Winfield Scott

The American Winfield Scott (1786-1866) was the leading general of the Mexican War and a superb tactician. He was the Whig nominee for president in 1852.

Winfield Scott became a soldier at a time when the U.S. Army was very ineffective. By study and hard work, he made himself the best military man in the country, wrote the standard manuals on tactics and infantry, and upgraded the Army into an effective unit. Moreover, he was a negotiator who avoided war on several occasions. Yet the presidency, which he coveted, eluded him.

Scott was born near Petersburg, Va., on June 13, 1786. Failing to inherit the family wealth through legal technicalities, he attended William and Mary College but quit because he disapproved the irreligious attitude of the students. After reading law, he was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1806 and practiced until appointed a captain in the military in 1808. Sent to New Orleans, he was soon in trouble. He declared that the commanding general of the department, James Wilkinson, was as great a traitor as Aaron Burr; Scott was court-martialed and suspended from the Army for a year (1810).


War of 1812

A lieutenant colonel at the outbreak of war, Scott distinguished himself in a number of battles. Several times wounded, the 6-foot 5-inch, 230-pound officer showed such judgment and courage that he was promoted to brigadier general, was breveted a major general, and was voted the thanks of Congress and a gold medal. He declined the offered position of secretary of war in James Madison's administration.

Scott went to Europe in 1815 and in 1829 to study foreign military tactics, and he wrote military manuals for the Army that remained standard for half a century. He married Maria D. Mayo of Richmond, Va., in 1817. He also conducted military institutes for the officers of his command, the Eastern Division, which was headquartered in New York City.

In 1828 Scott participated in the Black Hawk War. Four years later President Andrew Jackson sent him to South Carolina during the nullification controversy, and his tact prevented civil war at that time. In 1835 Jackson sent him to fight the Seminole and Creeks in Florida, but he was deprived of materials and moved slowly. Jackson removed him from command to face a board of inquiry. The board promptly exonerated him with praise for his "energy, steadiness and ability."

Following the abortive Canadian revolt of 1837, President Martin Van Buren sent Scott to bring peace to the troubled Niagara region. Later in 1838 Scott convinced 16,000 outraged Cherokee that they should move peacefully from Tennessee and South Carolina to the Indian Territory; he also persuaded them to be vaccinated. His tact and skill as a negotiator in 1839 brought peace in the "Lumberjack War" over the boundary between Maine and New Brunswick. In reward for these activities, he was named general in chief of the Army in 1841, a position he held for 20 years.


Mexican War

Scott's name had been mentioned prominently for the Whig nomination for president in 1840 and 1844; thus, at the outbreak of the Mexican War, President James K. Polk did not want Scott to achieve the prominence that would earn him the presidential nomination. When Zachary Taylor's campaign in northern Mexico failed to achieve victory, however, Polk had to turn to Scott. Scott's strategy proved effective: landing at Veracruz in March 1847, he was in Mexico City within 6 months after brilliant victories at Cerro Gordo, Molino del Rey, and Chapultepec. His force then became an army of occupation, restoring order so effectively that a delegation of Mexicans asked him to become dictator of the nation. Polk wanted to court-martial Scott and thereby discredit him as a rival, but Congress voted Scott a second gold medal and thanks for his conduct of the war. Polk's charges were withdrawn.


Presidential Nominee

In 1848 the Whig party elected Zachary Taylor to the White House. In 1852 the Whig presidential nomination went to Scott, but he was defeated easily in a pompous and lackluster campaign. Congress 3 years later recognized his accomplishments by naming him a lieutenant general, the first American to hold that rank since George Washington.

In 1857 Scott argued against the "Mormon War" in favor of negotiation. Though President James Buchanan sent him to negotiate a dispute with England over the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest in 1859, he refused Scott's advice to strengthen Southern forts and posts to avoid their capture should civil war break out.

In 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, Scott stayed in the Union Army despite his Virginia heritage. He recommended the policy of dividing and containing the South to President Abraham Lincoln, a policy later followed successfully. On Nov. 1, 1861, Scott retired at his own request. Lincoln summarized the nation's sentiment when he said, "We are … his debtors." Scott died on May 29, 1866, at West Point, N.Y., and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Scott's insistence on maintaining strict standards of dress and discipline in the Army caused the troops to refer to him as "Old Fuss and Feathers." Opposed to the use of strong alcoholic beverages, he once ordered that any soldier found intoxicated had to dig a grave for his own size and then contemplate it, for soon he would fill it if he persisted in drinking. His arguments against alcoholic beverages led to the founding of the first temperance societies in the United States.


Further Reading on Winfield Scott

Memoirs of Lieut.-General Scott, LL.D., Written by Himself (2 vols., 1864), filled with rhetorical flourishes, contains Scott's own version of his life and times. Two standard biographies are Charles W. Elliott, Winfield Scott: The Soldier and the Man (1937), and Arthur D. H. Smith, Old Fuss and Feathers: The Life and Exploits of Lt.-General Winfield Scott (1937). Justin H. Smith, The War with Mexico (2 vols., 1919), traces Scott's activities in that conflict.

Additional Biography Sources

Keyes, Erasmus D. (Erasmus Darwin), Fighting Indians in Washington Territory, Fairfield, Wash.: Ye Galleon Press, 1988.