General Winfield Scott Hancock



February 9, 1886: Death of General Winfield Scott Hancock

At Fredericksburg in December 1862, "Hancock the Superb" and his Second Corps were sent as the second wave against the Confederates on Marye’s Heights. To reach the Heights, Union solders had to run uphill while being hammered by dozens of cannon on top of the Heights, and then face the fire of 2,000 Confederate riflemen entrenched in a sunken road behind a shoulder-high stone wall. General Burnside sent fourteen brigades (about 50,000 men) against the Heights in four separate attacks. At the end of the day, not a single Union soldier had made it over the wall, and some 9,000 lay dead and wounded on the slope.

Burnside was capable of sending thousands of men to their deaths, and Hancock was capable of leading them - even of making them proud to be part of the effort. But given the rapid advances in artillery and rifles in the Civil War, the problem wasn’t finding generals who could send or lead men to glorious deaths. It was finding leaders who could achieve glorious victories and still preserve their men to fight again. Lincoln didn’t find that sort of leader until Grant and Sherman rose to prominence.

Relying largely on his reputation as a courageous and dependable leader, Hancock ran for president in 1880 against James A. Garfield. On election night Hancock went to bed without waiting to hear the results. Learning of his defeat from his wife the next morning, he commented calmly, “That is all right. I can stand it.”

Hancock was described by a French nobleman serving as a Union staff officer as “one of the handsomest men in the United States Army,” and in photographs of the Civil War era he cuts a very dashing figure. His appearance in this bust reflects the sedentary course he was forced to take later in life. At the Battle of Gettysburg General Hancock was shot in the thigh while astride his horse, and the field surgeon, poking about with a bare forefinger, removed several pieces of wood and a nail. Months later, after the wound failed to heal properly, surgeons excavated eight inches into Hancock’s leg and removed a minie ball and a plug of wood from the his saddle.

It's unusual for a soldier to be represented without his uniform, and I’ve read no reasonable explanation of why Hancock is without his – indeed, without any costume at all except the sash that represents military honor.