Books!: Hancock the Superb

Without a doubt, one of my all-time favorite historical figures is General Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Why? I’m not sure. It probably has something to do with his confidence and stunning competence. His dashing good looks are only a bonus.


A Sunday afternoon well spent.

In fact, long ago he edged out Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain because he (Hancock) doesn’t seem to have this weird, idealistic, Victorian misogyny. It was either by the end of high school or the end of freshman year of college where I knew Hancock was my guy. During my freshman year of college, I took a brave stab at being an engineering major, but it turns out I was incredibly not good at physics, calculus, chemistry, programming, and engineering. To comfort myself, I spent a lot of time on the 10th floor of the Hesburgh Library, reading through the Civil War section (which should have told me immediately that engineering was not my calling…) and my favorite find of this time was Hancock the Superb.

Just about every time I went back to campus, I would visit the book – up to the 10th floor, around to the right, third shelf up from the bottom on the 4th stack back. It would usually be a drive-by: I would locate the book, take it out, pet it a couple of times, and put it back.

Anyway, I came across this book in my local public library and decided to read it again to see if all the nostalgia was warranted. Verdict: It was.


I can smell the library stacks from here.

The book itself has a different style of writing, which I found to be quite pleasant. This is most likely due to the fact that it was initially published in 1960, a time where language was much different than it is today. The prose is very warm and rich, comforting and canny. Reading it feels similar to putting your feet up and savoring your favorite sherry – indulgent and easily justifiable as a necessity.

To be fair, the accounting is wildly biased in favor of the good General. Perhaps that is what initially drew me in for, much like a favored child, there is little wrong he can do in my eyes.

Tucker describes Hancock’s childhood, with his identical twin brother Hilary, as being normal for sons of a school teacher turned lawyer. But then Tucker separates them: of the two, Winfield is the inquisitive, talented, enterprising one, quick to anger but just as quick to make friends. It was a natural progression that he was invited to West Point where, although of average performance, he naturally distinguished himself by other intangible traits like leadership, discipline, and manliness. (Sadly, Hilary was not nearly as successful in life and was supported by his much more well-known brother until the general died in 1886.)


Hancock’s birthplace in Norristown, PA is ironically now occupied by a Baja Fresh. His father’s schoolhouse (in the background) is now a ski shop.

It was these traits, in addition to his talents and abilities, that Tucker weighs against other popular figures from Hancock’s time. Where these other figures may be similar in one or two ways, it was Hancock himself who embodied only the positive characteristics all in one person.

Pg. 17 – He was as systematic in his preparations as McClellan but prudently vigorous and swift when it came time to strike. He was as talkative and gregarious as Sherman and evidently as candid, but never cynical or embittered. His temper carried him into controversies, and he could have given lessons in profanity to Sheridan’s toughest trooper. His oaths were full-bodied, welling up from deep anger, but he had nothing of Meade’s capricious petulance or Sherman’s nervous impatience. The storm was violent but passed quickly. He was so handsome that he drew the eyes of all men, the envy of many and the interest of most women. He bore with seemliness the title of “the Superb,” which could have rested gracefully on the shoulders of few other Americans.

^ Is this a dating profile? Can I swipe right?


Tucker spends some time on Hancock’s early service and the Mexican War, emphasizing friendships that would later be rent by the Civil War. These friendships were brought up again when Hancock was stationed out in California in 1860. The evening before the Southern generals departed California for the Confederacy is one of legend, and Tucker gives it due justice.


A statue at Gettysburg of Lew Armistead handing his watch to a member of Hancock’s corps to give to the General.

Then comes the pages that fill most biographies of Hancock’s life – his service during the American Civil War. By any account, his service was exemplary, and so Tucker’s effluous writing demonstrates how Hancock was almost singlehandedly responsible for some of the most important moments in the Eastern theater of the war.

From the chapter “His ‘Very Atmosphere … Invigorating'”
P 134: Few incidents of the War Between the States were as gripping in their sheer excitement as Hancock’s arrival on Cemetery Hill and the manner in which he turned a disheartened, fleeing army into a formidable force that might hope to resist the oncoming Confederates stimulated by their initial triumph.

P. 135 Certainly Hancock carried an inspirational power to the battle line. Sherman, who understood leadership, put the quality into words: “There is a soul to an army as well as to the individual man, and no general can accomplish the full work of his army unless he commands the soul of his men as well as their body and legs” Hancock possessed this mystic appeal as did few others and in no instance was it more apparent than on the late afternoon of the first day at Gettysburg.”

Throughout the book, Tucker describes the General’s gallantry, from riding the front lines with little thought to his own safety, to him bearing stolidly personal and political insults from Congress and his former friends in the army. Unsurprisingly he defends Hancock in most of the encounters throughout the General’s life: Hancock’s defense of McClellan, General Order No. 40 (impact 1) (impact 2), the souring of relations with General – and later President – Grant, then Hancock’s own Presidential run in 1880 and subsequent loss to James A. Garfield. Then finally, in his twilight years, Hancock was generous to a fault with too few personal funds, but Tucker emphasizes that his generosity sprang from a belief in the best of mankind, unlike Grant who was robbed blind out of naiveté.

Tucker’s account is glowing and naturally leads to the conclusion that Hancock’s stellar reputation and remarkable character was justly deserved. It is written with accessible and engaging language (ie, not in academic language), and the flow is streamlined, easy to follow. It was well researched, judging by the end notes, and has enough details to be thorough and entertaining but not so many as to become overwhelming. I hope you, when reading it, both can forgive the extremely flattering way in which it was written and at the same time I hope it leaves a better sense of the reasons for my warmth and affection for this superb General.


The reason I celebrate February 14th every year.

To conclude, here are a bunch of excerpts that I liked but couldn’t figure out how to include. Enjoy!

15 – Pre-eminent as a general, Hancock was one of the relatively few Northern soldiers possessing broader than military talents. As his tactical skill had won him the quick admiration of adversaries who had come to know him as the “Thunderbolt of the Army of the Potomac,” his restraint and farsighted compassion gained their lasting affection after the war was over.


18 – Second in war, second in peace, Hancock is reached by scratching through the softer surface of the rarely skillful high command of Mr. Lincoln’s Easter army and finding beneath it the solid structure which made the army so dogged and unyielding even in defeat.


30 – William Farrar (Baldy) Smith, destined to be his commander for a time, who was with him three years at the Academy, judged him a “strikingly handsome boy,” with genial outlook, but still possessing an inflexible code to live by. His own conscience was his guide and he would not be swayed by others.


37 – (on petitioning to get sent to the Mexican war) Such letter writing was unusual for Hancock. Throughout his army career he was to address the adjutant general sparingly, while many others, on the squeaking-wheel theory, loaded the War Department with their observations, in search of axle grease.


263 – The main quality of Hancock’s leadership: “Men felt safe near him.”


Footnotes suggest Hancock and Lincoln had talked about reconstruction.


Hancock and Meade could sit and talk for hours. When hearing of Hancock’s return to the army after recovering from his Gettysburg wound, the usually cranky Meade leapt up with a shout of joy and rushed hatless to greet his friend.


Footnote York Daily Age Clipping: A fund was raised for Mrs Hancock, the first contributor being Samuel J Tilden. It came to aggregate $55,000. The fund was begun by fifteen subscribers who gave $1,000 each. Among them were Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor, Joseph W. Drexel, August Belmont, Cyrus W. Field, Joseph Pulitzer and W.W. Corcoran of Washington

Bonus: Here’s the entire text online!



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