Into Mexico with General Scott - Edwin Sabin

Lieutenant-General Winfield Scott

"Old Fuss and Feathers"

Born on the family farm, fourteen miles from Petersburg, Virginia, June 13, 1786.

His father, William Scott, of Scotch blood, a captain in the Revolution and a successful farmer, dies when Winfield is only six years old. Until he is seventeen the boy is brought up by his mother, Ann Mason, for whose brother, Winfield Mason, he is named. All the Scott family connections were prominent and well-to-do.

Winfield is given a good education. When he is twelve he enters the boarding-school of James Hargrave, a worthy Quaker, who said to him after the War of 1812: "Friend Winfield, I always told thee not to fight; but as thou wouldst fight, I am glad that thou weren't beaten." When he is seventeen he enters the school, of high-school grade, conducted in Richmond, Virginia, by James Ogilvie, a, talented Scotchman. Here he studied Latin and Greek, rhetoric, Scotch metaphysics, logic, mathematics and political economy.

In 1805, when he is approaching nineteen, he enters William and Mary College, of Virginia. Here he studies chemistry, natural and experimental philosophy, and law, expecting to become a lawyer.

This same year he leaves college and becomes a law student in the office of David Robinson, in Petersburg. He has two companion students: Thomas Ruffin and John F. May. The three lads all rose high. Thomas Ruffin became chief justice of North Carolina; John May became leader of the bar in southern Virginia; Winfield Scott became head of the United States Army.

Winfield Scott


In 1806 he is admitted to the bar and rides his first circuit in Virginia. At Richmond, in 1807, he hears the arguments by the greatest legal orators of the day in the trial of ex-Vice-President Aaron Burr for high treason.

While the trial is in progress the British frigate Leopard enforces the right of search upon the United States frigate Chesapeake, off the capes of Virginia. On July 2 (1807) President Thomas Jefferson forbids the use of the United States harbors and rivers by the vessels of Great Britain, and volunteer guards are called for to patrol the shores.

Young Lawyer Scott, now twenty-one years of age, becomes, as he says, "a soldier in a night." Between sunset and sunrise he travels by horse twenty-five miles, from Richmond to Petersburg, and having borrowed the uniform of a tall absent trooper and bought the horse he joins the first parade of the Petersburg volunteer cavalry.

While lance corporal in charge of a picket guard on the shore of Lynnhaven Bay he captures a boat crew of six sailors under two midshipmen, coming in from Admiral Sir Thomas Hardy's British squadron for water. The Government orders him to release the prisoners, and not to do such a trick again, which might bring on war.

England having made amends for the attack upon the Chesapeake the volunteers are disbanded. Corporal Scott resumes his practice of law. On Christmas Eve, 1807, he arrives in Charleston, South Carolina, to practice there. But he hears that war with Great Britain is again likely.. Thereupon he hastens to Washington and applies for a commission in the increased regular army. He is promised a captaincy.

The Peace Party in the United States gains the upper hand over the War Party. In March, 18o8, Lawyer Scott returns to Petersburg without his commission.

May 3, 1808, he receives his commission at last, and is appointed to a captaincy in the regiment of light or flying artillery then being raised. He recruits his company from Petersburg and Richmond youths and is ordered to New Orleans. For the next fifty-three years he is a soldier, and he outlives every other officer of i8o8.

After a voyage of two months in a sailing vessel he arrives at New Orleans April 1809.

The trouble with Great Britain having quieted down this summer, he despairs of seeing active service and attempts to resign. While in New Orleans he has said that he believed General James Wilkinson, commanding that department, to have been a partner of Aaron Burr in the conspiracy against the United States government. Now when he arrives in Virginia he hears that he is accused of having left the army through fear of punishment for his words. So he immediately turns about and goes back to face the charges. He rejoins the army at Washington, near Natchez, Mississippi, in November.

In 1810 he is court-martialed under the Articles of War and found guilty of "conduct unbecoming a gentleman," in having spoken disrespectfully of his commanding officer. He is sentenced to twelve months' suspension from duties, with the recommendation that nine of the months be remitted.

