Winfield Scott (1786-1866)

Winfield Scott (June 13, 1786 - May 29, 1866) was a United States lieutenant general, diplomat, and presidential candidate—an army officer who held the rank of general in three wars, the unsuccessful Whig candidate for president in 1852, and the foremost American military figure between the Revolution and the Civil War. He served on active duty as a general longer than any other man in American history and most historians rate him the ablest American general of his time.

Scott was born on his family's farm near Petersburg, Virginia. He attended the College of William & Mary and was a lawyer and a Virginia militia cavalry corporal before being directly commissioned as captain in the artillery in 1808. Scott's early years in the Army were tumultuous. His commission as a colonel was suspended for one year following a court-martial for insubordination in criticizing his commanding general.

He fought on the Niagara frontier in the War of 1812, was captured by the British in that campaign during the Battle of Queenston Heights in 1813, but was released in a prisoner exchange. In March 1814 Scott was brevetted brigadier general. In July 1814, Scott commanded the First Brigade of the American army in the Niagara campaign, winning the Battle of Chippewa decisively on July 5, 1814.. He was wounded during the American defeat at the Battle of Lundy's Lane (july 25), along with the American commander, Major General Jacob Brown and the British/Canadian commander, Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond. As the American army retreated across the Niagara, Scott commanded the American forces at Fort Erie, another American victory. Scott's success on the Niagara, combined with American naval victories at Lake Champlain and Lake Erie, guaranteed a stalemate on the northern frontier. Scott's wounds from Lundy's Lane were so severe that he did not serve on active duty for the remainder of the war. But his successes had made him a national hero.

By war's end he had attained the rank of major general. Scott remained in military service, studying tactics in Europe and taking a deep interest in maintaining a well-trained and disciplined U.S. Army. Scott earned the nickname of "Old Fuss and Feathers" for his insistence of military appearance and discipline in the U.S. Army, which consisted mostly of volunteers. In his own campaigns, General Scott preferred to use a core of U.S. Army Regulars whenever possible. Gen. Scott was later known as the Grand Old Man of the Army.

In the administration of President Andrew Jackson, Scott marshaled United States forces for use against the state of South Carolina in the Nullification Crisis.

In 1838, following the orders of President Martin Van Buren, Scott carried out the initial removal of Cherokee Indians from Georgia and other Southern states to reservations west of the Mississippi River—what later became known as the Trail of Tears.

Scott also helped defuse tensions between officials of the state of Maine and the British Canada province of New Brunswick in the undeclared and bloodless Aroostook War in March 1839.

Scott became commanding general of the U.S. Army in 1841 and served in that capacity until 1861.

As a result of his success, Scott was appointed major general (then the highest rank in the United States Army) and general-in-chief in 1841. He held this position until November 1, 1861, when he resigned under political pressure from Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan after the Union defeat at Ball's Bluff. McClellan replaced him as general-in-chief.

Scott also fought in the Black Hawk War and the Second Seminole War.

With the outbreak of the Mexican War (1846-48), Scott recommended General Zachary Taylor for command of the U.S. forces. When Taylor appeared to be making little progress, however, Scott set out himself with a supplementary force on a seaborne invasion of Mexico. Scott commanded the southern of the two United States armies (Zachary Taylor commanded the northern army) and captured Veracruz (March 1847). Six months later, Scott, assisted by his colonel of engineers, Robert E. Lee, and perhaps inspired by William H. Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico, followed the approximate route taken by Hernán Cortés in 1519 and assaulted Mexico City. Scott's opponent in this campaign was Mexican President and general Antonio López de Santa Anna. Despite high heat, rains, and difficult terrain, Scott won the battles of Cerro Gordo, Contreras/Padierna, Churubusco, and Molino del Rey, then assaulted the fort of Chapultepec on September 13, 1847, after which the city surrendered on September 14. When a large number of men from the controversial Saint Patrick's Battalion were captured during Churubusco, Scott gave orders for them to be hanged en masse in during the battle of Chapultepec, specifying that the moment of execution should occur just after the U.S. flag was raised atop the Mexican citadel.

As military commander of Mexico City, he was held in high esteem by Mexican civil and American authorities alike. However, Scott's vanity, as well as his corpulence, led to a catch phrase that was to haunt him for the remainder of his political life. Complaining about the division of command between himself and General Taylor, in a letter written to Secretary of War William Marcy on May 25, 1846, Scott stated: "Your letter of this date, received at about 6 p.m., as I sat down to take a hasty plate of soup . . .". The Polk administration, wishing to sabotage Scott's reputation, promptly published the letter, and the phrase appeared in political cartoons and folk songs for the rest of his life.

Another example of Scott's vanity was his reaction to losing at chess to a young New Orleans lad named Paul Morphy in 1846. Scott did not take his defeat by the nine-year-old chess prodigy gracefully.

A prominent Whig, Scott won his party's presidential nomination in 1852 but lost the election to Democrat Franklin Pierce, mainly because the Whigs were divided over the issue of slavery.

In 1855, by a special act of Congress, Scott was given a brevet promotion to the rank of lieutenant general, making him the second person in American history, after George Washington, to ever hold that rank.

Scott was still commander in chief of the U.S. Army when the Civil War broke out in April 1861, but his proposed strategy of splitting the Confederacy—the plan eventually adopted—was ridiculed.

The elderly Scott knew he was unable to go into battle himself. He offered the command of the Federal army to Colonel Robert E. Lee. However, when Virginia left the Union in April 1861, Lee resigned and command of the field forces defending Washington, D.C., passed to Major General Irvin McDowell.

Age forced his retirement the following November.

Scott died at West Point in 1866 just before his eightieth birthday and is buried there in the National Cemetery.