Winfield Scott Hancock

Rarely has a subordinate general played such a key role in a multi-day battle resulting in victory as did Winfield Scott Hancock at Gettysburg.  Here’s how the commander looks in Gods and Generals:

and in Gettysburg:

Yet I also suspect that Hancock’s high water mark came at Gettysburg.  In 1864, faced with being a corps commander on a long-term basis (Hancock had been more of a second-in-command/jack-of-all-trades at Gettysburg,with John Gibbon serving as corps commander), Hancock’s performance, while superior to that of his fellow corps commanders, suffered, in part due to the lingering effects of his Gettysburg wound.  That said … was he the best corps commander the Army of the Potomac ever had?

28 thoughts on “Winfield Scott Hancock

  1. Stephen Graham May 7, 2012 / 10:15 pm

    The variance in conditions makes it hard to compare corps commanders over the entire period of the army’s existence. But I’d like to nominate a couple of late war corps commanders for consideration: Andrew Humphreys as commander of Second Corps – steady command during the Siege of Petersburg and good performance during the Appomattox Campaign – and John Parke as commander of Ninth Corps – similarly.

  2. marcferguson May 8, 2012 / 4:46 am

    I thought Brian Mallon was perfect as Hancock in Gettysburg, but clearly too old and overweight in Gods and Generals.

    • jfepperson May 8, 2012 / 8:17 am

      Hancock was a tall man—Mallon is not.

    • jfepperson May 8, 2012 / 8:18 am

      Hancock was tall—Mallon is not.

      • John Foskett May 8, 2012 / 12:53 pm

        I’ve long waited for somebody to make that point. When I saw the movie in 1993 my first thought was that it was a remake of a Disney film – “Honey, I shrunk the General”.

    • Will Hickox May 11, 2012 / 4:31 pm

      Gods and Generals Hancock looked more like 1880 Presidential Campaign Hancock.

  3. jfepperson May 8, 2012 / 4:55 am

    Stephen makes good suggestions (I would add Wright, perhaps), but I think Hancock does get the nod. In addition to the effects of his wound, Second Corps was badly over-used during both the Overland Campaign and the early part of the Siege, in part because Hancock could be relied upon and the others could not. (Neither Grant nor Meade had the time to read all the treatises Warren would have sent in response to orders to do anything.) The result was Ream’s Station. It also bears mentioning that Second Corps in 1864 had a large number of raw recruits, a large number of short-time regiments, and a large chemistry problem due to the inclusion of the Third Corps remnants.

    • Buck Buchanan May 8, 2012 / 6:10 am

      Exellent points. A lot of played out units in II Corps come May 1864. That said, Hancock was well deserving of his sobriquet Superb. He performed exceptionally well during all of his campaigns. He, like the rest of his corps, was not at his best at Reams. And an unknown road gave Longstreet the advantage at Brock Road intersection.

      I agree that Horatio Wright should receive some consideration, especially considering how he grew into the role rapidly.

    • Al Mackey May 8, 2012 / 8:36 am

      I made the same point as Jim in a brilliant post that was lost somewhere in cyberspace due to a computer glitch. Trust me, it was so insightful it would have brought tears to your eyes. But I digress. 🙂

      Becuase the Second Corps was the favorite to use to spearhead the attacks in the Overland Campaign, the corps itself suffered tremendously, and the loss of so many veteran troops would tax any commander, even “Hancock the Superb.”

  4. Carl Schenker May 8, 2012 / 6:10 am

    Brooks —
    The phrasing of your post reminded me of a passage I came across in Grant’s draft of his Shiloh article for Century magazine, saying somehting like: “Rarely has it been so important to an army that a subordinate commander remain on the field throughout the day as was the case with Sherman at Shiloh.”
    That would have been one of the concluding thoughts of Grant’s draft article, but the thought was moved and softened: “A casualty to Sherman that would have taken him from the field that day would have been a sad one for the troops engaged at Shiloh.” B&L 1:474.
    Sorry to post a paraphrase and hope memory is not playing me false. If I can unearth the relevant notes, I will supplement with a direct quote.

    • Carl Schenker May 8, 2012 / 10:50 am

      I found the Grant/Shiloh item referenced above — Originally, Grant’s handwritten draft article about Shiloh apparently ended as follows:

      “Now there were people, professed patriots, who wanted me tried for my life. Some included Sherman with me among the guilty. Why they should have selected him I do not know. McClernand and Lew Wallace were both his seniors at that time. Shiloh was one of the battles — probably the only one — where the death of one man, below the commander, would have changed victory into defeat. Sherman was slightly wounded two or three times, during the early part of the 6th. Had either wound disabled him, I doubt whether I could now write Shiloh & victory.”

      Frederick Grant annotated this material “pages not used because of additions to Shiloh ‘to sum up.'”

      Transcription here is directly from my copy of the original manuscript. Grant Papers, Library of Congress, microfilm roll ??? (pages numbered 429-30 in the underlying bound volume).

  5. tonygunter May 8, 2012 / 8:32 am

    I am woefully ignorant of the eastern theater. How would Hancock at his best stack up against, say, James B. McPherson during May 1st – May 16th?

