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Ill and far from home, the old warrior still managed to aid his war-torn nation.

Two men going in different directions, both literally and figuratively, stood on the train platform at Washington’s Union Station in the rainy pre-dawn of November 2, 1861. Winfield Scott had just resigned as general in chief of the Union Army after a 53-year career and was leaving the capital. His young successor, George McClellan, had come to see him off. McClellan watched as Scott slowly and painfully boarded the train, heading to Europe to seek medical help for his ailments. The scene disturbed “Little Mac.” After issuing a general order praising his former mentor, he wrote his wife, “I saw there the end of a long, active, and ambitious life, the end of the career of the first solder of his nation; and it was a feeble old man, scarce able to walk; hardly anyone there to see him off but his successor.” McClellan added, “Should I ever become vainglorious and ambitious, remind me of that spectacle.” McClellan’s own military career would end within a year, and many would argue his vanity and ambition were what did him in. “Feeble old” Scott, meanwhile, still had one more service to do for his country. But it would be with the stroke of a pen rather than the sweep of a sword.

When the Civil War broke out, Winfield Scott was America’s most accomplished soldier. He had become a captain of artillery under  President Thomas Jefferson in 1808 at age 22, and was one of the few American commanders to distinguish himself during the War of 1812. James Madison commissioned him a general in 1814. In 1847 he headed the U.S. invasion of Mexico as a major general, and in 1856 was promoted to lieutenant general, the first to be named since George Washington.

During his long career Scott was also involved in almost every national security issue. He prepared forces to march on South Carolina when that state threatened to ignore a federal tariff during the 1832 Nullification Crisis. His troops oversaw the westward trek of the Five Civilized Tribes during the Trail of Tears. In 1859 he monitored escalating tensions with England during the “Pig War,” when that country disputed the western edge of the U.S. border with Canada. He agreed to be the declining Whig Party’s last presidential candidate in 1852.

Following Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, Scott, despite his Virginia roots, declared his allegiance to the Union and packed Washington with soldiers to ensure the president’s inauguration would be peaceful. After the firing on Fort Sumter in April, the general and his tiny staff mobilized an army far larger than any previously assembled in U.S. history. As Lincoln’s chief military adviser, he devised the “Anaconda Plan,” a scheme to blockade the South while using the Mississippi River to divide the Confederacy. Scott’s plan was mocked at the time, but its key elements led to Union success.

Lincoln respected Scott, but the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, convinced the president it was time for change. At 74, Scott was generally regarded as too old, fat and ill to command in the field. In late July, Lincoln brought in 35-year-old Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan to lead the Army of the Potomac, and McClellan subsequently ignored the orders of his elderly commander. On October 31, 1861, Scott submitted his resignation.

Shortly thereafter, Scott announced that he was sailing to Europe to seek treatment for dropsy, gout and dizzy spells. But speculation circulated that there could be another reason for his trip. Might he be undertaking a secret diplomatic mission abroad?

The Confederacy, anxious for formal recognition in Europe, had sent James Murray Mason and John Slidell abroad as envoys. The Lincoln administration knew of their mission and that they had slipped through the Union’s naval blockade and sailed for the British West Indies. In a bid to thwart formal recognition of the Confederacy by European governments, Lincoln had selected his own envoys to travel across the Atlantic. Thurlow Weed, a friend and political adviser to Secretary of State William Seward, and longtime friend of Scott’s, led the delegation. New York City’s Roman Catholic Archbishop John J. Hughes, also a friend and ally of Seward’s, and Ohio’s Episcopal Bishop Charles P. McIlvaine, a friend of Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, rounded out the delegation.

On November 3, the day after he left Washington, Scott wrote Seward, offering help with the Union mission to Europe and mentioning his many contacts in the courts of Paris and London. “It may be in my way, in private circles, to counter-act, in some degree, the machinations of those arch-traitors Slidell and Mason,” wrote Scott. “If you think it worthwhile to favor me with hints to effect that end, I shall be happy to use them.” Seward did not reply, though his son Frederick, the undersecretary of state, sent Scott a note wishing him a good trip. Yet Weed would later recall in his memoirs that Scott was “invited to act with our commission”—by whom, he didn’t say. Whether it was coincidence or design, when the steamship Arago left New York City on November 9, 1861, bound for England and France, Scott and Weed were both aboard. The other two envoys took a different ship.

