Friday, February 14, 2014

Pure Gold: Major General Winfield Scott Hancock

Upon his death on February 9, 1886 President Hays had this to say of Winfield Scott Hancock: "If when we make up our estimate of a public man, conspicuous both as a soldier and in civil life, we are to think first and chiefly of his manhood, his integrity, his purity, his singleness of purpose, and his unselfish devotion to duty, we can truthfully say of Hancock that he was through and through pure gold."

                        Major General Winfield Scott Hancock

Winfield Scott Hancock and his identical twin brother Hilary Baker were born in Montgomery Square, Pennsylvania February 14, 1824 the sons of Benjamin and Elizabeth Hancock. Another son John would follow six years later. The Hancock family moved to Norristown, Pennsylvania when Winfield was four. At the age of 16 he was appointed to the United States Military Academy from which he graduated on June 30, 1844 ranking 18th of 25 cadets.

Hancock was breveted 2nd Lieutenant in the 6th U. S. Infantry, July 1, 1844. His first post of duty was at Washita on the Red River. He later saw action in the Mexican War where he was breveted 2nd Lieutenant in August 1848, for "gallant and meritorious bearing" at the Battles of Churubusco and Chapultepec.  After the Mexican War Hancock was assigned to Ft. Crawford at Prairie du Chen, Wisconsin.  In 1849 he became the regimental quartermaster for the 6th U. S. Infantry and spent six years at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis Missouri.  While in St. Louis he met and married Almira Russell, January 24, 1850.  They later had two children Russell and Ada Elizabeth.  The Hancock's were assigned to duty posts in Florida, Utah and California prior to the Civil War.

When the Civil War broke out in April 1861 Captain Hancock was in Los Angeles, California serving as the Assistant Quartermaster. Although he had many friends who would side with the Confederacy Hancock noted at the outbreak of the war that: "My politics are of a practical kind.  The integrity of the country.  The supremacy of the federal government. An honorable place or none at all."

Captain Hancock arrived in New York in September 1861.  He had been affiliated with the Army since 1840.  "By his strict devotion to duty, his invariable courage, energy and patriotic enthusiasm he had secured the confidence and attachment of all who knew him.  Correct in his personal habits, polite, affable, friendly with all, unselfish and hospitable he was a favorite wherever he went."  He reported to duty in Washington where he was appointed Chief Quartermaster for Robert Anderson, a post he never assumed, because of George McClellan's request he be appointed Brigadier General of Volunteers.  The rest as they say is history.

                         Hancock's Equestrian Statue at Gettysburg

Hancock went on to serve in the U. S. Army throughout the Civil War and continued to serve until his death in 1886.  He was nicknamed "Hancock the Superb" following a remark by General McClellan after the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1861.  He took over command of Israel Richardson's Division at Antietam and then assumed command of the 2nd Corps following the Battle of Chancellorsville.  His most conspicuous service might have been at Gettysburg where he was severely wounded and belatedly received the Thanks of Congress for his action.  This description of Hancock, by Frank Haskell, at Gettysburg is iconic: "Hancock is the tallest, and most shapely,  and in many respects is the best looking officer of them all.  His hair is very light brown, straight and moist, and always looks well, his beard is of the same color, of which he wears the moustache and tuft upon the chin: complexion ruddy, features neither large nor small, but well cut, with a full jaw and chin, compressed mouth, straight nose, full deep blue eyes and a very mobile, emotional countenance.  He always dresses remarkably well and he is dignified, gentlemanly and commanding.

                     Hancock's Equestrian Statue Washington DC
                    (Library of Congress photo)

Hancock commanded the 2nd Corps throughout the Overland Campaign in 1864 when the corps was considered "the Thunderbolt of the Army of the Potomac". Hancock's only major battlefield defeat was at Reams Station on August 25, 1864.  He was commanding troops in the Shenandoah Valley when the war ended.

 Lt. General  U. S. Grant paid homage to Hancock in his Personal Memoirs noting: "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."

Winfield Scott Hancock died at Governors Island, New York in 1886 from complications of a carbuncle and diabetes.  He is buried in Montgomery Cemetery, Norristown, Pennsylvania with his daughter Ada who preceded him in death.

                                     Library of Congress photo