Winfield Scott was born 13 June 1786 in Petersburg, Virginia and died on 29 May 1866 in West Point, New York. He was a American Army Officer during the War of 1812 and Mexican American War
13 June 1786
29 May 1866
West Point, New York
Winfield Scott was born near Petersburg, Virginia. He attended the College of William and Mary, but did not graduate. He briefly studied law, but gave up on that profession to enter the army in 1808. A long and highly distinguished military career followed.
The Army promoted Captain Winfield Scott to lieutenant colonel in July 1812. Lieutenant Colonel Scott served primarily on the Niagara campaign front in the War of 1812. He took command of an American landing party during the Battle of Queenston Heights (Ontario, Canada) on 13 October 1812. Most New York militia members refused to cross into Canada in support of the invasion, and the British compelled New York militia commander Brigadier General William Wadsworth and Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott to surrender.
The British held Lieutenant Colonel Scott as a prisoner of war. The British considered Irish-American prisoners of war British subjects and traitors and executed 13 such Americans captured at Queenstown Heights. The British paroled and released Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott in a prisoner exchange. Upon release, Lieutenant Colonel Scott returned to Washington to pressure the Senate to take punitive action against British prisoners of war in retaliation for the British executions of Irish-American soldiers. The Senate wrote a bill after this urging, but President James Madison believed the summary execution of prisoners of war unworthy of civilized nations and so refused to enforce the act.
The Army promoted Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott to colonel in March 1813. In May 1813, Colonel Scott planned and led the capture of Fort George, Ontario, Canada, beside the Niagara River. The operation used landings across the Niagara and on the Lake Ontario coast and forced the British to abandon Fort George. Colonel Scott suffered wounds at this battle, among the best planned and executed operations of War of 1812.
Colonel Winfield Scott also participated in action at Uphold's Creek. The Army brevetted Colonel Winfield Scott as brigadier general in March 1814.
General Scott earned the nickname of "Old Fuss and Feathers" for his insistence on military appearance and discipline in the United States Army, which consisted mostly of volunteers. In his own campaigns, General Scott preferred to use a core of United States Army regulars whenever possible. Scott perennially concerned himself with the welfare of his men, prompting an early quarrel with General James Wilkinson over an unhealthy bivouac on land Wilkinson owned. During an early outbreak of cholera at a post under his command, Scott, alone among officers, stayed to nurse the stricken enlisted men.
Brigadier General Scott commanded the 1st Brigade, proving largely instrumental in decisive American successes at Battle of Chippewa in July 1814.
Despite his instrumental role in American victory at bloody Battle of Lundy's Lane, Brigadier General Winfield Scott suffered serious wounds. American commander, Major General Jacob Brown, and British-Canadian Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond also suffered wounds in this battle.
The Army brevetted Brigadier General Winfield Scott as major general in July 1814 for his valor. Nevertheless, the severity of his wounds prevented Major General Scott from returning to active duty for the remainder of the war.
In 1832, Scott saw service in the Black Hawk War and later was sent by Andrew Jackson to Charleston to calm the South Carolinians during the nullification crisis. In 1838, Scott was responsible for overseeing the removal of the Cherokees from Georgia across the Trail of Tears to reservations in the West. Later that same year he played a role in quieting tensions during the Caroline affair and in 1839 helped to negotiate a truce in the Aroostook War. Scott was appointed general-in-chief of the U.S. army in 1841 and occupied that position for 20 years.
During the Mexican-American War, Scott commanded the southern of the two United States armies (Zachary Taylor commanded the northern army, made up of militiamen and volunteers). Landing at Veracruz, Scott and his regulars, assisted by one of his staff officers, Captain 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.
When seventy-two men from the Mexican Saint Patrick's Battalion (made up of American deserters who had joined the Mexican army) were captured during Churubusco and brought to Scott, he had a problem on his hands. The punishment for desertion during war was death by hanging. Scott's army was still facing a dangerous enemy and possible insurgency, so he placed the prisoners before courts martial to have them settle it. Eisenhower says the men were tried in two groups. The trials were conducted fairly by Brevet Colonel John Garland and by Colonel Bennet Riley. Because all the men captured were wearing Mexican uniforms, they were found guilty and sentenced to hang.
