Winfield Scott Hancock

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Portrait of Winfield S. Hancock during the Civil War

Winfield Scott Hancock (February 14, 1824February 9, 1886) was a career U.S. Army officer who served with with distinction as a general in the American Civil War and ran unsuccessfully for President of the United States in 1880. He was known to army colleagues as "Hancock the Superb".

Hancock was born in Montgomery Square, Pennsylvania, one of twin brothers, and named after the famous general Winfield Scott. Hancock would serve under Scott and become a general himself, graduating from the U.S. Military Academy in 1844, and rising to the rank of major general by the end of his military career.

Hancock's career started as a second lieutenant in the 6th U.S. Infantry regiment, with which he fought in the Mexican War under his namesake, Scott. He was brevetted to first lieutenant for gallant and meritorious service at Contreras and Churubusco in 1847; he was wounded in the knee at the latter battle. He served in a number of assignments as an army quartermaster and adjutant, mostly in St. Louis, Missouri, and was in southern California at the time the Civil War broke out in 1861. Serving nearby was his close friend Lewis A. Armistead, of Virginia. Armistead soon left to join the Confederate army.

Hancock returned east to assume quartermaster duties for the rapidly growing Union army, but was quickly promoted to brigadier general and given an infantry brigade to command in the Army of the Potomac. He earned his "Superb" designation in the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 by leading a critical attack on Fort Magruder in the Battle of Williamsburg; sadly, army commander George B. McClellan did not follow through on Hancock's initiative and Confederate forces were allowed to withdraw unmolested.

In the Battle of Antietam, Hancock assumed division command in the II Corps following the death of Israel B. Richardson. He was promoted to major general of volunteers in November, 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 brigade covered Joseph Hooker's withdrawal and Hancock was wounded again. His corps commander, Darius 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 for the rest of the war. He is considered by many to the best Union corps commander of the war.

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Monument to General Hancock on Cemetery Hill in Gettysburg (467x700)

Hancock's most famous service was as a new corps commander at the Battle of Gettysburg, July 13, 1863. After Major General John F. Reynolds was killed early on July 1, 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, which 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 Oliver O. Howard argued about this command arrangement, but Hancock prevailed and he organized the Union defenses on Cemetery Hill as superior Confederate forces drove the I and XI Corps back through the town. He had the authority to withdraw the forces, so he was responsible for the decision to stand and fight at Gettysburg. Hancock later received the thanks of the U.S. Congress for "for his gallant, meritorious and conspicuous share in that great and decisive victory". 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. Robert E. Lee launched assaults on both ends of the line. On the Union left, James Longstreet's assault smashed the III Corps and Hancock sent in his 1st Division, under John C. Caldwell, to reinforce the Union in the Wheatfield. As 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 it to suffer 87% casualties. But 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 that great assault, his old friend, now Brigadier General Armistead in George Pickett's division, was wounded and died two days later. Hancock couldn't meet with his friend because he had just been wounded himself, a severe thigh injury. Despite his pain, Hancock refused evacuation to the rear until the battle was resolved. He had been an inspiration for his troops throughout the battle.

Hancock suffered from the effects of his wound for the rest of the war. He did recruiting over the winter and returned in the spring to field command of the II Corps for 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. His corps suffered enormous losses during a futile assault ordered by Grant at Cold Harbor.

During the Siege of Petersburg, Hancock's only significant reverse occurred. His corps moved south of the city, along the Weldon Railroad, tearing up track. On August 25, Major General Henry Heth attacked and overran the faulty Union position at Reamís Station, shattering the II Corps, capturing many prisoners. This humiliation was a principal reason for him giving up field command in November, but he also expressed his concern with Grant's casualty-intensive tactics. He performed more recruiting, commanded the Middle Department, and relieved Philip Sheridan in command of forces in the now-quiet Shenandoah Valley.

After the war, Hancock commanded the Department of the East, headquartered at Governors Island, New York. During Reconstruction, Hancock drew much criticism from Grant and others for his inclination to be lenient to the defeated Confederates.

Hancock was considered but passed over for the Democratic nomination for U.S. President in 1868. He was eventually chosen as the Democratic opponent to James Garfield in the U.S. election of 1880, but was narrowly defeated in his attempt.

Hancock the Superb died at Governors Island in 1886, still in command of the Department of the East. He is buried in Montgomery Cemetery in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Ulysses Grant's assessment of Hancock in his memoirs sums up the man:

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. Tall, well-formed and, at the time of which I now write, 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 2d corps always felt that their commander was looking after them.

External links

References

  • Eicher, John H., & Eicher, David J.: Civil War High Commands, Stanford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8047-3641-3


Preceded by:
Samuel J. Tilden
Democratic Party Presidential candidate
1880 (lost)
Succeeded by:
Grover Cleveland

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