Thursday, 4 March 2010
"Old Fuss and Feathers"
Suspended for a year early in his career for insubordination (albeit justified), he fought in the War of 1812, was captured and repatriated. He returned to lead a brilliant operation that forced the abandonment of Ft. George in Canada by the British. Then he decisively won the Battle of Chippewa against British regulars and was wounded severely at Lundy’s Lane. He was not a West Point graduate, but he tested many of them in battle and found them steel. His fixed opinion of their performance during the War with Mexico was (and still is) required knowledge for generations of Plebes. He went on to a 50-year career in the Army, was the first lieutenant general (although brevet) since Washington and the ranking officer in the Army for 20 years, giving up the reins only after the beginning of the Civil War. He resided at West Point for many years, and his final resting place is there, a stone monument surrounded by a black, wrought iron fence, within a short distance of those of the Father of the Military Academy and other Academy heroes. In some years, on Halloween, a modest pumpkin mysteriously appears upon it.
He commanded federal troops in Charleston, SC, during the nullification crisis of 1832-33, quietly preparing the garrison for attack but making no overt hostile gestures and using his forces to help fight a major fire. He greatly subscribed to the French concepts of tactics and in 1835 revised the American Infantry regulations with emphasis on light infantry tactics. In 1838, he sought, with limited success, to protect the Cherokees being moved to reservations along what became known as the “Trail of Tears.” In late 1838 he was sent to the Canadian border to convince Americans to not violate neutrality by aiding a Canadian rebellion against British rule. Due to the demands of the Second Seminole War in Florida, the Army had only 2,000 troops available to defend the entire Canadian border, so Scott’s efforts at avoiding another conflict with Great Britain were of inestimable value.
As war with Mexico seemed unavoidable, his counsel that our volunteer forces should not enter Mexico until September 1846, both to avoid the rainy season along the Rio Grande and have time for necessary rudimentary training, was ignored. The folksy, bluff, brave and impulsive Zachary Taylor actually did not invade until late September and the volunteers did receive some needed training, but Taylor’s initial victories demonstrated personal bravery and political ambition more than military skills. Taylor’s final defensive victory at Buena Vista proved a closely run thing. Winfield Scott, while perceived as aristocratic and pedantic, would show his true colors when President Polk assigned him command of the Vera Cruz expedition.
This extended amphibious operation to seize Mexico City, the enemy’s fortified capital, would require a complex operation over extended lines of communication and resupply. Scott landed his troops near Vera Cruz via surfboats on 9 March 1847, and all 8,600 members of the assault force made it ashore without opposition or a single casualty. By 18 March, Vera Cruz was under siege and subjected to a four-day barrage that killed several hundred. Upon its surrender, it was imperative that Scott leave the coast and rapidly move inland before the onset of the yellow fever season there. Engineer Captain Robert E. Lee, second man in the Class of 1829, found a route to turn the Mexican flank at Cerro Gordo, and the expedition continued on to Puebla. On 7 August the advance resumed, after a volunteer regiment whose enlistment contract was up was sent home and replacement regiments arrived. Now Scott’s assault force of almost 11,000 faced a series of Mexican fortifications and Santa Anna’s force of over 20,000. No less an authority than the Duke of Wellington judged Scott’s attack as doomed to defeat. The British, Spanish and Prussian ministers serving in Washington agreed.
Captain Lee and Lieutenant Pierre Beauregard, Class of 1838, who would fire the first shots of the Civil War against the forces of MAJ Anderson, Class of 1825 and founder of the Association of Graduates, at Ft. Sumter, SC, again found a route through the lava fields and other soldiers found a path that permitted the defeat of the defensive position of Mexican General Valencia. The defenders then fell back to the convent at Churubusco and successfully stood against several attacks. When the defenders finally fell, over 1,200 prisoners were taken, including American deserters who had formed the San Patricios battalion to fight for Mexico. A number of these later were executed. After an armistice and attempts at peace negotiations, Scott again resumed the offensive against Chapultepec, using maneuver and deception to avoid strength and strike weakness. The surrender of the city followed on 13-14 September 1847.
Although from Virginia, Scott believed that the states may have the right to secede, but the federal government had a similar right to force them back into the Union. He quietly reinforced federal posts in the south and approved of Anderson’s withdrawal of his Charleston garrison to the more defensible at Ft. Sumter in December 1860. When it was rumored that southerners would attempt to disrupt the Electoral College in February 1861, he declared it his duty to suppress insurrection. Then, in March 1861, he advised President Lincoln to abandon both Ft. Sumter, SC, and Ft. Pickens, FL, in token reconciliation with the South. When Lincoln decided to hold Ft. Sumter, Scott, as general-in-chief of the Union Army, began preparing for war with his Anaconda Plan. When Lee, a fellow Virginian, refused Federal field command, Scott noted, “you have made the greatest mistake of your life; but I feared it would be so.”
Scott’s initial military plan called for a force of 60,000 to receive four-plus months of training before entering combat, considering that anything less than an impressive Union victory early in the Civil War would lead to an extended conflict. He confided in Sherman that “General Impatience” would lead to reckless and unwarranted military action. Instead, prodded into premature action with untrained troops by the popular press, the first battle of Manassas became a Confederate victory on 21 July 1861. The man proclaimed by the Duke of Wellington as “the greatest living general” after the conquest of Mexico finally left the service of his country on 31 October 1861 at the age of 75 and died at West Point on 29 May 1866.
Your humble servant, J. Phoenix, Esquire
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