- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2003


By Allan Peskin

The Kent State University Press, $49., 328 pages.

Even with the enormous body of Civil War historiography, we are still short some major biographies of important figures of the time. Such is the case with Winfield Scott, President Lincoln’s first commanding chief of the armies. In fact, until recently there were few treatments of Scott published after 1937.

Then in the late 1990s, John Eisenhower and later Timothy P. Johnson sought to fill the gap. As expected, Mr. Eisenhower focused on Winfield Scott and the expansion of American nationalism; and Mr. Johnson labeled Scott as a glory-seeking elitist who was a political and social conservative opposed to the forces of democracy.

Allan Peskin is a biographer of President Garfield, and in his “Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms,” he sees Scott as a man animated by a sense of military professionalism in a nation that did not easily accept such virtues. Scott’s career, though, extended over such a long span that is difficult to pigeonhole one of the most prominent and at times revered Americans.

• • •

Scott was a Virginian from Scottish stock who was deeply influenced like so many men of consequence by his mother. He was, for a short time, a student at the College of William and Mary, and then read law in Richmond, where he observed the famous treason trial of Vice President Aaron Burr. Scott was tall, very thin in those days, and attracted to the military life. He was immediately drawn to fine uniforms, thus the origin of his critical nickname, “Old Fuss and Feathers.” He was driven by a desire for promotion, glory and recognition — the ingredients of military men of that and other eras. Scott would make the acquaintance of Burr accomplice Gen. James Wilkinson, who labeled Scott even then “a vainglorious coxcomb.” Scott was indeed an inveterate duelist, a persistent critic of his superiors, and a difficult colleague.

Thomas Jefferson had nothing but disdain for the idea of a standing army, but the War of 1812, which so captured the attention of the war hawks, led President Madison to abandon his friend’s neutrality and engage in open hostilities, especially in Canada. Mr. Peskin narrates how the young Scott moved into positions of increasing responsibility and won plaudits in Washington for his exploits, especially around Quebec. Scott acquired a reputation as a brave and skillful soldier and was even for a time a prisoner of war.

• • •

While many American leaders like Andrew Jackson were interested primarily in fighting and in waging war, Scott was one of the few soldiers fascinated with military tactics and strategy, as well. Eventually he went to Europe to study the ways of the Napoleonic army — the first mass democratic military force that was so different from the older, aristocratic elite enterprises that conducted war in Europe.

Then Scott quickly became a real professional soldier who emphasized the need to expand the standing army and institute greater discipline and a command structure, and he established himself in the process as a precursor of the technocratic future. Scott became “the prophet” of a new professional army and a person who disliked, during his long career, the American emphasis on volunteers. He prepared one of the first American manuals on infantry tactics and drill, derived from the French model. The Army, thus, would begin its own managerial revolution, while it became one of the largest customers for certain types of goods and commodities in the nation.

At times, though, Scott was like Ulysses Grant and even Dwight Eisenhower as he considered abandoning military life and trying something else with more advancement and money. He focused for a while on attempting to become a diplomat, but to no avail. He also crossed swords with Andrew Jackson, who regarded Scott as “a vain, pompous nullity.” Old Hickory had a fierce temper, and Scott had a tendency to write self-righteous letters to him, saying things that were too quotable by others.

• • •

Jackson and Scott effected a formal reconciliation, but Jackson never forgot a slight, and he saw Scott as drawn more toward his weak opponents. When Scott moved too slowly in dealing with the Creek Indians, Jackson, the old Indian fighter, prepared to remove him from the scene. To the president, it proved that Scott had a lack of “capacity to fight Indians” and that professional armies were unnecessary.

Scott was later used by President Van Buren in more pacific ventures in dealing with the Canadian frontier. His reputation soared, and he became a national figure, but so did his appearance of being a conceited military man. His skills were sorely taxed by his dealings with James K. Polk, a Jackson protege who intensely disliked Scott and saw him as one of the weak generals around him who wished to undercut his executive authority. One of Mr. Peskin’s best sketches is of Polk, who is seen as a paranoid and compulsive nationalist incessantly dedicated to his agenda for expansionism.

Polk felt with some justification that both Scott and Gen. Zachary Taylor were simply Whig politicians in uniform and that he had to contain their military glory and successes. Unfortunately for him, the Mexican War pushed both individuals forward as men of national reputation and consequence. Scott may have been a prissy, vain soldier, but he was also the best strategic military organizer that the Army had, and Mr. Peskin is meticulously fair in outlining the arduous campaigns of the Mexican War that led to the capture of Vera Cruz and Mexico City. It was the latter campaign that directly involved Scott and made him a firm hero in the American imagination.

• • •

Mr. Peskin does a splendid job of intertwining the high points of Scott’s career in exploiting the military and political aspects of his role in the war. The work generally avoids social history and the ethnic tensions so prevalent in the United States at the time, except to note that Scott was a nativist. There is also remarkably little said about slavery or the great reform movements sweeping the United States, even though Scott was intensely ambitious and, of course, ran for president against Franklin Pierce.

The reader comes away with a good understanding of Scott’s long career and how he was still a major professional military figure despite his overwhelming pomposity. What is disappointing, though, is the rather abrupt treatment of Scott in Lincoln’s early administration. It was almost as if the author is getting weary of Scott, which is probably understandable. His treatment of the plan to slowly strangle the South is too curt for such an important and original strategy. Lincoln may have been under enormous pressures to win and win quickly, which Mr. Peskin points out, but, still, elements of the plan and of Scott’s mobilization efforts in defense of Washington deserve more attention. Peskin, though, does outline rather well Scott’s initial commitment to protect Lincoln’s first inauguration.

• • •

Scott saw in George B. McClellan an early protege and then an ungrateful subordinate. He was the first to feel a sense of slight, a lesson that Lincoln would learn early on. The Civil War is the story of many major figures and many major minor figures. What makes Scott important is that his professionalism spanned nearly two generations of Americans. George Templeton Strong, the noted diarist, called him “a silly giant!” — perhaps he was, but he was a giant nonetheless.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy,” a two-volume history of the American presidency.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide