On this day in 1841, precisely 175 years ago, Major General Winfield Scott became Commanding General of the U.S. Army. He held this post for 20 years and four months, longer than any other Commanding General or U.S. Army Chief of Staff to date, retiring as a Brevet Lieutenant General on November 1, 1861.
To Civil War audiences, Scott is something of a comical figure: a fat old man who can’t mount his horse, not to mention an object of derision by George McClellan and younger officers. His nickname “Old Fuss and Feathers” seems to imply a dodding old man more interested in pomp than in crushing the Confederacy.
This perspective is grossly unfair to Scott, who in fact was one of the great soldiers of the 19th Century and also played an important,if sometimes hidden, role in the Civil War.
Winfield Scott was born in Virginia in 1786. After serving in the Virginia militia, he commanded Regular troops on the Niagara frontier during the War of 1812. His successes against crack British troops earned him a Brigadier General’s star and the brevet rank of Major General. These experiences taught him that only discipline, bearing, and steadiness under fire could bring victory on the battlefield. Ever after, Scott focused on instilling these values in his troops, and it was then that the “Old Fuss and Feathers” nickname came about. (George Patton in World War II, it should be noted, subscribed to this same philosophy.)
Between 1815 and 1841, Scott was involved in executing U.S. policy that was often controversial; it seems he was picked because of his integrity to follow orders. He was in command of forces poised to move on South Carolina during the 1832 Nullification Crisis; superintended the Cherokee Trail of Tears; and won the Second Seminole and Creek Wars. He was a noted soldier-scholar, translating European drill manuals, and authored a tactics manual in the 1850s.
As Commanding General, Scott oversaw the transformation of the Army, including engineering and mapping expeditions in the West, the creation of cavalry regiments, and the adoption of rifled muskets and cannon. He also commanded the Army in battle with great skill; his Mexico City campaign, largest and most complex U.S. Army campaign since 1781, earned him the tribute “greatest living general” by the Duke of Wellington.
Scott ran for President in 1852, and the Whig Party dumped their incumbent President to give him the nomination. To date Scott is the tallest person (6’5″) ever nominated by a major party for the Presidency.
In 1861, the Virginia-born Scott remained loyal to the United States. Although his body was failing him, his mind remained clear. Scott planted the seeds of Union victory with his Anaconda Plan, calling for a blockade of the Confederacy and a Mississippi River campaign. After retirement to West Point, Lincoln often consulted with him on matters of strategy. Scott lived to see reunion and died in 1866. He is buried at West Point.
Winfield Scott today is one of only three Americans to hold the rank of general officer in three major American wars: The War of 1812, The Mexican War, and the Civil War. The others are Douglas MacArthur (WWI, WWII, and Korea) and Lewis B. Hershey (WWII, Korea, and Vietnam).
Above: Winfield Scott in 1835.