Brave Soldier . . . Hero . . . Superb
Winfield Scott Hancock was one of twin brothers born Feb. 24, 1824 in Montgomery Square, 12 miles from Norristown, to Benjamin and Elizabeth Hoxworth Hancock, both native Pennsylvanians whose parents had emigrated from Germany and England. Benjamin was a teacher in the "free school" in Montgomery Square, situated in the building to which their home was attached and where Winfield Scott and Hilary Baker Hancock were born. After the birth of his sons, the father began to study law in Norristown and when the twins were four years of age, he moved the family there. Elizabeth was mentally quick, with strong leadership qualities, and strikingly beautiful, from whom Winfield inherited his sharp, handsome features and upright carriage.
Winfield was named for a Mason and a hero of the War of 1812, Brother Winfield Scott. Even as a boy, young Hancock had a keen interest in tactics, drill, and military science, so it came as no surprise that he was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. When he applied for admission in 1840 at the age of 16, Winfield was five feet, five inches tall; when he was graduated, he stood six feet, six inches tall. Among his contemporaries at West Point, all of whom later became distinguished generals, as he did, were Ulysses S. Grant, George B. McClellan, William B. Franklin, W.F. Smith, Charles Reynolds, George E. Pickett, and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. It was Gen. Grant who described Hancock as "tall, well-formed . . . young and fresh looking . . . an appearance that would attract the attention of an army as he passed."
He was graduated in 1844 and was brevetted Second Lieutenant in the Sixth Infantry assigned to Fort Towsan in Indian Territory near the Texas border. Two years later, he received his commission as a Second Lieutenant and was assigned to another company in the Sixth Infantry stationed on the border with Mexico. It was not until Gen. Zachary Taylor's troops had overrun northern Mexico and Gen. Winfield Scott (his namesake) had captured Vera Cruz that Lt. Winfield Scott Hancock's urgent petition for active duty was granted.
In 1849, he was sent to St. Louis, MO as adjutant under Brig. Gen. Newman S. Clarke. There he met Almira Russell, whom he married on Jan. 24, 1850. They had a son, Russell, and daughter, Ada.
Subsequently, he served in Florida in 1856 as a captain in combat against the Seminole Indians; was engaged in the Border War in Kansas; then to Utah, where trouble had developed with the Mormons who had been pushed out of New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri. As relations worsened with the government, in 1857 another Pennsylvania Mason, President James Buchanan, appointed a non-Mormon governor and sent troops to enforce federal authority. Hancock was the quartermaster. After the Utah experience, Hancock was assigned quartermaster duty on the Pacific Coast.
It was in 1859-60, apparently while home on leave, that by special dispensation from the R.W. Grand Master, Henry M. Phillips, he received all three Degrees in Charity Lodge No. 190, Norristown.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Hancock passed through military training and, on the recommendation of Gen. McClellan, was made a Brigadier General of Volunteers. He was responsible for organizing and training the newly assembled Army of the Potomac, which included the 49th Pennsylvania Regiment. About eight months later, he was given command of a brigade where his courage and military skill got their first test against entrenched forces of Gen. Jubal Earl at Williamsburg, VA, turning what appeared to be certain defeat into a gallant victory. In reporting on the engagement, Gen. McClellan declared, "Hancock was superb," and as such Winfield Scott Hancock's name became a household word.
When Gen. Israel Richardson was mortally wounded at Antietam in 1862, Hancock succeeded to the command of the 1st Division, II Army Corps, and led it to the end of the battle. Promoted to Major General, he commanded the division with distinction at Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862, and in the desperately contested Battle of Chancellorsville, May 1-4. In recognition of his leadership, he was given command of the II Army Corps.
However, it was at Gettysburg that Gen. Hancock achieved lasting fame as one of the great soldiers of the Civil War. When Gen. Meade began to move into Pennsylvania in pursuit of General Lee, he kept the II Corps in the center of the line of march. Gen. Meade showed his full confidence in Gen. Hancock by sending him into the field to assume battle command. It was Hancock's forces that prevented Gen. Lee's all but successful attempt to turn the Union Army's flank.
In the fierce fighting on July 3, 1863, as Hancock's forces repulsed the furious Confederate attack led by another Mason and West Point contemporary, Gen. George Pickett, Hancock received a severe wound from which he never fully recovered. In the same battle, Confederate Gen. Lewis A. Armistead, a Mason and a fellow former officer of Hancock's, was mortally wounded. As he fell, he cried out a Masonic plea. A nearby Union officer, Capt. Henry H. Bingham, also a Mason, immediately came to his aid and directed that the wounded Confederate General be taken to the II Corps hospital. Before he died, Gen. Armistead gave his personal effects into Capt. Bingham's care for delivery to Gen. and Bro. Hancock. As depicted in the Friend to Friend Masonic Memorial at Gettysburg, the brotherhood in Masonry surmounted the divisiveness and bitterness of the conflicts of war.
Gen. Hancock saw further action in the war, much of it under Gen. Grant. After President Lincoln's assassination, Bro. Hancock was given military command of Washington, DC and with it came responsibility for the trial and execution of the accomplices in the assassination. Also involved was his fellow Montgomery County native and Brother in Charity Lodge No. 190, Gen. John Frederick Hartranft, who later served as Governor of Pennsylvania.
Although not a politician, Bro. Hancock eventually found himself in the political arena. After the Civil War, political leaders looked with favor upon military leaders and, in 1876, Hancock, a life-long Democrat, was put forward as a contender for the Presidential nomination. Despite his request that his name be withheld, he received 75 votes on the first ballot; however, his name was withdrawn. His public image continued to grow and in 1880, he was nominated for President by the Democratic National Convention in Cincinnati. The Republicans nominated James A. Garfield, who defeated Hancock by only 7,000 votes.
Bro. and Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock died after a brief illness on Governor's Island, NY, on Feb. 9, 1886 and was buried with military honors in Montgomery Cemetery, Norristown.