During a rough crossing, Weed and Scott played cards, exchanged stories—and no doubt also discussed Weed’s mission. As Arago neared the harbor at Southampton, England, on November 24, its crew spotted the Confederate privateer Nashville, which a few days earlier had captured and burned the Union’s Harvey Birch in the English Channel. Was it now waiting for Lincoln’s envoys?

Weed later wrote that the old general took command of the situation and seemed to “grow one or two inches taller” as he ordered the ship’s 30 muskets distributed to all the men on board, crewmen as well as passengers, and started drilling them. If Nashville did attack Arago when it left Britain’s neutral waters, Scott was clearly prepared to mount a vigorous defense.

Nashville, as it turned out, was in port for extensive refitting, and wouldn’t depart for some time. Arago quickly sailed for France, arriving in Paris by November 27. There, Weed and Scott learned that on November 8 Captain Charles Wilkes of USS San Jacinto had stopped and boarded the British ship Trent and removed Mason and Slidell, who were bound for prison. The British were infuriated by the forcible removal of passengers from a British ship by a foreign naval vessel. An American in London wrote Seward, “There never was within memory such a burst of feeling as has been created by the news of the boarding [of Trent]. The people are frantic with rage and…I fear 999 men out of a thousand would declare for immediate war.”

Weed, the two bishops and John Bigelow, U.S. consul general in Paris, fretted that the Trent Affair could end their mission and compromise Bigelow’s efforts to develop a favorable opinion of the Union. Winfield Scott, suffering from gout in his hotel room, was about to be drawn into the fray.

The British government was unsure whether Captain Wilkes acted independently or on official orders. On November 29, when Prime Minister Lord Palmerston wrote to Queen Victoria about the crisis, he told her he had heard that “the Northern officers who came aboard the Trent said they were acting on their own responsibility, without instructions from Washington….” He added: “But it was known that the San Jacinto…had been at St. Thomas, and received communications from New York. It is also said that General Scott, who recently arrived in France, has said to Americans in Paris that he has come not on an excursion of pleasure but on diplomatic business; that the seizure of these envoys was discussed in Cabinet at Washington, he being present, was deliberately determined upon and ordered.” Palmerston also added that “The Washington Cabinet fully foresaw it might lead to war with England; and that he [Scott] was commissioned to propose to France…to join the Northern States in war against England, and to offer France…restoration of the French Province of Canada [Quebec]. General Scott will probably find himself much mistaken as to the success of his overtures; for the French Government is more disposed to the South than the North, and is probably thinking more about Cotton than about Canada.”

Wilkes had in fact acted on his own. Palmerston did not reveal where his amazing accusation about Scott and France had come from, but wherever it originated, the rumor spread with noteworthy speed. Just 48 hours after Scott arrived in Paris he was mentioned in Palmerston’s report. The prime minister found it hard to believe that someone so closely identified with the U.S. government would leave America during a civil war—unless he had undertaken an important mission.

Bigelow, hoping to defuse the crisis and combat Britain’s rising war hysteria, wanted to publish an authoritative statement that Wilkes had acted on his own, but in that era it was not considered proper for diplomats to speak directly to the public via newspapers. He had previously written policy articles for newspapers or commissioned them to be written, but never under his own byline. So he needed an authoritative name to “author” his statement. He immediately thought of Winfield Scott.

Bigelow met with the U.S. ambassador to France and Lincoln’s envoys, and all agreed that a letter by Scott, published in European newspapers, could calm the war fever. Their one concern was Scott himself, who, according to Weed, was “fastidiously careful…of his literary reputation, and [reluctant] to accept a line or sentence not written by himself. But the emergency was so great an effort had to be made….”

While Bigelow crafted a letter, Weed went to Scott’s hotel, where he found the old general in pain but making plans to defend New York City from the British fleet if war did come. When Weed explained how a statement might be able to calm the British, Scott quickly saw that his country needed not his sword or strategies but his name, and agreed to sign the letter.

