Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Winfield S. Hancock

A large man, finely proportioned with a most graceful carriage, and self-poise, and withal handsome, thus had nature endowed Winfield Scott Hancock, who was born in the county of Montgomery, Pennsylvania, February 14, 1824.

In 1844 he graduated from West Point with honor, and served with distinction in the war with Mexico, where he was commissioned lieutenant. Until the breaking out of the civil war he was stationed with his division in various parts of the country. Being recalled to Washington, he was commissioned a brigadier-general of volunteers, and served with great valor during the Peninsula campaign. For this and other meritorious conduct he was made a major-general, and commanded a division at the great battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

But in the great and decisive battle of Gettysburg Hancock won his greatest laurels. General Meade, his commander, sent him to the field of Gettysburg to decide if battle should be given there, or if the army should fall back to another position. Hancock reported that Gettysburg was the proper place, and thus the little hamlet became famous in history; two days of terrific fighting passed; the afternoon of the third day arrives and the final charge is made upon the division commanded by Hancock.

About one o’clock one hundred and fifty-five guns suddenly opened on that one division. For two hours the air was fairly alive with shells. Every size and form of shell known to British or American gunnery shrieked, whirled, moaned, whistled and wrathfully fluttered over the ground, says Wilkinson. “As many as six in a second, constantly two in a second came screaming around the headquarters. They burst in the yard; burst next to the fence where the horses belonging to the aids and orderlies were hitched. The fastened animals reared and plunged with terror. One horse fell, then another; sixteen lay dead before the cannonade ceased. Through the midst of the storm of screaming and exploding shells an ambulance driven at full speed by its frenzied conductor presented the marvelous spectacle of a horse going rapidly on three legs, a hind one had been shot off at the hock. A shell tore up the little step at the headquarters cottage and ripped bags of oats as with a knife. Another shell soon carried off one of its two pillars. Soon a spherical case burst opposite the open door, another tore through the low garret, the remaining pillar went almost immediately to the howl of a fixed shot that Whitworth must have made. Soldiers in Federal blue were torn to pieces in the road and died with the peculiar yell that blends the extorted cry of pain with horror and despair.”

“The Union guns,” says Barnes, “replied for a time, and were then withdrawn to cool.” Probably the experience of the veteran troops knew that they would soon be needed for closer work. The men lay crouching behind rocks and hiding in hollows, from the iron tempest which drove over the hill, anxiously awaiting the charge, which experience taught them, must follow. Finally the cannonade lulled, the supreme minute had come, and out of the woods swept the Confederate double battle-line, over a mile long, preceded by a cloud of skirmishers, and with wings on either side to prevent its being flanked. This was Lee’s first charge, and upon it depended, as subsequently seen, the rise or fall of the Confederate cause.

A quarter of a mile away, and a hundred guns tore great gaps in the line, but the men closed up and sternly moved on. A thrill of admiration ran along the Union ranks as silently and with disciplined steadiness, that magnificent column of eighteen thousand men moved up the slope, with its red battle-flags flying, and the sun playing on its burnished bayonets. On they came on the run. Infantry volleys struck their ranks. Their ranks were broken, and their supports were scattered to the winds. Pickett’s veterans and A. P. Hill’s best troops went down. Out of that magnificent column of men, only one-fourth returned to tell the story. Three generals, fourteen field officers, and fourteen thousand men were either slain or captured. This was the supreme moment of the war; from that hour the Confederate cause waned and slowly died.

All honor to Hancock, the hero of Gettysburg, who was borne bleeding from the field, not to resume active service until March, 1864, when he took a leading part in the battles of the Wilderness, Spottsylvania Court-House, North Anna, the second battle of Cold Harbor, and in the operations around Petersburg. After the war was over he was placed in command of the Middle Department, the Department of Missouri, of Louisiana and Texas, of Dakota, and on the death of General Meade, promoted to command the Department of the East, which position he held at his death.

In 1868 he was a very prominent candidate for the Democratic nomination, receiving 114½ votes, but after an exciting contest, Horatio Seymour was nominated on the 22nd ballot. The next year he was tendered the Democratic nomination for Governor of his native State, but respectfully declined.

In 1880 he accepted the nomination from the same party for the highest honor within the gift of the party, but in the subsequent election was defeated by James A. Garfield, the Republican nominee. His last conspicuous appearance in public was at the funeral services of General Grant, where he acted as marshal of ceremonies. Scarcely six months were passed when we were startled with the news: Hancock is dead, and on February 13th, 1886, with military honors, but no elaborate display, he was laid at rest beside his father and beloved daughter. No long line of troops, no sound of dirges, no trappings of woe, marked the funeral of General Hancock. The man who had received the nomination of a great party for the highest honor in the nation’s gift, who had turned the fortunes of many a battle, and whose calm courage in the midst of death had so often inspired the faltering regiments, was laid at rest quietly, without pomp or vain show, at Norristown, Pennsylvania.