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While John Eisenhower's recent Agent of Destiny provides a solid summary of Scott's remarkable life, Timothy D. Johnson's much deeper critical exploration of this flawed genius should become the standard work. Thoroughly grounded in an essential understanding of nineteenth-century military professionalism, it draws extensively on unpublished sources in order to reveal neglected aspects of Scott's life, present a more complete view of his career, and accurately balance criticism and praise.
Johnson dramatically relates the key features of Scott's career: how he led troops to victory in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, fought against the Seminoles and Creeks, and was instrumental in professionalizing the U.S. Army, which he commanded for two decades. He also tells how Scott tried to introduce French methods into army tactical manuals, and how he applied his study of the Napoleonic Wars during the Mexico City Campaign but found European strategy of little use against Indians. Johnson further suggests that Scott's creation of an officer corps that boasted Grant, Lee, McClellan and other veterans of the Mexican War raises important questions about his influence on Civil War generalship.
More than a military history, this book tells how Scott's aristocratic pretensions placed him at odds with emerging notions of equality in Jacksonian America and made him an unappealing politician in his bid for the presidency. Johnson not only recounts the facets of Scott's personality that alienated nearly everyone who knew him but also reveals the unsavory methods he used to promote his career and the scandalous ways he attempted to relieve his lifelong financial troubles.
Although his legendary vanity has tarnished his place among American military leaders, Scott is shown to have possessed great talent and courage. Johnson's biography offers the most balanced portrait available of Scott by never losing sight of the whole man.
Young Fuss and Feathers
Major General Winfield Scott rode into the main plaza of Mexico City on September 14, 1847. Weary, dirty soldiers stood at attention, and Mexican civilians filled the windows of nearby buildings as a military band played "Yankee Doodle." Scott's triumph entry into the captured enemy capital signified more than the end of open hostilities during the Mexican War; it marked the crowning achievement of his career. In six months he had marched an army of 10,000 from the coastal city of Veracruz to Mexico City, a distance of over 250 mileds. When the Duke of Wellington, victor at Waterloo, learned that Scott had succeeded against tremendous odds in capturing the city, he proclaimed him "the greatest living soldier." The Mexico City campaign ranks as one of the boldest and most competently executed military operations in American history. It provides ample evidence of Scott's development into a consummate field commander.
Scott's modest southern origins, however, offered few clues that he was destined for greatness. His family, though not impoverished, was neither wealthy nor politically influential, and both his parents died before he reached his eighteenth birthday. In his Memoirs, he dealt vaguely with his early years, giving more space to a discussion of affluent relatives. Such neglect in recording his early years indicates an acknowledgment of his middle-class origins and a fascination with wealth. Bertram Wyatt-Brown, who studied the role of honor in the antebellum South, has asserted that the loss of one'sparents at an early age resulted in a detachment from important ancestral roots, sometimes causing an emptiness that affected personality development. The loss could affect the way a young man viewed his legitimacy and self-worth and in numerous cases contributed to a short-tempered, belligerent nature. Scott certainly fit that pattern. If he did question his worthiness, it obviously spurred him to greater accomplishments, for Scott became a self-made man and the military giant of his day. Yet ironically, a military profession was not his first choice in life.
Perhaps the example of Scott's ancestors influenced his decision to join the army. His grandfather, James Scott, fought with Charles Edward Stuart in Scotland before emigrating to the New World in 1746. He settled in Virginia, where he opened a law practice and started a family. Winfield's father, William Scott, owned land and slaves and made a comfortable living from the soil. When William died, Winfield was only six years old, and the father left no great inheritance to his offspring. The son's memory of his parent was limited, but while growing up near Petersburg, Virginia, he no doubt listened intently to family stories of his father's exploits as a lieutenant and captain in the Revolutionary War.
Ann Scott did all that a widow could to manage the estate and raise six children. Besides Winfield, born June 13, 1786, there were James, Mary, Rebecca, Elizabeth, and Martha. Their mother was the granddaughter of John Winfield, one of the wealthiest men in the Virginia colony. Young Winfield Scott stood in line to inherit most of his great-grandfather's vast holdings, had it not been for an uncle who married and had children late in life. Ann had a great influence on Winfield. In his mid-seventies he recorded in his Memoirs that it still pained him to recall that "I once disobeyed my mother." The offense was running away when she told him to get ready for Sunday school. Winfield grew to respect not only her authority but also her perseverance.
