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Civil War Encyclopedia >> People - Union Military
Today most frequently recognized as an aging general at the start of The Civil War, Winfield Scott served his country for more than 50 years in the military and ran for President of the United States in 1852. It was his plan, dubbed Anaconda by the newspapers, the Union disaster at Ball's Bluff and his discontent with George McClellan that led President Lincoln to relieve him from duty. In the end, Lincoln implemented virtually every piece of Anaconda to strangle the South, the blame for Ball's Bluff shifted away from Scott, and George McClellan was recognized as one of the worst generals in the Union Army for his failure to commit troops to battle.
Born in Virginia and a graduate of William and Mary College, Winfield Scott's service to the military spanned more than 50 years. It did not have the illustrious beginning. Originally assigned to James Wilkerson in New Orleans early in 1809, Captain Scott despised General Wilkerson not only because of his outside interests but for his lack of concern over his men. With disease rampant and Wilkerson not doing anything to prevent and little to cure the problem Scott realized the military had serious problems. It wasn't long after Scott recovered from a fever before he turned in his resignation and headed back to Virginia.
His decision to resign seemed hasty a few months later since war with Great Britain was brewing. He was reassigned to his old command and quickly court-martialed when he yelled at the medical officer in command at New Orleans. Wilkerson had Scott brought up on "conduct unbecoming" charges and Winfield Scott served a year's suspension. Scott suffered a minor wound and missed his target in a duel with the medical officer before starting his year-long sentence.
Although the war was unpopular in New York that would be the location of the major American action for the first year. Lieutenant Colonel Scott was assigned to the Buffalo area and General Stephen Van Renssellaer chose Scott to command an artillery battalion while his brother Solomon advanced some 300 militia and 225 regulars across the Niagara River to Queenston. The operation was a disaster. With Solomon Van Renssellaer wounded and other officers dead, command passed to Captain John Wool. The captain seized Queenston Heights while Scott secured permission to advance and assume command of the invading force. After crossing and taking command a British-led counterattack drove American forces from the heights. Returning to the Niagara River they found the boats gone, taken across the river by militia who had been unnerved by Mohawk Indian war hoops. Scott advanced under a white flag with Captain Joseph Totten and surrendered his men. For the next four months Scott was a prisoner-of-war.
Scott returned to Washington in January, 1813 and attended a White House dinner with James Madison, but in April he again headed north to New York. Under Brigadier General Zebulon Pike he invaded the Canadian capitol of York (today's Toronto) on April 27, 1813. Scott and his troops withdrew to Oswego following a 10-day occupation. Less than a month later, on May 25, Scott was called to lead an attack on Fort George. Crossing the Niagara River, Scott captured the fort (it had been evacuated) before being injured by an explosion. In spite of a painful break in his collarbone Scott continued to direct the battle, chasing the British soldiers to Queenston.
Over the next year many of the older, Revolutionary War generals realized they were no longer capable to command. Henry Dearborn, Morgan Lewis, and others were being replaced with men like Colonel Scott, Jacob Brown, Alexander Macomb, John Wool and Edmund Gaines. One nemesis did appear; James Wilkerson, still up to his old tricks, arrived at the start of Winter, 1813-14. Scott, thankfully, was ordered to return to Washington. It was there he became General Scott.
Returning to the New York frontier in the Spring of 1814, Winfield Scott soundly defeated the British in the battle of Chipewa on July 5, 1814. Word reached commanding officer Jacob Brown and Scott later that month that British troops had been spotted north of the crossing of the Chipewa River. Brown dispatched Scott with orders to push the British force back to Queenston. Scott moved north with no reason to believe he would be facing a superior force of regulars with 2 cannon.
Advancing under fire, his brigade became pinned down below a low ridge were the British had positioned themselves. Unaware that the British were being reinforced, Scott ordered a secondary action, which also failed. Still under fire, the general order Col. Thomas Jesup to move forward for observation. Jesup saw an open flank and attacked, taking 100 men including the commanding officer. Still, the British line held. Scott's line was reinforced by Brown, who had marched from Chipewa to relieve the General. When ordered to fall in as reserves, Scott was wounded and had less than 400 effectives of his original 1300 men.
Scott decided to reinforce Jesup, who had delivered the blow to the British left flank. As the British withdrew from the top of the hill, Scott was seriously wounded, as was Jacob Brown. As he was being carried off Brown told his second to withdraw. Although at the time the British had left Lundy's Lane, they had returned before midnight and claimed victory.
Although the British sacked Washington, they were turned back at Fort McHenry in Baltimore and the British people tired of the War. Their defeat by Andrew Jackson at New Orleans tipped the win into the American column, even though a peace treaty had already been signed. After the destruction of the U. S. Capital, Winfield Scott was placed in command of the military district containing Washington, in hopes of preventing any further attacks.
