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Who Was Winfield Scott?
General Winfield Scott was a seminal figure in the early expansion of the American republic. When he was a child the United States consisted of the original thirteen colonies; by his retirement at the start of the Civil War, the nation occupied the present-day borders of forty-eight contiguous states. Scott’s career helped shape the young republic during many of the key turning points of its history. He played a major role in the development of the United States Army from a small, loosely organized army to a disciplined professional force capable of defending the nation.
He was the hero of the two major wars and helped prevent three other wars with Britain. His brilliance on the battlefield was without question, though his attempts at politics were dismal failures. He was soundly beaten in the presidential election of 1852. “The Grand Old Man of the Army” is a title given to a man who truly was one of the founding fathers of today’s modern United States military.
The young soldier had heard the bugle and the drum. It was has the music that awoke ambition.
— Winfield Scott
Winfield Scott was born on June 13, 1786, on the family estate “Laurel Branch,” fourteen miles from Petersburg, Virginia. William Scott, Winfield’s father, was a successful farmer and member of the local militia. He died when Winfield was only six-year-old, leaving his mother Ann to raise him and his older brother and two sisters. Winfield enrolled in the College of William and Mary in 1805 believing it was “the usual road to political advancement.” He then studied law in the office of David Robinson in Petersburg. After he completed the required training, he was admitted to practice law in Virginia and worked as a lawyer until he joined the United States Army in 1808.
After gaining an audience with President Thomas Jefferson while visiting Washington, he was able to obtain a commission as an artillery captain. Jefferson had signed a bill authorizing a significant expansion of the military to prepare for potential trouble with the British. As a result, Scott’s first task was to recruit and enlist new soldiers into his unit. Thus, he began the “burdensome chores of paperwork, drilling the men he had already enlisted, chasing deserters, and still trying to enlist more men.” In early 1809 Scott received orders to proceed with his unit to New Orleans where he was under General James Wilkinson.
Winfield’s military career got off to a shaky start when he was court-marshaled for comments concerning his superior officer, General James Wilkinson. During the trial of the former vice president, Aaron Burr, it was revealed that General Wilkinson was deeply involved with Burr in his conspiracy to create an empire encompassing the Mississippi Valley, Mexico, and the American West. The scheme disintegrated and Burr was indicted for treason. The sensational trial, covered extensively in the press, was presided over by John Marshall, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Burr was acquitted of any treasonous acts but became a national persona non grata. Scott attended the trial as a law student in Richmond, where he was overheard saying Wilkinson was as big a traitor as Burr.
News of Scott’s remarks reached Wilkinson, who set him before a court for ungentlemanly conduct and trumped up charges of fraud over mishandled funds. The court ruled against Scott, suspending him for one year, but he was exonerated from all suspicion of dishonesty. Scott spent 1810 at home and began reading widely on foreign military works. In the fall of 1811, he set out to join his command; traveling by wagon, his party cut the first road through to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The War of 1812
The outbreak of open hostilities with the British in 1812 sparked what became known as the War of 1812. Scott was promoted to lieutenant colonel during the war where he served on the Canadian frontier. The invasion of Canada was a central part of President James Madison’s war strategy. Scott saw his first action in the battle of Queenston Heights, where he and his troops crossed into Canada over the Niagara River. Through a multitude of factors, including tired troops, poor senior leadership, lack of cooperation from the militia, and a tough British and Indian force, the battle was lost, resulting in Scott and many of the Americans being captured. As an officer, Scott was treated well by his British captors but was nearly killed when he was attacked by two Mohawk Indians while he was in custody. After two months he was returned to the U.S. forces as part of a prisoner exchange. Promoted to colonel, he led the attack on Fort George where he was wounded in an explosion of a powder magazine. By the end of the war, he was a brigadier general and proved to be a brave leader in the Battle of Chippewa in July of 1814. During the Battle of Lundy Lane, he had two horses shot out from under him and was wounded twice. For his gallant service during the war he was offered a cabinet appointment as secretary of war, which he declined, though he was promoted to brevet major general. In late 1814 Congress requested that the president have a gold medal struck for presentation to Scott, “In testimony of the high sense entertained by Congress of his distinguished services, in the successive conflicts of Chippewa and Niagara [Lundy Lane], and of his uniform gallantry and good conduct in sustaining the reputation of the arms of the United States.”