Scott's education was more informal than institutional. Under the tutelage of his mother he learned honesty and hard work, traits that would be a part of his character the rest of his life. As a young boy he developed a love of reading. He spent a great deal of time in the home of his neighbor, James Greenway, a physician whose extensive library provided young Scott with many hours of enjoyment through the works of writers such as William Shakespeare, Adam Smith, John Locke, and Edward Gibbon. When Scott was twelve his mother sent him to a boarding school where for two years he was exposed to the disciplined life of its Quaker headmaster, James Hargrave. Five years later he attended a prestigious academy in Richmond, but in both instances Scott, by his own admission, achieved "no extraordinary success."
Ann Scott's death in 1803 seemed to jolt Winfield into the realization that he was approaching manhood and had decisions to make regarding his future, his education, and a career. At age seventeen he was now on his own, and the self-reliance learned from her would be tested. Perhaps he felt cheated by the early loss of his parents, the failure to inherit an ancestor's fortune, and the wasted years of mediocre scholastic achievement. Still, six decades later he wrote that his mother had provided the inspiration for his lifetime of achievement.
In 1805, after a year at the Richmond academy, Scott enrolled in the College of William and Mary. He approached his studies more soberly, but a dislike for mathematics resulted in his neglect of that subject. Years later he regretted his negligence, for it forced him to rely heavily on army engineers. Meanwhile, his love of reading grew to include the works of Enlightenment writers, and his desire to possess the polished qualities of a Virginia gentleman led him to study French. Eventually he was able to read the language with ease and did not mind boasting of the fact to others.
While at William and Mary Scott developed an interest in law and decided to become an attorney. He studied under George Tucker, head of the Law Department, who was a fervent Republican and an advocate of gradual emancipation of slaves. Almost a half century later, in a summary of his political views, Scott recalled Tucker's impact on his life, and he expressed agreement with many of his mentor's views, Young Scott was impatient and eager to pursue his chosen profession; after only a year of college, he deserted the rigors of the classroom and began reading law in the office of Petersburg attorney David Robertson.
The young lawyer soon began riding circuit, which provided him time to reflect. Perhaps during those long hours on horseback Scott began to reconsider his decision to become a lawyer. Did he really want to spend his life drawing summonses, serving papers, and writing briefs? Certainly the law was a respectable occupation for a gentleman and a profession that could open important doors of opportunity, but during his short tenure as a lawyer, he remained restless. All great men are driven by ambition—some to a greater degree than others. Ambition is not an unbecoming trait and can even be a positive force if kept under rein, but it came to dominate Scott's life and dictate his actions. Charles Winslow Elliott has characterized young Winfield Scott as a man "burning with ambition." He did not just burn with it, he was driven by it. He spent his life trying to attain fame and social standing. He accomplished both, sometimes as a result of true achievements and other times because of his own machinations.
In May 1807 an event of national importance interrupted Scott's routine. A grand jury convened in Richmond and began hearings in the case of Aaron Burr, who was charged with treason for allegedly instigating a scheme to take western land from the United States. Scott was among the throng that descended on the capital, and the proceedings, which held many attractions for him, captivated him for weeks. It pitted the best minds of his profession against each other in a nationally publicized legal battle, and its controversial nature filled the young Jeffersonian with anticipation.
In June Gen. James Wilkinson, believed by many people to be a part of Burr's conspiracy, arrived in Richmond as a government witness. He came partly to testify against Burr but also to refute his critics and to save his honor. Nevertheless, his testimony before the grand jury only damaged his cause. His inability to give adequate answers for some of his actions in the Mississippi Valley convinced Scott and others that Wilkinson was as guilty as Burr. Scott's brother-in-law, Edward Pegram, served on the grand jury and possibly enlightened Scott on some of the personal views of other jurors. John Randolph, foreman of the jury, told Scott that only the president's influence had kept Wilkinson from being indicted along with Burr. Scott shared Randolph's view that Wilkinson was a "mammoth of iniquity ... from the bark to the very core a villain." Randolph concluded that the general's character represented the depth of human degradation. Ultimately, Scott believed that Wilkinson's testimony was merely an attempt to cover up his own treasonous intentions in the mysterious affair. This was not the last time Scott passed judgment on James Wilkinson.