Jackson's role in the Battle of New Orleans made him the most famous hero of the War of 1812, a situation that did not bode well for Scott. The two got into a war of words over comments Scott made about Jackson at a dinner in New York attended by DeWitt Clinton. Scott later got into trouble with another rival, Edmund P. Gaines, that only ended when the Secretary of War admonished both for their conduct. That wasn't Scott's only problem. General-in-Chief Jacob Brown had died, and Scott wanted his position. Adams chose Alexander Macomb instead.
During the Black Hawk War Andrew Jackson ordered Winfield Scott to Illinois to handle the revolution that General Gaines had failed to quell. After dropping his wife and daughter at West Point, he continued west with cadre of new officers off on their first wartime experience. They would battle disease more than bullets, but Scott returned with a treaty in October, 1832, and America was pleased with their 46-year old general once again.
Andy Jackson was already working on Winfield Scott's next assignment. South Carolina was threatening secession over their right to nullify a federal law (the Tariff of Abominations). Jackson wanted Scott to take command of federal troops in Charleston Harbor that November. By January tensions in the city had flared to near boiling when a sugar refinery caught fire that January. Scott ordered Major Samuel Ringgold to advance to aid locals in putting it out. With 300 unarmed soldiers, Ringgold landed and ordered the men forward to "...go to death for that sugar." Citizens cheered the men, who quenched the blaze. Although political intrigue continued, the soldiers were no longer vilified.
At the start of 1836 Winfield Scott was approaching his 50th birthday and for the last few years Andy Jackson had been turning to him to solve military issues. A second Seminole War had broken out unexpectedly with the ambush of Major Francis Dade near the Wahoo Swamp, and Jackson sent Scott to Florida. Edmund Gaines didn't particularly like Scott coming to Florida, since it was technically in Gaines' department. Rather than take it up with President Jackson, Gaines merely headed for Florida himself. Taking a force inland, Gaines was caught unexpectedly by a large group of Seminoles. He quickly threw a fort together and sent word for aid. Scott issued a direct order to Duncan Clinch at Fort Drane to give no aid to Gaines, but as the situation worsened, Clinch came to his rescue. Following the incident Scott, Clinch and General Eustis set out to find the Seminoles to no avail.
In 1838 Winfield Scott headed to the Cherokee Agency in Athens, Tennessee. He was about to oversee an American tragedy. The Cherokee called the mountains of North Georgia, Northern Alabama and Southern Tennessee their "enchanted land." When Andy Jackson tried to displace them with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Cherokee fought the President in the Supreme Court and won. The only way to negotiate with the Cherokee was through a treaty. Jackson had representatives negotiate and sign a removal treaty with a small group of Cherokee in December, 1835. General John Wool was ordered to handle the removal, but he was so moved by the plight of the Cherokee that he asked to be relieved of duty. Martin Van Buren ordered Scott to oversee the removal. Rounded up into removal forts, the Cherokee were moved north to Athens were they were kept in squalor. After reports of high death rates during the summer marches, John Ross went to Scott and asked for permission to let Cherokee lead the parties and leave during the cooler months in the fall. Scott agreed, drawing the wrath of everybody from Andy Jackson to the contractors hired to move them west. Scott would not change his mind, so the Cherokee left that October. Scott began the march with one of the parties, but when he reached Nashville a message was waiting. He was needed to avert a war.
The war was once again on the American frontier with Canada and Scott's reputation served him well. So did a friendship he had forged with a British officer during the War of 1812, Sir John Harvey. After successfully ending the Aroostook War following a negotiation with Harvey, his name was mentioned as a possible candidate for President in the Election of 1840.
General-in-Chief Alexander Macomb died in 1841 and after a brief tug-of-war with his old rival Edmund Gaines, Scott got the promotion he had waited most of his life for. Scott's name again was mentioned in the Election of 1844, but Henry Clay seemed as though his time had come and he got the Whig nomination. Clay did not support the annexation of Texas, a major plank in the campaign of James Polk. After adding the slave state to the Union, Polk continued looking west for land...all the way to the northern Mexico coast.
With the annexation of Texas, California was the next tidbit to fill the insatiable demand for land in the United States. Polk tried to buy the land, but Mexico wasn't willing to sell. Polk drummed up an incident along the Texas-Mexican border, sent in Zachary Taylor, who began defeating the Mexican Army. Polk also sent Santa Ana back, with the former general promising to give California to the United States when he assumed power. Rather than someone he could control, Santa Ana became leader of the Mexican government. Afraid of what might happen next, Polk turned to Winfield Scott for a plan.
Scott proposed the largest amphibious landing in United States history, near the town of Vera Cruz. Coming ashore with such notables as Robert E. Lee, P. G. T. Beauregard, and Ulysses S. Grant and soon to be joined by the likes of Franklin Pierce, Scott encircled Vera Cruz, forcing its surrender, then moved along the National Road to Mexico City. He ended the war with the capture of the capital on September 14, 1847.
