Winfield Scott (1786–1866)


Winfield Scott was a hero of the Mexican War (1846–1848), the last Whig Party candidate for U.S. president, and commanding general of the United States Army at the start of the American Civil War (1861–1865). Known as “Old Fuss and Feathers” for his equal love of discipline and pomp, Scott by 1861 had served in the military for more than fifty years and under fourteen U.S. presidents. He had been severely wounded in battle, avoided several wars with his diplomatic skills, and commanded the army that conquered Mexico City in 1847, all of which made him the most admired and famous soldier in America. Less well known is the fact that Scott was convicted by court-martial for conduct unbecoming an officer, was investigated by a court of inquiry, once was accused of treason, and several times offered his resignation from the army. When the Civil War began, the Dinwiddie County native remained loyal to the Union, and while age had so reduced his once-towering frame that he could no longer even mount a horse, his ego and intellect were still intact. Scott’s Anaconda Plan for winning the war proved to be prescient but politically out of step, and he eventually lost control of the army to George B. McClellan. He soon retired, published a two-volume memoir in 1864, and died in 1866.

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.

Site of the Battle of Queenston Heights

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 of states’-rights thinking that dated back to Thomas Jefferson, 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.

Second Seminole War

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.

Mexican War

General Scott's Grand Entry into the City of Mexico

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 Robert E. Lee, Pierre G. T. Beauregard, and George B. McClellan. George G. Meade, Ulysses S. Grant, and Thomas J. Jackson 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.

A Bad Egg

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 brevet lieutenant general, a rank not held by anyone since George Washington. 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, Jefferson Davis—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.

Civil War

Flag-Raising Ceremony at Fort Sumter

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, John B. Floyd, 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, Virginia seceded.

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.

Scott's Great Snake

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 a quick strike at 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).


Major General George McClellan and his Wife

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 Army of the Potomac. The ambitious young general soon clashed with the old warhorse, calling him a traitor in private and in public threatened to resign “if he cannot be taken out of my path.” Due to his age and infirmities, Scott became easier to shelve than his rival, and on November 1, 1861, his offer to resign was accepted. McClellan and his staff escorted Scott to the train station early the next morning. “The sight of this morning was a lesson to me which I hope not soon to forget,” McClellan later wrote to his wife. 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 Richmond, 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 hard war 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.

General Winfield Scott during the Civil War

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, and George H. Thomas and 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.

