Great Scott

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During the winter of 1864, the fourth year of the American Civil War, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman led 60,000 Northern soldiers on his famed March to the Sea from Atlanta, Georgia to Savannah. Along the way, his troops burned and plundered farms scattered across the state. Sherman fully condoned such tactics not only for strategic purposes but also to teach the Southern populace the true meaning of war — a concept now referred to as “total war.” The campaign transformed Sherman into a national hero. It is often forgotten, however, another U.S. commander conducted just as daunting a campaign nearly fifteen years earlier and was just as spectacularly successful. The expedition marked the climax of a long and illustrious career, and it cemented his reputation as America’s foremost soldier. His name was Winfield Scott. This is the story of his campaign from the gulf coast into the heart of Mexico City.

Winfield Scott first rose to national prominence during the War of 1812. He was born in June 1786 in Petersburg, Virginia to a former Continental Army officer and the granddaughter of a wealthy Virginia planter. After attending Virginia’s prestigious College of William and Mary, he briefly pursued a legal career, but mounting tensions over Britain’s impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy persuaded young Winfield to trade the law for the U.S. military. In 1808 he was commissioned a light artillery captain and began a lifelong habit of wearing ornate uniforms — earning him the nickname “Old Fuss and Feathers.” By the time Congress declared war on Britain in June 1812, Scott was lieutenant colonel of the Second Artillery Regiment. On October 12th he crossed the Niagara River to Queenston, Canada as part of an American invasion force. There he heroically repulsed British attacks to drive the Americans back, at one point leading a counterattack in full-dress uniform. Nonetheless, overwhelming enemy superiority forced him to surrender, and during his five-week captivity, he resolved to never fight defensively again. He proved the value of the offensive in 1813 when he led an audacious attack that routed British troops from Newark, Canada. Hailed as a national hero, the twenty-seven-year-old colonel was promoted to brigadier general in March 1814, making him the youngest in the army. His star rose higher in July 1814 after he executed a masterful flank attack that drove the British from the field during the Battle of the Chippewa. Later that same month, Scott impetuously attacked a British-held ridge at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane and suffered heavy casualties. Nevertheless, the exploits earned Scott the country’s admiration, and he emerged from the war as one of the Army’s top officers.

After the war ended in 1815, Winfield Scott dedicated himself to creating a professional army. He headed a board of officers which adopted French tactics for the U.S. Army, and in 1821 he published a book outlining military regulations. He also championed the establishment of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and its mission to transform young men into effective leaders. Despite these efforts, Congress increasingly called for reducing the Army. Scott perceived such measures as a threat to America’s national security, as well as his own career. In response, he successfully lobbied for preservation of a corps of experienced officers as well as 5,500 soldiers. His actions proved wise. During the 1830s he was frequently called on to mobilize troops to quell various dissident groups opposed to the federal government — first when Indian Chief Black Hawk led an uprising in 1832 in Illinois and again in 1833 when South Carolina nullified a national tariff and threatened war. Three years later in 1836 he led an expedition against Florida’s Seminole Indians and Alabama’s Creeks that, while unsuccessful, imparted valuable lessons about campaigning in enemy territory, notably how to counter guerrilla warfare. The general also used a combination of military force and diplomacy to ease tensions with Britain resulting from disputes along the northern border. In 1841 he achieved his dream of becoming the Army’s commanding general. He was still in that position five years later when war erupted between the United States and Mexico.

