Winfield Scott

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Winfield Scott
June 13, 1786 – May 29, 1866 (aged 79)
General Winfield Scott
Nickname Old Fuss and Feathers
Place of birth Dinwiddie County, Virginia, U.S.
Place of death West Point, New York, U.S.
Allegiance United States of America
Years of service 1808 – 1861
Rank Brevet Lt. Gen.
Commands held U.S. Army
Battles/wars War of 1812
Mexican-American War
Black Hawk War
Seminole Wars
American Civil War
Other work Lawyer
Military governor of Mexico City
Whig candidate for President of the United States, 1852

Winfield Scott (June 13, 1786 – May 29, 1866) was a United States Army general, diplomat, and presidential candidate. Known as "Old Fuss and Feathers" and the "Grand Old Man of the Army," he served on active duty as a general longer than any other man in American history and most historians rate him the ablest American commander of his time. Over the course of his fifty-year career, he commanded forces in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Black Hawk War, the Second Seminole War, and, briefly, the American Civil War, conceiving the Union strategy known as the Anaconda Plan that would be used to defeat the Confederacy.

A national hero after the Mexican-American War, he served as military governor of Mexico City. Such was his stature that, in 1852, the United States Whig Party passed over its own incumbent President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, to nominate Scott in the United States presidential election. Scott lost to Democrat Franklin Pierce in the general election, but remained a popular national figure, receiving a brevet promotion in 1856, to the rank of lieutenant general, becoming the first American since George Washington to hold that rank.

Early life

Scott was born on his family's farm in Dinwiddie County, near Petersburg, Virginia. He was educated at the College of William & Mary and was a lawyer and a Virginia militia cavalry corporal before being directly commissioned as captain in the artillery in 1808. Scott's early years in the U.S. Army were tumultuous. His commission as a colonel was suspended for one year following a court-martial for insubordination in criticizing his commanding general.

War of 1812

During the War of 1812, Scott was captured during the Battle of Queenston Heights in 1812, but was released in a prisoner exchange. Upon release, he returned to Washington to pressure the Senate to take punitive action against British prisoners of war in retaliation for the British executing thirteen American POWs of Irish extraction captured at Queenston Heights (the British considered them British subjects and traitors). The Senate wrote the bill after Scott's urging, but President James Madison refused to enforce it, believing that the summary execution of prisoners of war to be unworthy of civilized nations. In March 1814, Scott was brevetted brigadier general. In July 1814, Scott commanded the First Brigade of the American army in the Niagara campaign, winning the battle of Chippewa decisively. He was wounded during the bloody Battle of Lundy's Lane, along with the American commander, Major General Jacob Brown, and the British/Canadian commander, Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond. Scott's wounds from Lundy's Lane were so severe that he did not serve on active duty for the remainder of the war.[1]

Scott earned the nickname of "Old Fuss and Feathers" for his insistence of military appearance and discipline in the U.S. Army, which consisted mostly of volunteers. In his own campaigns, General Scott preferred to use a core of U.S. Army regulars whenever possible.

Nullification and the Trail of Tears

In the administration of President Andrew Jackson, Scott marshaled United States forces for use against the state of South Carolina in the Nullification Crisis.

In 1838, following the orders of President Andrew Jackson, he assumed command of the "Army of the Cherokee Nation," headquartered at Fort Cass and Fort Butler, and carried out the initial removal of Cherokee Indians from Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama—what later became known as the Trail of Tears.

He also helped defuse tensions between officials of the state of Maine and the British Canada province of New Brunswick in the undeclared and bloodless Aroostook War in March 1839.

As a result of his success, Scott was appointed major general (then the highest rank in the United States Army) and general-in-chief in 1841, serving until 1861.

During his time in the military, Scott also fought in the Black Hawk War, the Second Seminole War, and, briefly, the American Civil War.

Scott as tactician

After the War of 1812, Scott translated several Napoleonic manuals into English. Upon direction of the War Department, Scott published Abstract of Infantry Tactics, Including Exercises and Manueuvres of Light-Infantry and Riflemen, for the Use of the Militia of the United States[2] in 1830, for the use of the American militia.

In 1840, Scott wrote Infantry Tactics, Or, Rules for the Exercise and Maneuvre of the United States Infantry. This three-volume work was the standard drill manual for the U.S. Army until William J. Hardee's Tactics were published in 1855.

