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Winfield Scott

Winfield Scott

The American Winfield Scott (1786-1866) was the leading general of the Mexican War and a superb tactician. He was the Whig nominee for president in 1852.

Winfield Scott became a soldier at a time when the U.S. Army was very ineffective. By study and hard work, he made himself the best military man in the country, wrote the standard manuals on tactics and infantry, and upgraded the Army into an effective unit. Moreover, he was a negotiator who avoided war on several occasions. Yet the presidency, which he coveted, eluded him.

Scott was born near Petersburg, Va., on June 13, 1786. Failing to inherit the family wealth through legal technicalities, he attended William and Mary College but quit because he disapproved the irreligious attitude of the students. After reading law, he was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1806 and practiced until appointed a captain in the military in 1808. Sent to New Orleans, he was soon in trouble. He declared that the commanding general of the department, James Wilkinson, was as great a traitor as Aaron Burr; Scott was court-martialed and suspended from the Army for a year (1810).

War of 1812

A lieutenant colonel at the outbreak of war, Scott distinguished himself in a number of battles. Several times wounded, the 6-foot 5-inch, 230-pound officer showed such judgment and courage that he was promoted to brigadier general, was breveted a major general, and was voted the thanks of Congress and a gold medal. He declined the offered position of secretary of war in James Madison's administration.

Scott went to Europe in 1815 and in 1829 to study foreign military tactics, and he wrote military manuals for the Army that remained standard for half a century. He married Maria D. Mayo of Richmond, Va., in 1817. He also conducted military institutes for the officers of his command, the Eastern Division, which was headquartered in New York City.

In 1828 Scott participated in the Black Hawk War. Four years later President Andrew Jackson sent him to South Carolina during the nullification controversy, and his tact prevented civil war at that time. In 1835 Jackson sent him to fight the Seminole and Creeks in Florida, but he was deprived of materials and moved slowly. Jackson removed him from command to face a board of inquiry. The board promptly exonerated him with praise for his "energy, steadiness and ability."

Following the abortive Canadian revolt of 1837, President Martin Van Buren sent Scott to bring peace to the troubled Niagara region. Later in 1838 Scott convinced 16,000 outraged Cherokee that they should move peacefully from Tennessee and South Carolina to the Indian Territory; he also persuaded them to be vaccinated. His tact and skill as a negotiator in 1839 brought peace in the "Lumberjack War" over the boundary between Maine and New Brunswick. In reward for these activities, he was named general in chief of the Army in 1841, a position he held for 20 years.

Mexican War

Scott's name had been mentioned prominently for the Whig nomination for president in 1840 and 1844; thus, at the outbreak of the Mexican War, President James K. Polk did not want Scott to achieve the prominence that would earn him the presidential nomination. When Zachary Taylor's campaign in northern Mexico failed to achieve victory, however, Polk had to turn to Scott. Scott's strategy proved effective: landing at Veracruz in March 1847, he was in Mexico City within 6 months after brilliant victories at Cerro Gordo, Molino del Rey, and Chapultepec. His force then became an army of occupation, restoring order so effectively that a delegation of Mexicans asked him to become dictator of the nation. Polk wanted to court-martial Scott and thereby discredit him as a rival, but Congress voted Scott a second gold medal and thanks for his conduct of the war. Polk's charges were withdrawn.

Presidential Nominee

In 1848 the Whig party elected Zachary Taylor to the White House. In 1852 the Whig presidential nomination went to Scott, but he was defeated easily in a pompous and lackluster campaign. Congress 3 years later recognized his accomplishments by naming him a lieutenant general, the first American to hold that rank since George Washington.

In 1857 Scott argued against the "Mormon War" in favor of negotiation. Though President James Buchanan sent him to negotiate a dispute with England over the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest in 1859, he refused Scott's advice to strengthen Southern forts and posts to avoid their capture should civil war break out.

In 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, Scott stayed in the Union Army despite his Virginia heritage. He recommended the policy of dividing and containing the South to President Abraham Lincoln, a policy later followed successfully. On Nov. 1, 1861, Scott retired at his own request. Lincoln summarized the nation's sentiment when he said, "We are … his debtors." Scott died on May 29, 1866, at West Point, N.Y., and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Scott's insistence on maintaining strict standards of dress and discipline in the Army caused the troops to refer to him as "Old Fuss and Feathers." Opposed to the use of strong alcoholic beverages, he once ordered that any soldier found intoxicated had to dig a grave for his own size and then contemplate it, for soon he would fill it if he persisted in drinking. His arguments against alcoholic beverages led to the founding of the first temperance societies in the United States.

