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The Hero of Gettysburg
Winfield Scott Hancock's shot straight.


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July 1-3 is the anniversary of the turning point of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg. As we remember Gettysburg, we should take care to remember the man who was dubbed “The Hero of Gettysburg.” After proving himself one of the greatest American generals of all time, he later became the Democratic nominee for president of the United States. Throughout his life, he offered a model of honesty and patriotism which should forever be emulated by Americans.

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When he was a child, he befriended and defended the victims of bullies. At a time when even abolitionists looked down on black people, his son said of him, “My father has always impressed on my mind that all men are born free and equal.”

He was a great warrior. When he was the Democratic nominee for president, he refused to accept campaign contributions. He was a superb American, admired by people of all political persuasions for his unimpeachable integrity and devotion to public service.

He was Winfield Scott Hancock, born on February 14, 1824 near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And in 1881, he was elected the sixth president of the National Rifle Association.

 

HOLDING FOR THE UNION CAUSE

Named after the military hero Winfield Scott, Winfield Scott Hancock served ably as an infantry lieutenant in Indian Territory, and then as an officer in the Mexican War. As a child, he learned from his lawyer father a deep respect for Common Law. When Winfield departed for the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1840, his father placed in his luggage the Constitution of the United States, and Blackstone’s Commentaries, with the instruction to read each at least once a year. Blackstone, of course, was the author of the most influential legal treatise ever written, the analysis of common law and civil liberty which declared the right “of having arms for their defence, suitable to their condition” to be one of “the natural rights of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.”

In 1856-58, Hancock and his wife Almira were stationed in Florida, where the Seminole Indians still carried out raids. While in Florida, Almira Hancock learned how to shoot.

When the Civil War began, the Hancocks were serving in Los Angeles. There was very little pro-Union sentiment in the city; most people wanted California to join the Confederacy, or to create an independent Western republic. As historian Glenn Tucker explains:

Probably all that saved the faraway section of Southern California for the Union at this critical moment was Hancock’s care in seeing that his precious guns, ammunition, and supplies were adequately protected. He assembled 20 or so derringers for his own use in an emergency, then recruited every Union sympathizer in the neighborhood to be ready on a moment’s notice. He armed Mrs. Hancock… [In a federal arms depot, Hancock] hid the boxes of guns and ammunition underneath great heaps of grain, drew up his wagons to form a barricade and prepared to fight it out. No officer was closer than a hundred miles, but Hancock faced attack with some confidence. Finally a squadron of cavalry arrived from Fort Tehone, a hundred miles away, and paraded, and the danger of the loss of Southern California was minimized. Many credited Hancock with holding it for the Union cause.

HANCOCK THE SUPERB

Having saved Southern California for the Union, Hancock headed east to join the fighting. His first major engagement was the battle of Williamsburg (May 4-5, 1862) in the Peninsula campaign; there he forced the Confederates to retreat by breaking their left flank. General George McClellan said “Hancock was superb today.” Thereafter, he was known as “Hancock the Superb.”

At Antietam (Sept. 17, 1862), Hancock took command of the Second Corps after Israel B. Richardson was killed in action. Hancock’s division fought at Fredericksburg (Dec. 13, 1862), in the grueling assault on Marye’s Heights. After the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville (May 3, 1863), Hancock led the rear guard which protected the Union withdrawal.

On the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1, 1863), Hancock formed the Union defensive positions at Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge–the key positions which held the Union center. As McClellan had observed, Hancock “had a wonderfully quick and correct eye for ground.”

On the third day of Gettysburg, Hancock commanded the First, Second, and Third Corps–three-fifths of the Union army. That day, Robert E. Lee flung the Virginia militia and Confederate Lt. General James Longstreet into “Pickett’s Charge,” a bold offensive gamble to win the battle, and perhaps the war, in a single day.

The charge began, and Hancock was everywhere, ordering the regiments and brigades. The steady advance of Picketts’ men was the high water mark of the Confederacy. A bullet ripped through Hancock’s saddle, opened an inch-wide hole in his body, and lodged eight inches inside his groin–along with a nail and a piece of wood as big as the bullet. Hancock looked as if he had been cut with a butcher’s knife.

Hancock refused to be carried to safety, and continued to direct the combat from his stretcher. Pickett’s Charge was repulsed, and the Union dubbed Hancock “the hero of Gettysburg.” The Confederates called him the “Thunderbolt of the Army of the Potomac.”

President Lincoln explained, “When I go down in the morning to open my mail, I declare that I do it in fear and trembling lest I may hear that Hancock has been killed or wounded.” Lincoln also wrote “Some of the older generals have said to me that he is rash, and I have said to them that I have watched General Hancock’s conduct very carefully, and I have found that when he goes into action he achieves his purpose and comes out with a smaller list of casualties than any of them.”

