Monday, September 17, 2012

Winfield Scott Hancock

Norristown, PA      Visited September 2000


Reader's note:  In doing posts on the Civil War I will include both Union and Confederate figures.  I would appeal that these posts be read as human interest stories, not as commentary on that difficult period in American history and the slavery that required such a tragic war to be fought for its eradication.

In honor of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam (Sept. 17, 1862) this is a post on Civil War General Winfield Scott Hancock. Although Hancock would gain greatest fame as the Union Army defender of the Angle during Pickett’s Charge in the Battle of Gettysburg, his actions at Antietam would display the extraordinary courage and leadership that would define his career.

Winfield Scott Hancock was born February 1824 in Montgomery County Pennsylvania. He was named after Winfield Scott, a hero of the War of 1812 and later General of the Army prior to the Civil War. He grew up the son of a teacher and was nominated for the fledgling US Military Academy at West Point. Hancock graduated an undistinguished 18th in a class of 25 in 1844. Upon receiving his commission from West Point he was assigned to various posts in the west but eventually encountered his first combat action in the Mexican War under the command of his namesake Winfield Scott. It was during the Mexican campaign of 1847-48 that Hancock began to distinguish himself as a field commander, and also where he received the first of several battle wounds in his career.

W. S. Hancock married in 1850 and the and his wife Almira had two children; neither of which survived him. He was serving in command posts in California when the Civil War broke out in 1861. He was placed in command of an infantry brigade in the Army of the Potomac. He earned the nickname “Hancock the Superb” for his leadership in the Peninsula Campaign in May 1862.

General Hancock (seated) in the field during the Civil War

Your blogger at Bloody Lane in Antietam April 2011
By the time of the Battle of Antietam he was a division commander under Israel Richardson. At Antietam, the bloodiest one day battle of the war, Hancock found himself part of a union assault on a sunken road defended by entrenched Confederates. Just as the Union appeared to gain the decisive edge General Richardson was mortally wounded, and Hancock was pressed into emergency duty to lead the corps in the midst of the battle. Characteristically, Hancock bravely mounted his horse and rode to the front of the line rallying his troops and securing ‘Bloody Lane’ for the Union. On the basis of the action he was promoted to major general.

A beat up pick-up in the approximate location where Hancock rallied
Union troops at the Sunken Road (Bloody Lane).  Historians generally
agree that no pick-up trucks were used in battle during the Civil War. 
Though I'm sure they would have been a great help.

Hancock’s command excellence tended to place him in the center of battle. At the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862 his division was the main assault force on Marye’s Heights, suffering disastrous casualties in that ill-conceived attack. Hancock himself was shot in the abdomen. Nevertheless Hancock’s leadership and bravery during this battle led to his receiving a corps command. He was wounded yet again at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Hancock statue at Gettysburg. For a stirring dramatic account of
his actions see these excerpts from the movie "Gettysburg"   

At Gettysburg General Hancock once again found himself at the center of a major attack. But this time his soldiers were secured behind the rocks on high ground and they repelled the massive Confederate assault led General George Pickett on the third day of the battle in what has become known as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. For a third time in seven months Hancock received a severe battle wound, but he refused to be carried from the field until his position (historically known as ‘The Angle’) was secure.

Hancock recovered from these wounds to return to corps command and was involved in all of the significant engagements of the Army of the Potomac up through the surrender of Robert E. Lee's army at Appomattox. In the immediate aftermath of the war Hancock was once again placed at the center of the action when he was required to carry out the executions of the Lincoln assassination conspirators in 1865. It was a duty which he found emotionally difficult to carry out since it involved the execution of people who may have only had peripheral connection to the assassination plot.

Winfield Scott Hancock had one of the most distinguished post-war careers of any Civil War commander; serving over several different departments of the Army over the next 15 years. His distinguished war record and impeccable personal integrity made him a popular national figure, which led to his receiving the Democratic Party nomination for President in the election of 1880. He lost to James Garfield, also a Union general in the Civil War. Garfield's presidency was cut short by assassination just 200 days after he was inaugurated.

Campaign Poster for Hancock's
1880 presidential run

Hancock as a chicken in a political
cartoon during the 1880 campaign

Hancock’s final station was based in Governors Island, NY as head of the Army Department of the Middle Atlantic (East Coast). His last public duty was the oversight of Ulysees Grant's funeral in New York in August 1885. He died in New York in February 1886 of a skin infection at the age of 62. General Grant’s posthumous Memoirs published around the time of Hancock’s own death provide a wonderful memorial to “Hancock the Superb”.

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.... 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

Winfield Scott Hancock is buried in Riverside Cemetery just outside of Norristown PA. It’s an interesting cemetery,  located at the end of a residential street in a blue collar neighborhood overlooking the Schuylkill River. Several other signficant figures from the Civil War are buried there as well.  Hancock’s mausoleum is right next to the back yards of a group of brick row homes and has been protected from vandalism by a chain link fence. I visited there with two history buff pastor/friends of mine – Bauer Evans and Arie Mangrum.

Your blogger at Hancock's grave in 2000

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