Unfortunately for Scott one of his poorest performing generals, Gideon Pillow, was a close friend of James Polk. Pillow was also a political hopeful (with designs on the Presidency). To this end he filed official reports that were blatantly wrong. When articles about Pillow's exploits appeared in American papers Scott reacted and when the smoke cleared, two of his division commanders were in jail awaiting a court of inquiry. By the time the court was ready to be convened in March, 1848, Scott was ready to drop the case, but Pillow wanted his name cleared. Although almost every officer backed Scott's story, Pillow, backed by his association with Polk, was exonerated.
One final blow came to Scott before he left Mexico: the Whig Convention had chose Zachary Taylor, "Old Rough and Ready" as candidate for the Election of 1848. Scott would have to stand on the sidelines for at least another 4 years. Once in office, Taylor, a southerner, began listening to William Seward, a northern abolitionist Whig. As a result Taylor recommended the admittance of California as a state with no offseting slave state added. The balance in the Senate would be to the free states, setting in action the forces which would destroy the Whig Party. Still, when Taylor died in 1850 Scott immediately prepared for a run for President as a Whig.
Moving to Washington, Scott threw his support behind the Compromise of 1850. After campaigning for nearly two years, Scott entered the convention a distant third. Current President Millard Fillmore was unpopular with northern Whigs for his support of the Fugitive Slave Law, a key piece of the Compromise of 1850. Daniel Webster, his Secretary of State was unpopular for his speech supporting the Compromise. The Whigs slowly turned to Scott, who won the nomination on June 21, 1852.
Although a great general, Scott proved to be an uninspiring candidate. From the outset, when he accepted the nomination "...with the platform of principles which the Convention has laid down," pretty much alienating the southern Whigs over a plank supporting the Compromise of 1850. Northern Whigs broke with the party as well, running a Free-Soil candidate. In the end Scott pulled less than 44% of the vote and lost an old subordinate, Franklin Pierce.
Pierce's Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, was no friend of Scott's. During the Mexican-American War Davis served under his former father-in-law, Zachary Taylor, and viewed Scott taking forces away from Taylor to attack Vera Cruz as the act of a glory-hunting general. Under Pierce and at the start of James Buchanan's term as President, Scott held little actual power. He watched nervously as the drive for Southern nationalism consolidated during Buchanan's term. After 1858 more favor was afforded to the aging general. He was sent west to settle a dispute known as the "pig war," and thanks to Scott the only casualty was the pig.
Scott, of course, was a Virginian. Although Virginia had not taken a position on secession, most people assumed that it would leave. Would Scott resign and follow his state, or would he stay in the U. S. Army? The question never entered Scott's mind. He had never been a supporter of slavey and had always been a supporter of the United States. He laid his life on the line time and again, not for one state, but for all states.
In his yearly message to Congress in December, 1860 President Buchanan gave Winfield Scott "great discretion" in managing the military aspects of the situation brewing in the South. Unfortunately, Buchanan's cabinet, specifically Secretary of War John Floyd did not want Scott on the scene. Scott might get in his way of preparing the South for war. Floyd tried to order federal commander Robert Anderson to obey only orders directly from him, an order Anderson knew to be illegal. Scott had left it up to Anderson as to what fort he could occupy in Charleston Harbor and just about the time Floyd was finished in Washington Anderson was occupying Fort Sumter. When news of Anderson's move from Fort Moultrie reached Scott, he prepared a relief mission in the form of the Brooklyn, an iron-reinforced sidewheeler. Scott rethought his plan, transfered the men and supplies to the Star of the West. The Brooklyn accompanied the Star to Sumter under the command of David Farragut, where it was turned back by cannon fire from the shore.
Many people in Maryland and Washington were against Lincoln, making his journey to capital unsafe. Scott warned William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State and head of his transition team that a railroad journey would be hazardous. As a result Allan Pinkerton rearranged Lincoln's original schedule so that he would pass through Baltimore a few hours earlier than planned and not stop. Later on the day Lincoln arrived Scott met him at the Hotel Willard.
At his inauguration Scott was worried about about additional attacks. He had men under the platform and stationed on tall buildings around the town. Scott was noticably absent from the proceedings, which went off without a problem. He had been in his carriage, watching for problems.
Just before the inauguaration, Seward asked Winfield Scott for a military assessment of the situation. Scott estimated it would take $250 million to forcibly return 15 states to the United States; many of them would be devastated in the process and need to be rebuilt and "...heavily garrisoned for generations."
On March 5, 1861, Lincoln recieved word from Robert Anderson, commander at Fort Sumter, and called Winfield Scott to the White House. Anderson's message detailed the work being done to fortify Charleston Harbor and that they would be able to reduce the fort in days. Anderson estimated it would take 20,000 men to secure the fort and surrounding land. That was more men than the U. S. Army had at the time. Disagreement broke out, since the Navy believed they could relieve and resupply the fort from the sea, which Scott disagreed with. Lincoln asked Scott for a proposal. Three days later Scott returned with a plan to raise a 25,000 man army, train it for four months, then advance on Sumter. Anderson would have to evacuate in the meantime.
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Winfield Scott was last changed on - December 9, 2006
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