Thursday, December 31, 2009

Woman's mission: To bring humble hero deserved recognition

An evening at the movies launched Karin Stocking’s campaign to bring a true American hero back from obscurity.

When Stocking, who lives in suburban Philadelphia, emerged from “Gettysburg” her inital resolve was to rehabilitate the grave of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, the remarkable battlefield general who saved the Union on two sultry July days in 1863.

“The mausoleum was in deplorable condition,” says Stocking, who with her father raised $15,000 and stabilized the Norristown, Pa., grave site.

But she wanted to do something bigger: Educate people about Hancock, a proud patriot, soldier, National Rifle Association president and family man.

The 1995 rededication of the mausoleum gave birth to the non-profit W.S. Hancock Society, which continues its mission through its Web site and activities.

Hancock was a modest local boy who made it big. Very big. It may have started with his height and name. His parents chose the name to honor Gen. Winfield Scott of the War of 1812 fame.

But Hancock earned another name on his own. Dubbed “Hancock the Superb” for his bravery, the popular general served four decades in the U.S. Army. He was grievously wounded at Gettysburg, where his personal leadership at the center of the Federal line saved the day. During the war, his Second Corps captured more prisoners, more colors and suffered more casualties than the entire rest of the Army of the Potomac.

His leadership extended beyond the battlefield. As the Democratic nominee for president in 1880. Hancock lost to Republican James Garfield, another Civil War veteran, in the closest popular vote in U.S. history.

Hancock, popular in his lifetime, died in New York City in February 1886 of complications from diabetes, just shy of his 62nd birthday. Former President Hayes said succinctly, "he was through-and-through pure gold."

Hancock was buried with his daughter at the mausoleum in Norristown’s Montgomery Cemetery.

“Norristown is a transient place,” says Stocking, who quickly learned that few locals knew who Hancock was. The executive assistant at a pharmaceutical company and her husband, Bruce, live in West Norriton, about 10 minutes from Hancock’s resting place.

Since its inception, the society, which has about 100 members, has performed living histories and conducted memorial services at the gravesite and at the Hancock equestrian statue at the Gettysburg battlefield. It launched a Facebook page this year.

The society tells the curious about a humble man who didn’t want his name placed on the outside of his mausoleum. Someone else placed it there. In his plans, Hancock ordered no description of his military heroics and run for the presidency.

A lentel near his crypt simply said “W.S. Hancock” rather than the full name Winfield Scott Hancock or the general designation. In respect of his wishes, and his humility, the society adopted a similar name.

“He was not the kind of person who beat his chest,” says Stocking. “He fell into obscurity.”

Stocking is doing genealogical research on Hancock, who has very few blood descendants. His two children died before he did. He was survived by several grandchildren.

Interestingly, Hancock and his wife are buried hundreds of miles from each other. Almira Russell Hancock’s remains are in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Mo., along with the couple’s son.

The Hancock Society currently is taking bids to make repairs at Bellefontaine.

The group also is taking part in a June 2010 event, “Once Upon a Time in Montgomery County,” which will tell the history of an area rich with Indian, German, Quaker and immigrant influence. And did you know that Norristown is the home of the zeppelin sandwich?

Hancock’s failure to write memoirs may have added to his obscurity. Author Mark Twain supported Almira’s book on her husband, which touts the Hancock-Lewis Armistead friendship detailed in Michael Shaara’s popular “The Killer Angels.”

But Stocking says the friendship between Hancock and the Confederate general who died in Pickett’s charge is overstated. Hancock actually was a bigger pal with Confederate Gen. Henry Heth, who also fought at Gettysburg.

A recent book, David Shultz’s “Battle Between the Farm Lanes” details Hancock’s actions at Gettysburg.

“He is not commanding from the rear” like other generals at the battle, said Stocking.

Hancock did well at Antietam in 1862 and at the Wilderness in 1864. His only significant military defeat was at Petersburg, and he left battlefield service in November 1864.

One historian said Hancock’s “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.’”

After the war, as a military governor, he gained controversy by restoring rights to white residents of Texas and Louisiana. The order was unpopular with Congress, resulting in Hancock's being relieved of command and transferred to the Dakota District.

I asked Stocking about a couple of popular myths about Hancock, an imposing, charismatic man.

Legend states he always wore a clean white shirt in battle.

Research does not prove that assertion, Stocking says.

How about his reputation for pronounced profanity?

Yes, he was a superb swearer.

“It’s probably due to the fact that he was from Norristown,” Stocking says with a laugh.

More info on the organization
W.S. Hancock Society’s Facebook page

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