Further Reading

Memoirs of Lieut.-General Scott, LL.D., Written by Himself (2 vols., 1864), filled with rhetorical flourishes, contains Scott's own version of his life and times. Two standard biographies are Charles W. Elliott, Winfield Scott: The Soldier and the Man (1937), and Arthur D. H. Smith, Old Fuss and Feathers: The Life and Exploits of Lt.-General Winfield Scott (1937). Justin H. Smith, The War with Mexico (2 vols., 1919), traces Scott's activities in that conflict.

Additional Sources

Keyes, Erasmus D. (Erasmus Darwin), Fighting Indians in Washington Territory, Fairfield, Wash.: Ye Galleon Press, 1988. □

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Scott, Winfield

Scott, Winfield (1786–1866), U.S. Army officer and commanding general.Born in Virginia, Scott entered the army in 1807. In the War of 1812, promoted to brigadier general, he trained his troops superbly and led his brigade ably in battle, defeating British regulars in 1814 at the battles of Chippewa and Lundy's Lane where Scott was severely wounded and became a national hero. To this day, West Point cadets wear gray 1814 uniforms in honor of the American victory over British regulars. After the war, he prepared a three‐volume manual on infantry tactics that endured throughout the smoothbore era. He served in the Black Hawk War and in the campaigns against the Seminoles and Creeks, and in 1838, he supervised the removal of the Cherokees to the West. Scott had a talent for peacemaking, demonstrated first in 1832 when President Andrew Jackson sent him to Charleston and he helped negotiate the Nullification crisis. Later, he helped restore peace on the Canadian border during the Caroline crisis in 1838 and during the so‐called Aroostook war over the Maine border in 1839. In 1841, as a major general, Scott was appointed commanding general of the U.S. Army, a position he held until 1861.

During the Mexican War of 1846–48, Scott achieved the most spectacular success of any U.S. commander, but his pompous attitude and his squabbles with subordinates and superiors marred his effort and contributed to his sobriquet, “Old Fuss and Feathers.” While Zachary Taylor led the invasion of northern Mexico, Scott in 1847 personally led the southern expedition.

Scott's campaign began with the first major amphibious landing in U.S. history: more than 12,000 U.S. troops were put ashore by the U.S. Navy without loss of life near the Mexican port of Veracruz in surfboats specifically requested by Scott. The city surrendered after an 88‐hour bombardment by Scott's siege guns, which killed between 1,000 and 1,500 Mexicans. At the beginning of the campaign, Scott had issued General Order No. 20, responding to atrocities committed by some of the volunteer troops; in it he required U.S. troops to respect the rights and property of Mexicans, local government, and the Roman Catholic Church.

To avoid yellow fever on the coast and to capture the Mexican capital, Scott then led the expedition on a long, overland campaign across mountainous terrain to Mexico City. He broke through Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna's defense at the strategic pass of Cerro Gordo and then paused at Puebla to await replacements for the twelve‐month volunteers whose enlistments expired. When Scott departed from his line of supply and decided to live off the countryside, the Duke of Wellington in Britain declared he would be lost. But Scott successfully led the U.S. troops to Mexico City, first winning victories at Contreras and Churubusco, where Scott's casualties were one‐tenth that of the Mexicans, largely because of his use of superior artillery and flanking maneuvers. U.S. troops at Churubusco captured members of the San Patricio Battalion, Irish American soldiers who had changed sides when Mexico offered them land and protection of their rights as Roman Catholics. Scott ordered the survivors executed as traitors.

Arriving in front of Mexico City, Scott agreed to Santa Anna's request for an armistice, hoping for a negotiated peace. But when the Mexicans sought to rebuild their army, Scott resumed the offensive, defeating the Mexicans at Molino del Rey in an uncharacteristic frontal attack that cost nearly 800 U.S. casualties and 2,000 Mexicans killed and wounded. Attacking Mexico City, Scott's forces bombarded, then stormed the Castillo de Chapultepec, overcoming the defenders—including the young cadets, “los Niños,” of the military academy there, who died defending the Mexican capital.

