War of 1812, Nullification, Trail of Tears
Winfield Scott was born June 13, 1786, at Laurel Branch, his father’s farm in Dinwiddie County. He was one of four children, and although his father died when he was young, his mother provided for his education. Orphaned at age seventeen, he was well equipped by then to set out on his own. Scott initially pursued law as a career, studying at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg before apprenticing to a lawyer in nearby Petersburg. In 1807 in Richmond, Scott witnessed the former U.S. vice president Aaron Burr stand trial and be acquitted for treason.
In 1808, Scott was commissioned a captain of light artillery, but, hardly a year into his new career, he publicly criticized a superior officer. He was court-martialed and, in January 1810, suspended from all pay and service for a year. In spite of this blemish on his record, he was eventually promoted to lieutenant colonel and posted to the New York frontier just as the War of 1812 was beginning. On October 13, 1812, he won recognition for his leadership at the Battle of Queenston Heights in Ontario, Canada, in which the invading Americans were defeated by the British and their Mohawk allies along the Niagara River. Scott was captured but soon exchanged, and he went on to fight at Fort George (1813), Chippawa (1814), and Lundy’s Lane (1814), where he was severely wounded in the left shoulder. He was promoted to brigadier general and then, later in 1814, earned a brevet promotion to major general.
After the war, Scott studied tactics in Europe—a way to compensate for his lack of professional military training—and on March 11, 1817, married Maria Mayo, who was from an influential family in Richmond. The two settled in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and had seven children, two of whom died young. After locating his headquarters in New York City, Scott authored General Regulations for the Army; or Military Institutes (1821), a rewriting of U.S. Army procedures. His nickname, “Old Fuss and Feathers,” suggested a faith in the rigors of regular army discipline that was built during his War of 1812 campaigning and manifest in his new regulations. His corresponding lack of confidence in volunteer troops starkly contrasted with the prevailing public preference for the militia system, which was informed by a general distrust of “elitists” in the government and military. As such, Scott earned the ire of General Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans (1815), who was busily building an entire career out of antielitism. When Jackson was elected U.S. president in 1828, Scott offered to resign (not for the first time) but was persuaded to withdraw his letter.
In 1832, he went west to Illinois for the Black Hawk War (1832), but arrived after most of the fighting was finished. From there he was ordered to South Carolina to deal with a long-running political battle that was now threatening to turn into a military one. The Nullification Crisis (1828–1832) had been sparked by Carolinians who, citing a history ofthinking that dated back to , had refused to obey federal tariffs they deemed unfair. When Jackson did nothing to address their concerns, and with the support of Jackson’s soon-to-be former vice president, John C. Calhoun, the Carolinians declared the tariff null and void. Jackson responded in force, dispatching warships to Charleston Harbor. Scott’s duty was to defuse the situation without starting a war, a mission that sorely tested his diplomatic skills. The Compromise Tariff of 1833, brokered by U.S. senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, finally settled the issue, and the Whig Party was founded the following year in opposition to Jackson’s policies.
Scott, meanwhile, deserved great credit for his role, and in January 1836 was sent to Florida to plan and lead the Second Seminole War (1835–1842). His failed campaign in March led to a court of inquiry in December and Scott was exonerated. His vanity, however, was not so easily mollified, and he wrote voluminous reports and letters fixing the blame where he believed it belonged. From April until August 1838, he oversaw the often-violent removal of the Cherokee Nation from northern Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee to present-day Oklahoma, part of what came to be known as the Trail of Tears. In March and April 1839, he skillfully settled a border dispute between Maine and Canadian lumber interests that had led to the nearly bloodless Aroostook War (1838–1839). And on June 25, 1841, Scott was promoted to major general and made commanding general of the army.
American expansionism triggered war with Mexico in 1846, and after early success by the Virginia-born general Zachary Taylor, Scott convinced U.S. president James K. Polk to allow him to mount an ambitious amphibious invasion of Vera Cruz and then to march 195 miles overland to Mexico City. Insistent that he personally command the force, Scott managed to co-opt much of Taylor’s army, making Scott’s the largest American army, to that point, ever assembled. With it, he captured Vera Cruz in March 1847. (Scott’s field staff included, , and George B. McClellan. , , and served in Scott’s army.) Setting off for the Mexican interior, Scott spent a year fighting and marching before reaching the outskirts of the Mexican capital.
Opposed by superior numbers, he was forced to cut off his army from its regular supply lines in order to move more quickly. It was a stunning maneuver, one that was declared hopeless by no less a military figure than the Duke of Wellington, the British general who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Yet Scott was not only successful in taking Mexico City, his decision to “live off the land” influenced Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (1863) and William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea (1864). His approach to war also had an important effect on Lee, who saw in Scott a gentlemanly general, obsessed with looking the part and playing according to the established rules of war. “Scott had mixed caution with audacity,” the historian Brian Holden Reid has written. “He disliked the defensive because he needed to act, to keep the initiative and to gain every advantage over the enemy.” Scott’s way would, during the Civil War, become Lee’s way.
After assisting the American diplomat Nicholas Trist in negotiating the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, Scott returned home one of the most famous men in America. He sought the Whig Party’s nomination for president in 1848 but was defeated by Taylor, his one-time subordinate in Mexico. Taylor was elected president only to die sixteen months into his term. Scott received the nomination in 1852—the last Whig Party nominee for president—but was trounced by another former subordinate, Franklin Pierce, 254 electoral votes to 42.
