Commander of all Federal forces at the beginning of the American Civil War, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott served as an officer in the United States Army for over fifty-three years.
Winfield Scott was born at Laurel Branch, his family's planation, in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, on June 13, 1786. He was the second son and youngest of six children born to William and Ann Mason Scott. Scott's father, who served as a captain during the Revolutionary War, died in 1792, when Scott was five or six years old. Scott's mother, who descended from a wealthy Virginia family, died in 1803, when Scott was seventeen years old.
After being orphaned, Scott studied law at the College of William and Mary and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1806. The next year, Scott gained his first taste of military life, when he volunteered for duty enforcing an embargo against British vessels. Apparently finding military life to his liking, Scott joined the U.S. Army. Commissioned as a captain in the Light Artillery on May 3, 1808, Scott was deployed to New Orleans, Louisiana the next year.
During his time in Louisiana, Scott imprudently made disparaging remarks about his commanding officer, General James Wilkinson. Wilkinson subsequently had Scott arrested and court-martialed for, among other things, publicly calling Wilkinson a traitor. In January 1810, the court found Scott guilty of "ungentlemanly and unofficer-like conduct" and sentenced him "to be suspended from all rank, pay, and emoluments, for the space of twelve months." Scott then returned to Virginia, where he spent the duration of his sentence studying the military arts.
When Scott resumed active service, he returned to New Orleans, where he served under. After the U.S Congress declared war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812, Scott was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Artillery Regiment in July. Stationed along the Canadian-U.S. border, Scott was captured by British troops on October 13, 1812, following the battle of Queenston Heights. After being exchanged, Scott was promoted to colonel on March 12, 1813, and he went on to participate in the Battle of Fort George (May 25–27, 1813). On March 9, 1814, Scott was promoted to brigadier-general, and he led his brigade during the American victories at the Battle of Chippawa (July 5, 1814), and the Battle of Lundy's Lane (July 25, 1814), where he was severely wounded in the left shoulder. Although Scott's injury prevented him from returning to combat for the duration of the war, he was brevetted to major general for his valor at Lundy's Lane. On October 16, 1814, Scott was named commander of the 10th Military District, headquartered at Washington, DC. Later that year, as the war began to wind down, Scott was awarded the “Thanks of Congress” on November 3, in recognition of his service to his country.
Scott emerged from the War of 1812 as a national hero and with a reputation as one of the army's more competent leaders. In 1815, he supervised the drafting of the army's first standard drill regulations, and he also directed a postwar officer-retention selection board, as the size of the army was scaled back. Scott then secured a leave of absence to travel to Europe, where he studied French military tactics.
When Scott returned to America, he married Virginia-native Maria Mayo on March 11, 1817. Their marriage lasted 45 years and produced seven children, five of whom survived to adulthood.
During the next two decades, Scott held several peacetime postings including regional commander of the Division of the North (1816), president of the Board of Tactics (1815, 1821, 1824, and 1826), and Eastern Department commander (1825). In 1828 Scott tendered his resignation from the army in protest of being passed over for promotion. Consultation with friends and supporters convinced Scott to reconsider, and he resumed command of the Eastern Division.
Scott returned to his role as a combat officer in 1832 when the War Department ordered him to lead troops to Illinois to participate in the Black Hawk War. Before his arrival, however, the fighting ended. In 1833 President Andrew Jackson dispatched Scott to South Carolina to defuse the growing nullification crisis. Scott was credited with brokering a temporary peace between South Carolina and the federal government until the issue was resolved with the adoption of the Compromise Tariff of 1833.
On January 20, 1836, Scott was placed in command of the Army of Florida and ordered to plan a campaign against the Seminole Tribe that eventually escalated into the Second Seminole War. After failing to quickly subdue the warring Seminoles, Scott was roundly censured by white residents in Florida and was recalled to Washington to face a court of inquiry regarding his leadership in Florida. The court took only a few days to unanimously acquit Scott of any wrongdoing and to endorse his command decisions.
In April 1838, President Martin Van Buren dispatched Scott to northern Georgia to oversee the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from northern Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee to present-day Oklahoma. Scott's force of approximately seven thousand U.S. soldiers and state militia herded nearly thirteen thousand Cherokee Indians into concentration camps before forcing them to march over one thousand miles west during the winter. Although Scott ordered that "every possible kindness, compatible with the necessity of removal, must, therefore be shown by the troops," over four thousand Cherokees died from disease, starvation, and exposure to cold weather during the trip that became known as the Trail of Tears.
By 1840, Scott had risen to the position of the second highest ranking officer in the U.S. Army. When Major General Alexander Macomb, Commanding General of the Army, died on June 25, 1841, Scott became the highest ranking general. On July 5, 1841, President John Tyler issued an executive order confirming Scott's promotion to major general, ordering him to take command of the United States Army.
For the next few years, Scott focused his attention on army operations on the expanding American frontier. He also took a personal interest in the development of the United States Military Academy. It was during that period that Ulysses S. Grant, an academy cadet who would go on to be General-of-the- Army, recalled that Scott was "the finest specimen of manhood my eyes had ever beheld." Grant's assessment was ironic given his later disdain for formal military attire while serving in the field. Scott's affinity for proper military appearance, along with his emphasis on army decorum, earned him the nickname of "Old Fuss and Feathers."