The wounds he had received in battle prevented Scott from joining General Andrew Jackson in New Orleans in what would become the last major battle of the war. Scott went to Baltimore and took up administrative work. To standardize the training for soldiers, he wrote the first set of American drill regulations, Rules and Regulations for the Field Exercise and Maneuvers of Infantry. This manual, with subsequent revisions, became an army standard up until the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1815 the Treaty of Ghent was signed, which ended the war with Britain and their Indian allies. With the quiet of peacetime descending upon the nation Scott took a leave of absence and sailed for Europe, where he studied French military methods. He returned to America in 1816 to command army forces in parts of the Northeastern United States.
The Indian Wars
As the settlers moved westward, they encroached more and more into the lands held by the native Indians. The Indians naturally fought back against the advancement of the whites and hostilities broke out between the two groups. In 1832, Scott was dispatched by President Andrew Jackson with 950 troops to engage the Sac and Fox Indians. By the time his detachment arrived, the leader, Black Hawk, was captured and the war was ended.
Additional hostilities broke out in Florida with the Indians in what became known as the Seminole Wars. Scott arrived in Florida in 1836 and after months of inconclusive engagements with the hostile Indians he was ordered to the border of Alabama and Georgia to put down the Muscogee uprising. Scott’s actions against the Seminole and Muscogee Indians received criticism from those within the military and civilians as well. To investigate the accusation, President Jackson initiated a Court of Inquiry for both Scott and General Edmund Gains. Scott was cleared of any wrongdoing by the board and praised for his “energy, steadiness, and ability,” but Gaines was reprimanded.
Trail of Tears
One of the assignments given to Scott gave him no pleasure, which was the removal of the Cherokee Indians from their homelands. President Jackson, no friend of the native Americans, proposed that the Indians who occupied valuable land in the southern and eastern states should be removed and given land west of the Mississippi River, namely in Oklahoma and parts of Arkansas and Kansas. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 to authorize the actions. It would take nearly two decades before tens of thousands of Indians could be uprooted from their homes and forcibly moved westward, and many died along the arduous trek.
Winfield Scott was tasked with moving thousands of Cherokee Indians from the southeast United States to Oklahoma and Arkansas in 1838. The Cherokees were not like the nomadic Indian tribes who roamed the southwest in search of native game; rather, they were farmers who adopted many of the white ways–religion, language, and clothing–and were viewed as the most civilized tribe. Based on the generations of assimilation with white society and the mixing of the races, the Cherokees had every right to assume they could remain on their land. They were not going to go easily.
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During the spring of 1838 Scott supervised the rounding up of thousands of Cherokees in Tennessee and Alabama. He had 4,000 local militia at his disposal for the task of corralling the Indians and moving them westward. The initial plan was to move the tribes by river boats, which would have made the journey much easier for everyone involved. The local militia had a vested interest in removing the natives from their valuable land, as many of them would take over the land after they were gone. The Cherokee did not go willingly, and it was August before sufficient numbers could be gathered and by then the rivers were too low to be navigable, forcing an overland march. Scott gave orders for his troops to treat the Indians with as much respect as possible; his instructions fell mostly on deaf ears. As a result, the scenes of uprooting the Indians were chaotic at best and downright brutal at worst.
Word came from Washington that Scott could allow the Indians to travel west on their own auspices, unarmed, and free from supervision by the army troops. This was relief for Scott as it took some of the burden off his shoulders. He sent a message ahead, telling the people living along the route to show the Indians “sympathy and kind offices.” Of the 13,000 Cherokee who began the march in October, thousands perished along the way and in the holding camps. In sympathy with the Indians, Scott began to march westward with the first group of one thousand; however, he was not able to see the transplantation of the Indians to a conclusion as he was called back to Washington in late October to act as peacemaker in the dispute with the British along the Canadian border. Though Scott was part of one of the great tragedies of American history, he has been credited with making every effort to minimize the pain and suffering of the native Americans.
