Thursday, May 3, 2012

Old Fuss and Feathers Tells Abraham Lincoln How to Win a War

The old General in all of his splendor.

Note:  Adapted from a post on this date in 2010.

As I scan various sources for interesting anniversaries every day in preparation for writing posts, when I come up to the 1860’s I am flooded with events from the American Civil War—battles fought, generals appointed or fired, political machinations North and South, the introduction of some new and horribly effective engine of mayhem and destruction.  And I have generally avoided picking one and running with it, not because the Civil War is not interesting, but because it is too compelling.  

The Civil War is the black hole of American History.  You can fall in and never get out.  There is just so much there.  And any time you think you know what happened a touch of research will dispel that illusion. 

But today marks and anniversary in the war that deserves notice, even though most Americans are totally unaware of it. 

On May 3, 1861 aged Lt. General Winfield Scott, Commanding General of the United States Army, presented President Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet, with his Anaconda Plan to conduct the war.    The plan was widely derided by the press and public, which believed that a quick, decisive battle with the main Confederate army in Virginia would win the war.  Scott knew better.  He anticipated a long, bloody conflict.  

Lincoln may have wished for a short, glorious war, but the former Black Hawk War militia Captain had read everything on military strategy and tactics that he could lay his hands on in the Library of Congress and sensed that his Commanding General may be right. Although he did not accept Scott's proposal in every detail, questioned his time line, and felt he had to order a major attack on Richmond to keep public support, from that point on despite the public ridicule and outcry the President conducted the war broadly on Scott’s  plan.

The plan called for:   

1. Blockade ports in the Atlantic and Gulf to reduce foreign supplies and cotton and tobacco exports from Confederate ports.

2. Blockade the Mississippi River to reduce grain and meat shipments from the western to eastern Confederacy and foreign supplies through neutral Mexico

3. Control the Tennessee River Valley and a march through Georgia to prevent cooperation among the eastern Confederate states. 

4. Demonstrations against Confederate capital to keep the main Rebel Army pinned down and on the defensive with a campaign of army troops and navy support along the James River

And that is pretty much exactly how the war was won by the Union.  

The Navy successfully blockaded most Confederate ports and captured key ports like Pensacola, Mobile, and New Orleans.  Western troops, experiencing much greater success than the ponderous Army of the Potomac in the East, secured the length of the Mississippi with the capture of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863 (coincidently the also the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg) dividing the Confederacy in two.  Another Yankee Army drove down the Tennessee River protecting the loyal border state of Kentucky, splitting divided Tennessee and setting up Sherman’s campaign through the railroad and industrial heart of the south in northern Alabama and Georgia, including the capture of Atlanta, which cut off the lower South.  

Campaigns in Virginia and along the James, under incompetent leadership were long, bloody, and inconclusive until the end, but without the logistical support of the rest of the nation, Lee’s legendary Army of Northern Virginia was doomed.  Just about the way Scott had foreseen.  

In 1861 Scott was winding down a 47 year Army career serving 14 presidents from Jefferson to Lincoln having served in the War of 1812, the Seminole Wars, Black Hawk War, and Mexican War.  He had been Commanding General of the Army for twenty years, longer than anyone before or since and was the first officer since George Washington to carry the rank of Lt. General.  

Yet he also cut something of a ridiculous figure.  His once powerful 6 foot 3 inch frame had ballooned to over 300 pounds.  Notoriously vain, he swathed that mass in outrageously gaudy uniforms with gigantic epaulets, extravagant gold braid and decoration, every medal he was ever awarded, topped off with a great Napoleonic era plumed hat.  Ailing from both gout and narcolepsy—uncontrollably lapsing into sleep—he knew that he would not be able to take command of his troops in the field. 

Instead he offered field command to fellow Virginian Col. Robert E. Lee, universally regarded as the most able officer in the service.  Unfortunately, unlike Scott, who unhesitatingly placed his loyalty to his nation over that of his native state, Lee chose Virginia and the Confederacy.  

Scott had to entrust the command of the rapidly swelling Volunteer army to the untried hands of Brigadier Gen. Irvin McDowell.  Scott despaired of both McDowell and the ill trained, short term enlisted Volunteers.  During his whole career he had advocated a highly trained professional army with militias and volunteers called to service thoroughly trained before introduction to combat.  

