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  Name:  Wnfield Scott Hancock
  Born:  February 14, 1824
  Died:  February 9, 1886

  Complete HarpWeek Biography:

Hancock, Winfield Scott (February 14, 1824 – February 9, 1886)

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 active duty.

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


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