Scott was troubled by the sweep of guilty verdicts. He did not want to alienate the Mexican public, who by now had made the deserters national heroes. Nor did he want to encourage insurgency among the Mexican people that would weaken his pacification program in progress. He also knew that the deserters were Irish-born Catholics, who had deserted Taylor's army because they allegedly felt mistreated and had witnessed atrocities "sufficient to make Heaven weep" against fellow Catholics, the Mexicans. Scott believed he needed to confirm the trials and sentences. He concluded that some men deserved less punishment, and sat up nights attempting to find excuses to avoid the universal application of capital punishment. In the end he approved the death penalty for 50 of the 72 San Patricios, but later pardoned five and reduced the sentence of fifteen others, including the ringleader, Sergeant John Riley. This left 30 slated for execution, 16 of whom were hanged on September 10, 1847. Four were hanged the next day, and the remainder assigned to Colonel William Harney for execution at some later date.
On the day of execution, Harney ordered each deserter placed on a mule cart with a rope around his neck, fastening each rope to a mass gibbet. Then, during the battle of Chapultepec, just as the American flag was about to rise above the walls of the Mexican citadel, he ordered the executioners to give the mules a whack, causing the beasts to lurch forward, leaving the deserters in mid-air, dangling "en masse." Some argue that this adversely affected Scott's record, as the events violated numerous Articles of War. Eisenhower, however, attributes the incident to Harney.
During political intrigues later in his life, Scott ignored the events, stating "not one [Irishman] ... was ever known to turn his back upon the enemy or friend."
As military commander of Mexico City, he was held in high esteem by Mexican civil and American authorities alike, primarily owing to his pacification policy and fairness. For example, when he drew his "martial law order" to be issued and enforced in Mexico (to prevent looting, rape, murder, etc.), all offenders, both Mexicans and Americans, were treated equally. Apart from his military career, 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 cryptic phrase appeared in political cartoons and folk songs for the rest of his life. Another letter from Scott to Marcy noted Scott's desire of not wishing to "have a fire in his rear (from Washington) while he met a fire in front of the Mexicans."
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 eight-year-old chess prodigy gracefully.
When the Duke of Wellington, victor of Waterloo, learned that Scott had succeeded against alarming odds in capturing Mexico City, he proclaimed Scott, "the greatest living general."
As a national war hero and a Whig, Scott drew the attention of Democratic rivals in Washington. He was recalled by President James K. Polk in 1848 to face a court of inquiry, but all charges were promptly dismissed.
In the Election of 1852 Scott gained the Whig nomination, but proved to be a poor candidate and lost handily to Franklin Pierce.
Scott continued his military command and was dispatched to the Washington Territory to resolve a dispute with Britain in the San Juan Islands in 1859.
As Union general-in-chief at the beginning of the American Civil War, the elderly Scott knew he was unable to go into battle himself. He was too large to mount or ride his horse. He offered the command of the Federal army to Colonel Robert E. Lee on April 17, 1861. However, when Virginia left the Union on that same day, Lee resigned and the command of the Federal field forces defending Washington, D.C. passed to Brigadier General Irvin McDowell. Although he was born and raised in Virginia, Scott remained loyal to the nation that he had served for most of his life and refused to resign his commission upon his home state's secession.
When Lincoln received news that the Union Army had been defeated at Manassas on July 21, 1861 he went to Scott's residence at West Point, New York. Scott assumed responsibility for the Union defeat. Lincoln was seeking Scott's advice on whether to draw troops away from Washington to reinforce McClellan. In little time George McClellan was appointed head of the Army.
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, and then moving on Atlanta. This Anaconda Plan was derided in the press; however, in its broad outlines, it was the strategy the Union actually used, particularly in the Western Theater and in the somewhat successful naval blockade of Confederate ports. Though the blockade did prevent most sea-going vessels from leaving or arriving to points along the Confederate coast line, a fair number of blockade-runners steamers made their way through that typically carried cargoes of basic supplies, arms, and mail. Though it was a plan that did not always work, it was continued through 1864 by General Ulysses S. Grant and executed by General William Tecumseh Sherman in his Atlanta Campaign and March to the Sea.
Scott's physical infirmities cast doubt on his stamina; he suffered from gout and rheumatism and his weight had ballooned to over 300 lbs, prompting some to use a play on his nickname of "Old Fuss and Feathers," instead calling him "Old Fat and Feeble." Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, the field commander, was insubordinate and ambitious and thus anxious for Scott to be pushed aside; political pressure from McClellan's supporters in Congress led to Scott's resignation on 1 November 1861. McClellan then succeeded him as general-in-chief.
General Scott lived to see the Union victory in the Civil War. He died at West Point, New York, and is buried in West Point Cemetery.
Winfield Scott was widely known as “Old Fuss and Feathers” because of his penchant for military procedures and finery. Nevertheless, he was generally respected by his officers and men despite his frequent lapses of diplomacy. Scott is often cited as the most able American military commander between the careers of Washington and Lee.