault the Confederate lines.

During the Siege of Petersburg, Hancock's men took part in numerous operations including fighting at Deep Bottom in late July. On August 25, he was beaten badly at Ream's Station, but recovered to win the Battle of Boydton Plank Road in October. Plagued by his Gettysburg injury, Hancock was forced to give up field command the following month and moved through a series of ceremonial, recruiting, and administrative posts for the remainder of the war.

Winfield Scott Hancock - Presidential Candidate:

After supervising the execution of the Lincoln assassination conspirators in July 1865, Hancock briefly commanded US Army forces on the Plains before President Andrew Johnson directed him to oversee Reconstruction in the 5th Military District. As a Democrat, he followed a softer line in regard to the South than his Republican counterparts elevating his status in the party. With the election of Grant (a Republican) in 1868, Hancock was moved to the Department of Dakota and Department of the Atlantic in an effort to keep him away from the South. In 1880, Hancock was selected by the Democrats to run for president. Squaring off against James A. Garfield, he narrowly lost with the popular vote being the closest in history (4,454,416-4,444,952). Following the defeat, he returned to his military assignment. Hancock died at New York on February 9, 1886 and was buried at Montgomery Cemetery in near Norristown, PA.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Winfield Scott Hancock." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General Winfield Scott Hancock. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Winfield Scott Hancock." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).