Though convinced of Burr's guilt, Scott anticipated his acquittal, given the prosecution's lack of evidence. He called Burr a murderer (referring to the duel in which he shot and killed Alexander Hamilton) and regretted that he had not been executed. In Scott's view Burr should be punished, because people must learn "a most needful lesson—that playing at treason is a dangerous game!"
Burr's trial made a lasting impression on Scott. In his Memoirs he devoted more pages to it than to any other event in his early life. Such an assemblage of nationally prominent personalities fascinated him, and the skill exhibited by attorneys on both sides captivated the young, observant lawyer. Andrew Jackson arrived in Richmond to testify for the government» but when the prosecution learned that he believed in Burr's innocence, it refused to call him to the stand. At that time Scott first witnessed the wrath of the fiery Tennessean when, from the steps of the capitol building, Jackson harangued a gathering crowd with denunciations of Pres. Thomas Jefferson and plaudits for Burr. Only a decade later Scott too felt the sting of Jackson's sharp tongue.
In July 1807, before the trial ended, news of the Chesapeake-Leopard affair swept the country, bringing with it Scott's first opportunity for military experience. The British firing on the American frigate Chesapeake, and the subsequent impressment of four of its crew, was one incident in a long string of such events. That three of the impressed sailors were genuine American citizens outraged the public and brought animated cries for reprisal. On July 2 Jefferson issued a proclamation ordering all armed British vessels away from the American coast, and a week later he instructed the governor of Virginia to bring the state militia to full strength and to call up enough units to patrol the coast.
The call for volunteers prompted Scott to hurry home to Petersburg to offer his services. He traveled all night and arrived in time to secure a mount, borrow a uniform, and join a local cavalry unit. His appearance in military attire must have impressed his fellow volunteers. Twenty-one years old, Scott was six-feet, four-inches tall and weighed 230 pounds. His physical bearing may have contributed to his being assigned the rank of corporal and placed in charge of a detachment at Lynn Haven Bay. His responsibilities included guarding a stretch of coastline and searching inlet streams to prevent supply parties from coming ashore to obtain provisions for the British fleet. One night while patrolling a nearby creek, Scott and his band encountered a rowboat that had slipped in from the bay and procured supplies. "What boat is that?" Scott thundered. "It's His Majesty's ship Leopard, and what the devil is that to you?" came the reply. With that the Americans plunged into the stream, surrounded the craft, and captured eight unarmed Englishmen along with their cargo of water and vegetables. Scott proudly escorted his prisoners back to camp, where they were detained for a few days. When orders came to release the captives with only a warning, Scott thought the punishment too mild.
By late summer the turbulence had subsided and Scott resumed his law practice in Petersburg, but he returned a restless young man. The short but exciting experience had aroused his martial spirit. No longer content to stay in his hometown, he journeyed to South Carolina in October 1807, thinking of starting a practice there. He petitioned the state legislature for a special dispensation revoking the mandatory twelve-month residency requirement for practicing attorneys. While he waited for a ruling, Congress passed the Embargo Act in December prohibiting all foreign trade. The measure, intended to counter British and French trade restrictions against the United States, brought increased tension. Once again the countryside was rife with talk of war. Everyone with whom Scott spoke believed that the embargo was but a prelude to military conflict. Reasoning that war meant an increase in the army, Scott went to Washington to seek a commission.
As soon as he arrived in the capital, Scott visited his friend, Sen. William Giles of Petersburg. As a part of a general army reformation, Jefferson intended to fill the officer corps with party faithfuls. Scott rightly perceived that if he wanted a commission, he needed someone to vouch for his political leanings. A Republican and congressional ally of Jefferson's, Giles had the clout necessary to arrange an audience for Scott with the president. The two men went together to the White House, and Giles introduced the young Virginian as a loyal Republican. Giles assured the president of Scott's character and integrity, and Jefferson promised that when Congress approved a bill to enlarge the army, Scott would have his commission.
