Winfield Scott Arguably the Most Astonishing Military Officer in U.S. History

A Winfield Scott “For President” daguerreotype from his unsuccessful 1852 bid for the presidency sold for $25,000 at a September 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Some historians have labeled him as remarkable, perhaps the most remarkable in American history. For more than 50 years, he served as an officer in the U.S. Army, wearing the stars of a general from 1814 until his death in 1866 at age 80. Following Andrew Jackson’s retirement from the Army in 1821, he served as the country’s most prominent general, stepping down in late 1861, six months after the start of the Civil War.

Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, hero of the War of 1812, conqueror of Mexico in a hazardous campaign, and Abraham Lincoln’s top soldier at the beginning of the Civil War, was born in Virginia in 1786. It was a time of “an innumerable crowd of those striving to escape from their original social condition,” as described by French observer of America, Alexis de Tocqueville.

Success rested on the possession of land, driving both ambitious Americans and their government west.

Winfield’s father died when he was 5, and his mother died in 1803 when he was 17 and on his own. By 1807, he had tired of schooling and joined a prominent law firm in Richmond, “riding the circuits” where he helped provide legal assistance to litigants. It was here that the governor of Virginia made an appeal for volunteers to the state militia after a British frigate intercepted an American ship to search for four deserters from His Majesty’s Navy … the famous Chesapeake-Leopard Affair.

The people of the United States reacted with surprising violence, almost lynching British officers and attacking a nearby squadron. “For the first time in their history,” wrote American historian Henry Adams, “the people of the United States learned in June 1807 the feeling of a true national emotion.”

Public opinion forced President Thomas Jefferson to issue a proclamation requiring all armed British vessels to depart American waters. Then he called on all governors to furnish forces of 100 militia each. Winfield Scott felt an overwhelming urge to play a part and eagerly joined his fellow Virginians.

Thus began a long, storied military career, both during the consolidation of the nation and its expansion.

As a general, he was not the architect. It was President James Madison who attempted to unsuccessfully annex Canada in 1812. It was President Jackson who decided that American Indians east of the Mississippi must be moved to western lands following the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 (the infamous “Trail of Tears”). President John Tyler eventually settled the boundary dispute with Britain over the border between Maine and New Brunswick, Canada. James K. Polk manipulated the War with Mexico that expanded the nation into the southwest. And President James Buchanan used General Scott to secure the San Juan Islands, between Vancouver Island and the mainland, during the Pig War between the United States and Great Britain.

For each of these presidents, the agent and builder, in contrast to the architect, was General Scott. In this role, Scott served under 14 presidents, 13 of them as a general officer. Winfield “Old Fuss and Feathers” Scott lost his own bid for the presidency as the unsuccessful candidate for the Whigs in 1852. However, he certainly had the longest and most astonishing military career in U.S. history. And that includes all the other great men: Washington, Jackson, Grant, Lee, Eisenhower, etc.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Fillmore Often Makes the ‘Forgettable Presidents’ Club

Millard Fillmore appears on the lower right corner of this Union Bank of Missouri $100 Color Proof. It realized $61,687.50 at an October 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Millard Fillmore, the 13th president, was the last not affiliated with either the Democrat or Republican parties. Born in a log cabin, he developed slowly since he did not read well and was apprenticed when he was 14 years old. After several years, he bought out his indenture for $30, but never saw a map of the United States until he was 19.

However, he learned to love books and spent a lot of time just reading.

Later, his entry into politics was through the New York State Assembly as an anti-Mormon candidate. Eventually, he made it into the U.S. House by following Whig Party policies. He even made a run at being the Whig Party VP candidate in 1844, but finished a weak third. Then, to top it off, he was defeated for governor of New York that same year.

It looked like his career had peaked.

However, his luck changed in 1848 when the Whigs picked General Zachary Taylor to run for president. Taylor was a slaveholder from Louisiana, had never run for office, and had never even voted.

Taylor and Fillmore had also never met, but the Whigs hoped Fillmore would help balance the ticket … a strategy that worked!

Vice President Fillmore was largely ignored when the administration finally took office. That is until President Taylor died unexpectedly and Fillmore was thrust into the Oval Office.

Alas, he gradually lost support of the Whig Party and was unable to generate a lot of support for reelection. One major cause was signing and then enforcing the proslavery Fugitive Slave Law, which alienated Northern Whigs.