General Scott was very interested in the professional development of the cadets of the U.S. Military Academy.[3]

Mexican-American War

During the Mexican-American War, Scott commanded the southern of the two United States armies (Zachary Taylor commanded the northern army). In this campaign, Scott displayed a U.S. military doctrine that would be used in every subsequent war: To get on the enemy's flanks by using sea power. Landing at Veracruz, Scott, assisted by his colonel of engineers, Robert E. Lee, and perhaps inspired by William H. Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico, followed the approximate route taken by Hernán Cortés in 1519, and assaulted Mexico City. Scott's opponent in this campaign was Mexican president and general, Antonio López de Santa Anna. Despite high heat, rains, and difficult terrain, Scott won the battles of Cerro Gordo, Contreras/Padierna, Churubusco, and Molino del Rey, then assaulted the fort of Chapultepec on September 13, 1847, after which the city surrendered. Many future Civil War leaders would learn to fight under the command of Scott in Mexico. When a large number of men from the Mexican Saint Patrick's Battalion were captured during Churubusco, Scott gave orders for them to be hanged en masse during the battle of Chapultepec, specifying that the moment of execution should occur just after the U.S. flag was raised atop the Mexican citadel. This was a smudge on Scott's record, as the incident broke numerous Articles of War.

As military commander of Mexico City, he was held in high esteem by Mexican civilians and American authorities alike. However, Scott's vanity, as well as his corpulence, led to a catch phrase that was to haunt him for the remainder of his political life. Complaining about the division of command between himself and General Taylor, in a letter written to Secretary of War William Marcy, Scott stated he had just risen from "at about 6 p.m. as I sat down to take a hasty plate of soup." The Polk administration, wishing to sabotage Scott's reputation, promptly published the letter, and the phrase appeared in political cartoons and folk songs for the rest of his life.

Another example of Scott's vanity was his reaction to losing at chess to a young New Orleans lad named Paul Morphy in 1846. Scott did not take his defeat by the eight-year-old chess prodigy gracefully.


The Game-cock & the Goose, A Whig Party cartoon favoring Winfield Scott.

In the 1852 presidential election, the Whig Party declined to nominate its incumbent president, Millard Fillmore, who had succeeded to the presidency on the death of Mexican-American War hero General Zachary Taylor. Seeking to repeat their electoral success, the Whigs pushed Fillmore aside and nominated Scott, who faced Democrat Franklin Pierce. Scott's anti-slavery reputation undermined his support in the South, while the Party's pro-slavery platform depressed turnout in the North, and Scott's opponent was a Mexican-American War veteran as well. Pierce was elected in an overwhelming win, leaving Scott with the electoral votes of only four states.

Despite his faltering in the election, Scott was still a wildly popular national hero. In 1855, by a special act of Congress, Scott was given a brevet promotion to the rank of lieutenant general, making him only the second person in U.S. military history, after George Washington, ever to hold that rank.

In 1859, Scott traveled to the Pacific Northwest to settle a dispute with the British over San Juan Island, which had escalated to the so-called Pig War. The old general established a good rapport with the British, and was able to bring about a peaceful resolution.

Civil War

1861 cartoon of Scott's "Anaconda Plan"

As Union general-in-chief at the beginning of the American Civil War, the elderly Scott knew he was unable to go into battle himself. He offered the command of the Federal army to Colonel Robert E. Lee. However, when Virginia left the Union in April 1861, Lee resigned and the command of the Federal field forces defending Washington, D.C. passed to Major General Irvin McDowell. (According to Johnson, 1717, Lee was never directly offered command by Scott, despite the fact that Scott had high esteem for Lee as a soldier and commander.)

Scott did not believe that a quick victory was possible for Federal forces as public opinion held. He devised a long-term plan to defeat the Confederacy by occupying key terrain, such as the Mississippi River and blockading key ports on the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, and then moving on Atlanta. Scott hoped to limit casualties and was aware that the Union did not have a big enough army to conquer so much territory at once.[4] The South would be economically crippled after it had been isolated from the rest of the world. The Confederacy was thus to be strangled and suffocated. This Anaconda Plan was derided in the press and rejected early on; however, in its broad outlines, it was the strategy the Union actually used, particularly in the Western Theater and in the successful naval blockade of Confederate ports. In 1864, it was continued by General Ulysses S. Grant and executed by General William Tecumseh Sherman in his Atlanta Campaign and March to the Sea.[5]

Engraving of Winfield Scott

Scott was unable to implement his war plan because he was physically incapable of travel to the front lines. As a result, he felt unable to reprimand his new commander in the field, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan for his increasingly insubordinate behavior. This, combined with political pressure from McClellan's supporters in the House and Senate, resulted in Scott's resignation on November 1, 1861. Scott's age and poor health also contributed to his decision to resign. McClellan then succeeded him as general-in-chief.