Scott returned to Petersburg to await his appointment. In March 1808 he resumed circuit riding, bringing him full circle since the preceding spring. Congress in April approved a measure to triple the size of the army to 10,000 by raising rive new regiments. The following month Scott received a commission as captain of a company of light artillery. He immediately sent a letter of acceptance to the secretary of war, revealing the eagerness with which he began his military career: "[I] pledge my life, my liberty [and my] sacred honor," he wrote.
After a year of misgivings and uncertainties, Scott had found a purpose and a direction in his new profession. With war on the horizon, he dreamed of fame. He entered the army supremely confident of his ability to succeed and certain that the battlefield would bring the glory that he craved. To advertise his new status, he hired a tailor to make a uniform embellished with braid and a sash. When it was completed, Scott locked the door to his room, pushed the furniture against the walls, placed two mirrors at opposite sides of the room, and for two hours paced back and forth admiring his appearance. Thus began his lifelong love affair with ornate uniforms.
His enthusiasm, however, soon turned to disillusionment. Recruiting a company was not easy. Scott spent summer 1808 riding back and forth between Petersburg and Richmond enlisting men and procuring equipment. He also contended with those age-old army problems of discipline and desertion. Recruits often found themselves inextricably indebted after buying from sutlers on credit, and Scott, on more than one occasion, paid the bill from his own pocket. Having raised his eighty-man levy, he next began to train his company in the use of artillery. But no comprehensive American manuals existed on the subject, a deficiency Scott certainly noticed. He had to turn to foreign texts, one of which was probably The Manoeuvres of Horse Artillery, published in France in 1800.
Early in 1809 the War Department began strengthening the defenses at New Orleans in anticipation of war with Great Britain, and Scott received orders to join the forces being sent to protect the city. The government also instructed Gen. James Wilkinson to go to New Orleans to command the 2,000 men gathering there.
Captain Scott took his company to Norfolk, the point of debarkation, and while there he became embroiled in his first dispute over seniority. James Bankhead and Edward Dillard, both captains of recently formed infantry units, contended with Scott over the honor of commanding the assembled troops until their arrival in New Orleans. It was a minor disagreement, but for Scott it was a matter of pride. He felt himself perfectly capable of commanding the whole force, and he refused to step aside voluntarily and allow the command to go to someone else. Wilkinson settled the row when he stopped in Norfolk on his way south. His solution was as direct and decisive as it was unsophisticated: he simply told the trio to draw straws. Bankhead won. This elementary approach could not have impressed Scott. Relations between Bankhead and Scott remained cool for some time after the incident.
On February 4, 1809, the troops began an eventful trip, one illustrating the conditions that plagued the army and the extent of the government's failure to plan for military operations. The only vessel available to convey the men to New Orleans, the contracted transport Nancy, Scott described as "a clump of a ship, half rotten." The journey took twice as long as it should have because the Nancy's captain sailed around Cuba; then at the mouth of the Mississippi River, the rickety ship struck a sandbar that severed its rudder. There the ship sat for three weeks waiting to be dislodged and repaired. Finally, on April 1, the Virginians reached their destination.
As if the voyage had not been bad enough, in camp the conditions were worse. Scott arrived to find both army discipline and camp sanitation in a careless state of neglect. Wilkinson had chosen to bivouac his legion on the outskirts of New Orleans, thus making liquor, prostitutes, and other vices readily available to the men. An abundance of flies and mosquitoes prompted the general to order curtains for the tents, but this protective measure did little to stop the spread of disease, which soon swept the camp. Spoiled food and bad drinking water made matters worse. Within two weeks after Scott's arrival, 500 of the army's 2,000 men were on the sicklist.
As conditions deteriorated, so did relations between Wilkinson and his officers. Initially the general received Scott warmly in a natural attempt to win the support and friendship of the new officer, but Scott did not reciprocate the goodwill, remembering the Burr trial. In fall 1808, while training his new company, Scott had declared that if he ever went into battle under Wilkinson's command, he would carry with him two pistols, one for the enemy and another for the general. And in New Orleans, someone overheard the young captain telling some friends that he believed Wilkinson to be as guilty of treason as Aaron Burr and that only Jefferson's intercession had prevented him from being indicted. Wilkinson then heard of a letter Scott had written in which he criticized the general for placing Bankhead over the troops. In response, Wilkinson asserted that Scott had come to his headquarters soon after arriving in New Orleans and had confessed his initial in will, but because of Wilkinson's generous treatment, Scott revised his opinion and said that he would henceforth consider himself a friend and supporter. The veracity of Wilkinson's account is suspect, and it remains uncertain if this conversation ever took place. There is no doubt, however, that Scott's antipathy for Wilkinson ran deep.