On March 7, 1855, Scott was promoted to, a rank not held by anyone since . Congress made the promotion retroactively effective to 1847, and Scott promptly submitted a request for almost $27,000 in back pay. He received about $10,000. In the meantime, he worked with Pierce’s secretary of war, —who called Scott “peevish, proud, petulant, vain and presumptuous”—in modernizing the army and helped to oversee the introduction of the minié ball, a bullet that greatly increased the accuracy of rifle shots. The rifled musket and minié ball would sorely challenge the military tactics Scott had spent a lifetime perfecting and were in part responsible for the large number of casualties during the Civil War.
In 1859, Scott helped to defuse the Pig War (1859), a confrontation over possession of the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound, Washington Territory, which threatened to bring the United States and Britain to war. He could not defuse the growing tensions over slavery and secession, however. Scott’s foremost loyalty was to the army, but he also did not agree that secession was legitimate. When South Carolina and her Deep South neighbors threatened to leave the Union, Scott—after years in New York City—finally relocated his headquarters to Washington, D.C., where he fumed at U.S. president James Buchanan’s inactivity and at the failure of the secretary of war,to garrison federal forts throughout the South. He posted Major Robert Anderson, a Kentucky-born slave owner and an unswervingly loyal Union man, to command of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The move demonstrated the sort of diplomatic pragmatism that Scott thought might yet avoid war.
On March 3, 1861, Scott sent the secretary of state-designate, William H. Seward, a letter listing alternatives for dealing with the secession crisis. Seward was advocating policies with the president-elect, Abraham Lincoln, that would lead to a peaceful way out of the crisis, and Scott famously suggested one possible response: “Erring sisters, depart in Peace!” Scott was not, in fact, promoting this option, but it hardly mattered. Already vilified by many Virginians and other Southerners for his unseemly loyalty to the Union, he was now attacked by Northerners for being weak in the knees. Ultimately, however, he made no public statements on the issue and approved of Lincoln’s decisive refusal to surrender Fort Sumter. When Anderson and his men were attacked on April 12, 1861, war came and, not long after,.
When Virginia left, so did Colonel Robert E. Lee, who addressed a letter to Scott on April 20, making his intention to resign clear. Lee had been Scott’s favorite subordinate. He was the commanding general’s chief of staff in Mexico and Scott’s choice to take field command of the Union armies against the Confederacy. By this time Scott was old and sick, suffering from gout and other ailments; he could no longer even mount his horse. His military planning skills were still sharp, however, and he now immersed himself in the formulation of a comprehensive war plan.
His so-called Anaconda Plan—nicknamed by sarcastic newspaper editors who compared it to the snake that slowly squeezes its prey to death—urged a strong defense of the capital, a naval blockade of the South’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and a massive attack along the Mississippi River to split the South in two and open river commerce to the Midwest. The navy-less Confederacy would be left economically isolated and vulnerable to the Union’s advantages in men and materiel. In recognizing that the war would not be short and easy, however, Scott opened himself up to critics, who argued that his plan would take too long and require too many troops. The public wanted immediate action, and Lincoln bowed to that pressure by setting aside Scott’s plan—except for the blockade, which he proclaimed on April 19—in favor of aat Manassas Junction in Virginia. Scott helped to plan the campaign but his worst fears were realized when the inexperienced troops were routed at the First Battle of Manassas (July 21, 1861).
Enter George B. McClellan, who came to Washington a hero of early fighting in western Virginia and Lincoln’s man to organize and train the new
I saw there the end of a long, active, and industrious life, the end of the career of the first soldier of the nation; and it was a feeble old man scarce able to walk; hardly anyone there to see him off but his successor. Should I ever become vainglorious and ambitious, remind me of that spectacle.
History, meanwhile, suggests some vindication for Scott’s Anaconda Plan. Many historians have argued that the war ultimately was won not by Lincoln’s hurried thrusts toward the Confederate capital at, but by a squeezing to death of the Confederacy along its coasts and up the Mississippi, a slow political submission in the face of Union men and arms. Scott’s plan, it should be said, did not foresee the in Virginia and Georgia, an attack against the Confederacy’s will and ability to fight that may have been crucial. Instead, he favored, and his plan created the conditions for, political conciliation.
Scott had a role in defusing British-American tensions resulting from the Trent Affair (1861), in which an overzealous Union officer seized two Confederate diplomats from a British ship. And in March 1862, he recommended to Lincoln that Henry W. Halleck be brought to Washington to assume command of all Union armies—a personnel decision that yielded less-than-stellar results. After a long career, it was Scott’s last bit of military business. His wife died in June 1862 in Rome. Two years later he published Memoirs of Lieut.-General Scott, LL.D., a two-volume autobiography, written in the third person, whose title carries a perhaps self-aggrandizing mention of the general’s honorary doctorate from Columbia College in New York City.
Scott’s death, on May 29, 1866, was marked by solemn salutes and accolades and the closure of both the executive branch of the government and the New York Stock Exchange. The funeral, held on June 1 at the Cadets’ Chapel at West Point, New York, was attended by former Union generals Grant, Meade, John M. Schofield, andand Admiral David G. Farragut. Perhaps the greatest recognition of Scott’s influence and fame is that while he was still alive, two men who were named for him—Winfield Scott Hancock and Winfield Scott Featherston—attained the rank of general. The irony, of course, is that they served on opposing sides in the Civil War.