Between the Revolutionary War and World War II, the most influential American military leader was clearly Winfield Scott. An active general longer than any other officer in U.S. military history, Scott led the army for more than twenty years. His greatest contribution to military leadership was his insight into the correlation between success and discipline.
Born on June 13, 1786, on his family estate of Laurel Branch near Petersburg, Virginia, Scott attended the College of William and Mary before dropping out to independently study law. After this brief academic sojourn, he joined a local cavalry troop in 1807, which led to a commission as an artilleryman in the Regular Army. Scott’s early years in uniform proved much less than successful. On at least two occasions he considered resigning and returning to law practice. From 1809 to 1810, Scott served in New Orleans, where he accused his commander, Gen. James Wilkinson, of being “a traitor, liar, and scoundrel.” Although Scott’s assessment ultimately proved accurate, his accusations resulted in his court-martial and a one-year suspension from active duty.
Scott’s initial combat experience was no more exemplary than his peacetime service. At the beginning of the War of 1812, Scott, now a lieutenant colonel, joined the American forces attempting to invade Canada from northern New York. During the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812, the British captured Scott and held him for three months before releasing him in a prisoner exchange.
In May 1813, Scott led the successful attack against Fort George. After recovering from wounds suffered in the assault, Scott participated in the unsuccessful offensive against Montreal, where he identifies the U.S. Army’s problem: poorly trained militias in the command of leaders selected for their positions in the local communities rather than their skills or talents as military leaders.
By March 1814, Scott, now a brigadier general, had established a style of leadership that he would sustain for the next quarter century. He initiated rigorous training composed of a series of drills repeated over and over again. He enforced repetition in training and so much discipline in dress and conduct that he gained the title “Old Fuss and Feathers.”
For the remainder of the War of 1812, Scott’s brigade earned deserved praise. His force defeated a numerically superior British army at Chippewa on July 5, 1814. Less than three weeks later, the Brigade sustained the primary British attack at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, where Scott again was seriously wounded. By war’s end, Scott, promoted to major general, had earned the respect of those within the military as well as acclaim as a hero by America’s civilian population.
Following the conflict, Scott participated in reorganizing the postwar military and wrote the army’s first standard drill book, incorporating the many lessons he had learned on the battlefield. He also made two visits to Europe to stud military organizations and various training methods of other countries.
During the post-War of 1812 era, Scott proved as adept in negotiating disputes as he was in training soldiers. In 1832 he negotiated a treaty preventing war with the Sauk and Fox Indians and, in 1838 and again in 1839, settles border disputes along the New England-Canadian border that threatened to trigger a third war between Great Britain and the United States. In 1838 Scott also supervised the removal of the Cherokees from Georgia to reservations in what would later become Oklahoma.
Throughout this period, Scott remained outspoken and often clashed with the political agendas of congressmen and presidents. However, his reputation for total honestly and his leadership skills continued to be recognized and rewarded. On July 5, 1841, Scott assumed command of the entire army, a position that he would hold for the next twenty years and would use to effect continued advancements in discipline and the standardization of drill and tactics.
With the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, Scott initially remained in Washington, allowing Gen. Zachary Taylor to lead the American invasion of Mexico. Although Taylor won several tactical battles in northern Mexico, Scott recognized that to achieve total victory the United States would have to take the war into the country’s interior, including its capital, Mexico City. President James K. Polk, reluctant to add to Scott’s national popularity for fear he might become a political rival, finally granted the general permission to take command of the army in the field.
Scott and his invasion force conducted the first U.S. major amphibious landing at Vera Cruz on April 8, 1847, and secured the port city with minimal casualties. Moving quickly inland, Scott met and defeated a larger Mexican force under Santa Anna at Cerro Gordo on April 18. Despite long supply lines and extremely mountainous terrain, his army occupied Pueblo and then won decisive battles at Contreras, Molino del Rey, and Chapultepec in August and September. Assisting Scott – and learning skills of great use in future conflicts – were young officers, including Robert Edward Lee, Ulysses Simpson Grant, and more than one hundred others who would become generals for either the Blue of the Gray in the Civil Way. On September 14, after a five-month campaign without a single battle lost, Scott captured Mexico City. The victory resulted in the United States’ gaining territory that reaches from Texas to California and makes up one-third of the country’s size.
Scott remained in Mexico City as the military governor until April 1848, when he returned home to successfully combat false accusations by President Polk about personal and financial misconduct. Despite his immense popularity as a soldier, Scott did not do well when he turned to politics, failing to gain the Whig Party’s nomination for president in the election of 1848. Four years later he did gain the nomination but lost by a substantial margin in the general election to Franklin Pierce.
Allowed to maintain his active-duty position during his political career, Scott did not neglect continued improvements in drill and training from lessons learned in Mexico. His negotiating skills also remained sharp as he aided in settling another U.S.-Great Britain border dispute in the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound in 1859.
By 1861, Scott had served his country for more than fifty years and through two wars. Although born in Virginia, Scott’s loyalty remained with his country at the outbreak of the Civil War. One of the few to think the United States could not end the rebellions in a matter of months, Scott, in fact, designed a plan to defect the Rebels through massive mobilization, a blockade of the South, and splitting the Confederacy along the Mississippi River. The general’s “Anaconda Plan” met with cynicism and ridicule from the Northern press, politicians, and young military officers. Newspapers portrayed Scott as a senile old man who often fell asleep at his desk.
On November 1, 1861, Scott retired, and the command of the Union Army passed to Gen. George B. McClellan. Scott lived out the Civil War and saw his plan for victory eventually adopted by President Lincoln and General Grant. He died at West Point, New York, on May 29, 1866, just days before his eightieth birthday.
From the battlefield front line to the halls of the Capitol, Scott directed and molded the U.S. Army for a half century. His bravery, boldness, and organizational abilities led an army from its infancy to the verge of assuming the status of world power. Although not now as well known as Grant or Lee, Scott mentored and commanded both. His importance exceeds theirs because of his long tenure of service, but he ranks below Washington, who won America’s independence, and the later senior World War II U.S. commanders, who achieved victory over the Axis powers and established the United States as the world’s most influential country.