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

Winfield Scott Hancock – A Forgotten Legacy

By Wyatt Kingseed

Political Novice

Hancock lacked political skill. He did not share the popular sentiment of the government with respect to how the North should treat its vanquished enemy. Always a strong states’ rights advocate, he favored more lenient treatment of the South during Reconstruction than was commonly desired in Washington at the time. This attitude came through loud and clear when President Andrew Johnson tapped Hancock in 1867 to replace the harsh Sheridan as commander of the Fifth Military District, which encompassed Louisiana and Texas.

In one of his first actions, Hancock issued General Order No. 4, designed to return governance to civil authorities with little military interference. He next rescinded orders by his predecessor that prohibited former rebels from voting and serving as jurors, undermining efforts to promote black suffrage and empowerment. The New York Times defended the action in a series of editorials in January 1868, writing that the general “expresses with clearness and good temper the American idea as to the proper relations of the soldier and the courts.”


Not surprisingly, Congressional reaction differed dramatically. Radical Reconstructionists believed Hancock would enable the pre-war power structure to reclaim its former position. They characterized Hancock as “the idol of the disloyal, the rebel, the traitor,” and tried to drum him out of the service. The Times lamented that the general’s critics had forgotten his war record, noting: “So easy are hard-won honors lost!” 
Though not as an egregious offense as James Longstreet’s later move to discredit Lee for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, Hancock offended some powerful players in the North, including New York Herald editor Horace Greeley. Most importantly, he found himself at odds with Grant, head of U.S. Armies and his immediate superior. Grant held unparalleled hero status and had gradually aligned himself with the Radical Republicans. When given the chance, he maneuvered the wayward Hancock into requesting a transfer after just four months.

To what extent Hancock’s brief tenure as commander of the Fifth Military District tarnished his image is difficult to say, but surely it did. More importantly, it left a lingering scar in his relationship with Grant. On winning the presidency later that year, Grant extracted revenge.

Undistinguished Postwar Career against the Indians

Once elected president, Grant reorganized the military districts that oversaw Reconstruction, reinstalling Sheridan back in the Fifth District. And contrary to tradition, he ignored seniority in sending Hancock to a less desirable post.

Remembering Hancock’s performance in Louisiana, and a perceived snub later in Washington, Grant shuffled him off to the Department of Dakota, a backwater assignment. It marked the second tour of duty out west for Hancock, neither of which amounted to much.

Hancock with three fellow Officers

During the first, in 1867, he had a run-in with the flamboyant cavalryman George Armstrong Custer. Apparently bored with his duties and homesick, Custer left his post without permission and went on a four hundred-mile round trip to visit his wife. Hancock brought Custer up on changes, which included the summary execution of deserters without trial, and suspended the lieutenant colonel for one year without pay and rank. Despite his faults, Custer was an immensely popular figure outside the military. Hancock’s discipline would not have endeared him to the masses, and within a year, Sheridan, now Hancock’s senior, recalled the impetuous Custer, whose fame would reach mythic proportions less than a decade later at Little Big Horn.

By the time the federal government got serious about taming the Indians, Hancock was back east. Once again, others—namely Sherman, Sheridan, and Nelson Miles—got the credit for fulfilling the nation’s manifest destiny by subduing the Native Americans.

Generals Howard and Hunt

Two brother officers questioned Hancock’s performance at Gettysburg after the war. General O. O. Howard disputed Hancock’s version of the first day’s events, claiming in the Atlantic Monthly that he, rather than Hancock, first secured Cemetery Ridge. Hancock, feeling his reputation impinged, used another popular magazine to rebut. In The Galaxy, the corps commander set the record straight and Howard came across as a jealous, self-promoter. Hancock’s reputation stayed intact.

But having a more deleterious effect was General Henry Hunt’s criticism of Hancock’s management of the Union’s artillery on the climatic third day of the battle. Hunt, the North’s senior artillery officer, voiced his criticism in Century magazine, which in 1884-1886 published the 19th century’s most reputable history of the conflict in a four volume set, Battles and Leaders of The Civil War. Battles and Leaders captured reminiscences of former officers from both sides and brought the war to a new generation of Americans. The series was immensely popular.