In 1808, as a young Virginia lawyer and a corporal in the militia cavalry, he secured an appointment as a Captain of Artillery in the tiny Regular Army.  He made his mark early by crossing his superior, Commanding General James Wilkerson, a corrupt scoundrel and innervate plotter.  Wilkerson had him court-martialed for insubordination and suspended for a year.  After Wilkerson was exposed as Spanish secret agent—just one of his many intrigues that included plotting with Aaron Burr to set up an independent inland republic—Scott was able to resume his duties with his reputation enhanced.  

In the War of 1812 he made his mark as a commander and a hero.  Captured in the Battle of Queenston Heights in 1812 when the New York Militia refused to cross into Canada in support of his regulars, Scott was paroled and went to Washington to appeal to raise regiments of regular troops. 

The following year as a full colonel he planned and led the amphibious assault on Ft. George which required a coordinated crossing of the Niagara River and a landing from Lake Ontario, which was considered the most brilliant American maneuver of the war.  

In 1814 as a brevet Brigadier General Scott commanded the American First Brigade in the Niagara campaign.  He had been training and drilling his regulars to a fine edge for months.  But unable to secure regulation blue cloth for their uniforms, outfitted them sharply in gray with tall shako caps.  When the British saw the marching in disciplined ranks into battle, a horrified officer exclaimed, “That’s not the Terrytown militia.  Those are by God Regulars!”  

Those regulars soundly whipped veteran British troops at in the Battle of Chippewa and then held the battlefield at fiercely fought Lundy’s Lane, where Scott and overall American commander Major General Jacob Brown were both severely injured.  

Although the invasion of Canada was stalled, Scott was hailed as a hero for showing that American troops could beat British professionals in a stand-up battle.  The battles were commemorated at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, where the cadets would wear grey uniforms and shakos.  And the Confederate Army, dominated by West Pointers would, ironically adopt a gray uniform.  

In the years after the war, Scott would turn to the routine occupation of a Regular Army Officers—Indian wars.  Scott was assigned command of 1000 Regulars and Volunteers from the east to relieve expiring volunteers units in the Black Hawk War of 1832.  Unfortunately, the men brought the cholera with them, not only rendering them unfit for service, but unleashing a deadly epidemic in the West.  Although Scott never got to the battle field, he arrived on the scene to play a critical role in negotiating Black Hawk’s surrender and drafting a peace treaty.  

Three years later he was commanding a large column fruitlessly chasing hostiles in the Florida swamps during the Second Seminole War.  

No sooner was that bit of business concluded than President Andrew Jackson called on Scott to be the Federal brawn behind the Force Act, meant to compel South Carolina to honor the Tariff of Abominations in the face of Nullification threats.  Sent with re-enforcements to the garrison at Ft. Sumner at Charleston, South Carolina, Scott had to juggle the bellicose desire of the President to “Hang the traitors,” and Joel R. Poinsette’s delicate task of rallying South Carolina Unionists while a new tariff acceptable to the state was moved through Congress.  

He got high marks for both his strong military resolution and for local diplomacy.  When the city caught fire, he dispatched troops from the garrison to help quell the blaze—and improve relations with the locals. 

With the crisis passed Jackson’s successor President Martin Van Buren turned to Scott to enforce the Cherokee Removal from the Eastern states.  Scott disapproved of the policy, but did a soldier’s duty.  He considered it the low point of his career.  He was able to negotiate the voluntary removal of a large number under the leadership of Chief John Ross and managed to round up other bands with a minimum of bloodshed.  He tried, as far as possible, to make conditions on the march tolerable, ordering rides, assistance and extra rations for children, the elderly and infirm.  Where his reliable Regulars were in charge, things went relatively smoothly.

But many bands were escorted by undisciplined volunteers who abused, harassed and stole from their charges without mercy.  He meant to personally accompany the first body of evacuees on the march west from Athens, Georgia but was recalled to Washington for a delicate diplomatic mission upon reaching Nashville.  

Scott was sent to the Maine/Canada boarder to negotiate a peace in the bloodless Aroostook War which threatened to erupt into another shooting war with the British.  For his success and service he was promoted to Major General, the highest rank active in the Army.  

