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Winfield Scott

Winfield Scott (June 13, 1786 - May 29, 1866) was a United States general, diplomat, and Presidential candidate. Some 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 tumultous. His commission as a colonel was suspended for one year following a court-martial.

During the War of 1812, Colonel Scott was captured during the Battle of Queenston Heights in 1813. He was released in a prisoner exchange. In March 1814 Scott was brevetted brigadier general. In July of 1814, Scott commanded the First Brigade of the American army in the Niagara campaign, winning the battle of Chippewa decisively. He was wounded during the American defeat at the Battle of Lundy's Lane, along with the American commander, Major General Jacob Brown and the British/Canadian commander, Lieutenant General 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.

Scott earned the nickname of "Old Fuss and Feathers" for his insistence of military appearance and discipline among the American 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 marshalled United States forces for use against the state of South Carolina in the Nullification Crisis, and to evict Cherokee Indians from Georgia in 1838 in what later became known as the Trail of Tears.

Following the orders of President Martin van Buren, Scott 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.

As a result of his success 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 after his defeat at Ball's Bluff. During his time in the military he also fought in the Black Hawk War, the Second Seminole War, and the American Civil War.

During the Mexican-American War, Scott commanded the southern of the two United States armies (Zachary Taylor commanded the northern army). Landing at Veracruz, 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 Hernando Cortez in 1519 and assaulted the city of México. Scott's opponent in this campaign was Mexican President and general Antonio López de Santa Anna. Despite high heat and difficult terrain, Scott won the battles of Cerro Gordo, Contreras , Churubusco , and Molino del Rey {and Padierna ?), then assaulted the fort of Chapultepec on September 13, 1847 after which city surrendered. 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, Scott stated he had just risen from "at about 6 PM 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.

In the 1852 presidential election, he was the unsuccessful Whig Party candidate, losing to Democrat Franklin Pierce.

Despite his faltering in the election, Scott was still a wildly popular national hero. And 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, after Washington, in American history to ever hold that rank.

As general-in-chief at the beginning of the American Civil War, the elderly Scott knew he was unable to go into battle himself. He offered the command of the Federal armed forces to Colonel Robert E. Lee. However, when Virginia left the Union in April 1861, Lee resigned and command of the field forces passed to General Irvin McDowell.

Scott did not believe that a quick victory was possible for Federal forces. He devised a long-term plan to defeat the Confederacy by occupying key terrain, such as the Mississippi River and key ports on the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, then moving on Atlanta. This Anaconda Plan was derided in the press; however, the strategy adopted by General Ulysses S. Grant and executed by General William Tecumseh Sherman followed Scott's concept broadly.

He is buried at West Point.

Papers belonging to Scott can be found at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Further reading

  • Eisenhower, John S.D. Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott

Last updated: 02-07-2005 17:14:00
Last updated: 05-02-2005 19:56:26