Under this sentence he returns to Petersburg. He spends every evening, when at home, reading English literature with his friend Benjamin Watkins Leigh, in whose family he is staying. His motto is: "If idle, be not solitary; if solitary, be not idle." During this period he again despairs of seeing active service; but he writes: "Should war come at last, who knows but that I may yet write my history with my sword?"

In the fall of 1811 he rejoins the army at department headquarters at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, having made the journey by land over a new road through the country of the Creeks and Choctaws.

This winter of 1811—1812 he is appointed superior judge-advocate for the trial of a prominent colonel. He also serves upon the staff of Brigadier General Wade Hampton, commander of the Southern Department, and is much in New Orleans.

The inactive life of a soldier in peace palls upon him. In February, 1812, the news arrives that Congress has authorized an increase of the regular army by 25,000 men. This looks lie war. May ao, as a member of General Hampton's staff, he embarks with the general for Washington. Upon entering Chesapeake Bay their ship passes a British frigate standing on and off; in less than an hour they pass a pilot boat bringing to the frigate the message that the United States has declared for war with Great Britain. Thus by a narrow margin they have escaped capture by the frigate.

July 6, 1812, is appointed lieutenant-colonel, Second Artillery, at the age of twenty-six.

Is ordered with his regiment to the Canadian border; reports at Buffalo October 4, 1812.

On October 13 leads 450 regulars and militia in a final attack upon Queenstown Heights, opposite Lewiston, New York. The Heights are held by a greatly superior force of British regulars and militia and 500 Indians. The United States militia left on the American side of the Niagara River refused to cross and support, and the attack failed for lack of reinforcements. There were no boats for retreat; two flags of truce had been unheeded; with his own hand young Lieutenant-Colonel Scott, tall and powerful and wearing a showy uniform ("I will die in my robes," he said), bears the third flag forward into the faces of the raging Indians to save his men. He is rescued with difficulty by British officers. After the surrender he is held prisoner with the other Regulars until paroled on November 20 and sent to Boston.

In January, 1813, is released from parole. Is ordered to Philadelphia to command a double battalion of twenty-two companies.

March 12, 1813, promoted to colonel, Second Artillery.

March 18, appointed adjutant general, rank of colonel.

May, 1813, appointed chief of staff to Major-General Henry Dearborn on the Niagara frontier, New York, and reorganizes the staff departments of the Army.

May 27 commands the advance again in the attack on Fort George, Canada. Every fifth man is killed or wounded. By the explosion of a powder magazine his collar-bone is broken and he is badly bruised; but he is the first' to enter the fort and he himself hauls down the colors.

July 18 he resigns his adjutant generalcy in order to be with his regiment as colonel. Leads in several successful skirmishes.

March 9, 1814, aged twenty-eight, is appointed brigadier-general. He has become noted as a student of war—a skilful tactician and a fine disciplinarian. At the Buffalo headquarters he is set at work instructing the officers. The United States has no military textbook, but he has read the French system of military training and employs that.

July 3, 1814, leads with his brigade to the attack upon Fort Erie, opposite Buffalo. Leaps from the first boat into water over his head, and laden with sword, epaulets, cloak and high boots swims for his life under a hot fire, until he can be hauled in again. The fort is captured.

July 4, again leading his brigade he drives the enemy back sixteen miles.

July 5 fights and wins the decisive battle of Chippewa against a much superior force. The war on the land had been going badly for the United States. Now the victory of Chippewa sets bonfires to blazing and bells to ringing throughout all the Republic; the American army had proved itself with the bayonet and General Scott is hailed as the National hero.

July 25 he distinguishes himself again in the night battle of Niagara or Lundy's Lane. He is twice dismounted, and is bruised by a spent cannon ball. Receives an ounce musket ball through the left shoulder and is insensible for a time. Is borne from the field in an ambulance.

July 25 brevetted major-general for gallantry at Chippewa and Lundy's Lane.

