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Winfield Scott Hancock


WINFIELD SCOTT HANCOCK, one of the most brilliant, generals of the recent war, is the son of Benjamin Franklin Hancock and Elizabeth his wife, both natives of Montgomery county, Pennsylvania. In a retired part of this county, near Montgomery Square, he was born 
February 14th, 1824; when about four years old, his parents removed to Norristown, the county town, where his father took the charge of a school—although then preparing himself for the legal profession, which he afterwards practised with success.

Amid the pleasant scenes and associations of this thriving town, with parents possessing more than average education, intelligence and patriotism, he and his twin brother Hilary B., 
(now a lawyer in Minnesota) and a younger brother, John (afterward a Major in the Army of the Potomac), grew up surrounded by the best of social and religious influences. Among his playfellows he was naturally a leader, popular in juvenile musical matters, affectionate and social. At the village academy he was esteemed as truthful, obedient and courageous. With his elders he was an acceptable companion, on account of his modest and unassuming interest in matters and subjects usually uninteresting to boys of his age—and he seems to have developed, even at that early day, that aptitude for military pursuits and those scientific tastes and acquirements which may be considered as indicative of the probable course of his after life. Like many another American boy, his first public appearance was as the reader of the Declaration of Independence, on a 4th of July celebration at Norristown, when he was but fifteen years old.

Nearly a year later be was unexpectedly nominated by Joseph Fornance, M. C., for a cadetship in the United States Military Academy at West Point, which he entered July 1st, 1840, meeting there with many young men (mostly his seniors) who have since distinguished themselves on American battle-fields. He graduated from West Point, June 30th, 1844, ranking No. 18 in his class; he was brevetted July 1st, as second lieutenant in the 6th United States Regiment of Infantry; and June 18th, 1846, received his commission of full second lieutenancy in the same regiment, stationed at Fort Lawson, on the Red River of the South. Here and at Fort Washita (an extreme Western post) he continued until, on the outbreak of the Mexican War, in the spring of 1817, his regiment went into actual service. He was at Churubusco, August 20th, 1847, under General Scott; there, at the head of his platoon, he took a part in the desperately contested hand-to-hand fight of Molino del Rey, September 8th, 1847; as, also, in the attack, on the 13th, upon the castle of Chapultepec, and the three days' fighting which resulted in a glorious victory to the American arms. 

He was at that time regimental adjutant, was repeatedly mentioned in the official reports of the day; and, in August, 1848, was brevetted first lieutenant for gallantry in these actions, dating from 20th August, 1847. He was also present when the Mexican commissioners entered the American camp, with proposals of peace—which were rejected by General Scott—and he shared the proud triumph of the 14th September, 1847, when that general, at the head of 6000 war-worn veterans, entered the City of Mexico, as its captors. The war closed soon after, and Hancock—serving for a time with General Cadwallader, at Toluca, and having been advanced to the position of regimental quartermaster, was one of the last Americans who left the soil of Mexico. His services, together with those of other Pennsylvania soldiers, were appropriately acknowledged by the Pennsylvania legislature, in a series of resolutions, of which a copy was presented to him. He was next stationed at Fort Crawford, Prairie du Chien, Wis., until the summer of 1849 then, until the autumn of 1855, he served as regimental adjutant, on the staff of his old Mexican war colonel, Brigadier-General J. S. Clarke, at Jefferson Barracks and St. Louis, Mo.

On the 24th of January, 1850, he married Almira, the daughter of Mr. Samuel Russell, a wealthy and highly esteemed merchant of that city; and, in November 1855, was made assistant quartermaster, with rank of captain.