Fittingly, the Uberti “Gettysburg Tribute” historic rifle includes an engraving of Hancock.

Although the wound caused him pain for the rest of life, Hancock recuperated sufficiently to return to fight in the Wilderness Campaign, where, in the Battle of Spotsylvania (May 12, 1864) he earned the rank of “major general” for breaking through a Confederate salient in less than an hour and capturing almost 3,000 prisoners.

He was not always victorious in battle, and his Second Corps suffered terrible losses at Cold Harbor (June 3, 1864). But as General Grant recalled, “his name was never mentioned as having committed in battle a blunder for which he was responsible.” McClellan called him “brilliant in the extreme.” William Tecumsah Sherman declared him “one of the greatest soldiers in history.”

 

GENEROUS MEANS

During Reconstruction, Hancock was appointed Governor of the 5th Military District, which encompassed Texas and Louisiana. Hancock refused to bully the defeated and vulnerable citizenry of Texas and Louisiana. His General Orders No. 40 of November 29, 1867, announced how he intended to govern. Predicting “they will crucify me,” Hancock wrote:

[T]he great principles of American liberty are still the lawful inheritance of this people, and ever should be. The right of trial by jury, the habeas corpus, the liberty of the press, the freedom of speech, the natural rights of persons and the rights of property must be preserved. Free institutions, while they are essential to the prosperity and happiness of the people, always furnish the strongest inducements to peace and order.

General Orders No. 40 was soon published all over the country. Hancock’s policy was joyfully received by the south as a sign that the war was finally over, and by Northerners who looked forward to reconciliation and the restoration of constitutional government.

But for the radical majority in Congress who believed that the southern states were conquered areas deserving punishment, Hancock’s words were anathema. In a famous letter to the civil governor of Texas, William Pease–one of those who found fault with General Orders No. 40–Hancock defended the right of critics of the national government to express their opinions, no matter how vehement:

 

[I]t is the privilege and duty of any and every citizen, wherever residing, to publish his opinion freely and fearlessly on this and every question which he thinks concerns his interest…. It is time now, at the end of almost two years from the close of the war, we should begin to recollect what manner of people we are; to tolerate again free, popular discussion, and extend some forbearance and consideration to opposing views. The maxims, that in all intellectual contests truth is mighty and must prevail, and that error is harmless when reason is left free to combat it, are not only sound, but salutary. It is a poor compliment, to the merit of such a cause, that its advocates would silence opposition by force; and generally those only who are in the wrong will resort to this ungenerous means.

Hancock recognized that there was a great deal of intimidation by carpetbaggers who had employed the threat of federal retaliation in order to prevent their political enemies from voting. Hancock refused to allow the military to be part of the problem. In Special Orders No. 213 of December 18, 1867, Section IX, he declared:

 

Military interference with elections, “unless it shall be necessary to keep the peace at the polls,” is prohibited by law; and no soldiers will be allowed to appear at any polling place, unless, as citizens of the State, they are registered as voters, and then only for the purpose of voting….

He likewise refused to use military force to interfere with the operation of the courts, unless the civil authorities asked him for aid.

Hancock’s generous policy toward the conquered South was unique among the military governors of the time. His supporters thought he provided a model for national reconciliation. Congress and the military hierarchy disagreed. General Grant repeatedly countermanded Hancock’s orders. In response, Hancock wrote to a congressional ally: “I may expect one humiliation after another until I am forced to resign… [But n]othing can intimidate me from doing what I believe to be honest and right.”

 

DEFENDING PRINCIPLE

The conflict came to a head when Hancock, a Democrat, appointed fellow Democrats to the New Orleans City Council. On February 27, 1868, only six months after his appointment, he requested and received reassignment to the West.

Although Hancock was considered as a possible Democratic presidential nominee in 1876, the party nominated New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden, who ran against Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. The election of 1876 was one of the dirtiest in American history. There were disputes in Oregon, Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana about who had won the state’s electoral votes. Hayes was eventually declared the winner by a single vote, after a special commission voted 8-7 along partisan lines to award all the contested votes to Hayes.

But in some of the contested states, the reason the vote had been so close was that Democrats had illegally prevented many black people from voting. So although the Republicans had perpetrated numerous dirty tricks in ballot counting, Hancock the Democrat defended the legitimacy of Republican President Hayes. As Hayes recorded in his diary,

one of the ablest and most influential Democrats in the country [Hancock], who was perfectly familiar with the inner history of the whole affair on the Democratic side, told me that no intelligent or candid man of his party could claim the election for the Democratic party if he conceded the validity of the Fifteenth Amendment. Said he, ‘If the negro vote is entitled to be considered, you should have had more States than were counted for you.’

