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Silver for The Superb: Hometown tribute to a national hero

By Matt Hagans 

The favorite son of Norristown arrived home on a stretcher laid across the backs of seats inside a railcar. A guard of veterans lifted the stretcher bearing wounded Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock onto their shoulders, and carried it aloft as they marched steadily along the sidewalks through the town where he had played as a boy. Anxious citizens watched in silence from doorways and windows, eager to catch a glimpse of their hero—the Union’s hero. Many were deeply moved by the sight, with some overcome by tears.

About a month earlier, rebel lead had struck him during the Battle of Gettysburg. The minié bullet tore into the pommel of his saddle during the maelstrom of Pickett’s Charge, and ripped deep into his right thigh near the groin, taking with it a bent nail, wood splinters and other bits of debris. Army buddies and folks who knew him in Norristown were surprised he hadn’t been wounded in an earlier battle, for he led by example.

Hancock had reeled in the saddle after the bullet’s impact. Union soldiers nearby saw the motion and ran to his aid, helping him from his mount. Also present was the general to whom Hancock had been speaking when the bullet hit, George J. Stannard. The quick-thinking subordinate bound Hancock’s thigh with a tourniquet. An ambulance soon transported him to a field hospital, where the nail and splinters were removed. The bullet could not be located. In this condition, he began an arduous and uncomfortable journey home, via Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Paul Hagans Images
Paul Hagans Images

He arrived in Norristown in early August. The veterans safely delivered the general to his father’s home. About a week later, Louis W. Read, the chief surgeon of the Pennsylvania Reserves, removed the bullet. Though Read had performed something of a miracle by extracting the slug embedded in the pelvis, weeks of searing pain and the invasive surgery had weakened him to the point of death. Still, Hancock was alive. Weeks passed, and he slowly regained his strength. During these precarious times, Hancock received royal treatment from his fellow citizens. He wanted for nothing.

A group of the general’s Norristown schoolmates, led by his good friend, attorney Benjamin E. Chain, expressed their gratitude for his leadership in the form of an ornate silver service. It included nine pieces altogether, each marked with the trefoil badge of Hancock’s Second Corps. Engraved on the majestic ewer, the centerpiece of the set: “To Major General Winfield Scott Hancock From Citizens of his Birth place, Norristown, Montgomery Co., Pa., July 4th 1864.” Crafted by Bailey and Company of Philadelphia, the set cost $1,600, or approximately $24,000 today.

Paul Hagans Images
Paul Hagans Images

“The value to the recipient cannot be computed in silver or gold,” declared a biographer in 1880, “It is a pleasant reminder of the days spent as a boy in Norristown, and a proof more precious than jewels that the companions of his youth had not forgotten him, nor the manly part he took in those early scenes. He had always been a leader among them, and this appropriate memorial was a new assurance that they held him worthy to be a commander of a great army of patriots.”

The recently discovered ewer bears witness to the esteem of friends for one of America’s greatest generals.

References: Forney, Life and Services of Winfield Scott Hancock; Denison and Herbert, Hancock “The Superb;” Kaufman, “The Enemy Must Be Short of Ammunition: The Wounding and Treatment of Winfield Scott Hancock,” Swamp Angel II News (July/September 2017); Evening Telegraph (Philadelphia, Pa.), July 5, 1864.

Matt Hagans is a Civil War collector, and owner of Museum Investments.

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