Hancock, Winfield Scott (1824–1886)

By: Joseph G. Dawson III

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: January 1, 1995

Winfield Scott Hancock, United States Army general, son of Benjamin F. and Elizabeth (Hoxworth) Hancock, was born at Montgomery Square, Pennsylvania, on February 14, 1824, and named after Gen. Winfield Scott. His father was a respected attorney and teacher in Norristown, Pennsylvania. After attending local schools, Hancock was appointed to the United States Military Academy in 1840 and finished eighteenth of twenty-five in the class of 1844. As an infantry lieutenant he served for several months in Indian Territory and then proved himself in battles during the Mexican War (1846–48). Subsequently, he rotated through a number of posts in Florida, Kansas, Utah, and California. He married Almira Russell of St. Louis, Missouri, on January 24, 1850; they had two children.

In the Civil War Hancock served in the Eastern Theater in command of a brigade on the Virginia Peninsula (March-July 1862) and at the battle of Sharpsburg (September 1862). He was promoted to major general of volunteers and fought at Fredericksburg (December 1862) and Chancellorsville (May 1863). At Gettysburg (July 1863) his corps helped repel "Pickett's Charge," but Hancock was severely wounded. His actions at Gettysburg made him one of the top Union heroes of the war. In 1866 he ranked fifth of only five regular army major generals. He was sent to the Department of the Missouri and led an unproductive campaign against the Cheyennes in Kansas.

He next commanded the Fifth Military District (Texas and Louisiana), from November 29, 1867, to March 18, 1868. A well-known Democrat, Hancock carried out Reconstruction duties in a way notably different from that of his predecessors, major generals Philip H. Sheridan, Joseph A. Mower, and Charles Griffin, all of whom were Republicans. Most Democrats staunchly opposed the Republicans' Reconstruction policy, enacted into law by the congressional Reconstruction Acts of 1867, requiring that adult black men be registered to vote and giving commanders in special military districts the authority to remove any officeholders who impeded Reconstruction. Hancock assigned Democrats to vacant offices and replaced some Republican officials whom Mower and Griffin had appointed. He also revised voter registration and jury service procedures to favor Democrats. On November 29, 1867, Hancock ordered that, even with the exceptional circumstances of military government, civilian judges and officeholders should exercise as much responsibility as possible and urged that "the right of trial by jury, the habeas corpus, the liberty of the press, [and] the freedom of speech...must be preserved." Rather than simply defending civil rights, however, Hancock was assisting the Democrats; his actions were as political as those of his predecessors. A disagreement between Hancock and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, senior general in the army, over the composition of the city council of New Orleans, Louisiana, headquarters of the Fifth District, led Hancock to request transfer from the Southwest. His eventual successor was Bvt. Maj. Gen. Joseph J. Reynolds.

After leaving the Fifth District, Hancock held a variety of assignments. He served in the Division of the Atlantic (1868–69), the Department of Dakota (1869–72), and the Department of the Atlantic (1872–86). Considering his standing as a Civil War hero, it was surprising that the Democratic party did not nominate him for president until the election of 1880, when he narrowly lost to Republican James A. Garfield. Hancock died at Governors Island, New York, on February 9, 1886, and was buried at Norristown, Pennsylvania.

Joseph G. Dawson III, Army Generals and Reconstruction: Louisiana, 1862–1877 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982). Charles W. Ramsdell, Reconstruction in Texas (New York: Columbia University Press, 1910; rpt., Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1970). William L. Richter, The Army in Texas during Reconstruction, 1865–1870 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1987). James E. Sefton, The United States Army and Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967). Glenn Tucker, Hancock the Superb (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1960).

Time Periods:

  • Reconstruction

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Joseph G. Dawson III, “Hancock, Winfield Scott,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 18, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/hancock-winfield-scott.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1995