Almost President – Hancock the Superb


Winfield Scott Hancock was named for the famous soldier, Winfield Scott. These two men shared more than just their names. These two were the only “also-rans,” or runners-up for the presidency, who lived their entire adult lives, including the period when they were running for the presidency, in the military. In spite of his lack of political experience, Winfield Scott Hancock was probably more qualified to be president than most of the political candidates of his day.

Hancock was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania in 1824. His father was a prosperous lawyer who named his first-born son after the general under whom he had served during the War of 1812. Winfield had a twin brother, Hilary, who showed some talent in his early years as a geologist, artist and cartoonist, but later became an alcoholic and skid row bum.

The turning point in Winfield’s life was his appointment to West Point. A local former Congressman, John Benton Sterigere, was an enemy of the father of another boy who wanted to go to West Point. To get his revenge on the other boy’s father, Sterigere got the appointment for Winfield. Hancock was then barely sixteen, short and weak. His good looks and good nature allowed him to escape much of the hazing he might otherwise have endured. By the time he graduated, he was big (6’2″) and strong. His graduating class was not noted for outstanding excellence, and Hancock was no standout. Hancock was popular and respected by his peers, who included in his four years at West Point Stonewall Jackson, George McClellan, James Longstreet, and Ulysses S. Grant.

Hancock’s first years in the army were spent along the Red River in Texas and on the frontier fighting Indians. The Indian fighting years were spent hunting wild game rather than Indians. When war broke out with Mexico in 1846, Hancock requested assignment in a fighting unit, but he had few achievements to recommend him. The one thing he did have in his favor was his name and the fact that he had met Winfield Scott while at West Point. Scott had Hancock assigned to Mexico, and Hancock arrived before the war was over. He was there long enough to get commendations for bravery in four different battles (Contreras, Churubusco, Molina del Ray and Chapultepec).

His next assignments were in Minnesota and Wisconsin. He was not advancing quickly in rank; few did in the peacetime army. Many of his contemporaries who later became Civil War generals left the army during this period. During this period, a West Point classmate, Don Carlos Buell, another future Civil War general, introduced Hancock to Almira Russell. After a short courtship, they were married in an elaborate ceremony.

Hancock graduated West Point in 1844. He did not make first lieutenant until 1853. He only made captain after transferring to the Quartermaster Corps. In February 1856, he was sent to Florida to fight the Seminole Indians. His next assignment was in Kansas and then to Utah and California. His efforts on this last trip earned him the reputation as one of the best quartermasters in the army. His success was due to his intelligence, hard work, and attention to detail.

Hancock did not have strong political opinions or beliefs, but he was probably a Democrat. It is unlikely that he ever voted in an election before 1880. He did not favor appeasing the South but did want to see the Union preserved. On June 15, 1861, Hancock and his wife held a dinner party for officers departing to join the Confederacy. No record of the evening was kept, but Mrs. Hancock said later that Hancock’s men at the Battle of Gettysburg later killed three of the six future Confederates attending the party.

Hancock again requested a combat assignment. McClellan got Hancock appointed Brigadier of Volunteers, a quick promotion from a mere captain. Hancock proved a brilliant commander. At the Battle of Williamsburg, Hancock routed the Confederates, causing McClellan to wire Washington with the tribute “General Hancock was superb today.” The nickname of “Hancock the Superb” stuck, becoming more appropriate with each battle. In one battle, Hancock refused to withdraw after being ordered to, realizing the importance of his position. Hancock rode along the line exposing himself to a hail of bullets, calming his troops. He then led a counter-attack and broke the rebel line, capturing many prisoners. It was one of the few Union victories early in the war, and furthered his reputation.

His actions in the Peninsular Campaign earned him promotion to Major-General. At Antietam, he earned command of a division. McClellan was replaced with Burnside, and Burnside was replaced by Hooker. The commander of the Second Corps resigned in disgust, and Hancock was given the command by order of President Lincoln one month before the Battle of Gettysburg.