General Scott lived to see the Union victory in the Civil War. He died at West Point, New York, and is buried in West Point Cemetery.


Scott served under every president from Jefferson to Lincoln, a total of fourteen administrations, and was an active-duty general for thirteen of them (47 years). Papers belonging to Scott can be found at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.[6]

Scott's military influence was showcased during the Civil War when many of his former subordinates took to the battlefield in leadership roles. Tactics he used in Mexico, such as subduing the local population, utilizing flank attacks, conducting extensive scouting missions, and utilizing a well-trained staff, were employed by both sides during the conflict.

Scott County in the state of Iowa is named in Winfield Scott's honor, as he was the presiding officer at the signing of the peace treaty ending the Black Hawk War; Scott County, Minnesota, and Scott County, Tennessee, and Winfeld, Tennessee, were also named for him. Fort Scott, Kansas, a former Army outpost, was also named for him, and the towns of Scott Depot and Winfield in West Virginia. Scott Township in Mahaska County, Iowa, was formerly called Jackson before residents formally petitioned to change the township's name in light of their strong support of Scott in the 1852 presidential campaign.[7] In addition, Cerro Gordo County, Iowa, Buena Vista County, Iowa, and the town of Churubusco, Indiana, were named for battles where Scott led his troops to victory. Lake Winfield Scott, near Suches, is Georgia's highest lake. A paddle steamer named the Winfield Scott launched in 1850. The saying "Great Scott!" may have originated from a soldier under Winfield Scott.[8]


  1. Timothy D. Johnson, "Winfield Scott," in Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, eds. David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000). ISBN 9781576070666
  2. Winfield Scott, Abstract of Infantry Tactics, Including Exercises and Manueuvres of Light-Infantry and Riflemen, for the Use of the Militia of the United States (Boston: Iilliard, Gray, Little, and Wilkins, 1830).
  3. John Waugh, The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomattox: Stonewall Jackson, George McClellan, and Their Brothers (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999). ISBN 9780446515948
  4. Johnson, 18.
  5. Johnson, 1717-18.
  6. William L. Clements Library, Scott Papers. Retrieved November 6, 2007.
  7. Robert I. Garden, History of Scott Township of Mashaka County (Flint, MI: Globe Power Presses, 1907).
  8. Michael Quinion, Great Scott. Retrieved November 6, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Eicher, John H. and David J. Eicher. Civil War High Commands. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3
  • Garden, Robert I. History of Scott Township of Mashaka County. Flint, MI: Globe Power Presses, 1907.
  • Johnson, Timothy D. "Winfield Scott." In Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History. Edited by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. ISBN 0-393-04758-X
  • Scott, General Winfield. Abstract of Infantry Tactics, Including Exercises and Manueuvres of Light-Infantry and Riflemen, for the Use of the Militia of the United States. Boston: Iilliard, Gray, Little, and Wilkins, 1830.
  • Quinion, Michael. World Wide Words. Great Scott Retrieved November 6, 2007.
  • Scott, General Winfield. Infantry Tactics, Or, Rules for the Exercise and Maneuvre of the United States Infantry. New York: Harper & Bros., 1861.
  • Waugh, John. The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomattox: Stonewall Jackson, George McClellan, and Their Brothers. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999. ISBN 0-345-43403-X
  • William L. Clements Library. Scott Papers Retrieved November 6, 2007.

Further reading

  • Eisenhower, John S.D. Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8061-3128-4
  • Elliott, Charles Winslow. Winfield Scott: The Soldier and the Man. New York: MacMillan Co., 1937. Winfield Scott: The Soldier and the Man Retrieved November 6, 2007.
  • Johnson, Timothy D. "Winfield Scott." In Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, edited by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, 1717-1718. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. ISBN 0-393-04758-X
  • Johnson, Timothy D. Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. ISBN 0-7006-0914-8
  • Peskin, Allan. Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2003. ISBN 0873387740

External links

All links retrieved May 15, 2023.

  • General Scott, a biography at Project Gutenberg by Marcus J. Wright.
  • Memoirs of Lieut.-General Scott, LL.D. Vol.1 and Vol. 2 by Winfield Scott at
Preceded by:
Alexander Macomb
Commanding General of the United States Army
Succeeded by:
George B. McClellan
Preceded by:
Zachary Taylor
Whig Party presidential nominee
1852 (lost)
Succeeded by:
Millard Fillmore


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