Born in Montgomery Square, Pennsylvania, February 14, 1824, and although named for America’s top military hero of the day, Winfield Scott Hancock was not originally intended for a military career; nevertheless he was destined to become one of the best corps commanders in the Union army. An 1844 graduate of West Point, he had served in the infantry during the Mexican War and earned a brevet before transferring to the quartermaster’s department.
Fearing that he would be left to sit in California-where he had been instrumental in frustrating the plans of local secessionists-while the war raged elsewhere, he was ordered East for quartermaster duties but arrived to a brigadier’s star. Taking his brigade to the Peninsula, he led a critical flank attack at Williamsburg and earned the sobriquet “Superb. ” He continued to distinguish himself during the rest of the dismal campaign. During the battle of Antietam, Israel B. Richardson was killed and Hancock was sent to command his division in the 2nd Corps-thus beginning an historic association. At Fredericksburg his division took part in the costly assaults on Marye’s Heights and at Chancellorsville he skillfully covered the Union withdrawal. With corps commander Couch’s request for transfer accepted, Hancock stepped up to the 2nd Corps leadership.
With the fall of John F. Reynolds early on the first day at Gettysburg, Meade dispatched Hancock to take over that wing of the army and decide whether the battle should be fought there or not. This was a high honor since Oliver 0. Howard, a senior officer, was already on the field. Belatedly he received the Thanks of Congress for this action. On the second and third days of the battle Hancock directed the Union center until wounded by a nail and by wood fragments-possibly from his saddle driven into his thigh by enemy fire. A long recovery followed during which he performed some recruiting duty.
Returning in time for the Overland Campaign, he fought well at the Wilderness and was brevetted major general in the regular army for his crashing through the Confederate salient at Spotsylvania. At Cold Harbor his troops were slaughtered in a futile assault ordered by Grant. Arriving on the Petersburg front, he deferred command to the corps commander on the field-because of a lack of knowledge of the situation-who failed to launch a final assault, which could very well have ended the war 10 months earlier.
Shortly afterwards Hancock’s old wound broke open and he had to leave the army for a time. Returning, he was humiliated by the defeat at Reams’ Station and in November was forced to give up field command; he began recruiting the lst Veteran Volunteer Corps. Results were poor and early in 1865 he took over command in Washington, D.C., Maryland, West Virginia, and the Shenandoah Valley. Following the Confederacy’s collapse he came into conflict with Grant who objected to his lenient treatment of the South. He was mustered out of the volunteer service on July 26, 1866, the same day that he received the appointment of major general in the regular establishment.
Remaining in the army, he assumed command of the Dept. of the East, with Hq at Governors Island, New York in 1877. He was a potential Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1868.In 1880 he was the nominee but was narrowly defeated by James Garfield. On February 9, 1886, he died at Governors Island while still in command of the Department of the East, and is buried in Montgomery Cemetery, Norristown.
- Captain and Assistant Quartermaster (since November 7, 1855)
- Brigadier General, USV (September 23, 1861)
- Commanding 3rd Brigade, Smith’s Division, Army of the Potomac (October 3, 1861 – March 13, 1862)
- Commanding lst Brigade, 2nd Division, 4th (6th after May 18)
- Corps, Army of the Potomac (March 13 – September 17, 1862)
- Commanding lst Division, 2nd Corps, Army of the Potomac (September 17, 1862 – January 24, 1863 and February 20 – May 22, 1863)
- Major General, USV (November 29, 1862)
- Commanding the corps (May 22 – July 1, and July 2-3, 1863 and March 24 – June 18 and July 27 – November 26, 1864)
- Major and Quartermaster (November 30, 1863)
- Brigadier General, USA (August 12, 1864)
- Commanding lst Veteran Volunteer Corps (November 27, 1864 – February 27, 1865)
- Commanding Middle Military Division (February 27 – June 27, 1865)
- Commanding Department of West Virginia (February 28 – March 1, March 7-20, and March 22 – June 27, 1865)
- Major General, USA (July 26, 1866)