During the 1852 convention, Fillmore made a valiant effort, but on the 53rd ballot, Winfield Scott finally prevailed as the Whig Party candidate. He would go on to lose the general election to Democrat Franklin Pierce.

In 1856, the American Party (“Know Nothings”) convinced Fillmore to make another run for the presidency; he won a single state. Curiously, many historians argue that Fillmore was never an actual American Party member, never attended a single meeting, and was even out of the country when all this happened.

All of this is true, but they overlook the fact that he did mail a letter affirming his acceptance of the nomination. So, I say he was an official candidate despite the unusual circumstances and the rather obvious lack of any real interest.

Fillmore often makes the “Forgettable Presidents” club … but we remember him because he was the first president to turn down an Honorary Degree … a Doctor of Civil Law from Oxford. His reason was a little hokey (he could not read or understand it since it was in Latin), but that only makes him more qualified for our club.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

General Longstreet at Center of One of Civil War’s Greatest Controversies

A signed carte de visite of Confederate General James Longstreet sold for $3,250 at a June 2015 Heritage auction.

“Bring me Longstreet’s head on a platter and the war will be over.” – President Abraham Lincoln

By Jim O’Neal

Confederate General James Longstreet (1821-1904) was born in South Carolina and his mother sent him to live with an uncle who decided his should have a military career. He received an appointment to West Point, where he underperformed academically. However, he made many lifelong friends, including future President Ulysses Grant.

Commissioned into the infantry, he served until the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. From 1847 to 1849, he served under generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, was wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec, and finally resigned from the U.S. Army in June 1861. It was nearly a month after Fort Sumter.

Like many of his southern colleagues, he joined the Confederacy and ended up in the Army of Northern Virginia after Robert E. Lee declined Lincoln’s offer to head up the entire Union Army. Almost inexorably, this led to the most famous battle of the Civil War. On July 1, 1863, Longstreet rode onto the battlefield of Gettysburg as infantry units were cleaning up after a decisive day-one victory. He was 42 years old.

After surveying the Federals rallying on Seminary Ridge, he lowered his field glasses, turned to General Lee and spoke – launching one of the greatest controversies of the entire Civil War. “General Lee, we could not call the enemy to position better suited to our plans… all we have to do is to flank his left…” The words either surprised or angered Lee, who pointed a fist toward the ridge beyond town: “If the enemy is there tomorrow, I will attack him!”

Despite the open disagreement, Longstreet reluctantly supervised the disastrous infantry assault known as Picket’s Charge (the high-water mark of the Confederacy) as ordered. The date was July 1863, and despite being preceded by a massive artillery bombardment, its futility was an avoidable mistake: 12,500 Confederate soldiers in nine infantry units advanced over three-quarters of a mile – charging into a withering hail of Union pure death. The staggering 50 percent casualty rate resulted in a defeat that the South never recovered from – either militarily or psychologically.

Noted historians are still debating who to blame: Lee, for overriding the advice of his most-trusted second-in-command, or Longstreet for being too slow to carry out a direct order.

Personally, I side with General George Pickett, one of three Confederate generals who led the assault under Longstreet and who was bitterly unequivocal: “That old man [Lee] destroyed my division.” His regular daily report is missing and is believed to have been intentionally destroyed, perhaps by Longstreet personally. It was now just a matter of time until the South’s war machine gradually came to a stop. The war would continue until April 1865, but the end was never again in doubt.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Buchanan Left Looming Disaster of Seceding South to Lincoln

james-buchanan-silver-japanese-embassy-medal
Commemorative medals were gifted to a Japanese delegation when they visited the United States and President Buchanan in 1860. This Silver Japanese Embassy Medal sold for $10,157.50 at a November 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Abraham Lincoln began making appearances in the East in early 1860 and emerged a national figure. That summer, Republicans obtained a semblance of unity behind a ticket of Lincoln for president and Hannibal Hamlin for vice president. Their victory in November was no surprise at the White House or anywhere else.

Outgoing President James Buchanan had four months left to serve and knew he was sitting on a powder keg. He started to distance himself from Southern advisers and, as disunion started to loom as a reality, Cabinet meetings became an ordeal. Buchanan had a sharp legal mind and a keen perception of people; he did not share the president-elect’s optimism that threats of secession were mere tactical bluffs by vocal Southerners.

