1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hancock, Winfield Scott
HANCOCK, WINFIELD SCOTT (1824–1886), American general, was born on the 14th of February 1824, in Montgomery county, Pa. He graduated in 1844 at the United States Military Academy, where his career was creditable but not distinguished. On the 1st of July 1844 he was breveted, and on the 18th of June 1846 commissioned second lieutenant. He took part in the later movements under Winfield Scott against the city of Mexico, and was breveted first lieutenant for “gallant and meritorious conduct.” After the Mexican war he served in the West, in Florida and elsewhere; was married in 1850 to Miss Almira Russell of St Louis; became first lieutenant in 1853, and assistant-quartermaster with the rank of captain in 1855. The outbreak of the Civil War found him in California. At his own request he was ordered east, and on the 23rd of September 1861 was made brigadier-general of volunteers and assigned to command a brigade in the Army of the Potomac. He took part in the Peninsula campaign, and the handling of his troops in the engagement at Williamsburg on the 5th of May 1862, was so brilliant that McClellan reported “Hancock was superb,” an epithet always afterwards applied to him. At the battle of Antietam he was placed in command of the first division of the II. corps, and in November he was made major-general of volunteers, and about the same time was promoted major in the regular army. In the disastrous battle of Fredericksburg (q.v.), Hancock’s division was on the right among the troops that were ordered to storm Marye’s Heights. Out of the 5006 men in his division 2013 fell. At Chancellorsville his division received both on the 2nd and the 3rd of May the brunt of the attack of Lee’s main army. Soon after the battle he was appointed commander of the II. corps.
The battle of Gettysburg (q.v.) began on the 1st of July with the defeat of the left wing of the Army of the Potomac and the death of General Reynolds. About the middle of the afternoon Hancock arrived on the field with orders from Meade to assume command and to decide whether to continue the fight there or to fall back. He decided to stay, rallied the retreating troops, and held Cemetery Hill and Ridge until the arrival of the main body of the Federal army. During the second day’s battle he commanded the left centre of the Union army, and after General Sickles had been wounded, the whole of the left wing. In the third day’s battle he commanded the left centre, upon which fell the full brunt of Pickett’s charge, one of the most famous incidents of the war. Hancock’s superb presence and power over men never shone more clearly than when, as the 150 guns of the Confederate army opened the attack he calmly rode along the front of his line to show his soldiers that he shared the dangers of the cannonade with them. His corps lost in the battle 4350 out of less than 10,000 fighting men. But it had captured twenty-seven Confederate battle flags and as many prisoners as it had men when the fighting ceased. Just as the Confederate troops reached the Union line Hancock was struck in the groin by a bullet, but continued in command until the repulse of the attack, and as he was at last borne off the field earnestly recommended Meade to make a general attack on the beaten Confederates. The wound proved a severe one, so that some six months passed before he resumed command.
In the battles of the year 1864 Hancock’s part was as important and striking as in those of 1863. At the Wilderness he commanded, during the second day’s fighting, half of the Union army; at Spottsylvania he had charge of the fierce and successful attack on the “salient”; at Cold Harbor his corps formed the left wing in the unsuccessful assault on the Confederate lines. In August he was promoted to brigadier-general in the regular army. In November, his old wound troubling him, he obtained a short leave of absence, expecting to return to his corps in the near future. He was, however, detailed to raise a new corps, and later was placed in charge of the “Middle Division.” It was expected that he would move towards Lynchburg, as part of a combined movement against Lee’s communications. But before he could take the field Richmond had fallen and Lee had surrendered. It thus happened that Hancock, who for three years had been one of the most conspicuous figures in the Army of the Potomac did not take part in its final triumph.
After the assassination of Lincoln, Hancock was placed in charge of Washington, and it was under his command that Booth’s accomplices were tried and executed. In July 1866 he was appointed major-general in the regular army. A little later he was placed in command of the department of the Missouri, and the year following assumed command of the fifth military division, comprising Louisiana and Texas. His policy, however, of discountenancing military trials and conciliating the conquered did not meet with approval at Washington, and he was at his own request transferred. Hancock had all his life been a Democrat. His splendid war record and his personal popularity caused his name to be considered as a candidate for the Presidency as early as 1868, and in 1880 he was nominated for that office by the Democrats; but he was defeated by his Republican opponent, General Garfield, though by the small popular plurality of seven thousand votes. He died at Governor’s Island, near New York, on the 9th of February 1886. Hancock was in many respects the ideal soldier of the Northern armies. He was quick, energetic and resourceful, reckless of his own safety, a strict disciplinarian, a painstaking and hard-working officer. It was on the field of battle, and when the fighting was fiercest, that his best qualities came to the front. He was a born commander of men, and it is doubtful if any other officer in the Northern army could get more fighting and more marching out of his men. Grant said of him, “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, and his name was never mentioned as having committed in battle a blunder for which he was responsible.”
A biography of him has been written by General Francis A. Walker (New York, 1894). See also History of the Second Corps, by the same author (1886). (F. H. H.)