Hunt argued that Hancock made a tactical error by ignoring his advice to preserve Union firepower during the Confederate opening artillery barrage. Had he done so, the Union guns would have decimated Confederate infantry before it reached the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge. Hancock felt otherwise, and to boost the spirits of his own troops, countermanded Hunt’s orders and unleashed federal cannon in a long-range duel. Hunt felt it a waste of precious ordinance. “I had counted on an artillery crossfire that would stop it (Pickett’s Charge) before it reached our lines,” Hunt argued. “But, except for a few shots here and there, Hazard’s batteries were silent until the enemy came within canister range. They had unfortunately exhausted their long range projectiles during the cannonade, under the orders of their corps commander.” Hancock’s decision “cost us much blood, many lives, and for a moment endangered the success of the battle.”

By the time Battles and Leaders appeared in print, Hancock was dead and couldn’t respond. If readers didn’t buy Hunt’s assessment lock stock and barrel, they at least must have found his argument plausible.   

Also Ran Presidential Candidate

Likely putting the greatest damper on Hancock’s long-term legacy was his failed 1880 presidential bid. Courted by Democratic supporters twice before, in 1880 he finally acquiesced to the party’s nomination. Unfortunately, for a green politician, circumstances weren’t in his favor. The nation was in the midst of an economic recovery and no single issue surfaced to distinguish Hancock from the incumbent Republicans and their candidate, James A. Garfield—like Hancock a war hero. Moreover, Hancock and his handlers ran an uninspired campaign.

One of the campaign’s more intriguing events was the unveiling of a personal letter Hancock had written to General Sherman four years earlier, during the contested election of 1876. Hancock advised Sherman that as head of the U.S. Armies, he might need to intercede and anoint Samuel Tilden president if Congress failed to peacefully resolve the matter. Tilden, a Democrat, had won the popular vote and Electoral College vote, but the legitimacy of four states was in question. A special commission eventually awarded the contested votes to Rutherford B. Hayes. The letter, more innocent than it seemed at the time, merely suggested that if the parties could not decide the election through the appropriate Constitutional means, the military had to make sure things didn’t dissolve into chaos.    
The long-time Republican journal Harper’s Weekly unleashed its cartoonists, who routinely depicted an honorable Hancock fighting on uphill battle. But their pens turned ugly against the retinue of unsavory Democrats along for the ride. One cartoon, however, did attack Hancock personally, dredging up an alleged statement he had made to Grant eleven years earlier during his stint in Louisiana. It showed a ghostly Lincoln disturbing Hancock’s sleep and pointing to the offensive quote: “Well, I’m opposed to nigger domination.”
New York was the key, holding thirty-five Electoral College votes, more than enough to have swung the election Hancock’s way. Voters there, however, had grown tired of Tilden, who helped manage Hancock’s campaign in the state, and went with Garfield. Despite questions of voter fraud, Scott chose not to contest the election.

If history remembers a man’s last public act best, Hancock had committed one of the most visible of American sins—he failed politically; and the American public quickly forgets losing presidential candidates. Like Tilden, and Charles Evans Hughes and Adlai Stevenson in the 20th Century—all accomplished men before their failed presidential efforts—Hancock has been relegated to the has-been heap. Though Hancock lost by the narrowest of margins in history, just 8,000 popular votes, he still lost.

Though his fame had already lost its patina by the time of his 1885 death, those in the know understood why “Hancock the Superb” was an apt title. It still is.


• OR Series 1, Volume 42 8/25/64 correspondence.
• Harper’s Weekly, November 6, 1880
• New York Times, 1/7/86 p4 c3; 1/12/68 p4 c2; 1/14/68 p4 c3.
• U.S. Grant Memoirs, 1885
• Battles and Leaders, Volume 3, p. 375.
• The Galaxy, Volume 22, Issue 6, December 1876.
• Atlantic Monthly, Volume 38, Issue 225, July 1876.
• Winfield Scott Hancock: a soldier’s life by David M. Jordan, Indiana University Press, 1988.

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