Scott would repeat as a diplomat when he negotiated a solution to another boarder crisis with Britain, this one over St. John Island in the Pacific Northwest in 1859. 
But first there was the Mexican War.  President James Knox Polk forced the war on Mexico by moving troops into disputed land between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers. This army, made up mostly of volunteers was under the command of Scott’s service rival Zachary Taylor scored victories in heavy fighting at Monterey and Buena Vista but was hundreds of miles north of the capital city, separated by daunting desert.  

Scott conceived of a second attack by sea landing at the port of Veracruz and driving quickly to Mexico City.  He executed the first major amphibious assault in American history when he successfully landed 12,000 Regular Army, Marines, and well trained Volunteers and all of their artillery and baggage outside the fortified city.  

In coordination with the Naval Squadron under the command of Commodore Mathew Perry he laid siege to the fortified city, which was reduced by Army artillery and naval gunfire and surrendered after 12 days.  With the port now open to keep his supply line clear, Scott began his march west, roughly following the route of Cortez.  Yellow Fever struck the Americans and Scott was only able to move with 8,500 healthy troops, among them many future Civil War generals including Lee, U.S. Grant, George Meade, and Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson.  

Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna moved from the Mexico City at the head of 12,000 well armed and trained troops.  He entrenched across the road at Cerro Gordo, roughly half way to the city.  Instead of a frontal assault, Scott sent artillery into the rugged mountains and enfiladed the Mexicans in deadly fire and flanked the dug-in Mexicans, who were routed to heavy casualties.  

Several other sharp engagements marked the march to the capital, culminating in the attack on the Mexican Military Academy at the castle of Chapultepec.  When that fell, Scott negotiated a peaceful entry to the city. 

The Duke of Wellington upon studying Scott’s campaign declared him to be “the greatest living general.”  The offensive is still studied and much of later Army combat doctrine was drawn from the experience.  

The President appointed Scott the Military Governor of Mexico City, where he drew praise for enforcing bans on looting and molestation of citizens.  He threaded the thorny issue of what to do with the captured San Patricios—Irish deserters from the U.S. Army who took up the Mexican cause.  He was appalled when a court martial sentenced 72 of them to hang.  The former lawyer scoured his law books to find excuses to vacate the sentences of as many as possible.  He objected to the death penalty in 22 of the cases and later pardoned or commuted the sentences of 15 more.  

With Scott still on administrative duty in Mexico City, his rival Taylor arrived back in the States and earned the Presidency on the Whig ticket.  Scott was sure he would have been a better man for the job.  Taylor died leaving Millard Fillmore to complete his term.  

When the Democrats in 1852 nominated handsome, dashing Franklin Pierce, one of Scott’s less distinguished subordinate Volunteer generals in Mexico, the Whig convention stalemated before finally dumping Fillmore and nominating Scott on the fifty-fourth ballot.  

The party was split on slavery, particularly the issue of enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act.  The Party platform endorsed enforcement over Scott’s objection leading to loss of support of the Whig ticket in New England, and disillusion with the candidate among pro-slavery southerners who jumped en-mass to the Democrats.  Despite his personal popularity Scott carried only four states.  It was also the last hurrah of the shattered Whigs as a national party.  

Scott, his vanity bruised, none the less went back to work as Commanding General.  

It is fortunate for Lincoln and the Union that he stayed as long as he did.  But after McDowell’s raw and ill trained volunteer army was routed at First Bull Run, Lincoln had to turn to the ambitious Democrat George McClellan as his field commander.  McClellan, popular with the troops and with the press, was openly insubordinate to the Commanding General and plotted to replace him.  Seeing the writing on the wall and in ill health, Scott finally retired in November.  McClellan got his job while retaining field command.  

McClellan would be just as insubordinate to the President as he was to Scott and despite assembling a massive, well trained and well appointed Army would prove too timid.  Lincoln replaced him as Commanding General with General Henry “Old Brains” Halleck, a plodding administrator who did not get in the way of the field commanders like Grant and Sherman who could actually win battles.

Winfield Scott, Old Fuss and Feathers as he was known by his men, died at West Point in 1866.

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