Judged too old and infirm to command America’s armed forces during the nation’s greatest crisis, General Winfield Scott resigned his post as general-in-chief of the Union armies. Waiting in the wings to replace Scott was the ambitious Major General George B. McClellan, who was the closest thing the country had to a hero at that time.
Known as “Old Fuss and Feathers,” Scott was a larger-than-life American hero. His military career spanned every presidential administration from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln. Scott was a veteran of the War of 1812, the Black Hawk and Second Seminole War. He even ran for president in 1852 as the Whig Party candidate.
Scott was best known as the hero of the Mexican War. During the war, Scott had two promising engineers on his staff, McClellan and Robert E. Lee. Both were destined to meet as foes on Civil War battlefields. Scott served as the Commanding General of the United States Army for twenty years.
By the time of the Civil War, Scott was 74-years-old and too infirm for field command. His weight ballooned to over 300 pounds, making it impossible for him to ride a horse or review troops. Scott also suffered from gout and rheumatism.
While his body was weak, Scott’s mind was strong. He had hoped Lee would lead the Union army. In Scott’s estimation, Lee was the “finest soldier I’ve ever seen.” When Lee resigned his command from the Union army, Lincoln began naming a series of generals searching for one worthy of command.
Scott realized early that the Civil War would be a long, drawn-out affair. He knew southerners would vehemently defend their homeland. Based on the resignations from the Union army, the south had many command-ready generals starting with Lee, Joseph E. Johnston and Albert Sidney Johnston.
Scott devised a plan for defeating the Confederacy by blockading southern ports and sending the Union army down the Mississippi River to gain control of the river and the Deep South. Scott’s strategy was called the Anaconda Plan and was ridiculed by the press. Although Lincoln first rejected Scott’s plan, it was eventually used in subduing the Confederacy.
In 1861, McClellan was the lone Union hero with victories in present-day West Virginia. After First Manassas, McClellan was put in charge of building what would become the Army of the Potomac. McClellan also longed for Scott’s command. When Scott resigned, McClellan was the logical choice to replace him.
On Nov. 1, 1861, McClellan replaced Scott as general-in-chief, issuing orders informing soldiers that he was now the commander of the Union army. It was a rapid rise for McClellan. Six months prior, McClellan was commander of Ohio volunteers.
McClellan’s true talent was forming an army -- not leading it in the field. He built the Army of the Potomac into a stellar fighting unit but was often hesitant on the battlefield.
Lincoln and McClellan were destined to clash many times until the president relieved McClellan in the fall of 1862. McClellan held this command for seven months. In June 1862, Henry Halleck was named general-in-chief to replace McClellan.
Despite his declining health, Scott occasionally met with Lincoln to discuss strategy. Scott’s stature as an American military icon could easily be found in the Army of the Potomac. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, one of the heroes of Gettysburg and one of the best of the Union generals, was named in honor of Winfield Scott.
Scott lived to see his Anaconda Plan used by the North and the ultimate victory of the Federal Army in preserving the union. He died May 29, 1866.