War heroes earn respect through their service. The Civil War brought out more heroes than perhaps any other war in American history. They were men who served their country at its inflection point, and they could be assured that their time on the battlefield could translate to time in public office. General Winfield Scott Hancock was but one example. He was “a patriotic hero, a stainless gentleman, and an honest man.”[i] He became one of the greatest Generals in the war: one that the soldiers, officers, and citizens were glad to have. He got out from under a famous name and created his own legacy, becoming a regular name in the wartime newspapers. But there was still a question of whether his post-war career would be as glamorous as his time during the war. Although he had a reputation for “honest heroism and personal character,” he was a Democrat; and at a time when Democrats simply could not expect to win the Presidency.[ii]
The election of 1880 would be the time when Hancock would find out where he peaked in life: would it be his time during the Civil War or would it be his becoming President? The odds were not in his favor: the mere fact that the Democrats had nominated Hancock was a reason to vote against him. Hancock had not been as deeply involved in politics as his opponent in the election, James Garfield, had been. Although he had served as a military governor after the Civil War, it was his time as a general that defined his legacy. Some felt that the nomination of Hancock was “like that of Mr. Greeley” in the election of 1872; it was “a mere trick to recover power by a pretence, and in each case the candidate was the victim.”[iii] Hancock had another problem. It was a time when service during the Civil War was common amongst political candidates, and his adversary, Garfield, had also fought in the war—effectively reducing the contest to political parties and their platforms. Some newspapers weren’t going to support Hancock on those bases: “General Hancock represents no policy, no principle, no issue, nothing but the party which has nominated him, and he will be supported by those who think that the public welfare would be promoted by bringing the Democratic party into power.”[iv] He represented “a party without a programme or a policy, and with the most damaging traditions,” and although the party had had “prominent leaders,” Hancock was not one of them.[v] Hancock was a “worthy gentleman” but was “wholly without civil experience, except that of a military Governor,” and electing him “would be a leap in the dark.”[vi] Although much of this criticism was attributable to the fact that much of the country blamed the Democrats for causing the Civil War and its attendant destruction to the nation, there was also the fact that Hancock did not have the experience that others could have obtained given his stature. Ulysses S. Grant had become the General associated with winning the Civil War, and thus an inevitable President, and while Hancock could not have matched Grant’s success, he could have further capitalized from his public image and service.
One wouldn’t know it from the way the Democrats celebrated their man. In Cincinnati, Ohio, at Music Hall, the Democratic Party held their convention to decide the nominee for the election of 1880. At the convention, the votes started to turn to Hancock, and as that happened during the third and final day of the Democratic Convention, the “Hancock banner was waving and advancing to the front” with the band “playing ‘Dixie’ and ‘Hail to the Chief,’ and the delegates were cheering and howling like lunatics.”[vii] New Jersey moved its votes to Hancock, then Pennsylvania, and when Ohio moved its votes, the two-thirds majority was met: the “scene was then one of the wildest uproar. All the State banners were waving and being massed in front. There was continuous shouting and cheering, and the band and great organ added to the din. The chairman, after vainly trying to restore order, refused to recognize anybody until the confusion had been subdued.”[viii]
The Democrats had their nominee, and he was a man with a history that could have resonated with Americans and bring the Democratic Party back to the White House. A Pennsylvanian, a West Point graduate, a man who fought the Native Americans, fought in the Mexican-American War, and then fought in the Civil War, Hancock was a man with an admirable military background.[ix] With his service under General McClellan during the Peninsula Campaign, he became a Major General, and he went on to serve at the Battles of Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg.[x] He was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania on Valentine’s Day of 1824, and “came on both sides of fighting Revolutionary stock.”[xi] His name was not only his: his parents named him after the legendary General Winfield Scott, a hero of the War of 1812. He had the pedigree of a President in the latter half of the 19th Century, but it was not meant to be: Garfield eked out his win and would become President. The Democrats continued their drought and would go on searching for that candidate that would catapult them back into winning ways.
Hancock, with his reputation for having “led his troops to more battles than any of his military contemporaries,” was widely respected coming into his last days of life.[xii] He would continue his service to his country beyond the election, into 1886; and physical ailments would not deter him. Although he had developed a boil on the back of his neck, it was lanced on January 30, and “he returned to New York several days sooner than he had designed.”[xiii] Soon thereafter, he developed a carbuncle that doctors examined only to discover that Hancock “was suffering from diabetes and kidney troubles.”[xiv] It wasn’t long before doctors found him “in a comatose state, with feeble pulse and all the premonitory symptoms of death.”[xv] And soon thereafter, at 2:51pm, Hancock passed. Americans lowered their flags to half-mast. It was reported that he had little of an estate to pass to his wife as his charities were “said by those who knew him most intimately to have been constant and much greater than his income warranted.”[xvi]
The funeral service was in New York’s Trinity Church, and people filled the church and the streets. And, at a time when such a thing was the ultimate sending off, a funeral train departed with Hancock’s body from Jersey City, New Jersey to the final resting place in Pennsylvania. He was one icon of the age, and it was a time when America was changing; it was moving past the Civil War era. The generation that had given the nation its second birth was passing the country onto the next generation. Generals Grant, Hancock, and McClellan had died within the year.[xvii] The country was “leaving a great era of our history behind us” and was bringing the country to a new era: “we are already confronted with new times, new issues, and new men.”[xviii]
[i] Harper’s Weekly, Vol. XXX, No. 1522, p. 115, February 20. 1886.
[iv] Harper’s Weekly, p. 434, July 10, 1880.
[vii] Id. at 437.
[xi] Harper’s Weekly, Vol. XXX, No. 1522, p. 123, February 20, 1886.
[xii] Democratic Watchman, Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, February 12, 1886.
[xvii] Harper’s Weekly, Vol. XXX, No. 1522, p. 115, February 20, 1886.