The wound in his shoulder refuses to heal properly. He is invalided and is unable to take part in further active service for the rest of the war. Travels upon a mattress in a carriage. Stops at Princeton College on Commencement Day, is given an ovation and the degree of Muter of Arts. Congress votes him a special gold medal; the States of Virginia and New York vote him each a sword. His wound slowly heals under treatment by noted surgeons, but leaves him with a left arm partially paralyzed.

He is placed in charge of operations in defence of Baltimore and is made president of the National Board of Tactics, sitting in Washington.

After the close of the war he presides, May, 1816, upon the board convened to reduce the army.

Declines to accept the office of Secretary of War.

July, 1815, sails for Europe, where he witnesses the reviews of 600,000 soldiers, following the defeat of Napoleon by the allied troops. He meets distinguished commanders and statesmen of the Old World, and is awarded many honors.

Returning from Europe in 1816 he marries Miss Maria Mayo, of Richmond, Virginia. Seven children—five girls and two boys—were born. Of these, four died early in life.

As brigadier-general, in 1818, he begins the preparation of a system of General Regulations or Military Institutes for the United States Army. This was approved of by the War Department and Congress.

September 22, 1824, he writes and has printed "A Scheme for Restricting the Use of Ardent Spirits in the United States." This essay was the basis of the temperance movement in the country.

In 1824 is president of the Board of Infantry Tactics, meeting at West Point.

In 1826 is president of a board of militia officers and regular officers, convened at Washington to devise an organization and system of tactics for the militia of the United States.

In 1828, while inspecting the Indian frontier of Arkansas and Louisiana, is approved of by the cabinet for appointment to commander-in-chief of the army, but loses to General Alexander Macomb.

In the summer of 1832 is ordered from his Eastern Department to proceed in person against the Sacs and Foxes under Chief Blackhawk, in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, The cholera is raging in the Great Lakes region. Before leaving New York he takes instructions from a doctor, and when his force is attacked by the disease on the boats he himself applies the remedies and prevents a panic.

Arrives at Fort Crawford, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, after Blackbawk's surrender. Descends the Mississippi to Fort Armstrong, on Rock Island, and holds grand council with the Sacs, Foxes, Sioux, Menominees and Winnebagos. Is congratulated by the Secretary of War for his services and his high moral courage in combating the cholera.

On his way home to West Point he narrowly escapes a severe attack of the cholera himself.

November, 1832, is sent to South Carolina, which has threatened to secede unless the tariff laws of the Government are modified. General Scott takes command in Charleston, and by his firmness and good sense among his fellow Southerners averts civil war.

In 1834-1835 translates and revises the new French infantry tactics for use by the United States. These, known as "Scott's Infantry Tactics," were the first complete tactics adoped by the army and were used up to 1863.

January 20, 1836, is directed by the President to proceed against the Seminole Indians of Florida. Asked at four in the afternoon when he could start, he says: "This night." Through failure of supplies and by reason of the short-time enlistment of the majority of the troops, the campaign is unsuccessful. For this, and for a similar delay in a march against the Creeks, he is court-martialed by order of President Jackson. The court approves of his campaign plans and acquits him. Returning to his headquarters in New York he is tendered a public dinner April, 2837. This he declines.

January, 1838, is ordered to the Niagara frontier again, where misguided Americans and Canadians are attempting a movement to annex Canada to the United States. In dead of winter he travels back and forth along the American border, quieting the people by his words and the force of his presence.

In the spring of this 1838 he is sent into Alabama to remove the Cherokee Indians to new lands given them by treaty, west of the Mississippi River. The Indians had refused to go, but by using reason and gentleness he avoids bloodshed and persuades them to move of their own accord.

In February, 1839, is sent by the President as special agent to northern Maine, where the State of Maine and the Canadian province of New Brunswick are in arms against each other over a dispute upon the boundary between. Again by his rare good judgment and by his influence with the authorities upon either side, he averts what might easily have resulted in another war.

In 1840 he is proposed as the Whig candidate for President, but he declines in favor of General William Henry Harrison, who is elected.