By the mid-1840s, expansionist fever gripped the nation, beginning with the Republic of Texas’s admission to the Union. Following Texas’s annexation in December 1845, the U.S. and Mexico clashed over the international boundary — whether it should follow the Rio Grande (the U.S.’s claim) or the Nueces River (Mexico’s claim). President James Polk exacerbated the dispute with his wish to acquire Mexico’s western territory and his decision to send troops to the disputed territory. In May 1846 fighting erupted along the Rio Grande, and Winfield vowed to prosecute the war to the end. In late October General Scott proposed to President Polk and to Secretary of War William Marcy that he, despite his position as top general, lead an expedition into the field to capture the Mexican port of Veracruz and then march into the heartland to “compel [the Mexican] people to sue for peace.” With Polk’s approval, Scott arrived on the island of Lobos, the invasion’s staging point, in late February 1847 to find 9,000 men waiting for him. On March 2, 1847 he sailed south and sighted the “Gibraltar of Mexico” two days later. The invasion began on March 9th as surfboats carried troops to Collado Beach, two-and-a-half miles from the city. It was the largest U.S. amphibious landing until the November 1942 Allied invasion of North Africa during World War II. After securing the beachhead, Scott encircled Veracruz from the south, west, and north, and after observing the formidable defenses, he determined to bombard the Mexican forces into submission rather than lose scores of men in a futile frontal assault. He strategically stationed five batteries around the city, one of which was made up of Naval artillery, and on March 22nd he opened fire on the enemy. After five days, the Mexicans surrendered, and Winfield Scott prepared to embark for Mexico’s historic capital.

Departing Veracruz on April 8th, General Scott led his men along the National Road, the same route used by Spaniard Hernan Cortez and his conquistadores on the expedition against the Aztecs from 1519 to 1521. Three days later, the army’s vanguard encountered enemy troops led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at Cerro Gordo Pass. The Mexican commander, most famous for his slaughter of Texas defenders at the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, had placed artillery along ridgelines covering the road as well as on a 600-foot rise known as El Telegrafo. He left a third hill, Atalaya, only lightly defended. When Scott arrived on April 14th, he rejected a frontal attack and dispatched Captain Robert E. Lee, later of Civil War fame, to find a route around the army. After Lee found a path around Atalaya, Scott ordered General Gideon Pillow to demonstrate (make a show of force) against Santa Anna’s front while David Twiggs’s division attacked the enemy’s left flank. The battle began on April 17th as Twiggs stormed Atalaya, driving the enemy before him. He proceeded up El Telegrafo but was beaten back. Scott was undaunted, however, and directed the assault to resume the next day. This time Twiggs succeeded in seizing the high ground and the National Road, capturing over 3,000 Mexican soldiers and forcing the rest to flee in terror.

Determined to capitalize on the victory, Scott pressed on to Jalapa and then Puebla where he halted to await reinforcements and replenish his supplies. All along the way, “Old Fuss and Feathers” exercised strict control over the troops so as to lessen the depredations committed on the Mexican populace. He imposed martial law and directed all criminals to be tried by military tribunal — whether Mexican or U.S. servicemen. In both Jalapa and Puebla, he also established friendly relations with inhabitants, particularly clergymen. This respect encouraged residents to respond in kind, such as selling much needed supplies to the army. By the time Scott left Puebla, his efforts had largely succeeded in ensuring his rear was free of guerrilla activity. Nevertheless, he perceived the danger of maintaining a communications and supply link with American forces on the coast. Knowing the coming battles with Santa Anna required him to be at full strength, he refused to dispatch troops to protect that line. In a maneuver later mimicked by General William T. Sherman, Scott made the momentous decision to sever all contact with the coast, his supply source. He then turned his back on Puebla and led his soldiers out of the rich farmland. He and his men ascended the mountains surrounding Mexico City, and after four days of marching, during which the troops climbed to an altitude of more than 10,600 feet, he looked down on the campaign’s prize — the Valley of Mexico, with Mexico City at its heart.

As he surveyed the valley, Scott saw that Santa Anna had fortified the city’s southern and eastern approaches to repel American attacks. Not willing to risk battle with a superior force, he bypassed both positions using a southern route thought to be impassable and then pushed through the villages of San Agustin and Contreras by way of a dried lava bed known as the Pedregal. On August 20th Scott launched a pincer attack against Mexican forces, which had moved to meet the threat. Gideon Pillow’s troops surged across the lava field into the camps while General William Worth’s command assaulted Mexican positions around nearby San Antonio. Terrified Mexicans abandoned the field and raced to Santa Anna’s headquarters at Churubusco. Determined to keep up the pressure, Scott pressed both commanders to continue the attack. American forces hurled themselves at the Mexican positions around the Churubusco monastery and the bridge over the Churubusco River. At the cost of only 1,000 casualties, American forces inflicted ten times as many casualties on the enemy and drove the rest back into Mexico City itself.