June 13, 1786
Winfield Scott is born at Laurel Hill in Dinwiddie County.
August 1807
After studying law at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg and apprenticing in Petersburg, Winfield Scott witnesses the treason trial of former U.S. vice president Aaron Burr, who is acquitted.
May 3, 1808
Winfield Scott is commissioned a captain of light artillery.
January 1810
Winfield Scott is court-martialed for publicly criticizing a superior officer, found guilty, and suspended from service and pay for one year.
July 6, 1812
Winfield Scott is appointed lieutenant colonel of the 2nd U.S. Artillery.
October 13, 1812
Winfield Scott wins recognition for leadership at the Battle of Queenstown, Canada, during the War of 1812, in which invading Americans are defeated by the British and their Mohawk allies along the Niagara River. Scott is captured in the fighting.
January 1813
Winfield Scott, captured by the British at the Battle of Queenstown, Canada, in October 1812, is exchanged.
March 12, 1813
Winfield Scott is promoted to colonel.
May 25—27, 1813
Winfield Scott participates in the capture of Fort George, Canada, during the War of 1812. He is slightly wounded in the shoulder.
March 9, 1814
Winfield Scott is promoted to brigadier general.
July 5, 1814
Winfield Scott participates in the American victory at the Battle of Chippawa in Ontario, Canada, during the War of 1812.
July 25, 1814
At the Battle of Lundy's Lane in Ontario, Canada, during the War of 1812, Winfield Scott is severely wounded in the left shoulder. His later brevet promotion to major general will be retroactively effective to this day.
November 3, 1814
Congress passes a resolution awarding Winfield Scott a gold medal in recognition of his service during the War of 1812.
Winfield Scott travels to Europe to study military tactics.
March 11, 1817
Winfield Scott marries Maria Mayo, who hails from an influential family in Richmond.
Winfield Scott publishes General Regulations for the Army; or Military Institutes, a rewriting of U.S. Army procedures.
Winfield Scott is named president of a board convened to rewrite the tactics for the U.S. Army.
Winfield Scott is ordered to Illinois to fight in the Black Hawk War. It ends before his arrival.
November 1832
Winfield Scott arrives in Charleston, South Carolina, to help broker a peace between the Carolinians who have declared a federal tariff null and void in their state and President Andrew Jackson, who has dispatched warships to Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.
January 1836
Winfield Scott is sent to Florida to plan and lead the Second Seminole War.
March 1836
Winfield Scott leads a failed campaign against Seminole Indians in Florida during the Second Seminole War.
December 1836
Winfield Scott faces a military Court of Inquiry into his conduct during the Second Seminole War; he is exonerated.
April—August 1838
Winfield Scott oversees 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.
March—April 1839
Winfield Scott skillfully settles a border dispute between Maine and Canadian lumber interests that had led to the nearly bloodless Aroostook War.
June 25, 1841
Winfield Scott is promoted to major general and made commander in chief of the army.
April 25, 1846
After the United States annexed Texas from Mexico in 1845, war breaks out between the two nations, still arguing over the border.
March 9, 1847
Winfield Scott launches the largest amphibious assault in American history against the Mexican city of Vera Cruz during the Mexican War.
March 29, 1847
Mexico surrenders the city of Vera Cruz to Winfield Scott during the Mexican War. His 1855 brevet promotion to major general will be retroactively effective to this day.
April 17—18, 1847
Winfield Scott defeats a Mexican army at the Battle of Cerro Gordo during the Mexican War.
August 19, 1847
Winfield Scott wins a victory at the Battle of Contreras/Padierna during the Mexican War.
August 20, 1847
Winfield Scott wins a victory at the Battle of Churubusco during the Mexican War.
September 8, 1847
After a bloody assault, Winfield Scott and his American army win a victory at the Battle of Molina del Rey (King's Mill) during the Mexican War.
September 13, 1847
The final attack on Mexico City at the castle of Chapultepec is successful during the Mexican War. The city surrenders to Winfield Scott's American army.
February 2, 1848
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is signed, ending the Mexican War.
March 1848
Winfield Scott is the recipient of a "Thanks of Congress" resolution for his success commanding American forces during the Mexican War.
July 1848
Winfield Scott loses the Whig Party nomination for U.S. president to Virginia-born Zachary Taylor, his one-time subordinate during the Mexican War.
Winfield Scott is nominated as the Whig Party candidate for U.S. president, but is trounced in the election by a former army subordinate, Franklin Pierce.
March 7, 1855
Winfield Scott is promoted to brevet lieutenant general, a rank not held by anyone since George Washington. The promotion is made retroactive to 1847, and Scott immediately sues for back pay.
Winfield Scott helps to defuse the Pig War, a confrontation over possession of a group of islands in Puget Sound threatening to bring the United States and Britain to war.
Abraham Lincoln wins election as U.S. president, South Carolina secedes, and Winfield Scott advises calm negotiations.
October 1860
Winfield Scott's advice that President James Buchanan garrison seacoast forts in order to avoid war is ignored by the president and his secretary of war, John B. Floyd, a fellow Virginian and Southern sympathizer.
December 1860
Winfield Scott moves his military headquarters from New York City to Washington, D.C. He again urges President James Buchanan to garrison federal forts in Charleston, South Carolina, and Pensacola, Florida.
April 12, 1861
Edmund Ruffin reportedly fires the first shot on the U.S. installation, Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The act initiates the Civil War and makes Ruffin a popular hero in the South.
April 15, 1861
In response to the firing on Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln issues a call for 75,000 troops—2,340 of which are to come from Virginia—"to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, repel invasions."
May 1861
Winfield Scott presents his so-called Anaconda Plan for subduing the Confederacy to President Abraham Lincoln. The plan would take too long for those who want immediate action against the Confederacy.
June 1861
Winfield Scott's so-called Anaconda Plan for subduing the Confederacy is shelved by President Abraham Lincoln in favor of an immediate attack in the direction of the Confederate capital at Richmond.
July 21, 1861
The First Battle of Manassas is fought near Manassas Junction in northern Virginia, where the Orange and Alexandria Railroad met the Manassas Gap Railroad. Confederate troops under Joseph E. Johnston and Pierre G. T. Beauregard decisively defeat Union forces commanded by Irvin McDowell.
July 26, 1861
George B. McClellan, having been summoned to Washington, D.C., by President Abraham Lincoln, is given command of Union troops there.
August 20, 1861
George B. McClellan forms the Army of the Potomac out of Union troops gathered in Washington, D.C. He becomes its first, best-loved, and most controversial commander.
November 1, 1861
Winfield Scott resigns as general-in-chief of Union armies. President Abraham Lincoln immediately replaces him with George B. McClellan.
Winfield Scott writes his autobiography, Memoirs of Lieut.-General Scott, LL.D., published in 1864.
June 1862
Winfield Scott's wife, Maria, dies in Rome. He arranges her burial at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. President Abraham Lincoln visits Scott to consult with him on war strategy.
May 29, 1866
Winfield Scott dies.
June 1, 1866
The funeral for Winfield Scott is held at the Cadets' Chapel at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. Former Union generals Ulysses S. Grant, George G. Meade, John M. Schofield, and George H. Thomas all attend.
  • Eisenhower, John S. D. Agent of Destiny, the Life and Times of General Winfield Scott. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.
  • Johnson, Timothy D. Winfield Scott, the Quest for Military Glory. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998.
  • Peskin, Allan. Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2003.
  • Reid, Brian Holden. Robert E. Lee: Icon for a Nation. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.
  • Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.
APA Citation:
Clemens, Thomas. Winfield Scott (1786–1866). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/scott-winfield-1786-1866.
MLA Citation:
Clemens, Thomas. "Winfield Scott (1786–1866)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 22 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2023, March 07
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