At Gettysburg, Hancock took command of the Union Army after the death of General Reynolds. General Meade was elsewhere, and thought the battle would be fought at Pipe Creek. He told Hancock that he would come with the remainder of the army if Hancock thought Gettysburg a better location. Hancock made the decision, probably changing the course of the war. It was also Hancock’s men who fought off the almost successful Pickett’s Charge. Hancock had to be relieved of his Corps command due to a serious wound.

Four officers received the Thanks of Congress for their actions at Gettysburg, but not Hancock. This was probably because he was considered a Democrat. In 1866, he finally did receive the Thanks of Congress for his actions at Gettysburg.

Hancock returned to duty in time for the Wilderness Campaign. There were already rumors of his nomination by the Democratic Party. Grant’s relations with Hancock were close, and Grant would often kid Hancock about the rumors. Grant, in his memoirs, spoke very highly of Hancock: “Hancock 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…..His personal courage and his presence with his command in the thickest of the fight, won for him the confidence of troops serving under him.”

After the war, he was placed in command of a military district that included Washington, D.C. In that capacity, he had command over the conduct of the trials and the executions of the conspirators for the assassination of President Lincoln. In 1866, he was promoted to Major-General in the regular army to fill the vacancy caused by William Sherman’s promotion to Lieutenant-General.

In 1867, he was placed in command of the Fifth Military District that included Texas and Louisiana. His lenient treatment of the defeated states and his insistence on returning as much control to the civilian governments as possible led to his removal by General Grant. Grant and Hancock’s relations were strained from then on. Hancock showed his distaste for Grant on every possible occasion. This hurt Hancock’s career.

When Grant became President, he passed over Hancock for promotions and key commands. Hancock wrote to Sherman, and Sherman spoke with Grant. Sherman then wrote to Hancock: “The President authorizes me to say to you that it belongs to his office to select the Commanding Generals of Division and Departments, and that the relations you chose to assume toward him, officially and privately, absolve him from regarding your personal preferences.”

When he was finally given a Department command, it was the Department of the Dakotas, then considered the worst assignment in the army. The breach between Grant and Hancock was never successfully healed.

General Meade died in 1872, and Hancock, as the senior Major-General in the army, could not be ignored. He was assigned to take Meade’s place as commander of the Division of the Atlantic, and moved to Governor’s Island. The fine living at Governor’s Island made Hancock grow fat. He eventually weighed over 250 pounds. During this time, he became the President of the National Rifle Association and got involved in other patriotic endeavors. But he stayed out of politics.

In 1880, the other leading Democratic candidates were unacceptable for various reasons. On the second ballot at the Convention, Wisconsin switched its votes to Hancock, and a rush ensued. Hancock was the surprise nominee.

General Grant campaigned against Hancock, and may have turned the tide in several states. The Republicans recalled his overly lenient treatment of the South after the war, and pictured him as naive about political issues. Hancock hurt his own cause when he said in an interview “the tariff question is a local issue.” Thomas Nast, the famous cartoonist, created a devastating cartoon showing a confused Hancock asking, “Who is Tariff? And why is he for revenue only?”

After his very narrow loss, Hancock continued as commanding general of the Department of the Atlantic. His last major assignment was to organize the impressive funeral rites for President Grant who died in 1885. Grant’s attitude towards Hancock had mellowed in his later years. Grant had given Hancock much deserved applause in his memoirs.

Hancock’s home life was considerably less happy than his military life. Both his children died prior to Hancock, his only son dying in 1884. His daughter had died in 1875 of typhoid fever. Hancock passed away in 1886.

“Hancock the Superb” may well have been a superb president. The major necessity of the period was ending the divisions between North and South. He had proven his ability to bridge the gap during his time as commander of the Fifth District. He probably lost the election because of feuding factions in the New York Democratic Party. New York went very narrowly for Garfield, giving Garfield the election. The change of a few thousand votes would have given New York, and the election, to Hancock.

“Hancock the Superb” never got command of an army and never got to be President. Both disappointments were great losses for our country. His “calm disposition, quick intelligence, great diligence and devotion to peace” made him truly superb.