Many of Wilkinson's officers wanted to move to a better location, and the discontent was not confined to the army. Alarmed that one-fourth of the troops were sick, Secretary of War William Eustis wrote a letter on April 30, ordering Wilkinson to move "immediately" to higher ground. He suggested two suitable locations upriver: Fort Adams or Natchez. The letter did not reach Wilkinson until June 14, and by that time he already had begun transferring the army to a new camp twelve miles downstream. The site, located near the settlement of Terre aux Boeufs, was three feet below river level. It was a bad choice. Wilkinson had delayed moving from New Orleans as long as possible so that he could maintain his business interests and social affairs, including the courtship of Celestine Trudeau, his future wife. The new location's proximity to the city required that he give up neither.
In the first week of June, Scott accompanied an advance party to Terre aux Boeufs to prepare the campsite. He probably noticed instantly that the marshy area was unsuitable for an army, especially in a muggy, semitropical climate. Wilkinson was sending his men to a wilderness of high grass, undergrowth, willows, and palmettos, where the ground was rarely dry. Some of the men advised against moving the army there, but Wilkinson's mind was set. It did not take much sagacity to realize that Terre aux Boeufs was a more unwholesome environment than New Orleans. Nevertheless, Scott and the others worked to prepare the area for bivouac. They cleared a spot in the swampy lowlands and dug ditches in a futile attempt to improve drainage.
The rest of the army arrived on June 9, and the camp quickly became a quagmire of filth and mud. The drainage ditches soon filled with litter and excrement, and persistent rains caused them to overflow and spill their sludge into the camp. A hot steam rose from the damp ground where the army slept. The men had to contend with leaky tents, spoiled beef, dingy drinking water, and sour, worm-infested bread. Wilkinson was in complicity with the contractor, stuffing his purse while the supplier used various means of deception to disguise the contaminated food. A scarcity of medical supplies and an abundance of mosquitoes meant that malaria, yellow fever, dysentery, and scurvy prevailed among the troops. Wilkinson withheld the soldiers' pay for fear that, with their pockets full, many would desert. During three months in these deplorable conditions, 127 men died, 18 deserted, and several officers resigned. One historian ranked it among "the Army's worst peacetime disasters of any era."
Scott's low opinion of Wilkinson soon expanded into a contempt for most of the officers with whom he served. The lack of discipline and sanitation and the general mismanagement that he witnessed appalled him. The army, he concluded, was in the hands of "imbeciles and ignoramuses!" He considered the graduates of the fledgling military academy at West Point to be adept, but those commissioned directly from civilian life usually were incompetent. The problem, he believed, lay in the practice of awarding commissions only to men whose party affiliation matched that of the administration in power. In the expansion of 1808 almost all the officers appointed were Republicans. In some regions of the country, Scott reasoned, "there were but very few educated Republicans. Hence the selections from those communities consisted mostly of coarse and ignorant men. In the other States, ... the appointments consisted, generally, of swaggerers, dependents, decayed gentlemen, and others—`fit for nothing else,' which always turned out utterly unfit for any military purpose whatever." Thus, the officer corps was devoid of educated gentlemen. Scott clearly considered himself an exception to these generalizations even though he had received his commission in like manner. But it was always Scott's view that he was somehow different and above everyone else around him.
Within a month after the move to Terre aux Boeufs, Scott had had enough. He had entered the service when war seemed imminent, but with the prospects of a fight dwindling, he had no interest in the dull (and as it turned out, deadly) routine of a peacetime army. Fighting off insects and disease sapped his enthusiasm as he realized that he would find neither fame nor glory on the swampy banks of the Mississippi. Disgusted and disillusioned, Scott resigned. He petitioned Wilkinson for a leave so that he could return home to await the War Department's acceptance of his resignation.
