Today, we remember the names of many of the generals who led the Union and Confederate armies. The names of Robert E. Lee, George McClellan, Stonewall Jackson, Ulysses Grant and Joseph E. Johnston are but a few of these illustrious leaders. Yet, the name of General Winfield Scott who set the stage for the ultimate Union victory is often overlooked.
Winfield Scott was the United States Army’s Commanding General at the start of the war. He established many of the early objectives for the Union army. It was his idea to completely blockade the Southern ports, thereby denying the South of the benefit from the cotton production. He established the plan to split the Confederacy down the Mississippi River and deny them the use of the river. It also split them from the valuable sources of supply in Trans-Mississippi America.
Who was this general? Winfield Scott was a Virginian by birth, being born on June 13, 1786 at the family plantation in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, near Petersburg. He briefly attended College of William and Mary, studied law in the office of a private attorney, and served as a Virginia militia cavalry corporal near Petersburg in 1807. The following year Scott was commissioned a captain in the light artillery.
Scott’s early career in the army was tumultuous. Scott openly criticized the then Commanding General of the Army, James Wilkinson. Scott was court-martialed for insubordination in 1810 and had his commission suspended for one year. Afterwards, he served in New Orleans on staff of General Wade Hampton from 1811 to 1812.
The War of 1812 against the British made Winfield Scott into one of the most well-known soldiers in America. In June 1812, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and served primarily on the Niagara front. In October, 1812, he led an American landing party across the Niagara River at the Battle of Queenston Heights. Most New York militia members refused to cross into Canada in support of the invasion, and the British compelled New York militia commander Brigadier General William Wadsworth and Scott, the Regular Army commander, to surrender.
After Scott was exchanged, he was promoted to colonel in March 1813. Scott planned and led the capture of Fort George, Ontario, Canada, beside the Niagara River. The operation used landings across the Niagara and on the Lake Ontario coast and forced the British to abandon Fort George. Colonel Scott suffered wounds at this battle which is considered among the best planned and executed operations of the United States Army during the War of 1812.
Scott commanded the 1st Brigade, proving largely instrumental in decisive American successes at the Battle of Chippewa on July 5, 1814. He played an instrumental role in the bloody Battle of Lundy’s Lane on July 25th, but suffered serious wounds. For his valor at Lundy’s Lane, Scott received a brevet (i.e. an honorary promotion) to major general to date from July 25, 1814. However, the severity of his wounds prevented his return to active duty for the remainder of the war.
Over the course of the next 45 years, Winfield Scott led American troops in the Seminole Wars, the Creek War and the Mexican War. In 1841, Scott became Commanding General of the United States Army, a position which he held until November 1861.
At the start of the American Civil War, Winfield Scott was 74 years old and suffering numerous health problems, including gout and dropsy. He was also extremely overweight (he weighed over 300 pounds) and unable to mount a horse or review troops. Although he was born and raised in Virginia, Scott remained loyal to the nation that he had served for most of his life and refused to resign his commission upon his home state’s secession.
Despite his infirmities, Winfield Scott continue to have a keen strategic mind. He drew up a complicated plan to defeat the Confederacy by blockading Southern ports and then sending an army down the Mississippi Valley to outflank the Confederacy.
His Anaconda Plan was derided in the press. However, in its broad outlines, it was the strategy the Union actually used, particularly in the Western Theater and in the somewhat successful naval blockade of Confederate ports. Though the blockade did prevent most sea-going vessels from leaving or arriving to points along the Confederate coast line, a fair number of blockade-runners made their way through. They typically carried cargoes of basic supplies, arms, and mail.
However, Lincoln gave in to public pressure for a victory within 90 days and rejected the Anaconda Plan, but the eventual strategy used by the Union in 1864–65 was largely based on Scott’s original plan.
Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, the Union field commander, was anxious for Scott to be pushed aside. Political pressure from McClellan’s supporters in Congress led to Scott’s resignation on November 1, 1861. McClellan then succeeded him as general-in-chief. Although officially retired, Scott was still occasionally consulted by Lincoln for strategic advice during the war.
Winfield Scott died at West Point, New York on May 29, 1866 and is buried in West Point Cemetery, having served his country in war and peace for over 53 years.