Following the resounding victory, Scott briefly engaged in peace negotiations in hopes the war would end without additional bloodshed. Such hopes dimmed after he learned Mexican leaders made unrealistic demands and Santa Anna had used the temporary cease-fire to bolster his defenses. Convinced that only a decisive American victory would bring peace, “Old Fuss and Feathers” readied his men to attack the bastions facing them. On September 8, 1847 he ordered William Worth to strike the stone structures of Molino del Rey and Casa Mata, rumored to house gunpowder and a foundry for casting cannon. As Worth commenced the attack, Scott likely felt a jolt of panic as Mexican forces inflicted carnage on the first wave, causing the Americans to fall back. To his vast relief, however, the troops charged back into the fray. Bloody fighting erupted among the combatants. U.S. forces lost a total of 791 men, but Worth finally routed the enemy. Scott now intended to use the captured positions to launch his attack on the castle of Chapultepec. His men could then enter the capital from the west, rather than the more heavily defended south. On the morning of September 13th, U.S. troops stormed the hillside, scaled the castle’s walls and jumped over the parapets. In less than an hour and a half, the American flag flew over this symbol of Mexican military might. But the battle was not over yet. Spurred on by the prospect of delivering a knockout punch, American troops surged up the causeways and into the western edge of the city. Though he had not ordered the pursuit, Scott congratulated his subordinates on a well-executed battle. He still expected Santa Anna to defend his capital street by street. As dawn rose on September 14th, however, he was stunned to find the Mexican army gone and the city’s gates opened for his grand entrance.

As he entered the plaza facing Mexico’s National Palace, Winfield Scott cemented his status as an American hero. In only six months, he advanced more than 250 miles, and at the cost of only 3,200 casualties, he inflicted almost five times that many on the enemy. Looking around, he must have swelled with pride at the realization that he had done all he set out to do. Following his triumph, he devoted himself to occupation duty. So judicious was his administration that several influential leaders approached Scott and asked him to be Mexico’s new president, but disputes with Generals Worth and Pillow, and with President Polk, led to his recall in early 1848. Upon his return, he sought to transform his battlefield glory into political success, and in 1852 he became the Whig Party’s presidential nominee. The campaign proved unsuccessful, and he returned his attention to military affairs. In February 1855 Congress honored his military accomplishments by awarding him the rank of lieutenant general. In that position, he directed a military expedition against Mormons in Utah Territory and helped settle a dispute with Great Britain over San Juan Island in Oregon. As the nation drifted towards civil war in early 1861, Scott strengthened federal installations in the new Confederacy, and he increased the troops protecting Washington, D.C. After Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in April, he devised a grandiose strategy to blockade Southern ports and send Union troops down the Mississippi River. The strategy, derisively labeled the Anaconda Plan by critics, convinced certain Union leaders Scott was too old to direct the war effort. After twenty years as general-in-chief, Winfield Scott left the U.S. Army on October 31, 1861 and retired to the Military Academy at West Point where he died in May 1866. Befitting his long service to the nation, he was buried in the Academy’s cemetery.

Throughout his life, Winfield Scott strove to advance the banner of the United States. He learned the art of warfare fighting the British along America’s northern border, and he carried the lessons with him as he built the U.S. Army into a professional force able to match any opponent. His greatest moment, however, occurred when he led 10,000 American troops into the heartland of Mexico and soundly defeated Santa Anna. The campaign earned him the undying admiration of his subordinates, many of whom adopted Scott’s tactics and aggressiveness when they fought each other during the American Civil War. While some of those officers and their campaigns, notably William Tecumseh Sherman’s 1864 March to the Sea, came to overshadow Scott’s accomplishment simply because of the enormous scale of that epic war, the 1847 Mexico City campaign and its grand architect still deserve all the praise and recognition so graciously bestowed in that day. When he learned of the American victory, no less than the Duke of Wellington, conqueror of Napoleon, placed on Winfield Scott a mantle few would ever attain — “the greatest living soldier.”

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1 Comment

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One response to “Great Scott

  1. Well written and researched story Jake. When you consider the era in which Scott commanded his troops and what he accomplished, I’d say he might just have been the greatest living soldier of his time. Fantastic Take, Jake. Thank you!

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