After his departure, rumors began circulating that in September and October 1808 Scott had withheld the pay of some of his men, pocketing $250 in the process. Lieutenant John Estes, who succeeded Scott in command, wrote to Wilkinson complaining that after Scott's departure, members of the regiment appealed to him for the preceding September's and October's pay. Yet, Estes said, he knew that Scott had received the pay before leaving Richmond. Dr. William Upshaw, a surgeon in the Fifth Infantry Regiment, helped spread the story by ridiculing Scott and calling him a thief. Hoping to have charges filed against Scott, Upshaw took the information to his friend, General Wilkinson.
The issue of whether he took money from his troops was not the only episode involving Scott and questionable financial dealings. When he left Virginia earlier that year with his company of recruits, he carried with him a slaveboy belonging to Daniel Bedinger. The details of the arrangement between Scott and Bedinger are vague, but apparently Scott was to deliver the boy to a Mr. Sheppard in New Orleans. When the Nancy lodged on the sandbar before reaching New Orleans, Scott, along with the ship's captain, were concerned because they had never recorded the slave on the ship's manifest. Technically the slave was being transported illegally, and for such an offense authorities could have confiscated the ship. To get out of this precarious situation and believing that unforeseen circumstances had released him of the obligation to deliver the boy, Scott sold him to a visitor on the ship for $500. He then used some of the money for his own purposes, intending to repay Bedinger from his army pay the following month. There is no indication as to how Scott spent part of the money. He may have been in a financial bind or he may simply have wanted something that he could not afford. Before receiving his pay, however, Scott borrowed the money from someone else and mailed it to Bedinger.
That incident had occurred of course before Scott's decision to return home. In August, after arriving in Petersburg, Scott learned that Bedinger had never received the money supposedly mailed from New Orleans in the spring. In letters to an associate, Scott said he was "distressed" over the situation. In an attempt to locate the problem, he wrote to the postmaster in New Orleans only to learn that he had been "dismissed" from his job. There is no indication that the money ever surfaced or that the predicament was solved. It is only certain that by February 1810 no money or letter addressed from Scott to Bedinger had appeared, and Scott was still trying to appease the injured parties.
Soon after returning home Scott began to rethink his decision to resign because of the renewed prospects of hostilities with Great Britain. He asked for permission to tour Europe to observe foreign armies, with particular attention to French artillery, indicating an early desire to adapt the American army to European ways. As an added bonus, the trip would provide a way for Scott to stay in the army without being ordered back to New Orleans. However, he then learned that if he returned to duty, he would be court-martialed for withholding his men's money. This news prompted Scott to return to New Orleans to confront his detractors. He withdrew his resignation, dropped any thoughts of studying in Europe, and returned to the army ready to defend his honor. One wonders if his decision to leave Virginia had anything to do with the Bedinger affair. Perhaps he thought that by returning to New Orleans he would be better positioned to track down the missing money or that by distancing himself from Bedinger he would relieve the pressure to produce it.
Scott arrived at the army's new camp near Natchez in November 1809, anxious to face his accusers. He soon learned of Upshaw's slanderous remarks, and he asked for a court of inquiry to clear his name. While waiting for the court to convene, Scott took the opportunity to castigate Wilkinson in front of a group of officers. In a reckless display of malice, he called the general a "liar and a scoundrel" and asserted, "[I] never saw but two traitors, General Wilkinson and Burr." On another occasion, he avowed that to serve under Wilkinson was as disgraceful as being married to a prostitute. They were bold statements coming from an overconfident, impetuous young captain. Upshaw heard of the remarks and immediately reported them to Wilkinson. The charge of insubordination was then added to that of withholding his men's pay.
The inquiry, instead of clearing Scott's name, produced sufficient evidence for a court-martial. The captain, admitting that his brazen remarks were "imprudent" and "blamable," did not consider them insubordinate. The court disagreed and found him guilty of unofficerlike conduct. It was a lenient verdict; had the court found him guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer, he could have been dismissed from the service.
Regarding the charge of withholding pay, Scott explained that the incident had occurred while he was organizing his company. He had bought supplies and paid sutlers' bills for several men out of his own pocket and simply reimbursed himself with part of their pay. Though technically correct, he had failed to follow proper procedures for reimbursements and again was found guilty, although the court acknowledged no fraudulent intent. Scott called the charge of fraud "both stupid and malignant."
