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Who was Winfield Scott?

Updated on December 2, 2016

Winfield Scott studied law before his appointment to the U.S. Army as an artillery captain in 1808. In the War of 1812 he was captured at the Battle of Queenston Heights but was soon freed and later planned the American assault on Fort George, N.Y. His troops were among the best-trained Americans in the war, and in July 1814 they defeated the British at the Battle of Chippewa. Scott's performance there and a few weeks later at Lundy's Lane, where he was seriously wounded, made him a national hero. Congress commissioned him a brevet major general.

In 1816, Scott became Commanding General of the Eastern Department of the Army. In 1832 he was ordered to the Black Hawk War, in which he so skillfully handled peace negotiations with the Indians that President Andrew Jackson sent him to South Carolina to act as pacifier during the nullification crisis. In 1836, Scott commanded a force in the Seminole War and led a brief but successful operation against the Creek Indians. In 1838 and 1839 he again served in semi-diplomatic missions during U.S. difficulties with the British in the Caroline Affair and the Aroostook War. In 1841, Scott became General in Chief of the Army, with the rank of major general. Scott was a tall, powerfully built man whose habit of dressing in splendid uniforms earned him the affectionate nickname "Old Fuss and Feathers". His military talents, unflinching courage, and scrupulous personal honesty combined with a fierce ambition and a massive egotism. He wanted to be President, but, in spite of his diplomatic gifts, he often spoke his mind where it did him harm and he was unsuited to the rough give-and-take of partisan politics. His activities in the Whig Party after 1839 resulted in political antagonisms that hampered his military career.

In 1846, at the beginning of the Mexican War, President James Polk, a coldly partisan Democrat, hesitated to give Scott command of the army on the Rio Grande for fear that the Whigs would be given credit for victory. Polk was also against Scott's proposals that thorough preparations be made before an offensive was launched in the heart of Mexico. The early successes of General Zachary Taylor's army provided an excuse to keep Scott in Washington. Eventually, when it became clear that the Mexicans could be forced to make peace only by direct assault on their capital city, Polk reluctantly put Scott in command. In March 1847, Scott landed at Veracruz. On September 14 he triumphantly entered Mexico City after an unbroken succession of victories. Polk rewarded Scott by relieving him of his command immediately after the war. Scott had to stand before a court of inquiry to face charges fabricated by volunteer officers, Democrats who sent Polk their own versions of Scott's campaign. In 1848 the Whigs denied Scott the Presidential nomination in favor of Taylor. In 1852 Scott received the Whig nomination but lost the election to Franklin Pierce. However, in that year Congress made Scott brevet lieutenant general, a rank previously held only by George Washington.

In January 1861, Scott directed military precautions taken in Washington, D.C., against assassination attempts at Abraham Lincoln's inauguration. When the Civil War began, Scott's strategy of preparing for a long-term war was put aside by advocates of instant victory. He resigned on November 1, 1861, and was replaced by Major General George B. McClellan.


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