June 13, 1786 - May 29, 1866
Winfield Scott was the most prominent professional soldier of the early national period. Born in Virginia in 1786, he studied law in his early adulthood, but began his military service in 1806, receiving a captain's commission two years later. His early years in the army were characterized by conflict with more senior military officers, which earned him a one-year suspension from the service in 1810.
Scott served in the War of 1812, leading troops in the battles of Chippewa and Lundy's Lane; he suffered serious wounds in the latter and remained on inactive duty for the remainder of the conflict. After the war he spent time traveling and studying in Europe. A skilled tactician, he translated Napoleon's military manuals into English and published a handbook on infantry tactics. In the 1830s, Scott commanded U.S. forces in three campaigns against Native Americans: the Black Hawk War, the Seminole War, and the Creek War. He also served in several high profile non-combat roles for the U.S. army, helping to defuse tensions in South Carolina during the nullification crisis, supervising the Cherokee removal from the southeastern states to Oklahoma, and negotiating an end to a boundary dispute between Maine and New Brunswick (the so-called Aroostook War). By 1841, Scott had risen from brigadier to major general — the highest rank in the U.S. Army.
The most celebrated chapter of Scott's military career came during his service in the U.S.-Mexico War. A prominent Whig, his political loyalties earned him the distrust of President James K. Polk, a Democrat, and he was quickly passed over for command when the war began in 1846. When a string of military victories in Mexico's northern provinces and the capture of New Mexico and California did not bring a negotiated settlement with Mexico City, Polk turned, reluctantly, to Scott to open a new theater of operations in the south. Scott's amphibious landing of an army of 8,600 men on the coast near Vera Cruz was unopposed, and he took the city in March 1847. Pushing into the interior of Mexico, Scott won battles at Cerro Gordo, Contreras, Churubusco, and Molino del Rey. With the fall of Chapultepec in mid-September, Scott took Mexico City, bringing major hostilities to an end.
After the fall of Mexico City, Scott imposed martial law, maintaining order through an even-handed policy that treated U.S. troops and the Mexican populace equally. At the same time, Scott quarreled with some of the Democratic generals on his staff. Still viewed with suspicion by the Polk administration, he was accused of misconduct and removed from command, although a court of inquiry cleared him of all charges.
Politically ambitious, Scott lost the Whig nomination for president in 1848 to another war hero, Zachary Taylor. Winning the nomination in 1852, he fared poorly as a candidate on the national stage. Long known by the nickname "Old Fuss and Feathers," Scott had a reputation for vanity and an aristocratic demeanor that proved to be serious political liabilities in an age of Jacksonian Democracy. Meanwhile, the Whig party was fracturing over the slavery question and the bitterly contested Fugitive Slave Law, passed two years earlier. Scott's anti-slavery views cost him support in the South as well as among many Northern free-soilers. He lost in November in an electoral vote landslide, 254 to 42, to Democrat Franklin Pierce. Scott nonetheless remained a popular national figure, and in 1855 Congress elevated him to the rank of lieutenant general - a distinction only George Washington had attained before him.
At the start of the Civil War, Scott still commanded the Union army, but at seventy-four was in extremely poor health, being overweight and suffering from a number of physical ailments. Blamed for the Union army's defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), he was nonetheless credited with devising the “Anaconda Plan,” which called for the seizure of the Mississippi River and the Union blockade of southern ports. The plan was eventually implemented by Grant and Lincoln in 1864-65.
Scott resigned from the army in November, 1861, and died on May 29, 1866, in West Point, NY. He remains the longest serving active duty general in U.S. history.
Eisenhower, John. Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott. New York: Free Press, 1997.
Johnson, Timothy. Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Peskin, Allan. Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2003.