This is the grave of Winfield Scott.
Born in 1786 on a plantation near Petersburg, Virginia, Scott grew up in the slaver elite of the state. He thus went to the best schools around, leading to enrollment at William and Mary. However, he soon dropped out to study the law. He actually got to attend Aaron Burr’s trial during this period. He was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1806 and practiced for awhile. But he also got interested in the military. When Thomas Jefferson asked for an expansion in the military in case the nation had to go to war with the British, Scott was able to use his significant connections to get a commission. He became a captain in the light artillery. Of course he had no experience and as these things go, it was all about connections, not skill. Luckily, unlike lots of these people, Scott was actually good at the soldiering.
Scott also found the unprofessionalism of the Army very aggravating. On top of it, he already hated James Wilkinson, thinking him a traitor who had covered up his own actions at the Burr trial. Unfortunately, Wilkinson was also his commander. When Wilkinson refused an order from the Secretary of War to move troops out of a site that was causing them all to die of mosquito-borne illnesses and probably dysentery too because he had some scheme where he personally was making money off of this, Scott snapped. He briefly resigned, then came back, then was court-martialed for attacking Wilkinson verbally. He also had some record-keeping snafus. He was suspended for a year. During that time, he fought a duel with a fellow officer and ally of Wilkinson who he believed had led to his court-martial. No one seems to have been shot in this farce.
So far, Scott’s career sounds like the clown show that was so often the case for the southern elite, violent backbiting and shooting at each other. But the War of 1812 demonstrated that Scott was an excellent soldier. By 1814, he was promoted to brigadier general after doing very well at the Battle of Queenston Heights and the Battle of Fort George. He continued fighting, including at the Battle of Chippawa. However, he was seriously wounded during the Battle of Lundy’s Lane and is lucky to have survived. However, he came out of the war with a reputation that was second of all generals, only behind Andrew Jackson. And given that Jackson was as much as a genocidal pirate as anything, among professionals, Scott’s reputation was superior.
After the war, Scott, now one of the nation’s top military officers, commanded forces in the northeast. Let’s be honest–there wasn’t that much to do on a day to day basis. So he lived in New York City with his wife and did his duties as required. Of course he and Andrew Jackson learned to hate each other, which was pretty par for the course with all of Jackson’s interactions over his life. Jackson was the top commander in the southeast, so these two hating each other could have caused real problems. As was typical with Jackson, he heard that Scott may have said something disparaging about him at a private dinner and couldn’t let it go. But over time, they managed to more or less work together. Of course Scott was close to as sensitive as Jackson. In 1828, John Quincy Adams passed over Scott to command the Army, choosing Alexander Macomb. The reason was Scott’s constant backbiting with other leading generals. He tried to resign, but Adams refused to let him.
By the 1830s, Scott had a lot to do. First, Americans were fighting more and more wars with the tribes, often started by civilians, that forced the military to get involved. Jackson was president by this time and of course he was cool with all this. He knew Scott could fight. So he sent him out to the Black Hawk War, though the genocidal war was mostly over by the time Scott got there. Jackson then sent him to Charleston during Nullification to let South Carolina know what was going to happen if they proceeded with this. He built up fortifications and tried to convince the local elite to not be totally insane. After that, in 1836, Jackson sent Scott to Florida to fight the Seminoles, who dared defy his orders to move to Indian Territory. But this was hard brutal fighting. The American military was not used to the swamps of Florida. That was still going on during the Creek War of 1836, when Scott was ordered to put down the uprising by the Muscogee (long known popularly as the “Creek” but that’s really changed in the last decade). Scott engaged in his typical controversies and back-biting, leading to an investigation by the Jackson administration, but nothing came of it. When Martin Van Buren took over, Scott was gold because they were friends. In Cherokee Removal, as horrible as it was, Scott took a ton of criticism for agreeing that the Cherokee leader John Ross should lead his own people rather than having the military to do it.
Americans on the northern border with Canada really wanted to take a bunch of it over. Of course the Canadians and the British were not exactly enamored of this idea. Scott played a critical role in avoiding an unnecessary and stupid war with the British by keeping these little rebellions under control. He worked with the British commander in the area to stop the yahoos from going too far.
In 1841, Scott was named the commanding general of the U.S. Army. Scott knew what being the nation’s leading military commander could mean–the presidency. Oh, he wanted this very bad. He first made an effort to get the Whig nomination in 1840. He was seen as a likely compromise candidate if the supporters of Henry Clay and William Henry Harrison were deadlocked, but Harrison managed to win it and the election before dropping dead a month later. Now, it was John Tyler who promoted Scott but they quickly fell out as Tyler did with the rest of the real Whigs. Scott became a leader among those who couldn’t wait to replace Tyler in 1844, with Thaddeus Stevens in particular supporting him. But Clay won the nomination again and went on to lose to the slaver extremist James K. Polk.