On January 22, 1810, the court sentenced Scott to a twelve-month suspension from the army without pay: light punishment considering the offenses. The easy penalty can probably be explained by the general dislike for Wilkinson throughout the army. During Scott's absence in July, some of the officers had threatened to mutiny if Wilkinson would hot sanction a move away from Terre aux Boeufs. The officers constituting the court-martial had experienced the same frustrations and depredations as Scott and probably sympathized with him.
Historians have drawn a variety of conclusions regarding Scott's actions in 1808 and 1809. His biographers are generally sympathetic, excusing his behavior as an excess of patriotism. Russell Weigley has not been as kind, writing that Scott's withholding of his men's pay was "at least careless" and suggesting that his motives might have been truly damning. James Ripley Jacobs offers a harsher assessment, characterizing Scott as "a maliciously blatant young officer uncontrolled by the rules of decent restraint." He has described the Virginian as an overconfident "upstart" and a dishonest subaltern. Jacobs has concluded that his actions "can[not] be condoned simply because Scott was youthful and indiscreet."
Indeed, Scott's insolent behavior cannot be countenanced because of inexperience. He was rash and insubordinate, and he deserved the censure he received. Scott probably felt that withholding the salary of some of his men was the simplest, most expedient way to cancel their debt to him, particularly since it eliminated the delay of going through proper channels. There is no evidence that he intended to defraud his men or the government. His method, however, was unprofessional and inappropriate, and he deserved punishment. In this case, as well as in the Bedinger affair, he may have been blameless; nevertheless his actions were irresponsible. He not only had a loose tongue, but he also played fast and loose with other people's money. Enough uncertainties surround both episodes that it is impossible to label him dishonest. Yet those same uncertainties make it equally impossible to completely exonerate him; too many questions remain unanswered.
If Scott could not clear his name through the legal process, he could at least gain satisfaction under the code of honor by challenging his greatest critic to a duel. He knew that Upshaw had called him a thief and had kept the commanding general informed of his derogatory remarks. He also learned that it was Upshaw who had preferred charges against him. Before leaving the army, Scott confronted his defamer and issued the challenge. Scores of spectators came to watch on February 3 when the antagonists met on the bank of the Mississippi River. Upshaw was not injured in the exchange, but Scott came away with a grazed scalp. The wound was more painful than serious and, no doubt, injured his pride more than his skull. Having settled his affairs, Scott returned to Virginia to serve his suspension.
Using the library of his friend, Benjamin Watkins Leigh, Scott turned his punishment into a period of professional development by immersing himself in the study of military history. The two men often spent the evenings reading aloud to each other and discussing passages. Exactly which works Scott studied are not known, but he undoubtedly read many of the classic European texts that predated the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. A possible list might include the works of the great French military engineer Sebastien Vauban, Frederick the Great's Principes Généraux de la Guerre, Jean-Charles de Folard's controversial Histoire de Polybe, Jacques Antoine Hypolite de Guibert's important Essai General de Tactique, Gen. James Wolfe's Instructions to Young Officers, and William Armstrong's Practical Considerations on the Errors Committed by Generals and Field Officers. Some of these works Scott later commended to the War Department as excellent sources.
Scott's military thinking reflected his study of classical eighteenth-century European warfare, and later he was influenced by Napoleon, who in turn had been influenced by Guibert. Scott's broad knowledge of military history caused some observers to refer to him as a scholar of war, and he relished discussions in which he could prove his point by quoting from a well-known text. Eighteenth-century warfare was largely a process of maneuvers resembling a chess game. It emphasized important positions, cutting supply lines, flanking movements, and surprise attacks, tactics with the intended purpose of bringing about decisive action. Because of limitations in transportation and communication it was necessarily a slow, calculating process requiring a great deal of planning. Traditional warfare was an art.
Practitioners of the art were often upper-class gentlemen, brave and honorable men who possessed a high degree of devotion to the army and to the state. For these men, birth and wealth usually dictated entry into the officer corps, but as a result of the Enlightenment, education and training were becoming increasingly important in European armies. Scott probably identified with the great warriors of the past and imagined himself as coming from the same mold, or rather sought ways to make himself fit the mold. Such aspirations may account for the subtle change that was beginning to occur in his political leanings. He had obtained his commission because he was a Republican, but his observations in New Orleans had caused him to revise his opinion of such commoners.
