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Lee is the greatest military genius in America, myself not excepted… Winfield Scott

Agent of destiny : the life and times of General Winfield Scott    New York : Free Press, c 1997 John S.D. Eisenhower United States. Army Biography, Scott, Winfield, 1786-1866 Hardcover. First edition and printing. xiv, 464 p. : ill., maps ; 25 cm.  Includes bibliographical references (p. 433-439) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

A native of Virginia and the son of a plantation owner Winfield Scott started his military career in the Virginia militia cavalry, which elected its own officers, as a corporal at the relatively late age of 21. Probably unable to progress due to personality defects that would soon become apparent his family arranged for him to enter the U.S. Army in 1808 as a captain of artillery.

He had no sooner been appointed to the staff of General James Wilkinson near New Orleans than he submitted his resignation in 1809 damning Wilkinson in every third line. Forever the politician when war with England became likely Scott asked for reinstatement. In a measure that must have been designed to rid the army of this pest Secretary of War William Eustis granted his request, but sent him right back to Wilkinson where his outspoken criticism earned him a court-martial. Finding him guilty of unofficer-like conduct, the court ordered Captain Scott suspended for twelve months.

Scott was reinstated in 1811 and seems to have learned something from his earlier disgrace – and to have benefitted from Wilkinson’s failures along the St. Lawrence –  and after his capture and exchange as a prisoner of war [while on a mission most of his troops refused to join] he planned and led the invasion of Canada that captured Fort George and commanding the 1st Brigade was instrumental in the American victories at Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane where he was wounded. In recognition of his efforts he finished the war as a breveted brigadier general.

Because of his capture at Ontario – and whether this was due to insubordination on the part of the New York militia troops or his unwillingness to abandon a plan that had no chance of success is the subject of controversy – Scott thereafter insisted on using United States Army regulars whenever possible. During the 1820s, Scott completed work on a set of general regulations for administering the army and also compiled a drill manual for the troops, translated several of Napoleon’s manuals. In 1828 he campaigned for Wilkinson’s old job as commander of the army but was passed over, which caused him to tender his resignation – which the Army refused, and instead published the Abstract of Infantry Tactics, Including Exercises and manoeuvres of Light-Infantry and Riflemen at the direction of the War Department in 1830 which remained in use until the eve of the Civil War and which earned him the nickname of “old fuss and feathers”.

Missing the Black Hawk war due to an outbreak of cholera among his troops the  of  Seminole War in 1835 and Creek War in 1836 again saw Scott facing combat, this time with very little success, against Osceola’s warriors which gave Scott another excuse to criticize fellow officers and again his intemperate language led to a court of inquiry in which his General Edmund Gaines placed Scott on the same level as Benedict Arnold. Never the shrinking violet in 1841 Scott unabashedly put himself forward to command the entire army. “I take it for granted,” he wrote to the secretary of war, “that my name will be sent, in a day or two, to fill the vacancy [resulting from] the death of Major-General Macomb”  This time his assumption proved correct, and a lifetime of complaint and intrigue was finally rewarded and he became the nation’s highest ranking soldier.

War with Mexico saw Scott in command of the regular army troops that the United States put in the field and with the able help of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis in bringing the war to an end within six months Scott was more than ready to accept the reward of the presidency from a grateful nation. Maybe it was because of persisting rumors about the Cherokee genocide and maybe it was because of the unfavorable press from his execution St. Patrick’s Batallion in front of Chapultepec Castle but it was Zachary Taylor who rode his own military reputation into the White House immediately following the Mexican War. When Scott ran for the office in 1852 as the  Whig Party’s  candidate, he was defeated by Franklin Pierce who, like Zachary Taylor, had led volunteer troops in the war. Eisenhower never makes the point specifically but there may be a subtext here about Eisenhower and MacArthur in 1952.

The secession of some of the Southern states from the union in early 1861 found “old fuss and feathers” had given way to “old fat and feeble”, almost seventy-five years old, bothered by various health problems and was no longer in any shape to take to the field. After contributing the Anaconda Plan on the Union’s potential grand strategy, Scott left the leadership to the younger men he had been instrumental in training – for both sides. He left active service in November 1861 and died  five years later after having been a participant in much of the history – for good and ill – of the nation in the first half of the nineteenth century, and  Eisenhower’s characterization of him might be more appropriate had it been titled  “Agent of Manifest Destiny.”

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