Agent of Destiney: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott, by John S.D. Eisenhower, Free Press, New York, New York, 464 pages, $27.50.
There is an underground opinion unknown to the general public but held by many military historians: the greatest American battlefield general of all time is not Washington, Lee, Grant, or Jackson, or even MacArthur, Eisenhower, Patton, or Schwartzkopf, but Winfield Scott.
Yet, this great commander has all but disappeared from the American psyche. The general public, which revels in the exploits of the better-known and more recent generals, knows precious little about Scott. There have been only a handful of biographies about him published since 1852, and like their subject, they, too, have slid into oblivion. The best of these works, Charles Winslow Elliott’s Winfield Scott: The Soldier and the Man (1937), is a comprehensive but hard-going 817-page tome, 61 years old and long out of print.
Now John Eisenhower, a distinguished military historian and a biographer and son of one of those other great generals, Dwight David Eisenhower, is making a bid to bring Scott back again. And indeed, Scott is a subject worthy of attention.
Winfield Scott was an American original. No other general has matched him since he bestrode the American military like a colossus in the 50 years from the War of 1812 to the Civil War. Physically, as Eisenhower tells us, Scott was a giant–six feet, five inches tall with bulk to match. Ralph Waldo Emerson called him “the stateliest form in America.” Mentally, he was also a giant, one of our greatest strategic and tactical innovators and military scholars. And he was as much at home in philosophic theory, history, literature, and diplomacy as he was on a battlefield.
The battlefield, of course, is where he won his greatest acclaim. No soldier in our history ever rose so high so quickly and then stayed there so long. Eisenhower tracks Scott’s meteoric rise and his reign at the top. While he was in his early 20s, Scott joined the army after he, as he put it, “heard the bugle and the drum…the music that awoke ambition.” He was a lieutenant colonel by 1812, a colonel a year later, a brigadier general by March 1814, and a brevet major general three months later, as he neared his 28th birthday. President James Madison initially had been reluctant to make someone so young a general, but finally had relented. “Put him down a major general,” he said. “I have done with objections to his youth.” Scott held the highest rank the army offered and would be its dominant soldier for the next five decades.
Scott parlayed his status as a hero of the War of 1812 into success in the antebellum years. Most notably, in the Mexican War in 1846-1847, Scott shaped a military masterpiece, leading his small, vastly outnumbered army from Vera Cruz on an assault against Mexico City. It was arguably the most astonishing feat of arms in military history.
Scott was an unrelenting patriot, in his time called “The Greatest Captain of the Age.” He was the mentor and role model of the generation of soldiers who came to command in the Civil War. According to Eisenhower, Union Major General George McClellan wrote these words of praise to Scott in 1861, while the elder general was in the twilight of his long career: “All that I know of war I have learned from you.” Robert E. Lee wrote to him that same year: “To no one, General, have I been so much in debt as to yourself…and it has always been my ardent desire to meet your approbation.”
Scott’s military might was not his only strength. During his half-century career, he was often sent by the 14 presidents he served–from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln–on missions of peace as well as war, where he proved to have a deft and delicate diplomatic touch; he possessed a knack for pacification.
Eisenhower, however, makes it clear that Scott was not without his faults. As with many great men, the general was in great things great and in petty things very petty. Jealous of rank and quick to take offense, he was a tower of ambition, pride, and vanity. His contemporaries dubbed him “Old Fuss and Feathers” because of his rigid devotion to military pomp and regulations. He possessed one of the most maladroit pens of any great man in American history. He wrote his letters in a wordy, flamboyant 19th-century style in language that often rained down rage or ridicule on the head of the astonished recipient.
Knowing his skill as a general, Scott sought political power; indeed, in 1852 he was the last presidential candidate of the Whig party. But he was as politically inept as he was ambitious. A mighty and manly presence in battle, he was, as Eisenhower puts it, an “ingenue” in politics. It is hard to imagine a more riveting, fascinating, and complex character than Winfield Scott.
So, has Eisenhower done this amazing man justice in Agent of Destiny? Yes and no. He has brought him back into the public’s consciousness and made him accessible again, and for that we are in his debt. But Eisenhower has not brought him back in the full splendor and color that we might have wished. His biography is a very capable account of Scott’s life. It covers the ground; the essential facts and main events in his life and times are all here.
What is missing, however, is the drama of that life. Scott was a two-, three-, four-, maybe five-dimensional character. But the image Eisenhower has painted is not multidimensional. He offers a chronology of facts and events, not a dramatic story. His book has too little of the rich anecdote and description that illuminate character and give bite, drama, and drive to a narrative. That said, much can be learned about Scott from this new book, much that has long been out of reach. It is good to see it available again.
John C. Waugh