President James K. Polk recalled Scott from Mexico in early 1848 after the disagreements and suspicion between the Democratic president and the Whig general were compounded by the myriad disputes that erupted between Scott and his fellow officers, some of whom filed charges against him. A court of inquiry dismissed these, however, and Scott became a national hero. In 1852, Congress brevetted Scott a lieutenant general and he ran poorly as the Whig Party candidate for president against Democrat Franklin Pierce. In the mid‐1850s, Scott's squabbles with Secretary of War Jefferson Davis were legendary.

Despite his Virginia birth, Scott remained loyal to the Union when the South seceded. In declining health, he still formulated the much derided but thoughtful “Anaconda Plan” for a long, strangling blockade and siege of the Confederacy to preserve the Union while keeping casualties low. After the First Battle of Bull Run, which he opposed, he retired in November 1861; he died at West Point in 1866.
[See also Mexican War; Native American Wars: Wars Between Native Americans and Europeans and Euro‐Americans.]


Winfield Scott , Memoirs, 2 vols., 1864.
Charles Winslow Elliott , Winfield Scott: The Soldier and the Man, 1937.
Arthur D. Howden Smith , Old Fuss and Feathers: The Life and Exploits of Lt.‐General Winfield Scott, 1937.
John S. D. Eisenhower , Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott, 1997.
Timothy D. Johnson , Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory, 1999.

John M. Hart

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Scott, Winfield

Winfield Scott, 1786–1866, American general, b. near Petersburg, Va.

Military Career

He briefly attended the College of William and Mary, studied law at Petersburg, and joined the military. At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Scott was made a lieutenant colonel. He was captured at Queenston Heights (Oct., 1812), but after his exchange he returned to the Niagara frontier and led a successful assault of Fort George (May, 1813). He was made a brigadier general in Mar., 1814. The thorough training he gave his troops paid off in July when his brigade bore the brunt of the fighting at Lundy's Lane, where Scott was severely wounded. Scott became a hero and was brevetted major general.

His subsequent army career was long and varied. In 1815–16 he visited Europe, where he studied French army practices. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson dispatched him to Charleston, S.C., where Scott ably handled the potentially explosive nullification troubles. He served in the Seminole and Creek campaigns and in 1838 supervised the removal of the Cherokee to the Indian Territory (now in Oklahoma). His talent for peacemaking was displayed in 1838, when he was sent to the Canadian border in the Caroline Affair, and again in 1839, when he went to Maine during the so-called Aroostook War. In 1841, Scott was appointed supreme commander of the U.S. army.

In the Mexican War, Scott approved the northern campaign of Gen. Zachary Taylor; then Scott himself accepted command of the southern expedition. With the cooperation of the navy, he took Veracruz early in 1847 and began the long march to Mexico City. Cerro Gordo fell in Apr., 1847, and Scott's army entered Puebla, where it remained inactive for several months. In August the Americans resumed their advance. Fighting at Contreras and Churubusco preceded an attack on the outposts of Mexico City. An engagement at Molino del Rey was followed by the storming of Chapultepec, which fell on Sept. 13, 1847, clearing the way to the capital. The campaign was a triumph for Scott's daring strategy and confirmed his reputation as a bold fighter. Scott was now a national hero, but as a Whig he was disliked by the Democratic administration of James K. Polk. As a result Scott was recalled to the United States early in 1848. A court of inquiry, however, dismissed charges leveled at him by some subordinate officers, and he was brevetted a lieutenant general.

In 1852, Scott was chosen as the Whig candidate for president, but he made a poor showing against his Democratic opponent, Franklin Pierce. In 1859, Scott once more took a hand in a boundary disagreement, going to Washington Territory in an effort to settle the San Juan Boundary Dispute. The outbreak of the Civil War brought onerous burdens to the general, who, though a Southerner by birth, opposed secession and was loyal to the Union. He wished some delay before any military action was taken, so that the Union's civilian army could be more adequately trained, and the disastrous first battle of Bull Run, fought against his wishes, bore out his views. Old and in failing health, Scott was compelled to retire on Nov. 1, 1861.


Although vain and pompous (he was called "Old Fuss and Feathers" ), Scott was also generous, fair-minded, considerate of his officers, and solicitous for the welfare of his soldiers. In nonmilitary matters—excluding his diplomatic ventures—his tendency to be quarrelsome and his faculty for "putting his foot in it" made him far less successful. However, he is generally considered the greatest American general between Washington and Lee.


See his memoirs (2 vol., 1864); J. S. D. Eisenhower, Agent of Destiny (1998).

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