Weed returned to Bigelow, and the two soon returned to the hotel with the statement. Bigelow later wrote that, because “the general had no mean opinion of his skill in the use of the English language, I felt some hesitation in reading it to him and was immensely relieved when he signed it without altering a word.” Titled “General Winfield Scott to a Friend,” it took the form of a private letter to an unnamed man who had written Scott, asking if he had really said that Trent was seized on orders of the Lincoln government. In the letter, Scott insisted that he knew of no such orders. “I think I can satisfy you in a few words,” he went on, “that you have no serious ground for concern about our relations with England, if, as her rulers profess, she has no disposition to encourage the dissension in America.” He added that the Union regarded “no honorable sacrifice too great for the preservation of the friendship of Great Britain.” The letter also claimed Captain Wilkes hadn’t violated international law, and said Secretary of State Seward would willingly negotiate with the British foreign minister to find a peaceful solution to the crisis. It concluded, “the statesmen to whom the political interests of these two great people are confided, act upon higher responsibilities and better lights, and you may rest assured that an event so mutually disastrous as a war between England and America cannot occur [without] other and graver provocation than has yet been given by either nation.”

Dated December 2, the letter was published less than a week after Scott arrived in Paris. Bigelow later wrote: “The expediency of making this statement was more than justified by the result. It was copied in whole or in part pretty universally by the European press. Our friends in Europe took courage from General Scott’s letter and began to wonder how they ever suspected that the Federal Government had authorized the seizure of the commissioners or doubted that the proceedings would be peacefully arranged.”

Scott’s letter also aided the U.S. diplomats in Europe, who had not yet been instructed what they should say about the Trent Affair. But at least one of them, U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Henry Sanford, discerned the hand behind the letter. Sanford wrote Bigelow on December 7, “Genl. Scott’s letter was very opportune and has done good. Was it your ‘copy?’ ”

On December 8 Weed reported to Bigelow from England that the Scott letter was “warmly commended wherever I go in London.” The London Daily News, for one, praised “General Scott’s temperate and manly letter,” speculating that “The voice of an upright, honorable man like General Scott, who through a long career has served his country in the most difficult and responsible posts, will be listened to with respect, and every paragraph of his letter breathes an earnest desire for peace.”

The letter helped soothe the worries of the British and European public. In doing so, it aided diplomatic efforts by England’s Prince Albert, President Lincoln and others. In this way, the Trent crisis was brought to a peaceful end, preventing a conflict with England that could have benefited only the Confederacy.

But while Scott’s timely cooperation had helped to defuse the crisis, the elderly general feared that war was still possible. Bigelow wrote Weed in England saying Scott was “determined to go home,” explaining that “If we are to have war with England, he thought he still might be of some use to his country; and if not, he preferred dying there trying to serve her, than here of vexation if he was absent.” On December 11, the former commander sailed for home on Arago, the same ship from which he had disembarked just two weeks earlier.

His abrupt departure occasioned more speculation. Many couldn’t believe that someone as eminent as Scott would rush back and forth across the wintry Atlantic without a very good reason. The U.S. ambassador to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, John L. Motley, wrote Bigelow asking him to “tell me all you know in regard to Gen. Scott’s return. Did he see anybody in power—has he received officially or unofficially any communication from the French Government, or has he gone back, as I suppose, to do what he can on his own hook to prevent this catastrophe?” French Foreign Minister Edouard Thouvenel wrote a friend on December 12: “[It] seems to me there is a pacific current in the air and that the English and the Americans, who are good calculators, will think twice before fighting. General Scott, who was to have passed part of the winter here, has left in haste for Washington to support, with his authority, conciliatory ideas.”

When Arago reached New York on December 26, reporters thronged Scott. Did he have a message for Lincoln from the heads of Europe? What did his return during the Trent crisis mean? Scott told them he was now a private person, had no message and had met no one of consequence, except a cousin of the French Emperor.

The old warrior lived until 1866, long enough to see his beloved Union reunited and the assassination of the president he had supported. As retired generals do, he wrote his memoirs, but it concluded with his resignation. There was no mention of the Trent Affair. In his final years, however, as he looked back on an illustrious career, Winfield Scott had surely not forgotten his last adventure on behalf of home and country, when he twice defied Rebel privateers to brave the Atlantic in the winter, and briefly engaged in international intrigue—on the strength of his name alone.


Robert D. Shuster is an archivist at the Billy Graham Center of Wheaton College (Ill.). William G. Shuster, his brother, is a journalist who lives near Philadelphia, Pa.

Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.