During 1856, he was stationed as quartermaster at Fort Myers, near St. Augustine, Florida ; and, in November of the same year, was assigned to duty in the United States quartermaster general's department, for the Western district, in Utah Territory, and accompanied General Harney on his expedition to Kansas, and the regions beyond. From Utah, he was transferred, still in the department, to Benicia, California, where he was brought into intimate social and official relations with that sterling soldier, General Silas Casey ; thence, to the old Spanish town of Los Angeles, Lower California. Here he remained two years, attaining a great degree of personal influence in that region, so that, when, in 1801, the civil rebellion broke out, and certain restless spirits tried to turn the Golden State into the secession stream, his voice and example, as well as his cool, calm courage and caution, contributed most powerfully to stem the tide of rebellion, and to hold that grand young commonwealth firmly to its loyalty to the Union.

But he burned for a more active part in the defence of that Union, and, at his own request, was transferred to the East. Reaching New York city in September, 1861, he stopped not 
even to greet his parents, but hastened directly to Washington, full of the one idea so clearly expressed in the following extract from a letter written to a friend at the time. " 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 immediately assigned to duty as chief quartermaster, on the staff of General Robert Anderson, then in Kentucky; and, while making his preparations to go, was, most unexpectedly to himself, nominated by General McClellan, as a brigadier-general. The appointment was made, entirely on its merits, by President Lincoln, 23d September, 1861, and he was given the command of a brigade in General W. F. Smith's Division, holding an advanced position on the Potomac, and did good service in foraging, reconnoitring, etc., in the face of the enemy, and in a country overrun by rebel emissaries and spies. In the advance of April, 1862, towards Yorktown, Hancock's brigade took an active and foremost part, his artillery experience coming into good play. Several times he led his brigade in person, in the open field; and, at the battle of Williamsburg, just at the set of sun, and (luring a pouring rain, with the enemy massed in his front, and with recent and yawning chasms amid the ranks of his own men, he rode to the centre of his lines, and quickly passing the words "fix bayonets," paused a moment, then, waving his hat, uttered the order to his officers, "Gentlemen, charge." Following their brave leader who was riding straight upon the enemy at the top of his speed, the bayonet charge of that little band was the decisive stroke of that day's battle. The enemy were whirled helplessly before it, the day was suddenly crowned with victory, and Hancock's character for " dash," was established from that moment. For this and other services, be was brevetted Major in the United States Army, dating from May 4th, 1862.

In the progress of the Union army up the Peninsula, his brigade was constantly in the advance duties being particularly arduous in the pestilential swamps of the Chickahominy, where he shared in all the dangers and fatigues of the principal attacks, and rendered important aid by his regular army experience in conducting the safe withdrawal of the men under his command. At Gaines' Mill, while in the extreme advance, he met and overcame the terrific fire of five massed rebel regiments, defeating their purpose. At the brief, but sanguinary fight of Garnett's Hill, he met and repulsed a savage onslaught made by Toombs and the Georgia troops, and held this position until near the close of the day (June 28th), when he rejoined Smith's command and took part in the obstinately contested battle of Savage's Station (29th), and that of White Oak Swamp on the 30th. For his services at Garnett's Hill he was recommended for appointment as Major-General of Volunteers; and subsequently for three brevets in the (regular) United States Army, for meritorious conduct (luring the Peninsula campaign. June 27th, 1862 he was brevetted Colonel in United States Army. On the 17th September, General Hancock commanded a division on the field of Antietam, Md.

When the Army of the Potomac, in October and November 1862, marched to Falmouth, Va., Hancock's column was on the extreme right, and in perfect order, and at the battle of Fredericksburg, December 13th, his men crossed the river in open boats, under fire, scaled the banks, drove off the enemy, and formed the pontoon bridge, taking, also, conspicuous part in the subsequent heavy fighting of that disastrous day. On the 29th of November, on the nomination of General Burnside, he was appointed Major-General of Volunteers. In the battle of Chancellorsville, May 2d—4th, 1863, Hancock's skill turned the fortunes of the day ; and he was soon after appointed by President Lincoln to the command of the Second Army Corps.

