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Winfield Scott Hancock

1824-1886

HANCOCK, Winfield Scott, soldier, born in Montgomery Square, Montgomery co., Pa., 14 Feb., 1824 ; died on Governor's Island, New York harbor, 9 Feb., 1886. His grandfather, Richard Hancock, of Scottish birth, was one of the impressed American seamen of the war of 1812 who were incarcerated in Dartmoor prison in England. His father, Benjamin Franklin Hancock, was born in Philadelphia, and when quite a young man was thrown upon his own resources, having displeased his guardian by not marrying in the Society of Friends. He supported himself and wife by teaching while studying law, was admitted to the bar in 1828, and removed to Norristown, where he practiced his profession forty years, earning the reputation of a well read, judicious, and successful lawyer. 

Winfield S. Hancock possessed the combined advantages of home instruction and a course in the Norristown academy and the public high school. He early evinced a taste for military exercises, and at the age of sixteen entered the U. S. military academy, where he was graduated, 1 July, 1844. He was at once brevetted 2d lieutenant in the 6th infantry, and assigned to duty at Fort Towson, Indian territory. He received his commission as 2d lieutenant while his regiment was stationed on the frontier of Mexico, where the difficulties that resulted in the Mexican war had already begun. He was ordered to active service in the summer of 1847, joined the army of General Scott in its advance upon the Mexican capital, participated in the four principal battles of the campaign, and was brevetted 1st lieutenant for gallant and meritorious conduct in those of Contreras and Churubusco. From 1848 till 1855 he served as regimental quartermaster and adjutant, being most of the time stationed at St. Louis. On 7 Nov., 1855, he was appointed assistant quartermaster with the rank of captain, and ordered to Fort Myers, Fla., where General William S. Harney was in command of the military forces operating against the Seminoles. 

He served under this officer during the troubles in Kansas in 1857 - 8, and afterward accompanied his expedition to Utah, where serious complications had arisen between the Gentiles and the Mormons. From 1859 till 1861 Capt. Hancock was chief quartermaster of the southern district of California. At the beginning of the civil war in 1861 he asked to be relieved from duty on the Pacific coast, and was transferred to more active service at the seat of war. In a letter to a friend at this time he said :  "My politics are of a practical kind the integrity of the country, the supremacy of the Federal government, an honorable peace, or none at all."  

He was commissioned a brigadier general of volunteers by President Lincoln, 23 Sept., 1861, and at once bent all his energies to aid in the organization of the Army of the Potomac. During the peninsular campaign under General McClellan he was especially conspicuous at the battles of Williamsburg and Frazier's Farm. He took an active part in the subsequent campaign in Maryland, at the battles of South Mountain and Antietam, and was assigned to the command of the 1st division of the 2d army corps, on the battlefield, during the second day's fight at Antietam, 17 Sept., 1862. 

He was soon afterward made a major general of volunteers, and commanded the same division in the attempt to storm Marye's Heights, at the battle of Fredericksburg, 13 Dec., 1862. In this assault General Hancock led his men through such a fire as has rarely been encountered in warfare. He commanded 5,006 men, and left 2,013 of them on the field. In the three days' fight at Chancellorsville, in May, 1863, Hancock's division took a prominent part. While on the march through western Maryland in pursuit of the invading army of General Lee, on 25 June, he was ordered by the president to assume command of the 2d army corps. On the 27th General Hooker asked to be relieved from the command of the Army of the Potomac; and orders from the war department reached his headquarters near Frederick, Md., assigning Major General George G. Meade to its command. 

On 1 July the report reached General Meade, who was fifteen miles distant, that there was fighting at Gettysburg, and that General Reynolds had been killed. General Meade, who knew nothing of Gettysburg, sent General Hancock with orders to take immediate command of the forces and report what should be done; whether to give the enemy battle there, or fall back to another proposed line. Hancock reported that he considered Gettysburg the place to fight the coming battle, and continued in command until the arrival of Meade. In the decisive action of 3 July he commanded on the left center, which was the main point assailed by the Confederates, and was shot from his horse. Though dangerously wounded, he remained on the field till he saw that the enemy's assault was broken, when he dispatched his aide-de-camp, Major W. O. Mitchell, with the following message : "Tell General Meade that the troops under my command have repulsed the enemy's assault, and that we have gained a great victory. The enemy is now flying in all directions in my front." General Meade returned this reply : " Say to General Hancock that I regret exceedingly that he is wounded, and that I thank him in the name of the country and for myself for the service he has rendered today." 

In a report to General Meade, after he had been carried from the field, he says that, when he left the line of battle, " not a rebel is in sight upright, and if the 5th and 6th corps are pressed up, the enemy will be destroyed." Out of fewer than 10,000 men the 2d corps lost at Gettysburg about 4,000 killed or wounded. I captured 4,500 prisoners and about thirty colors. General Hancock at first received but slight credit for the part he took in this battle, his name not being mentioned in the joint resolution passed by Congress, 28 Jan., 1864, which thanked Meade, Hooker, Howard, and the officers and soldiers of the Army of the Potomac generally. But justice was only delayed, as, on 21 April, 1866, Congress passed a resolution thanking him for his services in the campaign of 1863. 

Disabled by his wound, he was not again employed on active duty until March, 1864. being meanwhile engaged in recruiting the 2d army corps, of which he resumed command at the opening of the spring campaign of that year, and bore a prominent part in the battles of the Wilderness and Spottsylvania, where the fighting was almost continuous from the 5th to the 26th of May. In the engagement at Spottsylvania Court House, General Hancock, on the night of the 11th, moved to a position within 1,200 yards of General Lee's right center, where it formed a sharp salient since known as "the bloody angle," and early on the morning of the 12th he gave the order to advance. His heavy column overran the Confederate pickets without firing a shot, burst through the abates, and after a short hand-to-hand conflict inside the entrenchments, captured "nearly 4,000 prisoners, twenty pieces of artillery, with horses, caissons, and materim complete, several thousand stand of small arms, and upward of thirty colors."  

