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.
In the War of 1812, Scott served as a lieutenant colonel in Canada; he was captured by the British at Queenston Heights and detained a year before being released in a prisoner exchange. Scott resumed his duties, was promoted to brigadier general in March 1814, and played a major role at Lundy’s Lane where he was seriously wounded. Following the war, Scott traveled in Europe and and studied military tactics.
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.
Scott was commander of American forces in the Mexican War, taking personal command of forces in the southern campaign, while Zachary Taylor headed the northern campaign. Naval forces supplemented Scott’s forces in the capture of Vera Cruz in early 1847. He then began a long march westward toward Mexico City, which included major actions at Cerro Gordo, Contreras, Churubusco and Chapultepec. Scott occupied the Mexican national palace in September 1847.
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.
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.
Despite his Southern origins, Scott opposed secession. By the time the first fighting began, Scott was in very poor health. He was 75 years old, had ballooned to more than 300 pounds and had to be carried about on a door. Scott had recommended to Abraham Lincoln that the leading field command be offered to Robert E. Lee. Lincoln made the offer, but Lee declined.
Scott proposed the “Anaconda Plan” as the means to slowly crush the South from a variety of directions. His recommendations for blockades, soldiers and time were ridiculed by many; the prevailing attitude in both the North and South was that the conflict would be short. The Union disaster at the First Battle of Bull Run began the vindication of Scott’s foresight.
Lincoln accepted Scott’s resignation in November 1861. He lived on until 1866, enjoying the opportunity to write his memoirs, travel in Europe and see his views on the conduct of the war largely justified.
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.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by Winfield Scott.
Regarding Robert E. Lee Lee is the greatest military genius in America, myself not excepted. Regarding War of 1812 Men of the eleventh! the enemy say we are good at a long shot, but cannot stand the cold iron. I call on you to give the lie to that slander. Charge! Battle of Chippewa, June 14, 1814 Regarding Mexican-American War Brave rifles! Veterans! You have been baptized in fire and blood and have come out steel! After the battle of Chapultepec, September 1847