When the rebel advance into Pennsylvania was so suddenly checked at Gettysburg, July 1st—3d, 1863, Hancock was present with this gallant corps, near the centre of the Union lines; and, he was, at first, in command of the field. His dispositions and plans, made during the critical interval which elapsed before the arrival of Meade, were so admirable, that that gallant general, on his arrival, saw no reason to change them. On the third day of that great battle, Hancock was wounded severely, but would not be taken to the rear. He was obliged to go home to recover from his wound; was received at Norristown by his fellow-citizens, and borne to his home on a stretcher, on the shoulders of soldiers of the Invalid Corps. His recovery was gradual but sure—and the admiration felt for his patriotic services were manifested by numerous presentations, receptions, etc. His Norristown friends gave him a service of nine pieces of gold and silver plate ornamented with the trefoil badge of the Second Corps, and valued at $1600. When he had so far recovered as to be able to travel to West Point, he was honored with public receptions in his native county, at New York, West Point, and at St. Louis, where he went to see his family, and where, also, he received from the Western Sanitary Fair a superb sword.

Ordered to Washington, December 15th, 1863, he promptly obeyed, although his wound was not yet healed, and was detailed to the important duty of increasing the ranks of the army by his personal presence and exertions. He undertook the raising of 50,000 men for his corps (headquarters at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) with good success—the great cities of New York, Albany, and Boston, offering him every public and private facility. At Philadelphia, a public reception was given him; resolutions were offered by the city government, and the rare honor was his of having Independence Hall thrown open to his use on the 22d of February he reviewed the volunteer troops of the city; in New York City, the Governor's Room in the City Hall was placed at his disposal; at Albany, the Legislature tendered an official testimonial of respect, as, also, did the Legislature of Massachusetts and the merchants of Boston. In March, 1864, he was again ordered to the front, and led his old corps, the second, again in the advance, under Grant, upon Culpeper Court House, Virginia, participating in the battles of the Wilderness. At Spottsylvania, the made a magnificent charge at the head of his whole corps, and proved himself the man of the day, which he closed with the following brief despatch to General Grant. "General, I have captured from thirty to forty guns. I have finished up Johnson, and am now going into Early."

At Petersburg, Virginia, he personally rallied the Second Corps, and his force was always well in hand; no matter how much extended his lines were, they always responded promptly 
and perfectly to his orders, and he handled them with the precision, force and ease with which a single regiment is usually manoeuvred. For gallant conduct in the Wilderness, at Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor, and in all the operations of the army under Grant, President Lincoln made him Brigadier-General of the United States Army, commission dated 12th August, 1864. From the Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair he received a splendid sword; from the Great Central Sanitary Fair, at Philadelphia, a full set of horse equipments, value $500 ; a residence in Philadelphia, from some citizens; and $15,000 placed at his disposal by the Coal Exchange of the same city for the purpose of recruiting his corps, while St. Louis gave him an elegant sword. He remained in command of the Second Army Corps, though partially disabled by the repeated breaking out afresh of his old wound received at the battle of Gettysburg, until November 25th, 1864, when he was compelled to ask to be relieved, and for the next three months was at Washington organizing, as far as his infirm health would permit, the army corps of veterans. He was then put in command of the Department of West Virginia, and temporarily of the Middle Military Division, and of the Army of the Shenandoah, in which he continued till July 18th, 1865, when he was transferred to the Middle Department, and in August 1866, to the Department of the Missouri; in March, 1867, he took command of an expedition against the Indians of the plains.

Meantime other promotions had come to General Hancock; on the 13th of March, 1865, he had been brevetted Major-General in the United States Army for gallant and meritorious conduct a, the battle of Spottsylvania; and on the 26th of July, 1866, had been commissioned Major-General in the army.