The fighting at this point was as fierce as any during the war, the battle raging furiously and incessantly along the whole line throughout the day and late into the night. General Lee made five separate assaults to retake the works, but without success. In the subsequent operations of the army, at the crossing of the North Anna, the second battle of Cold Harbor, and the assault on the lines in front of Petersburg, General Hancock was active and indefatigable till 17 June, when his Gettysburg wound, breaking out afresh, became so dangerous that he was compelled to go on sick leave, but resumed his command again in ten days. He was appointed a brigadier general in the regular army, 12 Aug., 1864, "for gallant and distinguished services in the battles of the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, and Cold Harbor, and in all the operations of the army in Virginia under Lieut. General Grant." 

On 21 Aug. the 2nd corps was brought to Petersburg by a long night march, and on the 25th occurred the only notable disaster in Hancock's career. While he was entrenched at Ream's Station on the Weldon railroad, which the corps had torn up, his lines were carried by a powerful force of the enemy, and many of his men captured. The troops forming the remnants of his corps refused to bestir themselves, and even the few veterans left seemed disheartened by the slaughter they had seen and the fatigues they had undergone. General Morgan's account of the battle describes the commander, covered with dust, begrimed with powder and smoke, laying his hand upon a staff officer's shoulder and saying: "Colonel, I do not care to die, but I pray to God 1 may never leave this field." 

In the movement against the South Side railroad, which began 26 October, General Hancock took a leading part and although the expedition failed, his share in it was brilliant and successful. This was his last action. On 26 Nov. he was called to Washington to organize a veteran corps of 50,000 men, and continued in the discharge of that duty till 26 Feb., 1865, when he was assigned to the command of the Middle military division, and ordered to Winchester, Va., to relieve General Sheridan from the command of the Army of the Shenandoah. The latter set out the next morning with a large force of cavalry on his expedition down the Shenandoah valley. 

General Hancock now devoted himself to organizing and equipping a force as powerful as possible from the mass at his command; and his success was acknowledged in a dispatch from the secretary of war. After the assassination of President Lincoln, General Hancock's headquarters were transferred to Washington, and he was placed in command of the defenses of the capital. On 26 July, 1866, he was appointed a. major general in the regular army, and on the 10th of the following month he was assigned to the command of the Department of the Missouri, where he conducted a successful warfare against the Indians on the plains, until relieved by General Sheridan. He was transferred to the command of the 5th military district, comprising Texas and Louisiana, 26 Aug., 1867, with headquarters at New Orleans. At this time he issued his " General Order No. 40," which made it plain that his opinion as to the duties of a military commander in time of peace, and as to the rights of the southern states, were not consistent with the reconstruction policy determined upon by congress. He was therefore relieved at his own request, 28 March, 1868, and given the command of the Division of the Atlantic, with headquarters in New York City. 

After the accession of General Grant to the presidency, he was sent, 5 March, 1869, to the Department of Dakota; but on the death of General Meade, 6 Nov., 1872, he was again assigned to the Division of the Atlantic. General Hancock's name was favorably mentioned in 1868 and 1872 as a candidate for presidential honors, and he was nominated the candidate of the Democratic party in the Cincinnati convention, 24 June, 1880. On the first ballot he received 171 votes, in a convention containing 738 members, and Senator Bayard, of Delaware, 1531. The remainder of the votes were scattered among twelve candidates. On the second ban lot General Hancock received 320 votes, Senator Thomas F. Bayard 111, and Speaker Samuel J. Randall of the House of Representatives, advanced from 6 to 128½ votes. On the next ballot General Hancock received 705 votes, and the nomination was made unanimous. The election in November resulted in the following popular vote : James A. Garfield, Republican, 4,454,416; Winfield S. Hancock, Democrat, 4,444,952: James B. Weaver, Greenback, 308,578 ; Meal Dew, Prohibition, 10,305. 

After the conclusion of tile canvass General Hancock continued in the discharge of official duty. His last notable appearance in public was at General Grant s funeral, all the arrangements for which were carried out under his supervision. The esteem in which he was held as a citizen and a sodlier was perhaps never greater than at the time of his death, he had outlived the political slanders to which his candidacy had given rise, and his achievements in the field during the civil war had become historic. His place as a general is doubtless foremost among those who never fought an independent campaign, he was not only brave himself, but he had the ability to inspire masses of men with courage. He was quick to perceive opportunities amid the dust and smoke of battle, and was equally quick to seize them ; and although impulsive, he was at the same time tenacious, tie had the bravery that goes forward rapidly, and the bravery that gives way slowly.

 General Grant says: " 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 tile thickest of tile fight won him the confidence of troops serving under him."  To a reporter in search of adverse criticism during the presidential canvass of 1880, General Sherman said : "If you will sit down and write the best thing that can be put in language about General Hancock as an officer and a gentleman, I will sign it without hesitation." See " Life of General W. S. Hancock," by Junkin and Norton (New York, 1880) ; "Addresses at a Meeting of the Military Service Institution in Memory of Hancock" (1886)" Francis A. Walker's "Ilisto@ of the Second Corps" (1887)  and "In Memoriam : Military Order of the Loyal Legion" (1887).  Edited Appleton's American Biography Copyright© 2001 by VirtualologyTM

 

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