Two days after James Polk became the eleventh president of the United States, the Mexican government broke off diplomatic relations with the United States to protest the American annexation of Texas. Polk was an expansionist president who wanted to acquire more land to the west, which included land held by Mexico and Great Britain. Polk ordered U.S. troops under Brigadier General Zachary Taylor to take up positions around Corpus Christi, near the Rio Grande River in Texas. This territory was in dispute as Mexico neither recognized the American annexation of Texas nor the Rio Grande boundary that separated the two countries. After a skirmish broke out along the disputed border, Polk called the nations to arms, declaring: “[Mexico] has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil.” By May of 1846 America was officially at war with Mexico. Both Mexico and the United States were ill prepared for war. President Polk, with no prior military experience, sought to manage the war in detail. What Polk wanted from the war, according to Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, was “a small war, just large enough to require a treaty of peace, and not large enough to make military reputations, dangerous for the presidency.” Scott was the general in charge of the army and Polk put him in charge of the Rio Grande front. The appointment was withdrawing when Scott quarreled with Polk’s secretary of war.
Taylor and his forces had several decisive victories in northern Mexico, winning public acclaim for his bravery. “Old Rough and Ready,” as Taylor was called, impressed Polk while being much less of a political threat to the president than Scott. While Taylor led the American forces in northern Mexico, Scott ensured the new recruits were trained and equipped.
General Scott Captures Mexico City
As war raged in the north and the Mexican government showed no signs of seeking a close to the war, this prompted Polk and his cabinet to make plans to capture the capitol at Mexico City. Polk left Taylor and his men in northern Mexico while putting Scott in charge of the forces to capture the important cities of the south. In March 1847, Scott’s army landed in the coastal city of Vera Cruz and executed the first amphibious operation by the U.S. military with minimal loss. The landing party encountered little resistance, allowing Scott to set up his big guns. Once in place the cannons pounded the city’s fortifications without mercy. By the end of March, the city was near starvation and surrendered after a weeklong siege. Scott then moved his forces westward and was trapped by the forces of the Mexican general Santa Anna at the mountain pass of Cerro Gordo. The American forces won the day, ending up with 3,000 Mexican prisoners.
One of the lessons Scott learned from his study of the Napoleonic War was to minimize damage to the local civilians, thus not engendering their rage. He gave strict orders to his men not to rape and pillage the locals. Violators were harshly punished. To avoid an endless guerrilla war, Scott made a point to seek the cooperation of the Catholic Church. He ordered his men to show respect for the church and its property, and even to salute the priests when they passed them on the streets.
In May, Scott’s army entered Puebla, the second-largest Mexican City. Due to the enlistment period ending for a third of Scott’s army, he was left with a force of 7,000 men. Scott’s only option was to wait for reinforcements and supplies sent from the coast. By August his army had nearly doubled with the fresh recruits, allowing them to begin the march through the mountain passes into the valley of Mexico. Scott directed his troops into a flanking operation around the lakes and marshes that border the eastern approaches to Mexico City. The Americans overwhelmed the Mexican forces and entered the city on September 13, 1847. At the national palace, an American flag was raised and occupied the “halls of Montezuma.”
After the capture of Mexico City, Santa Anna resigned and fled the country. Polk sent a peace negotiator to broker a treaty with the Mexican government. In the small village of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a treaty was signed in February of 1848 that officially ended the war. The treaty turned out to be one of the biggest land grabs in history, with Mexico giving up claims to Texas and ceding California and New Mexico to the United States. In return the United States paid Mexico $15 million and assumed the claims of U.S. citizens against Mexico totaling $3.25 million.
After the war there was a swell of American national pride, which raised Taylor and Scott to the level of national heroes. As the initial pride of victory faded from the public mind, the conflict was looked upon as a war of conquest waged by President Polk and his expansionist cronies. Both Scott and Taylor would become national Whig candidates for president as a result of the war.
The Presidential Election of 1852
The Whig political party formed from those disenchanted with Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party. Most Whigs supported high protective tariffs, federally subsidized internal improvements, and a national bank. Winfield Scott joined the Whig Party not long after it formed in the 1830s. His prominence on the national scene prompted newspapers to mention his name as a possible candidate for the presidential nomination at the 1839 Whig National Convention. Scott’s nomination never gained any real traction and William Henry Harrison became the party’s nominee, subsequently winning the presidential election of 1840. Scott was once again a contender for the Whig Party’s nomination in the election of 1848. Ultimately, he was passed over by the delegates in favor of his fellow solider and hero of the Mexican-American War, Zachary Taylor.
