General Winfield Scott and the Civil War: Lesson & Quiz

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Daniel Vermilya

General Winfield Scott was one of the most famous Americans of the 19th Century. He led American forces to victory in the Mexican War and was Union General-in-Chief for the first few months of the Civil War.

We also recommend watching End of the Civil War: General Grant Begins the March Toward Richmond and Life in the South After the Civil War

When 21st century Americans think of the greatest generals in American history, the names that come up most often are Washington, Grant, Eisenhower, and Patton. One name that most Americans today might not know is Winfield Scott, the most important American general of the first half of the 19th century. Let's learn more about this important American general.


Born in Virginia in 1786, Winfield Scott grew up along with the young United States. He joined the U.S. military in 1808, becoming an artillery captain. After early troubles, such as a suspension for insubordination, Scott took part in the first major test of the young American nation: the War of 1812.

War of 1812

In 1812, Scott was a lieutenant colonel and took part in fighting in New York and Canada. He was one of the officers who led American troops into the Battle of Queenston Heights in October 1812. Scott and the American forces surrendered to the British at this fight, and he was held as a prisoner of war for some time. After his release, Scott resumed his army career, becoming a colonel and returning to the Niagara River area of New York. He led an attack on Fort George in Ontario, and despite being wounded, was successful in the endeavor. As a result, he became a brigadier general in 1814 at the age of 27 years old. As a general, Scott played a major part in the battles of Chippawa and Lundy's Lane in 1814. He soon received a brevet promotion to major general, continuing his meteoric and heroic rise through the ranks during the War of 1812.

With the conclusion of the War of 1812, Scott became a major leader in the peacetime army. Scott traveled to Europe to study French army methods for the purpose of improving the regular army in the United States. During the War of 1812, Scott developed a mistrust and dislike of volunteer troops. He preferred to use professional army soldiers whenever possible. Thus, his time after the War of 1812 was spent developing the regular army of the United States.

During the 1830s, Scott took part in the Federal government's campaigns against Native Americans in the Southern United States, most notably leading field forces in the Second Seminole War and the Creek War. After several years of Indian fighting, Scott became the commanding general of the U.S. army in 1841, reaching the rank of major general in the regular army.

Portrait of Winfield Scott from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.

Mexican War

In 1846, another major war began when tensions between the U.S. and Mexico led to bloodshed. The Mexican War from 1846 to 1848 is among the least understood of America's war. Over 13,000 Americans died during this conflict, many of them from disease and the Mexican climate.

During the Mexican War, Scott achieved his greatest claim to fame. While Zachary Taylor led an army of volunteers and militia, operating in Northern Mexico, Scott led the main U.S. force directly against Mexico City itself.

First, Scott landed on the Mexican coast and took the city of Veracruz. Scott then led a daring campaign into Mexico, achieving victories over Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at numerous battles, including Cerro Gordo, Contreras, and Churubusco. After taking Chapultepec in September 1847, Scott's American forces entered victoriously into Mexico City. It was one of the most successful military campaigns of the 19th century. During this campaign, numerous young American officers learned first-hand from Scott how to handle large armies, manage supplies, and successfully defeat enemy positions. Among these officers were future Civil War generals Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Joseph Johnston, and George McClellan.

1852 Presidential Campaign

Because of his success in Mexico, Scott became a national hero. Zachary Taylor, a fellow Mexican War general and a member of the Whig Party, was elected president in 1848. However, after he died and was replaced by Millard Fillmore, the Whig Party wanted a new candidate. They turned to Scott, nominating him to run for the presidency.

Despite being from Virginia, Scott was not a proponent of slavery. His support in the South was not strong enough to win a national election in 1852, and Democrat Franklin Pierce was elected the 14th President of the United States. After his loss, in 1855, Scott was given a brevet promotion to the rank of lieutenant general, the same rank held by George Washington.

An older Winfield Scott in 1861, just before his retirement at the start of the Civil War

Civil War

In 1861, Scott was in a key position on the national stage once again when the election of Abraham Lincoln as president led to the secession of 7 southern states. Scott was still the general-in-chief of the United States army, yet, his age, weight, and declining health meant that he would be unable to lead any sort of campaign in the field to bring the southern states back to the fold. When Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, war began between the North and the South. Scott offered command of U.S. field forces to U.S. army colonel and fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee, who had served under Scott in Mexico. Lee declined, resigned from the army, and joined the Confederacy as four more states seceded, including Virginia. When Lee declined the command, Scott offered the same spot to Brigadier General Irvin McDowell. McDowell famously led Union forces to defeat at the Battle of First Manassas in July 1861, the first major land battle of the American Civil War. Scott took the blame for the Federal defeat at this battle.

After First Manassas, Major General George McClellan was brought to Washington to command the Union army in the field. Scott still held on to his general-in-chief post, though, and despite his poor health, he attempted to create a strategy to defeat the rebellious states.

Scott devised the Anaconda Plan. It called for a blockade of all Southern ports and a Union offensive along the Mississippi River which would effectively cut the Confederacy in two. Much like an Anaconda, the Union forces would strangle the South into submission. Despite receiving the mockery of many in the press, Scott's plan ended up being the path Union forces followed to victory. While Lee's army stymied Union forces in Virginia for many years, Union forces in the West (under the leadership of Ulysses S. Grant) used rivers to invade the Confederacy, eventually splitting the South in two by taking Vicksburg in July 1863. This, combined with a blockade and Union successes in Virginia and Georgia, defeated the Confederacy in 1865.

A newspaper map showing Scott

Yet, by the end of the war, Scott was no longer in place. In fact, because of his poor health, he sat out the vast majority of the Civil War. In November 1861, Scott retired and was replaced as general-in-chief by George B. McClellan. Scott died in 1866 and was buried at the U.S. military academy at West Point.

His legacy stands as being one of the greatest generals in American history. He helped to build the U.S. regular army, led U.S. forces in combat during the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, achieving tremendous success in both, and at the start of the Civil War, he helped to formulate Union strategy. Thus, his career had a significant impact on three wars and he served the United States under every president from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln. Winfield Scott should be remembered as one of the most important men in American history.

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