Biography of Winfield Scott
Winfield Scott is probably the most important military leader in the United States from the time of the War of 1812 until the opening days of the Civil War. He came from a wealthy family in Virginia, and his father was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. He studied at the College of William and Mary and practiced as a lawyer until 1807 when he joined the military. Over time, he gained fame as a hero of the War of 1812 and rose in the ranks. In 1832, he helped avoid the outbreak of war during the Nullification Crisis in South Carolina. In 1840, he was named Commander of the United States Army. As commander, he led American forces to victory in several key battles during the Mexican-American War. His popularity allowed him to run as the Whig Party candidate for President in 1852, but he lost to Franklin Pierce. Scott returned to the military and when the Secession Crisis emerged in 1860 he urged President James Buchanan to prepare for war. After Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1861 and the Civil War broke out, Scott devised the Anaconda Plan. Under his plan, the Union would use the navy to blockade Southern ports. Not long after Union forces were embarrassed at the First Battle of Bull Run, Scott retired from the army and moved to West Point, New York. He continued to provide advice to President Lincoln, and when the Union finally implemented the Anaconda Plan it helped win the war. Scott passed away not long after the war ended. He was buried next to his wife of 45 years, Maria, in the cemetery at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
This illustration depicts Winfield Scott leading American forces into Mexico City on September 14, 1847, during the Mexican-American War. Image Source: Library of Congress.
Winfield Scott was born at Laurel Branch, his family’s plantation, 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.
Early Military Career
After being orphaned, Scott studied law at the College of William and Mary and joined 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, officials deployed Scott 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 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 returned to Virginia, where he spent the duration of his sentence studying the military arts.
War of 1812
When Scott resumed active service, he returned to New Orleans. After the U. S. Congress declared war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812, officials promoted Scott to lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Artillery Regiment in July. While stationed along the Canadian-U.S. border, British troops captured Scott on October 13, 1812, following the battle of Queenston Heights. After being exchanged, officials promoted Scott to colonel on March 12, 1813, and he took part in the Battle of Fort George (May 25–27, 1813). On March 9, 1814, army officials promoted Scott to brigadier general. Afterward, Scott 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 received a severe wound in the left shoulder. Although Scott’s injury prevented him from returning to combat for the rest of the war, he received a brevet promotion to major general for his valor at Lundy’s Lane. On October 16, 1814, the War Department appointed Scott as commander of the 10th Military District, headquartered in Washington, DC. Later that year, as the war wound down, Scott received the “Thanks of Congress” on November 3, in recognition of his service to his country.
This painting by H. Charles McBarron, Jr. depicts Winfield Scott leading his men into the fight at the Battle of Chippewa. Image Source: Wikipedia.
Scott emerged from the War of 1812 as a national hero and with a reputation as one of the army’s more capable 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 army downsized. Later, Scott 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 forty-five years and produced seven children, five of whom survived to adulthood.
A Rise in the Ranks
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 take part 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 received credit for brokering a temporary peace between the State of South Carolina and the federal government until the adoption of the Compromise Tariff of 1833 resolved the dispute.
On January 20, 1836, army officials placed Scott in command of the Army of Florida and ordered him to plan a campaign against the Seminole Indians. After the white residents in Florida criticized Scott for failing to subdue the warring Seminoles quickly, the War Department ordered him to Washington to face a court of inquiry. The tribunal took only a few days to acquit Scott unanimously and to uphold 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 7,000 U.S. soldiers and state militia herded nearly 13,000 Cherokee Indians into concentration camps before forcing them to march over 1,000 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 4,000 Cherokees died from disease, starvation, and exposure to cold weather during the trip that became known as the Trail of Tears.
Commander of the U.S. Army
By 1840, Scott had risen to 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 on expanding army operations on the 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 later become 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 “Old Fuss and Feathers.”
Mexican- American War
Soon after the Republic of Texas achieved statehood on December 29, 1845, the United States and Mexico fell into a dispute regarding the location of the border between Texas and Mexico. When the disagreement escalated 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). On May 13, 1846, Congress declared war against Mexico. Taylor’s successes made him a national hero and a potential presidential candidate in 1848. Scott had his own designs for running for president. The Whig Party had considered nominating him as their presidential candidate in the election of 1840. Perhaps seeking to not let Taylor upstage him, 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.
This painting by James Walker depicts the Battle of Chapultepec. Image Source: Wikipedia.
On March 9, 1847, Scott landed a force of 12,000 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 started his drive toward Mexico City. His army defeated 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 itself against several guerrilla attacks until the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ended hostilities on February 2, 1848. Scott served as Military Governor of Mexico until March when he returned to the United States to face politically motivated charges brought by subordinate officers. Following a court of inquiry, army officials dropped the charges and Scott 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 Zachary 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 was the last Whig presidential candidate.
Following his defeat in the 1852 presidential election, Scott focused 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 the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln 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. Washington officials soundly rejected Scott’s proposal, later known as the Anaconda Plan. Instead, they urged a decisive attack on 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 First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), Lincoln pressed Scott to resign.
This illustration of the Anaconda Plan depicts the “Great Snake” Scott devised to blockade Southern ports. Image Source: Library of Congress.
On July 25, 1861, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 47, merging the Department of Washington and the Department of Northeastern Virginia to form a new geographical division that soon became 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 also announced 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 adviser 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 many dignitaries attended, Scott was buried next to his wife at the United States Military Academy Post Cemetery.
Significance of Winfield Scott
Winfield Scott was important because of his illustrious military career. He led American forces to victory in the Mexican-American War and devised the Anaconda Plan, which helped the Union win the Civil War.