Winfield Scott Hancock (1824-1886) was a U.S. Army officer and politician who served as a Union general during the Civil War (1861-65). Widely recognized as one of the war’s most brilliant commanders, Hancock served at the Battles of Williamsburg, Antietam and Chancellorsville before assuming command of the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps in May 1863. His finest moment came in July 1863 during the Battle of Gettysburg, when he commanded the Union center and repulsed the Confederate assault known as Pickett’s Charge. He later participated in Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign and saw extensive action at the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House as well as the Siege of Petersburg. After the war Hancock served in a series of departmental commands for the U.S. Army. He ran as the democratic candidate for president in 1880, but narrowly lost the election to Republican James A. Garfield.
Winfield Scott Hancock: Early Life
Winfield Scott Hancock was born on February 14, 1824, in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. One of two identical twin brothers, he was named after Winfield Scott, the preeminent American military commander of the time. After attending school at Norristown Academy, in 1840 Hancock earned a nomination to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Hancock struggled with West Point’s rigorous academic demands, finishing 18th in a class of 25 upon graduation in 1844.
Winfield Scott Hancock: U.S. Military Career
Commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Hancock spent the next two years serving in Indian Territory and as a recruiting officer in Ohio and Kentucky. His first combat experience came during the Mexican-American War (1846-48), in which he served under his namesake, Major General Winfield Scott. Hancock was wounded in the leg at the Battle of Churubusco in August 1847, and later saw action at the Battle of Molino del Rey.
Recognized for his leadership qualities, Hancock next served in a succession of administrative posts in Minnesota and Missouri. During a stint in St. Louis he met Almira Russell, the daughter of a successful merchant. The couple married in 1850 and went on to have two children.
Promoted to captain in 1855, Hancock served in Florida during the Third Seminole War (1855-58) and at Fort Leavenworth, Missouri, during “Bleeding Kansas,” a period of guerilla warfare centered on the issue of slavery. After participating in an expedition to the Utah Territory, he was transferred west and spent two years serving as a quartermaster in southern California.
Winfield Scott Hancock: Civil War
A staunch Unionist, Hancock remained in the U.S. Army after the Civil War broke out in 1861. After a brief stopover in Washington, D.C., in September 1861 he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.
Hancock’s first engagement as a field commander came in May 1862 during McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. At the Battle of Williamsburg, Hancock ordered a counterattack that routed Confederate forces and captured a rebel flag. McClellan later praised the performance, earning Hancock the lifelong nickname “Hancock the Superb.”
During the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Hancock assumed command of the II Corps after Major General Israel B. Richardson was killed in action. Noted for his remarkable calm under fire, Hancock received a promotion to major general of volunteers two months later. His unit was heavily engaged at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862 when commanding Union General Ambrose Burnside ordered a charge on the heavily entrenched Confederate lines. Hancock was grazed by a musket ball during the futile assault, and his division suffered a staggering 1,200 casualties. Hancock was wounded a second time in May 1863 at the Battle of Chancellorsville when his division screened the Union retreat. That same month he replaced Major General Darius Couch as commander of the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps.
Winfield Scott Hancock: Battle of Gettysburg
Hancock’s most legendary battle came in July 1863, when the Union and Confederate Armies met near the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On the first day of the engagement, Hancock assumed command of the I, II, III and XI Corps after Major General John Reynolds was killed in action. Finding himself temporarily in command of the entire left wing of the Union Army, Hancock skillfully deployed his troops along the high ground at Cemetery Hill, effectively setting the stage for the rest of the battle. His II Corps was positioned in the center of the Union lines and bore the brunt of Confederate assaults launched on the battle’s second day.
Hancock’s biggest contribution to the battle came on the third day when his corps thwarted the massive Confederate assault known as Pickett’s Charge. Hancock personally conducted the Union defense, riding on horseback even under heavy fire. Told he was unnecessarily risking his life, he is said to have remarked, “There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count.” Hancock’s leadership ultimately helped the Union forces win the day, but he was badly wounded during the battle when a bullet struck his saddle and bounced into his thigh.
Winfield Scott Hancock: Later Civil War Service
Hancock would spend several months recovering from his wound before rejoining his men for General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. His corps fought well at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, initially driving back Confederate forces near the Plank Road. That same month he broke through the Confederate lines at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House and nearly split Robert E. Lee’s army in two. Hancock’s corps then suffered over 3,500 casualties that June when Grant ordered an unsuccessful assault against Confederate fortifications at the Battle of Cold Harbor.
Hancock next led his corps during the Siege of Petersburg (June 1864-March 1865), in which he participated in several engagements including the two Battles of Deep Bottom. In August 1864 he suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Reams’ Station when a Confederate force commanded by A.P. Hill routed his troops and inflicted nearly 3,000 casualties. Still suffering the effects of his Gettysburg wound, Hancock chose to resign from field command in November 1864. He would spend the rest of the war commanding the First Veterans Corps in Washington, D.C., and the Middle Military Department in the Shenandoah Valley. In July 1865 he presided over the execution of the conspirators involved in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Winfield Scott Hancock: Later Life
Hancock chose to remain in the army after the Civil War and later headed both the Department of the Missouri and the Department of the Dakota. In 1867 he was placed in charge of the Fifth Military District in Reconstruction-era New Orleans. A lifelong states’ rights Democrat, Hancock ingratiated himself to whites in the area after he scaled back many of the martial law policies that had been in place since the end of the war.
In 1872 Hancock was charged with heading the Department of the Atlantic, a large command that encompassed much of the Northeast. During this time he became increasingly involved in politics, and in 1880 he won the Democratic nomination for president. Hancock’s campaign had widespread support, and he succeeded in carrying all the Southern states. But despite only trailing by some 10,000 total votes, he was ultimately defeated by Republican James A. Garfield.
Following his presidential loss, Hancock returned to his post at the Department of the Atlantic and later served as president of the National Rifle Association. He died at Governors Island, New York, in 1886 at the age of 61.