Scott’s continued popularity in political circles finally brought him the presidential nomination of the Whig party for the 1852 presidential election. Scott was not a shoe-in for the nominee; it took fifty-three ballots at the Baltimore Whig convention before Scott was chosen over the incumbent president Millard Fillmore and the U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster. The secretary of the navy, William Graham, ran as Scott’s vice presidential nominee. The Democrats chose the forty-eight-year-old, handsome and well-liked congressman and senator from New Hampshire, Franklin Pierce, as their candidate.
The hotly contested issue of the election was the recently enacted Compromise of 1850. The series of five laws forming the Compromise were designed to resolve the differences between the north and the south over the issue of slavery. At the end of the Mexican-American War, vast territories to the west had been added to the United States and many Southerners sought to expand slavery to the Pacific coast while many Northerners opposed such action. The most egregious piece of legislation was the Fugitive Slave Act that allowed Southern slave owners to track their runaway slaves into northern territories under federal authority. The Compromise pleased neither Northern radicals, who detested the Fugitive Slave Act, nor Southerners who were already talking about secession.
Scott was basically against the Compromise but waffled on his public pronouncements. He would pay the price, as many other political candidates have, by not coming down squarely on one side of an important issue or the other. General Scott had proven himself as an able and accomplished military leader, but in the political arena he was lacking.
Scott was the Target of Attacks by the Newspapers
During the campaign Scott suffered scandalous attacks by newspapers and stump-speakers. His straightforward manner made him an easy target for his Democratic rivals. The Democrats played on Scott’s nickname, “Old Fuss and Feathers,” making him out to be a Washington prima donna who loved to parade around in lavishly decorated military uniforms. His opponents warned of a “Reign of Epaulets” if he became president and dismissed him as a “weak, conceited, foolish, blustering disciple of gunpowder.” Peirce had also served with distinction in the Mexican-American War, but the Whigs were not impressed. They investigated his war record and on two occasions he had fainted during battle in Mexico. The Whigs overlooked the fact that during one battle Pierce had been badly hurt when his horse fell of some rocks, and he later passed out. The stories garnered him the nickname the “Fainting General.” Allegedly, Pierce had a drinking problem and the Whigs made the most of it describing him as “a hero of many a well-fought bottle.” And so, the foolishness went on day after day until the election in November 1852.
In the election, Scott was soundly defeated by the Democrat Franklin Pierce. Of the thirty-one states voting, Pierce took all but four. Though he had lost the election, he had not lost the hearts of the American public. In 1855 Congress passed a resolution promoting Scott to brevet lieutenant general; the last person to hold this high of a rank was George Washington.
General Winfield Scott Video
The Civil War and Retirement
By the fall of 1860 the nation was on the brink of civil war. The many attempts to mend the differences between those opposed to slavery and those who wanted the institution to continue and spread had grown too wide for mere words to assuage. General Scott pleaded with President James Buchanan to reinforce the southern forts and armories against seizure. Buchanan refused on the grounds the action would only agitate the Southerners to violence. Scott began to oversee the recruiting and training of the soldiers to defend the capital as well as command Lincoln’s bodyguard at the incoming president’s inauguration. Being a Southerner from Virginia, he was hounded to join the rebel cause, but he remained loyal to the Union. When asked about his loyalty to Lincoln, Scott responded, “If necessary, I shall plant cannon at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and if any of the Maryland or Virginia gentlemen who have become so threatening and troublesome show their head or even venture to raise a finger, I shall blow them to hell.” Lincoln’s inaugural celebration went off without a hitch.
No longer able to mount a horse and continue in his role as head of the army, he retired on October 31, 1861, with full benefits. Lincoln, in his first address to Congress, wrote of Scott: “During his long life the nation has not been unmindful of his merit; yet, in calling to mind how faithfully, ably, and brilliantly he has served his country, from a time far back in our history when few of the now living had been born, and thence forward continually, I cannot but think we are still his debtors.”
