Winfield Scott’s long and illustrious career was tarnished by incessant political infighting.
By Kevin M. Hymel
From the opening shots of the War of 1812 to the outbreak of the Civil War, Winfield Scott’s name was synonymous with the United States Army. He served under 14 presidents and wrote the first comprehensive set of Army regulations, in an attempt to cast the U.S. military in a European mold. Traveling anywhere trouble beckoned, Scott led his soldiers to victory from the shores of the Niagara River in 1814 to Mexico City in 1847.
Of humble origins, Scott made himself the Army’s highest-ranking officer for two decades through battlefield victories and shameless self-promotion. In his biography, Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory (University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1998, $35), Timothy D. Johnson, a history professor at Lipscomb University, balances Scott’s military brilliance against a penchant for petty squabbles that accomplished little aside from creating enemies.
Scott was born near Petersburg, Va., on June 13, 1786, and was orphaned at an early age. He pursued a career in law but did not find his true calling until 1807, when he joined a local cavalry troop in Petersburg. Commissioned a captain of light artillery and sent to New Orleans in May 1808, Scott was promoted to lieutenant colonel in July 1812 and, as the War of 1812 heated up, joined General Stephen van Rensselaer’s army at Niagara that October. During the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, Scott crossed the Niagara River to join the troops already fighting there, but the reinforcements behind him, citing their pledge to “defend” the United States, refused to enter Canada. With van Rensselaer still on the American side of the river, Scott took charge and defended the heights from several attacks until superior numbers of British troops overwhelmed and took the Americans, including Scott, prisoner.
Eventually exchanged, Scott emerged as the only American hero of the fiasco. The defeat taught him the invaluable lesson that by taking a defensive position, a commander forfeited control of the battlefield to his opponent. From then on Scott always attacked, no matter what the situation. At Fort George, Ontario, on May 27, 1813, he launched the first amphibious assault in U.S. history, capturing the fort and pursuing the defeated British. At the Battle of Chippewa on July 5, 1814, Scott (now a brigadier general) flanked the British army. He did so again at Lundy’s Lane on the 25th, but this time he charged the enemy line before his maneuver was completed, and his force suffered heavy casualties.
After the war, Scott, who had been breveted a major general, put down his sword and picked up a pen, with which he caused himself many self-inflicted wounds. Scott had a running feud with General–and later President–Andrew Jackson and caused trouble for almost every president under whom he served, as well as Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, after the Mexican War. Scott regarded most everyone as his intellectual inferior and railed against the lack of respect his military peers and political superiors seemed to show him. His self-promoting letter writing only tarnished his reputation, and he eventually curbed his behavior. In Scott’s defense, Johnson points out that everyone who became involved in a debate with the petulant general usually sank to Scott’s level.
When called to the field, Scott always did his duty. During the Black Hawk War of 1832, he cared for boatloads of sick soldiers. He was the first of many U.S. Army officers to be frustrated by the guerrilla tactics of the Seminoles in Florida. He also managed to cool tensions along the Canadian border in 1838.
The Mexican War saw the culmination of everything Scott had learned during his long career. In March 1847, as commanding general, he led an amphibious landing at Vera Cruz, which was carried out on a scale that was not matched in American history until Operation Torch in North Africa in November 1942. He then marched inland, and, making good use of reconnaissance elements in his army, flanked and routed General Antonio Lopéz de Santa Anna at the Battle of Cerro Gordo. When Scott reached Mexico City in September 1847, his army’s maneuverability was hampered by the mountainous terrain, so he directly attacked the city defenses, winning a bloody contest–and the war.
Scott, a consummate historian, had read extensively about Napoleon’s Peninsular War in Spain, during which looting and raping by French forces made it easy for Spanish partisan forces to turn the population against the occupying army. Learning from Napoleon’s mistake, Scott kept his troops tightly disciplined and made sure that the U.S. Army paid for provisions appropriated from any town it passed though. His philosophy paid off–the Mexican villagers came to look upon the Americans as saviors, or at least better than their own troops. After the fall of Mexico City, a delegation even offered Scott the presidency of Mexico, which he declined.
Scott’s role in the Civil War proved negligible, since politicians and generals often circumvented his authority and left him in the dark about operations. But Scott’s leadership during the Mexican War had shaped many military leaders of both the North and the South–including Robert E. Lee, George B. McClellan, P.G.T. Beauregard and Ulysses S. Grant.
Johnson has put together an excellent examination of a complex man in the context of his time. The author concedes there are a number of Scott biographies, but he points out that many of them are either biased or out of date. Referring to John S.D. Eisenhower’s comprehensive biography Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott (Free Press, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1998, $27.50), Johnson explains that Eisenhower relied too heavily on published materials, failing to give the reader any new information. In his research for Winfield Scott, Johnson scoured manuscript collections, public documents and period newspapers to deliver a thoroughly detailed look at the general, as well as a fine study on how to–and how not to–succeed in the military.