Winfield Scott, US General, 1786-1866

Scott was the most important figure in the US army for much of the first half of the nineteenth century, with a career that stretched from the War of 1812 right up to the early days of the American Civil War. . Known as 'Old Fuss and Feathers' because of the importance he attached to military formalities, he was nevertheless very popular with his men, although did suffer from political opposition through his career, coming to a peak at the end of the Mexican War. Born in 1786, Scott read law and briefly practices, before joining the army as a captain of artillery in 1808. He came to official and public attention during the war of 1812, where he fought on the Niagara frontier. On 17 May 1813, now a Colonel, during the illness of his superior he led an amphibious attack on Ft. George, at the mouth of the Niagara River, allowing several US ships to leave port. He was then promoted to Brigadier General, and helped the new commander of the army, Jacob Brown, reorganise the army (April-July 1814). A shortage of blue uniforms forced him to equip his troops in grey, then the colour of the US militia. His brigade played the major part in the battle of Chippewa (5 July 1814), where they were indeed initially mistaken for militia by the British, who were soon disabused of this notion by their steadiness under fire. This was the first significant clash between equally balanced forces of regulars during this war, and the US victory is still commemorated in the grey full-dress uniform of West Point. Twenty days later, his brigade again played a major roll in the Battle of Lundy's Lane (25 July 1814), a drawn battle during which Scott was wounded. He ended the war as a public hero, already promoted to the rank of major-general after only six years in the army. He remained in the army after the war, and played a key part in maintaining the standard of the US Army. He was also a capable diplomat, and defused two potentially explosive disputes on the Canadian border, the first in December 1837 after Canadian militia crossed the border and seized the steamship Caroline, and the second the Aroostock 'War', a dispute between settlers over logging rights. In both cases, Scott was able to prevent any escalation. In 1838 he was in charge of the deportation of the Cherokee Indians from their homes in Georgia to reservations west of the Mississippi. In 1841 he was appointed commanding general of the US Army, retaining the post for twenty years until retiring in 1861.

This meant that Scott was commander during the Mexican War. Initially, he recommended General Zachary Taylor to command in the field, and Taylor won a series of victories in 1846, but his campaign was confined to northern Mexico, and Scott felt that little progress was being made towards final victory. Towards the end of 1846, Scott suggested an amphibious invasion of central Mexico, with the aim of taking Mexico City itself. However, now politics intervened. President Polk, a democrat, did not want Scott, a Whig, to get the glory of such a successfull campaign, and instead suggested that Taylor march across the desert instead, and only agreed to Scott's plan when Taylor vetoed the overland plan. Scott prepared his force at Tampico (January-March 1847), where he massed 10,000 men, including most of Taylor's regular troops, and on 9 March 1847 his fleet arrived near the Mexican city of Veracruz, east of Mexico City. They were allowed to land unopposed, and after a five day siege took the city, and immediately moved away from the coast to avoid Yellow Fever. The Mexican defense was directly commanded by Santa Anna, who moved to block the US march at Cerro Gordo, a fortified valley on the road inland. Santa Anna had 12,000 men to Scott's 8,500, but Scott found unmarked mountain paths, and was able to surround Santa Anna's force, winning the battle of Cerro Gordo (18 April 1847), and routing Santa Anna's army, which lost a third of it's numbers. A month later, on 15 May, Scott reached Puebla, seventy five miles east of Mexico City, where he was forced to stop, 4,000 of his men having returned home at the end of their period of service. He was not able to move again until his force had been rebuilt, and was forced to wait at Puebla until August, when he could muster 11,000 men. On 7 August, he took a bold gamble, marching on Mexico City with almost his entire army, leaving a small garrison at Puebla, and isolating his army from the outside world. Facing him, Santa Anna had 30,000 men defending Mexico City. The main road to the city passed to the north of Lake Chalco and Lake Xochimilco, but Scott found that path to be blocked, and detoured south of the lakes. However, when he approached Mexico City, he still found strong forces facing him, in particular at Contreras and Churubusco. On 20 August, Scott launched attacks on both positions (battle of Contreras and battle of Churusbusco), taking both positions and inflicting heavy casualties on the Mexicans, who nevertheless still outnumbered him. Two weeks of peace negotiations followed, but failed. Scott now found himself facing two last obstacles before the city. First was 12,000 Mexican troops at Molino del Rey in an old fort, which Scott captured on 8 September (battle of Molino del Rey). Finally, he was faced by another strong Mexican force on the fortified hill of Chapultepec. After a preliminary bombardment (12 September), Scott took the hill by storm (battle of Chapultepec), once again inflicting heavy losses on the Mexicans. At this point Santa Anna realised that the war was lost, and withdrew his troops from Mexico City, and on 14 September, Scott was able to march in unopposed, effectively ending the war. Once again politics intervened, and Scott was recalled to Washington to face trumped up charges. To Polk's embarrassment, Scott received a hero's welcome, and a gold medal from Congress, which Polk had to present him with, while the charges were soon dropped.

Polk's fear of Scott's political ambitions were not ungrounded. In 1852 Scott was the Whig candidate for the presidency, but was defeated, in part because the Whig's were split over slavery. However, Scott's army career continued uninterrupted. In 1855 he became the first man since Washington to be promoted to Lieutenant General. He was still commander of the army as the American Civil War approached. In 1860 he suggested reinforcing federal garrisons in the south, in case of rebellion. When war came, Scott suggested a naval blockade of the South, combined with the raising of a 300,000 strong army to march down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, with the aim of isolating the Confederacy. Although similar to the plan eventually followed, this was dismissed because it did not promise quick results, and late in 1861 Scott retired, to be replaced by George McClellan. While the war continued, Scott visited Europe and wrote his memoirs. He survived to see the end of the war, dying at West Point on 29 May 1866, where he is buried.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J. (3 February 2001), Winfield Scott, US General, 1786-1866,

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