In retirement, General Scott was involved in some ceremonial matters with the military. Along with his daughter Cornelia and her husband, he traveled to Europe. When he returned in late 1861, he made his residence in New York City and West Point, New York, where he lived alone. During these final years, he wrote his memoirs while following the war news closely. He died on May 29, 1866, at nearly eighty years old. His funeral was widely attended by many high-ranking officials and he was buried beside his wife in the national cemetery at West Point, New York.
After returning from his first European sojourn in 1816, Scott was stationed in New York. Though the details of the meeting and courtship of his new wife are unknown, Major General Winfield Scott married Miss Maria Mayo in her parents’ home in Bellville, Virginia, in March 1817. Maria was from a wealthy and prestigious family who was said to be “not only beautiful both in face and figure but intelligent, witty, cultivated, charming–and modest withal.” Maria’s father, Colonel Mayo, was not as impressed with Scott as she was, viewing him as an upstart. Nevertheless, the colonel gave his permission grudgingly and granted the newlyweds the use of his home in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Scott’s headquarters in New York City.
Pressed with military matters, Scott was not able to get away for a honeymoon until the summer. After a restful three month vacation, the couple took up residence in Elizabethtown, which would be their home on and off again for the next thirty years. Early in 1818 came the birth of their first daughter, Maria Mayo Scott, named after her mother. Over the next two decades more children would come along, with the last born in 1834. The Scotts had five girls and two boys; of the seven children only four would live to see adulthood. In the late 1830s Mrs. Scott developed a chronic bronchial condition. A Washington physician recommended that she go for treatment to a spa in Europe. She departed for Europe with their four surviving daughters and remained there for the next five years. The Scotts would spend much of the later years of their marriage apart as Maria sought treatment for her illness. She died in Rome in 1862 and was buried next to her daughter in West Point, New York.
Winfield Scott the Man
At six feet and five inches in height and well over two hundred pounds, Winfield Scott was an imposing figure. He garnered the nickname “Old Fuss and Feathers” for his exactitude in dress and decorum, which often gave the impression of irritability. He was a scholarly man but knew how to not let the letter of the law shackle him when important decisions had to be made. Not given over to bad habits, Scott did like an occasional chew of tobacco but drank very little alcohol. His drinks of choice were water tinged with a little gin or a weak mint julep. His biggest vice may have been his vanity.
He possessed an active mind, never idle; according to his aide he was “a constant and general reader, who studied common, civil, state, and military law, being familiar with all the standard writers on the subject. He could read French well, allowing him to translate French military works into his own language.” Scott was not an overly religious man, but he did attend church on occasion, thanking God for his physical health, strength, and steady moral sense.
Winfield Scott had been the associate of every president from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln. In his public career of over five decades he had been a main factor in ending two wars, saving the country from others, and acquiring a large portion of its territory. His impact on the U.S. military was profound, moving it from a small, ineffective militia-like organization to a professional force capable of defending the nation. His one great failure in his career was that he never captured the office of the president.
- Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush. Oxford University Press. 2004.
- Eisenhower, John S.D. Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott. The Free Press. 1997.
- Ganoe, William A. “Scott, Winfield” in Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. 16, pps. 505-511. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1935.
- Miers, Earl Schenck. “Scott, Winfield” in The Encyclopedia Americana, Vol 24, pps. 455d-455e. Americana Corporation. 1968.
- Matuz, Roger. The Presidents Fact Book: The Achievements, Campaigns, Events, Triumphs, Tragedies, and Legacies of Every President from George Washington to Barrack Obama. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. 2009.
- West, Doug. America’s Second War of Independence: A Short History of the War of 1812. C&D Publications. 2018.
- West, Doug. The Mexican-American War: A Short History: America’s Fulfillment of Manifest Destiny (30 Minute Book Series 41). C&D Publications. 2020.
© 2019 Doug West
Doug West (author) from Missouri on November 28, 2019:
Thanks for the comment. Until I researched the article I didn't know that much about him either. He really did change the US army into a professional fighting force.
Readmikenow on November 28, 2019:
Excellent article. You wrote a real thorough piece about General Winfield Scott. I knew of him, but I didn't know there was so much to him. I enjoyed reading this article.