Then the Mexican War broke out. Polk was highly concerned that his war to steal Mexico in order to expand slavery would give Whig-leaning generals a chance to shine, so he actively sought to marginalize them so that they wouldn’t threaten his project to keep the Democratic Party in power and continue to expand slavery. This is how Zachary Taylor ended up isolated in south Texas/northern Mexico for so much of the war. At first, he did the same to Scott, sticking him in an administrative role at the beginning of the war, training new soldiers and organizing logistics. Polk really did not like Scott. The feeling was mutual.
But the Mexicans proved a lot tougher than Polk and the other racists who started this immoral and disgusting war thought. Turns out that your racist assumptions about an opponent may not be true! Huh. To defeat Mexico was going to require a march to actually conquer the country. That led to Scott’s march from Veracruz to Mexico City in 1847. Now, Polk did not want to name Scott. He wanted to name Thomas Hart Benton instead. Benton really had no known ability to lead such a thing. But he was an aggressive expansionist and an ally of Polk, which is what the always conniving president valued more. However, Congress needed to approve Benton being named a lieutenant general to lead this and they were not going to do that. So, with no other options, Polk was forced to admit that Scott was the only person who could do it. It was also Scott’s idea and strategy. The Mexicans fought this hard. But Scott and his troops eventually did seize the city, after a tremendous amount of bloodshed. Scott was a good administrator and after the conquest, things were relatively quiet in the city while he helped Nicholas Trist negotiate the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war with Mexico giving up the northern half of its land to the greedy United States. In doing so, he infuriated Polk with his machinations. Polk had wanted to punish the Mexicans more. Trist refused to return to Washington on Scott’s encouragement and just came to a peace treaty. Scott then went after high officers who reported all this to American newspapers. Scott had them arrested; Polk freed them and fired Scott as the commander in Mexico, though not the Army.
Of course Scott wanted to be president in 1848. By this time, he was increasingly associated with anti-slavery Whigs. They weren’t happy about Zachary Taylor getting the nomination instead, but Scott went along with it. Scott was a big supporter of the Compromise of 1850 to avoid civil war and continued to play politics, including becoming a close ally with Whig kingmaker William Seward.
Scott finally got the Whig nomination in 1852 thanks to Seward’s support and the fact that it seemed that if Whigs nominated military heroes, they could win. But by then the party was a mess. The aftermath of the Mexican War and the Fugitive Slave Act had completely destroyed the Whigs. Many southern Whigs such as Alexander Stephens refused to support Scott period because he wasn’t pro-slavery. He lost to Franklin Pierce and the Whig Party effectively disintegrated in the aftermath.
So Scott went back to commanding military forces and sniping at people he didn’t like, especially Jefferson Davis, who Pierce named as Secretary of War. He was unquestionably the most nationally popular military figure in the nation since George Washington. So Pierce and Buchanan didn’t really mess with him, but when the South started to secede and Buchanan’s traitorous Secretary of War John Floyd was helping them do so, Scott flipped out and urged federal reinforcement of southern forts, which finally happened after Floyd was forced out. Lincoln was worried that Scott would commit treason too. But Scott wasn’t having it and agreed to defend Lincoln’s inauguration, saying, “”I shall consider myself responsible for his safety. If necessary, I shall plant cannon at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and if any of the Maryland or Virginia gentlemen who have become so threatening and troublesome show their heads or even venture to raise a finger, I shall blow them to hell.” Not bad.
As the nation moved toward the Civil War, Scott still commanded the military. He was quite old but was not ready to retire. Now remember, Scott grew up around slavery. He was by no means a racial liberal. He was a Virginian to the core. But he did not commit treason in defense of slavery in 1861. Despite the Lost Cause myth that developed around Robert E. Lee and other traitors which said that they inevitably had to follow their state into what may have been a regrettable war but honor called, many southern officers did not make this choice. Lee made a choice. He could have chosen differently. Winfield Scott did. So did George Thomas. But no, Lee, with his eyes open and recognizing there were options, committed treason in defense of slavery.
Now, by this time, the idea of Scott commanding troops in battle was not realistic. He was very old. He was also very fat. It was time for the military to move on from the venerable old general and appoint a new generation of leadership to top positions. But Scott did have one major contribution to the war effort before passing the baton to Irvin McDowell and then George McClellan (now that I think about it, maybe Scott should have stuck around….). He issued what became known as the Anaconda Plan. This was to engage in a naval blockade of the Confederacy so that these traitors couldn’t sell their cotton to the British or French, starving their economy. Then the military would focus on rivers to cut off the Confederacy from being able to move troops or supplies. This was basically accomplished by July 1863, when Vicksburg finally fell to Grant‘s troops. The naval blockade was never really complete, but by taking over New Orleans early in the war and having pretty effective blockades outside Charleston and Mobile, it was a very strong and effective strategy that had a major impact on the Confederate economy and ability to fight.
Scott retired in 1861, somewhat out of fashion after his role in the disaster at First Manassas, which he had helped plan. He moved to West Point where he lived out his last years. He died in 1866, at the age of 79 years old.
Winfield Scott is buried in West Point Cemetery, West Point, New York.
If you would like this series to visit other commanding generals of the U.S. Army, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Henry Halleck is in Brooklyn and William Tecumseh Sherman is in St. Louis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.