Life and Service of General Winfield Scott

This short history is based upon my reading of Edward Mansfield, 1852 biography of General Winfield Scott.

General Winfield Scott served in the Army of the United States for over forty years. He fought in three different wars. More importantly,  he won ten different battles. He fought in the War of 1812, the Indian Wars and the Mexican War. He was also involved with the Nullification crisis in South Carolina during 1832-1833.

Winfield Scott did not have an auspicious beginning. While his father was a veteran of the American Revolution, he passed away when Scott was only five-years-old. His mother passed away when he was seventeen. Scott studied law and was in the process of starting a law career when President Thomas Jefferson gave him a commission as a captain.

At the beginning of the War of 1812, Scott’s superiors asked President Madison to make him a lieutenant-colonel. President Madison knew who Scott was but thought Scott was too young for such a high position. Scott’s superiors overcame Madison’s objections and Scott was made a lieutenant-colonel.

After Scott’s successes during the year 1812, Scott’s superiors again came to Madison and this time asked him to promote Scott to the rank of colonel. Madison once again objected saying that there was no way Scott was old enough to command a double regiment. Again, Scott’s superiors overcame Madison’s objections.

After Scott’s successes during the year 1813, Scott’s superiors once again came to Madison to request that Scott be promoted to brigadier-general. Scott’s success at the battles of Chippewa and Niagara were the major reasons for the request of this promotion. This time, Madison simply said “Put him down a major-general. I have done with objections to his youth!”

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By the end of the War of 1812, Scott, at 28-years-old, had ascended to the highest military rank, major-general.

One noteworthy story that demonstrates the character of Winfield Scott came when he was a prisoner of war. One day it came to Scott’s attention that 23 Irish-Americans were being taken back to England to stand trial for taking up arms against their native allegiance. Scott shortly thereafter was released in a prisoner exchange. Two months later, Scott captured Fort George and he took 23 prisoners and separated them from the rest of the prisoners. He notified the British if they did not immediately return these 23 Irish-American prisoners, he would execute the 23 prisoners. The British quickly capitulated and Scott happened to be in New York the day that the 21 Irish-American POW were returned (2 died of natural causes).

After the War of 1812, the United States government gave to Winfield Scott a large custom made gold medallion in thanks for his service. Winfield Scott placed the medallion in a safety deposit box at a bank in New York.

One night the bank was robbed and all the safety deposit boxes were emptied. In the morning, when the bank employee looked into the safety deposit box of Winfield Scott, she saw that all the contents were empty except the medallion. The thief was eventually captured and was asked why he left the medallion. The thief replied that “when he took the money from the City Bank he saw and well knew the value of the medal, but scorned to take from the soldier what had been given by the gratitude of his country.”

The Mexican War highlights General Scott’s humility and his great skills as a commanding officer. At the beginning of the war, Zachary Taylor was leading the men. Even though General Scott was the commander of the entire Army, he did not want to step on Taylor’s toes by just showing up and taking command. Scott had some serious political battles with the Department of War over proper protocol as to when a superior officer is permitted to show up and take authority from a junior officer.

It is well reported that during the Mexican War, General Scott won because of his superior abilities to manage resources. He anticipated his army’s needs so far in advance that those supplies needed to prosecute the war were always available when they were needed. It was because of his superior planning that his relatively small force was able to march through Mexico and succeed.

Throughout the entire battle, General Scott understood that his main enemy was not the Mexicans in front of him but the politicians in D.C. who would constantly be second guessing him. He wrote a letter to President James K. Polk stating “that the enemy in front is not half so much to be feared as an attack from the rear.”

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One example of political interference came after the campaign had begun. General Scott was so successful that politicians in D.C. began to worry. The politicians understood that the Mexican people had a different culture and spoke a different language. The politicians wanted to figure out a plan on how they could incorporate the new territory that Scott was conjuring into the United States of America. The D.C. politicians ordered Scott to stop his troop movement. General Scott was just trying to win a war and the politicians were already busy trying to figure out how to divide the spoils.

There are too many stories of General Scott that could be told, but if I told them all, you would have no incentive to read the book. I have often heard that the Civil War came 10 years too late. General Scott was such an accomplished General, that had the Civil War come in the 1850’s, General Scott would have been able to successfully quiet the rebellion. Instead, when the Civil War came, General Scott was 74 years old and his health prohibited him from commanding the troops. (These facts about the Civil War are not contained in this book since this book was published in 1852, shortly after the Mexican War).

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