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General Winfield Scott and the Civil War

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  • 0:04 General Winfield Scott
  • 0:45 The War of 1812
  • 2:25 The Mexican-American War
  • 3:44 1852 Presidential Campaign
  • 4:28 The Civil War
  • 6:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: 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-American War and was Union General-in-Chief for the first few months of the Civil War.

General Winfield Scott

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. 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 militaristic test of the nascent American nation: The War of 1812.

The War of 1812

During the War of 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. However, 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. Scott later 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. 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 military 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 U.S.

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

The Mexican-American War

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

It was during the Mexican-American War, that Scott achieved his greatest claim to fame. While Zachary Taylor led a force 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-American War general and 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 and 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. A few years after his loss, in 1855, Scott was given a brevet promotion to the rank of lieutenant general, the same rank held by George Washington.

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