June 25, 1841, appointed full major-general.

July 5, 1841, appointed chief of the Army, a position that he occupies for twenty years.

From 1841 to 1846 is busied with the duties of his office. He aims to enforce justice and discipline among the rank and file. August, 1842, he issues general orders forbidding the practice of officers striking enlisted men and cursing them, and directs that in cases of offense the regulations of the service be employed.

Ia the summer and fall of 1846, believing that the campaign by General Zachary Taylor to conquer Mexico by invasion from the Rio Grande River border cannot succeed, he advises an advance upon the City of Mexico from Vera Cruz on the Gulf. He asks permission to lead the army in person.

November 23, 1846, he is directed by the Secretary of War to conduct the new campaign.

Leaves Washington for New Orleans November 25.

In his absence a bill is introduced in Congress to create the rank of lieutenant-general, and thus place over him a superior officer. This movement for politics was defeated, but General Scott felt that he had "an enemy in his rear."

Under these conditions he goes to meet General Taylor at the Rio Grande in January, 1847, and detaches a portion of the forces for the Vera Cruz campaign. This makes an enemy of General Taylor.

February, 19, 1847, he issues general orders declaring martial law in Mexico, for the purpose of restraining the Volunteers from abusing the people of the conquered territory. This wins over the natives and restores discipline.

March 9 to September 14, 1847, he conducts the campaign by which the City of Mexico is captured.

September 14, 184 , to February i8,, 1848, he remains in . charge of the military government in Mexico. By his enforcement of martial law that respects the persons and property of the Mexican people he gains the leaders' confidence. He is proposed for dictator of the Mexican Republic, with a view to annexation to the United States, but declines.

February 18, 1848, he receives orders from President Polk to turn over his command to Major-General William O. Butler, and report for trial by a court of inquiry, on charges that he had unjustly disciplined Generals Quitman and Pillow, and. Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan. He is acquitted.

March 9, by joint resolution of Congress, he is voted the National thanks for himself and his officers and men, and the testimony of a specially struck gold medal in appreciation of his "valor, skill and judicious conduct,"

May 20, 1848, he arrives home to his family at Elizabeth, near Philadelphia.

Is assigned to command of the Eastern Department of the Army, with headquarters in New York.

In 1850, after the death of President Taylor, he resumes his post in Washington as commander-in-chief of the Army.

In 1850 he is awarded the honorary degree of LL.D. by Columbia College (University).

June, 1852, he is nominated by the Whig party for President. He is opposed by President Fillmore and Secretary of State Daniel Webster, who had been candidates. Is badly defeated in the election by Franklin Pierce of the Democratic party.

February, 1855, he is brevetted lieutenant-general from date of March 29, 1847—the surrender of Vera Cruz. This rank had not been in use since the death of Lieutenant-General George Washington,' and was now revived by special act of Congress.

In November, 1859, he sails in the steamer Star of the West for Puget Sound, by way of Panama, to adjust difficulties arising between Great Britain and the United States over the possession of San Juan Island of' the international boundary.

In 1860 he counsels the Government to garrison the forts and arsenals on the Southern seaboard with loyal troops, and thus probably prevent the threatened secession of the Southern States. His advice is disregarded.

In March, 1861, submits other plans by which be stdl hopes that the rebellion may be averted.

Is offered high command by his native State, Virginia, and declines to forsake the Flag.

October 31, 1861, being seventy-five years of age and long a cripple, almost unable to walk from wounds and illness, he retires from the army. President Lincoln and the cabinet call upon him together and bid him farewell. There are tears in the old hero's eyes.

November, 1861, he sails for a visit in Europe.

December, 1861, is recommended by President Lincoln in first annual message to Congress for further honors, if possible.

June 10, 1862, his wife dies, leaving him with three daughters, now grown.

He removes from New York to West Point, and on June 5, 1864, after a year's work he completes his autobiography in two volumes.

He dies at West Point, May 29, 1861 aged eighty, lacking two weeks.