Last fall, a fine article by Steven Malanga in City Journal observed that, “even in the city that once worshipped him [New York], few signs of [Winfield] Scott’s long residence remain.”
As I discovered on a trip to Washington in November, when I snapped this photo of this statue of General Winfield Scott, not every American city had neglected this great 19th-century general. But I think that “Old Fuss ‘n’ Feathers” would still feel aggrieved about his place in the capital and our nation’s memory, scowling as he asks from his perch atop the equestrian statue in the circle named for him:
*"How could you place my statue near Daniel Webster, who got in the way when I wanted the Whig nomination for President?”
*"You know how I hated compromise, so why did you satisfy my family with this stallion I’m sitting on rather than my favorite mare?”
*“Why did you stick me at one of the worst traffic circles in DC? No wonder nobody wants to stop and look at me—pedestrians are terrified about being run over! (And, to tell the truth, all those loud machines frighten me worse than the British, Indians and Mexicans ever did!”)
Scott was the most significant—and most successful—American soldier to serve in the half-century before the Civil War. Indeed, through his extensive teaching at West Point, his training (he wrote a pioneering code of conduct, regulations and organization for the army), and his mentoring to talented junior officers who would command Union and Confederate forces in the Civil War, he has a fair claim to being most responsible for the rise of the U.S. Army as a professional unit.
For all his talent and valor, Scott has been overlooked. Part of the reason is that his most significant service was in the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War, conflicts deeply controversial in their own time and overshadowed today by questions of overreach and imperialism.
But you can find clues to Scott’s relative neglect even in the statue built by sculptor Henry Kirke Brown to atone for that error. There’s that resplendent lieutenant general’s outfit, for instance—a reminder that just about the first thing Scott did after receiving his commission in the army was to run out and buy a shiny uniform.
We have here a haughty, vainglorious guy, then—someone who, especially early in his career, got in trouble for shooting his mouth off about what a sorry lot his superiors were.
What was so infuriating to those who preferred him to be humbled was how often he turned out to be right:
* In 1810, he was court-martialed and suspended for a year because of derogatory remarks about Gen. James Wilkinson (being a "liar and a scoundrel" was the least of them, evidently). During the War of 1812, though, Wilkinson was relieved of command because of his mismanagement—and after his death, Spanish archives revealed that he was a paid agent of that government and a traitor to the U.S..
*In the Mexican-American War, Scott plunged so deeply into enemy territory that he decided to cut off from his supply line, living off the land. The strategy would be copied and used successfully in the Civil War by Ulysses S. Grant in the Vicksburg campaign and by William T. Sherman in his “March to the Sea.”
*By the start of the Civil War, the 75-year-old Scott, overweight and weary, resigned, then watched in disgust as successor George B. McClellan ignored his “Anaconda Plan” for destroying the Confederacy. It took three years and a few more commanders of the Army of the Potomac before Grant implemented this strategy of splitting the Confederacy through blockading Southern ports and coordinated troop movements that would prevent reinforcement of key enemy armies.
The next time you go near this downtown DC roundabout, then, make sure you salute smartly in the direction of this equestrian statue and exclaim, “Great Scott!”