On January 15, 1811, thirteen days before the expiration of his suspension, Scott wrote the War Department an unusual request for reinstatement. The one-time lawyer had a knack for twisting details in such a way as to contrive ridiculous arguments to support his views. Scott argued that the suspension order read that he was expelled from the army for "twelve months," which legally meant twelve lunar revolutions (forty-eight weeks), ending his suspension on December 28, not on January 28. If the order had said "a twelvemonth" or "a year," Scott contended, then it would have been a solar revolution or a calendar year.
In the same letter Scott also claimed the right to be promoted to the rank of major. A major in his regiment had died since his suspension had gone into effect, and as first captain, Scott argued that he, not the second captain, should be awarded the post. In a patronizing fashion, he lectured the secretary of war on the terminology and meaning of his punishment. A suspension, he wrote, carried with it the idea of service not being "destroyed, but delayed, not ... vacated, but postponed." Therefore his suspension could not deprive him of promotion but merely postpone it. He believed he should be a major as of the preceding March when the post was vacated, and he made a vague argument requesting the pay difference between a captain and a major from that date, because only his pay as captain had been suspended. The War Department recognized the absurdity of these arguments.
Even while Scott studied military history and sought an early reinstatement, he still faced his future with uncertainty. He was not yet fully committed to the profession of arms, for he confided to a friend that his desire for a military career had diminished. With the prospect of war remote, he considered resigning from the army to resume his legal career. Only the outbreak of war could rejuvenate his enthusiasm, and if that should happen, he wrote, "who knows but that I may yet write my history with my sword?"
Scott chose not to resign immediately, however, and in October 1811 the War Department recalled him to active duty. He returned to the Gulf and reported to the Baton Rouge headquarters of a new commander, Gen. Wade Hampton. Over the next few months, as the United States and Great Britain drifted closer to war, he served on Hampton's staff. Scott found staff duties boring, and in his spare time he studied the legal code of Louisiana, thinking that if he did eventually resign, he would practice law in the territory.
When the Twelfth Congress convened in November 1811, it seated several young, nationalistic members intent on preserving the integrity of their republican experiment in government. The French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte's ascent to power had resulted in sporadic warfare in Europe for two decades. Whenever England and France went to war in Europe, problems invariably arose with the United States. Great Britain's refusal to relax its maritime restrictions on American commerce, along with its continued practice of impressment, appeared to officials in Washington to restrict the nation's choices either to war or to submission. Congress thus immediately set about to reconcile the nation's indifferent military policy with its aggressive foreign policy. Before the year ended, Congress approved an increase in the army to 30,000 men. By spring, war appeared imminent.
"The eyes of all embryo heroes ... turned upon Washington," Scott later recalled. On May 20, 1812, he set out for the capital with General Hampton, leaving behind the distasteful memories of his first four years of military service. The vessel in which they sailed reached the Virginia Capes on June 20, two days after Congress declared war. Scott traveled to Washington, where he learned of his double promotion to lieutenant colonel and his assignment to Col. George Izard's Second Artillery Regiment. He considered his new rank and the coming of war as the "favor of Providence."
Uncertainty marked Scott's early adulthood in his search for personal worth and legitimacy. Joining the army had not immediately provided direction for his life, as his military zeal rose and declined with the prospects of war. Thoughts of resigning were always in the back of his mind as he struggled to balance ambition and frustration. He was anxious for action, promotion, and fame—objectives that only a war could provide. Unable to fight a foreign enemy, he had done battle with fellow officers within the army. Scott possessed the necessary qualities for field command—boldness, courage, and knowledge—but thus far he had exhibited only arrogance, impatience, and truculence. The future, however, provided opportunities to redeem the past.
List of Maps and Illustrations
1. Young Fuss and Feathers
2. Sloth, Ignorance, and Intemperance
3. Writing History with a Sword
4. In Peace, Prepare for War
5. Converting Friends into Enemies
6. Challenges during he Jackson Years
7. Diplomat and Politician
8. The Politics of Command
9. Olive Branch and Sword
10. Old Fuss and Feathers
11. Sage of the Army