While in command of the Department of the Missouri, his intercourse with both the President and General Grant had been very cordial; but in August, 1867, President Johnson determined to remove General Sheridan from the command of the Fifth Military District, which comprised Louisiana and Texas, and appointed General Hancock his successor. The latter could not immediately enter on his duties; but in November, 1867, he went to New Orleans and took command, revoking immediately several of General Sheridan's orders, and issued a special order, of which the second item (which we give below) was the most important portion.*

[*Footnote: "Second. The General commanding is gratified to learn that peace and quiet reign in this department. It will be his purpose to preserve this condition of things. As a means to this great end, he regards the maintenance of the civil authorities in the faithful execution of the laws, as the most efficient under existing circumstances, In war it is indispensable to repel force by force. and overthrow and destroy opposition to authority; but when insurrectionary force has been overthrown and peace established, and the civil authorities are ready and willing to perform their duties, the military power should cease to lead, and the civil administration resume its natural and rightful dominion. Solemnly impressed with these views, the General announces that the great principles of American liberty still are the lawful inheritance of this people, and ever should be. The right of trial by jury, the habeas corpus, the liberty of the press, the freedom of speech, and the natural rights of persons and the rights of properly must be preserved. Free institutions, while they are essential to the prosperity and happiness of the people, always furnish the strongest inducements to peace and order. Crimes and offences committed in the district must be referred to the consideration and judgment of the regular civil authorities, and these tribunals will be supported in their lawful jurisdiction. Should there be violations of existing laws, which are not inquired into by the civil magistrates, or should failures in the administration of justice by the courts be complained of, the cases will be reported to these headquarters, when such orders will be made as may be deemed necessary. While the General thus indicates his purpose to respect the liberties of the people, he wishes all to understand that armed insurrections and forcible resistance to laws will be instantly suppressed by arms."]

Of the abstract truth and justice of the opinions here laid down, there can be no doubt. But as to their practical operation in this case there were two important questions, viz.:  whether the people of Louisiana and Texas were at this time so far reduced to a peaceful condition that they might safely be left to the control of the civil authority alone, while the two conflicting elements of society were yet in open hostility to each other, and whether General Hancock, an entire stranger, was competent, at the very day of his coming among them, to decide a question of such importance.

On these two questions there was a conflict of opinion between General Hancock and his superior officer, General Grant. President Johnson sanctioned General Hancock's course; but General Grant revoked his special orders, for carrying out sea the measures indicated above, and annulling the previous orders of General Sheridan and his own subordinate, General Mower.

The controversy between General Hancock and General Grant continued for about two months; but finally terminated in General Hancock's asking to be relieved from his command in January, 1806. He was made commander of the new military department of Washington, including Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia, by President Johnson. It is worthy of notice that early in the ensuing summer the States of Louisiana and Texas, as well as several other of the Southern States, were readmitted to the Union by Act of Congress, and placed under a strictly civil administration, as General Hancock had insisted should be done.

General Hancock retained his new command until the inauguration of President Grant, when, by the new arrangement or military commands, he was assigned to the Military Department of Dakota, embracing that Territory and part of Montana. There was an unpleasant state of feeling between him and President Grant, growing out of the Louisiana troubles, and he regarded this assignment of command, as he well might, as a virtual banishment. Subsequent correspondence has made the matter no better. General Hancock is still commander of the Department of Dakota, and though senior Major-General in his Military Division, he was, during the late absence for nearly a year of Lieutenant-General Sheridan, put under the command of one of his own juniors.

In personal appearance, General Hancock is decidedly one of the most dignified and imposing of our military officers of high rank. Of fine stature, and an intellectual, thoughtful face, a man evidently born to command, courteous, and gentlemanly in his manners, he possesses in a large degree that personal magnetism which enables him to exert a powerful influence over the men he leads. He is destined yet to exert a powerful influence in our national affairs. By the death of Generals Thomas and Halleck he stands next to the highest rank as a Major-General in the army of the United States.


Source: Source: Men of Our Day; or Biographical Sketches of Patriots, Orators, Statesmen, Generals, Reformers, Financiers and Merchants, Now on the state of Action: Including Those Who in Military, Political, Business and Social Life, are the Prominent Leaders of the Time in This Country, by L. P. Brockett, M. D., Published by Ziegler and McCurdy, Philadelphia Penna; Springfield, Mass; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Mo., 1872  

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