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Posted on Feb 17, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Winfield Scott Hancock – A Forgotten Legacy

By Wyatt Kingseed

By any measure, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock was one of the North’s finest generals, a genuine hero. When a tough job needed to be done, more often than not Hancock got the call. Taking over the famed Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac after the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, he was already a battle-hardened veteran at the brigade and division levels with meritorious service at Antietam and Fredericksburg.

When it counted most, he rose to the occasion, rallying the retreating federal army on the first day of Gettysburg to save the day. That was just for starters. He altered the course of the battle—and the war—by securing the defensive position along Cemetery Ridge where he beat back the enemy’s desperate charge on the third day. Later, his Second Corps took part in some of the war’s most brutal fighting in the Wilderness and at the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania.

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George McClellan called him “superb” for his performance during the Peninsula Campaign—a sobriquet that stuck. U.S. Grant wrote that Scott “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.”

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Major General Winfield Scott Hancock

So why is his largely a forgotten legacy, at least by the general public? Why today is one of the North’s most accomplished, dependable, and well-liked commanders less exalted than some of his contemporaries?

It’s easy to say that adoration is fickle, and that Americans have a short memory. No doubt a man’s place in the pantheon of American military heroes is a complicated thing, especially as the distance from events grows and generation follows generation. But there are specific reasons that account for Winfield Scott Hancock’s reduced place in the annuals of American history; reasons not always related, but when taken as a whole, produce sufficient weight to unfairly drag down his standing.

Never the Top Dog

Right or wrong, public accolades and adoration for military success, or public scorn for failure, fall unduly at the feet of commanding generals. Praise and criticism from the press is particularly narrow. To a large extent, regardless of the performance of one’s subordinates, the top guy gets the glory when things go right, and the flack when things go wrong.

Never was this truer than at Gettysburg. Two months after the battle Congress acknowledged George Gordon Meade’s part but made no mention of Hancock. Even Joseph Hooker won Congressional thanks. He wasn’t even on the field, having been replaced by Meade a few days before the battle. 

In the fall of 1864, bogged down in what would become a nine-month siege of Petersburg, Grant considered inserting Hancock as head of the Army of the Potomac in place of the irascible Meade. Grant ultimately stuck with Meade and that was the closet Hancock came to winning a starring role as commander of an army. Without that chance, he missed the opportunity to secure the ultimate praise accorded victorious commanders, his stellar record notwithstanding, and continued to be relegated to a supporting role.

Commanding generals make strategy; corps commanders stick with tactics. Hancock was indisputably a terrific tactician. The Civil War is rife with competent corps commanders who, given the chance to move up, failed miserably: John Pope, Hooker, and Ambrose Burnside most notably on the federal side, John Bell Hood on the Confederate. It is doubtful that Hancock would have shared their fate, but strategy and tactics take different talents. Hancock never got the call.

Reams Station

Three months into the bloody siege of Petersburg, Grant sent Hancock with two divisions south of the city to sever a vital rail supply line at Reams Station. This late in the game the Second Corps had been bled dry, particularly its veteran officer ranks. Moreover, because three-year enlistments had expired that summer, many of the army’s most seasoned infantrymen had returned home. Now filled with draftees instead of volunteers, and worn out after three months of constant action, it no longer resembled the crack-fighting unit of Gettysburg.

A.P. Hill’s Confederate veterans shattered the federal troops, an unprecedented result for the proud Union Commander. Many of the soldiers fled or surrendered without a fight, abandoning their rifles, and Hancock suffered a casualty rate of four to one to the enemy. Worse, the Corps lost twelve colors in a single day.

For a soldier of Hancock’s caliber, it must have been painful to describe the actions of some of his men in his official battle report. One brigade “could neither be made to go forward nor fire,” and men “fell back under slight fire.”

Though Grant didn’t blame him, Hancock felt embarrassed and never forgot the agony of that day. “In spite of superhuman exertions and reckless exposure on his part,” an adjutant wrote; Hancock for the first time “saw his lines broken and his guns taken.”  It was his worst and only significant defeat.

Exit Stage Right

Hancock missed the final curtain. When Grant closed the noose around Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox the next April, Hancock was off stage, reassigned five months earlier to the lower Shenandoah Valley in a mop up operation against Confederate cavalryman John Singleton Mosby.

Grant had his favorites. When President Lincoln brought a reluctant Grant east in early 1864, Grant insisted that his prodigy, the audacious Phil Sheridan, come along to invigorate the Union cavalry. By that winter, Sheridan had proven Grant a good judge of men by routing Confederate General Jubal Early at the Battle of Winchester, capturing in the process public acclaim and solidifying Grant’s confidence. After Winchester, Grant wanted Sheridan on the scene for the final push against Lee. To make room, someone had to keep things under control in the Shenandoah. Grant picked Hancock.

Whether from a personal desire on Hancock’s part for less taxing duty, brought on the recurrent and painful old injury sustained at Gettysburg, or because he recognized that it wasn’t in the cards for him to get Meade’s post, Hancock accepted the move. Likely contributing to his decision was a growing disenchantment with Grant’s casualty intensive style. During a seven-week campaign beginning that May, Union casualties exceeded 65,000 as Grant engaged the rebel army in a battle of attrition and tried to outflank Lee to get to Richmond.

In any case, Sheridan, to his everlasting fame, took full advantage of his opportunity and played a key role in collaring Lee, cutting off the Confederates’ last avenue of escape. Instead of Hancock attending Lee’s surrender in Wilmer McLean’s parlor, it was Sheridan.

Mary Surratt

In what must have been distasteful duty, Hancock presided over the hanging of Lincoln’s conspirators. Questions of fairness clouded the trial of the conspirators; and for even those who considered Mary Surratt guilty, few favored her execution. The government had never before condemned a woman, and despite appeals to President Andrew Johnson to commute her sentence, Mary Surratt joined three others on the gallows—men whose involvement was beyond question.

Certain segments of the populace and press considered Surratt’s execution murder. By unfortunate coincidence, Hancock’s late war reassignment put him over Washington, the site of the trial. Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s War Secretary, insisted on a military trial rather than a civil one—one of the most contentious aspects of the affair—placing Hancock in charge of carrying out the sentence. Like the good soldier he was he did so faithfully, but against his better judgment. The affair left a stigma on all those involved.

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