However, the bachelor Buchanan and his niece Harriet Lane, who served as official White House hostess, entertained as usual during the winter of 1860-61. Each week, there were two major dinners for about 40 guests in the State Dining Room. Smaller “family” dinners honored Cabinet members. They were all gala affairs with masses of flowers and superb French cuisine with separate wines for each course. In prison, five years later, ex-Senator Jefferson Davis wrote that the Buchanan White House had come closest of any to being a “Royal Court.”

On election day, a committee from South Carolina had called at the White House asking Buchanan what his plans were for the unfinished forts in Charleston harbor. In his desk was a puzzling document marked “Scott’s views” from General Winfield Scott. It presumed that a Lincoln victory would result in a takeover of the small forts and, importantly, every military installation in every state that seceded!

Without answering the Southern committee, Buchanan convened his Cabinet to debate what should be done. Finally, Buchanan simply dismissed the issue and the Cabinet heads left. They were passed on the stairs by a messenger bringing the news that the commander of Fort Moultrie-Charleston had been confronted by a mob while trying to transfer supplies.

This was the first overt action taken against the Union by the hotheaded South Carolinians.

On Dec. 20, 1860, Buchanan wrote to a friend: “I have never enjoyed better health or a more tranquil spirit. … All our troubles have not cost me an hour’s sleep or a single meal. … I am leaving the rest to Providence.”

That same evening, word was received: South Carolina had seceded.

During the last days of December, members of the Cabinet began to resign. Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb was the first to go. Most of the others followed after much shouting, table-pounding and book-slamming rage. Gray-faced and unsmiling, the president sat puffing on his cigar as his Cabinet fell apart.

On New Year’s Day 1861, South Carolina began seizing federal property around Charleston harbor and then it spread. Six more states seceded and grabbed forts, offices, custom houses, mints and arsenals. But Buchanan stubbornly maintained the status quo, waiting for his successor to shoulder the burden.

Just after 11 a.m. on Feb. 14, a messenger raced up the stairs to the Cabinet room and slipped a card into the president’s hand. Buchanan read it and stood up smiling. “Gentlemen,” he announced, “Uncle Abe is in the Red Room below. Let us not keep him waiting.”

There was a new sheriff in town.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Federal Government Crucial to Making ‘Manifest Destiny’ a Reality

After the Mexican–American War, the Whig Party nominated Army General Winfield Scott for president. This daguerreotype from his unsuccessful 1852 campaign realized $25,000 at a September 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1848, the U.S. Army was firmly encamped in Mexico City waiting for orders from Washington, D.C.

General Winfield Scott’s surprise amphibious capture of Veracruz was followed by a five-month, 200-mile campaign involving bloody hand-to-hand fighting and now they were positioned to conquer the entire country.

President James Polk resisted calls to annex “all Mexico” once they had prevented the sale of California to Great Britain. On Feb. 2, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed and Polk wisely got the U.S. Senate to approve it. In return for $15 million, the U.S. got a Mexican cessation that included the present day states of California, Utah, Nevada, much of Arizona and New Mexico, plus portions of Wyoming and Colorado.

With a stroke of the pen, the U.S. was now 25 percent larger in size. Added to the annexation of Texas in 1845, this constituted an area larger than the Louisiana Purchase, which had doubled the size of the nation. In a brief span of 45 years, the United States was now a remarkable four times larger.

President Polk also created the Department of the Interior to assist with the assimilation of these vast territories.

Almost from the moment of independence, an expansionist strand of American thinking had envisioned a nation growing beyond the Ohio River into an empire stretching as far as the Pacific Ocean. In 1845, newspaper editor John Sullivan famously described a “manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent.”

What underpinned this vision was the effectiveness of the public land survey and the federal government’s establishment of a sequence of events to guide actions. First, it acquired land by treaty, sending surveyors to map and document the land. Then it ordered federal troops to clear out and subdue any resisting natives. It subsidized the construction of railroads to facilitate western migration. And finally, it had bureaucracies to manage the process. This included the Land Office, Geological Survey, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Forest Service.

The process was not smooth.

Nevertheless, by the end of the 19th century, the federal government had amassed great size, power and effective control “from sea to shining sea.”

America the beautiful!

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].