  6. Charles Lovejoy May 8, 2012 / 11:03 am

    Interestingly Hancock became a Democrat post war. Frank Blair, Hancock, Wade Hampton and NB Forest all at the 1868 Democratic convention in New York. Bet there were some interesting back room conversations, would have loved to be a fly on the wall at that one 🙂

  7. John Foskett May 8, 2012 / 11:40 am

    My thoughts about Hancock (as a corps commander). It was all about Gettysburg. For the reasons alluded to.(lingering wound, 1864 replacements,etc.) he never replicated that, and he really didn’t do anything like it previously. But he still may have been the A of the P’s “best” based just on Gettysburg, partly due to a lack of competition. Sedqwick? Warren? Wright? Slocum? Sickles (good for laughs). Sumner? Sykes? Howard? Heihtzelman? Franklin? Reynolds (good soldier butn what did he accomplish)? Well, maybe Porter, as much as it pains me, although his best was a well-handled defense at Gaines’ Mill and Malvern Hill. Something about corps command seems to have made good soldiers mediocre – look at Ewell, Hill, Anderson. .

  8. Robert Gudmestad May 8, 2012 / 12:12 pm

    Asking if Hancock was the best Corps Commander in the Army of the Potomac is like asking who is Scotland’s best tennis player. There aren’t a lot of options.

  9. Ethan S. Rafuse May 8, 2012 / 1:08 pm

    Fitz John Porter and Gouverneur Warren were better than Hancock.

      • jfepperson May 9, 2012 / 4:52 am

        Porter has a case, although it is largely based on a couple of defensive stands. Warren? Other than Bristoe and Jericho Mills, what did Warren accomplish? He wrote a nice letter calling all the other corps commanders idiots (which he had the good grace not to send, because he learned that Sedgwick had been shot while writing it); he totally missed Mahone’s withdrawal from his front during the Crater debacle, despite being explicitly ordered to look for opportunities, he allowed three CS brigades to rout two of his divisions at White Oak Road (on March 31, 1865, so these were woefully understrength CS brigades), and he had a bad habit of responding to orders with a treatise on why the order was not a good idea. I think the biggest command error Meade made was giving Warren Fifth Corps and making Humphreys Chief of Staff—should have been the other way around.

          • tonygunter May 10, 2012 / 9:07 am

            I’m not really familiar with your views on Mac, but it’s interesting to contrast the treatment of Charles Hamilton between the two men, since Hamilton played similar roles under each leader and lost favor with both due to similar reasons.

            It seems to me that Grant’s handling of the situation highlights his true genius:

            1) ability to absorb and synthesize. Hamilton, after all, was the brainchild behind
            Grierson’s Raid. Grant recognized the brilliance of the plan and made it his own,
            after Hamilton cancelled the raid.
            2) superhuman humility and ability to dodge sticky political situations. Mac canned
            Hamilton on the spot, and refused to budge when Lincoln pointed out the impropriety
            of the decision. Grant recognized that Hamilton represented a political powder-keg
            and manipulated him into a position where he would be forced to resign.

          • jfepperson May 10, 2012 / 1:55 pm

            Why, thank you very much, kind sir!

  10. TF Smith May 8, 2012 / 8:50 pm

    Hancock deserves his reputation from Gettysburg, but there are others – some as suggested above, some not.

    Here’s a way to baseline the question – it is spring, 1862, and Lincoln comes to you and says “my friend, I need your advice on who to appoint as corps commanders – even our best army and department commanders can not lead forces made up of a half dozen divisions without some sort of intervening level of command – I will not change the current army and department commanders, but we need at least nine corps commanders – who shall they be?”

    Looking at the division/division equivalents (3 brigades = 1 division) in Dyer for this period, I can come up with a need for about nine corps commanders:

    Potomac – four corps commanders
    Ohio – three corps commanders
    Tennesee – two corps commanders

    Realistically, given seniority and locations, I think these are about the best available:

    Potomac – McDowell, Sumner, Heintzelman, Keyes
    Ohio – Thomas, AM McCook,Rosecrans (detached from from West Virginia)
    Tennessee – CF Smith, WT Sherman


    • Ned B May 9, 2012 / 10:24 am

      The problem with framing the question from spring of 1862 is that Hancock or others mentioned above (Wright, Parke, Humprheys, Sedgwick) were still relatively low in the pecking order. So how does this help answer Brooks’ question?

      And no Mansfield on the list? 😉

    • Carl Schenker May 10, 2012 / 6:35 am

      TF Smith —

      Good question.

      If by “spring 1862,” you mean before Shiloh (April 6-7), WT Sherman is probably not realistic — still under a cloud. The black box spits out “John A. McClernand” instead and Halleck wires Washington “Make John Pope a major general stat.”


      • Ned B May 10, 2012 / 9:34 am

        Conversely, if he means after Shiloh, CF Smith was dying. In which case same thing probably happens with Pope.

    • Carl Schenker May 11, 2012 / 6:13 am

      BTW, one of the Shiloh studies expressly makes the point that Grant would have been well served to have two corps commanders for the five divisions at PL, asserting that would have allowed Grant himself to be more effective on Shiloh Sunday. Given Smith’s illness, Grant would have had to work up something involving MG McClernand and probably WT Sherman, who I believe was the senior BG. I doubt whether that kind of command structure, by itself, would have improved things materially for Shiloh Sunday.

      • Carl Schenker May 11, 2012 / 1:49 pm

        See Williams, Lincoln Finds a General, vol. 3, p. 365: “Grant would have been much better off if he had had a good general to direct Sherman’s and McClernand’s divisions, and another those of Prentiss, Hurlbut, and WHL Wallace. Then he would have had two, not five persons to deal with while he gave thought to the use of the expected divisions of Wallace and Nelson.”

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