Soon after the Republic of Texas was granted statehood on December 29, 1845, the United States and Mexico entered into a dispute regarding the location of the border between Texas and Mexico. When the disagreement escalated to armed hostilities, on April 25, 1846, the War Department dispatched an expeditionary force into Mexico under the command of Brigadier-General Zachary Taylor. Taylor scored two quick successes against Mexican forces at the Battle of Palo Alto (May 8, 1846) and the Battle of Resaca de la Palma (May 9, 1846), making Taylor a national hero and potential presidential candidate in 1848. Scott had his own design on the presidency, however, having been previously been considered as a Whig Party candidate in the election of 1840. Perhaps seeking to not be upstaged by Taylor, Scott convinced a reluctant Democratic President James K. Polk to allow him to raise his own expeditionary force and launch an amphibious assault on Central Mexico.
On March 9, 1847, Scott landed a force of twelve thousand soldiers (many of whom Scott had commandeered from Taylor) near the port city of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico. Officers in Scott's army included future Civil War notables Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, P. G. T. Beauregard, James Longstreet, Gideon Pillow, George B. McClellan, George G. Meade, and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Following a successful twenty-day siege that resulted in the city's surrender, Scott initiated his drive toward Mexico City. His army proceeded to defeat Mexican armies at the Battle of Cerro Gordo (April 17–18, 1847), the Battle of Contreras (August 19, 1847), the Battle of Churubusco (August 20, 1847), and the Battle of Molina del Rey (September 8, 1847). Following his successful assault against the Castle of Chapultepec (September 13, 1847), Scott triumphantly entered the Mexican capital on the following day. For the next few months, Scott's army defended themselves against numerous guerrilla attacks until the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was signed on February 2, 1848, ending hostilities. Scott served as Military Governor of Mexico until March, when he was recalled to the United States, where he faced politically motivated charges brought by subordinate officers. Following a court of inquiry, the charges were dropped, and Scott subsequently received the “Thanks of Congress” for his service in Mexico.
Upon returning to the United States, Scott pursued his political aspirations while remaining in charge of the army. When the Whigs held their national convention in Philadelphia on June 7, 1848, it took them only one day to nominate Zachery Taylor as their candidate for the U.S. presidency. A disappointed Scott finished a distant third with sixty-seven votes compared to Taylor's winning total of 171. When the Whigs met again in 1852, Scott upset incumbent President Millard Fillmore to secure the party's nomination. Following the general election in November, Democratic dark-horse candidate Franklin Pierce trounced his former commanding officer, receiving 254 electoral votes to Scott's forty-two. With the subsequent emergence of the Republican Party, Scott would be the last Whig presidential candidate.
Following his defeat in the 1852 presidential election, Scott focused his attention on his military career. On March 7 1855, Congress passed a joint resolution temporarily reviving the rank of lieutenant general to be "filled by brevet, and brevet only." The bill also conferred the title upon Scott, to rank from March 29, 1847, to acknowledge his "eminent services of a Major-General of the Army in the late war with Mexico."
As the secession crisis came to a boil following the election of President Abraham Lincoln in November 1860, Scott urged President James Buchanan to prepare for war by garrisoning U.S. southern seacoast cities. Not wanting to fan the flames, Buchanan scorned Scott's advice. When the crisis came to a head after Abraham Lincoln's inauguration in March 1861, Scott advised the new president not to attempt to re-supply Fort Sumter in the face of Southern resistance—advice that Lincoln ignored.
When the American Civil War finally erupted, Scott devised a long-term plan to strangle the Confederacy by blockading Southern seaports. Later known as the Anaconda Plan, Scott's proposal was soundly rejected by Washington officials who advocated a decisive blow against Richmond, Virginia to bring a swift end to the rebellion. Too old, infirm, and overweight to lead troops into battle, Scott selected Brigadier-General Irvin McDowell to lead the assault against the Confederate capital. After the combined forces of P.G.T Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston routed McDowell's Army of Northeastern Virginia at the Battle of Bull Run I (July 21, 1861), Lincoln urged Scott to resign.
On July 25, 1861, the War Department issued General Orders No. 47, consolidating the Department of Washington and the Department of Northeastern Virginia to form a new geographical division that would be known as the Division of the Potomac. The order named Major General George B. McClellan as commander of the new division. Washington was not big enough for two generals with the egos of Scott and McClellan. Well aware that McClellan was Lincoln's favorite, Scott offered his resignation on November 1, 1861. On the same day, the War Department issued General Orders No. 94, announcing President Lincoln's executive order reporting Scott's retirement. The president noted that:
The American people will hear with sadness and deep emotion that General Scott has withdrawn from the active control of the Army, while the President and a unanimous Cabinet express their own and the nation's sympathy in his personal affliction and their profound sense of the important public services rendered by him to his country during his long and brilliant career, among which will ever be gratefully distinguished his faithful devotion to the Constitution, the Union, and the flag when assailed by parricidal rebellion.
Lincoln went on to announce that "Major-General George B. McClellan. . .[would] assume the command of the Army of the United States."
Scott retired to New York, where he remained an occasional advisor to President Lincoln. In 1864 he published his two-volume autobiography. Scott lived long enough to see the implementation of his Anaconda Plan help win the war and restore the Union. On May 29, 1866, Scott died at West Point, just short of his eightieth birthday. Following a solemn funeral that was attended by numerous dignitaries, Scott was buried next to his wife at the United States Military Academy Post Cemetery.
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