A PLACE IN HISTORY

If Hancock had not written General Orders No. 40, he might have quietly achieved more of the goals expressed in Orders No. 40. However, it was those forthright written words that placed him on the path to a presidential nomination. In a letter to Hancock, former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeremiah S. Black, who had also served as Attorney General under President Buchanan, wrote that General Orders No. 40 would give him “a place in history which your children will be proud of.”

In 1880, the Democrats nominated Winfield Scott Hancock for president. Hancock’s running mate was William H. English, a banker from Indiana. Neither Hancock nor English would accept personal donations. Although local Democratic organizations (like local Republican organizations) spent their own money, the Republican candidate James A. Garfield also accepted huge personal donations. As Hancock’s biographer notes, “Undoubtedly, his extreme punctiliousness about money at a time when the opposition party was spending lavishly impaired his prospects.”

There were no personal charges that could be used against Hancock, so Republicans focused on the presumed political naïveté of military figures (a hypocritical charge for a party that had twice nominated Ulysses Grant–who, like Hancock, had not previously held elective office).

The popular vote was the closest in American history, as Garfield edged Hancock by only 9,464 votes. Garfield won the Electoral College 214 to 155. Democratic disunity in the swing state of New York, with 35 electoral votes, cost Hancock the presidency of the United States.

 

THE PROBLEM-SOLVER

But Hancock did not retire from public life. Instead, he set to work to fix one of the problems which had been revealed by the Civil War. During the Civil War, it was widely known that Confederate soldiers, many of whom had grown up on farms, were superior to the more urbanized Union army with regard to firearm proficiency.

The Union soldiers’ training was inadequate. Many of them fired only a single round in all of their training, and some fired none at all. In 1864, Hancock had taken an informal survey of his own men and found that a third of them had never shot their musket. It was also suspected that Custer’s 1876 disaster at the Little Big Horn was partly due to the army’s lack of skill with firearms.

Former Union officers founded the National Rifle Association in 1871 in New York State to promote marksmanship. Unfortunately for the NRA, Alonzo B. Cornell was elected governor of New York in 1880. Cornell was openly hostile to the nascent National Guard. Cornell naïvely predicted: “There will be no war in my time or in the time of my children.” He added, “The only need for a National Guard is to show itself in parades and ceremonies. I see no reason for them to learn to shoot if their only function will be to march a little through the streets. Rifle practice…is a waste of money….”

When Gen. George W. Wingate, an attorney and then vice president of the NRA, attempted to convince Governor Cornell that American soldiers should be skilled in the use of arms, Cornell bellowed back: “Then we should take their rifles away from them and sell them to benefit the Treasury. It would be more practical and far less expensive to arm them with clubs which require no instruction in their use.”

Cornell had won office as a fiscal conservative, and his cuts to the New York National Guard budget financially destabilized the fledgling National Rifle Association.

 

MASTERS OF THEIR ARMS

Hancock was elected NRA president in 1881, based on hopes that his prestige as a nationally recognized and beloved figure would bolster the organization. In this regard, Hancock was a forerunner of NRA president Charlton Heston, whose prestige also boosted the NRA.

As president, Hancock explained, “The object of the NRA is to increase the military strength of the country by making skill in the use of arms as prevalent as it was in the days of the Revolution.”

By aiming to revive the Revolutionary tradition of the American marksman, Hancock and the NRA were taking sides in one of the cultural battles of the era. As the Industrial Revolution matured, more and more American workers were performing simple, repetitive tasks in huge factories. The view that individuals were mere cogs in the industrial machine had its parallel in warfare–in the view that the ordinary soldier should just follow orders blindly and shoot in the general direction of the enemy’s mass. A random hail of bullets was all that infantry was supposed to produce.

The contrary view–of Hancock and other NRA leaders–was that Americans were more than brutes in service of the military-industrial complex. They were individuals who should be the masters of their arms, and whose personal skills should be encouraged and celebrated with competitions and prizes. The Americans of 1881 could, in Hancock’s view, be every bit as competent and personally excellent as the Americans of 1781.

The same cultural conflict which led to the founding of the NRA continues today. On one side are pessimists who insist that modern Americans are too clumsy and hot-tempered to be trusted with guns. On the NRA side are people who believe that the virtues and skills of the Founding generation can and must be emulated by Americans of every generation.

 

PURE GOLD

The best biographies acknowledge a subject’s foibles. Hancock’s biographers, however, did not tell us what his faults were. His wife of 36 years, Almira, did not reveal his faults, and she destroyed many of his personal letters. His political rivals could find little more to complain about than his stubborn honesty and integrity.

General William T. Sherman told an interviewer, “if you will sit down and write the best that can be put in the English language of General Hancock as a soldier and as a gentleman, I will sign it without hesitation.” When Winfield Scott Hancock passed away in 1886, former President Hayes said succinctly, “he was through and through pure gold.”

–Dave Kopel is research director at the Independence Institute. Paul Gallant and Joanne Eisen are senior fellows.



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