||Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Hancock, Winfield Scott (February 14, 1824 – February 9,
Winfield S. Hancock was a Union general during the Civil War and the
Democratic presidential nominee in 1880.
He was born on February 14, 1824, in Montgomery Square, Pennsylvania, and was
named after Winfield Scott, at the time known as a hero of the War of 1812.
Hancock’s father was Benjamin Franklin Hancock, a teacher and then a lawyer, and
his mother was Elizabeth Hoxworth Hancock. Young Winfield attended school in
his hometown of Norristown, Pennsylvania, where he founded a military company.
Appointed to the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, he graduated in 1844 and
was assigned to the Sixth Infantry. Serving in the Mexican War during its last
month, he won promotion to first lieutenant. In 1850, he married Almira
Russell, while stationed in St. Louis. He served at Fort Leavenworth during the
violence of “Bleeding Kansas” and in Utah during the “Mormon War.”
When the Civil War began, Hancock was captain and chief quartermaster of the
Southern District of California. On September 23, 1861, he was named brigadier
general of volunteers and served in the Army of the Potomac under George
McClellan, who nicknamed him “Superb” after the Battle of Williamsburg (May 5,
1862). Promoted to major general after Antietam (September 17, 1862), he
performed with heroic distinction at Chancellorsville (May 1–4, 1863) and
Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863). As corps commander in the latter battle, a wounded
Hancock inspired his men to withstand the last, valiant effort by the
Confederates, known as Pickett’s Charge. In the spring of 1864, after six
months of medical leave, Hancock returned as corps commander in Virginia under
Ulysses S. Grant. He fought in several battles—the Wilderness, the North Anna,
Cold Harbor, and Petersburg—before the reopening of his wound forced him from
After the war, Hancock was promoted to the rank of major general (July 26,
1866), serving in the Indian wars in the West before assuming command of the
Fifth Military District (Texas and Louisiana) during Reconstruction. When it
became clear that his understanding of Reconstruction resembled President
Johnson’s, Grant, who sympathized with the Radical Republicans, reassigned him
to the Department of Dakota in 1869. In 1872 he became commander of the
Atlantic division, headquartered at Governors Island, New York.
Some Democrats considered Hancock their best hope to wrest the presidency
away from the Republicans, so he was considered as a potential nominee as early
as 1864. When the Democrats finally did nominate him in 1880, his candidacy was
hurt by his total lack of political experience and an alleged gaffe on the
tariff issue in which he reportedly called it a “local” issue. A factional
struggle in New York City between the Democrats of Tammany Hall, led by John
Kelly, and Irving Hall, backed by Samuel Tilden, probably lost Hancock New York
and, consequently, the election to Republican James Garfield.
Hancock continued serving in the army at Governors Island until his death on
February 9, 1886.
Sources consulted: John Y. Simon, “Hancock, Winfield Scott,”
American National Biography (online); William A. DeGregorio, The Complete
Book of U.S. Presidents; Mark M. Boatner, The Civil War Dictionary.