Lincoln’s First General: Winfield Scott


General Winfield Scott, about the time of the Civil War. He had been in the U.S. Army for more than a half-century.

When Abraham Lincoln was a small child, Winfield Scott was already a military commander of stature.

Winfield Scott, Virginian

Winfield Scott (1786-1866) was born near Petersburg, Virginia to a family of gentry. He attended the College of William and Mary, and read law sufficiently to pass the Virginia bar. He did not enjoy the practice of law, never pursued it, and instead was commissioned as an officer in the US Army in 1808 – before Lincoln was born – and remained for the next fifty-three years.

winfield scott 1812

Young Winfield Scott, hero of the War of 1812.

Scott was a natural soldier, with a commanding presence at 6’5″ and well over 200 pounds. His leadership skills, the ability to understand maps and terrain, and a strong sense of strategic and tactical thinking earned promotions and high command.

During the War of 1812, he saw service in Canada and upstate New York, and at twenty-seven, had risen to Brigadier General. At this point he recognized the insufficiency of state militias, and became a lifelong advocate of a full-time professional and well-disciplined army.

Following a tour of military inspections in Europe, he wrote the first US manual for military procedures and regulations. His strict adherence to regulations and policies, plus his penchant for formal pomp and ceremony earned him the nickname “Old Fuss and Feathers.”

Scott And Lincoln: The Wars

young lincoln illus

Abraham Lincoln was around 23 at the time of the Black Hawk War.

In 1832, the Black Hawk War was skirmishing in the Midwest, with General Winfield Scott in command. Lincoln was twenty-three, recently moved to New Salem, Illinois and enlisted with a robust bunch of fellows who signed up, almost as a lark. He saw no action, fired no shots, but he was “elected” captain by his peers. Lincoln’s few weeks in the “army” were pivotal however. It was said that few “elections” were as personally gratifying to him. He also met John Todd Stewart of Springfield, who suggested that the lanky fellow might profit by reading law. He took the advice.

young winfield scott

General Winfield Scott was in his mid-late forties during the Black Hawk War.

By 1841, despite an up-and-down career, Winfield Scott, was the Commanding General of the entire US Army. He took a strong interest in West Point, updated army manuals and  patterned the military after the benchmark European models  following the Napoleonic Wars.

Abraham Lincoln was a struggling attorney in Springfield, IL, whose Whig political aspirations were routinely thwarted – until 1846. In a gentleman’s agreement of office-rotation, he was elected to a term in Congress.

The term coincided with the War with Mexico, which the new Congressman did not support – but nobody was listening to the first-term Midwesterner.


The earliest known photograph of Abraham Lincoln, taken a few years before his election to Congress.

Scott, of course, was a General of note, winning battles against huge odds, employing tactical maneuvers that made headlines, and a rare compliment from the Duke of Wellington that declared him “the greatest living general.”

Zachary Taylor, another General of note, became the Whig candidate for president in 1848, possibly because he seemed more “manageable” than the imperious Scott. Scott, however, remained General in Chief.

Abraham Lincoln was not re-elected to Congress, returned to Springfield, and practiced law.

Scott and Lincoln: 1852

In 1852, the fractious imploding Whigs, little more than an amalgam of sectional bedfellows, finally turned to Winfield Scott, after 50 ballots.

Abraham Lincoln, a lifelong Whig campaigned for General Scott wholeheartedly, traveling across Illinois, making speeches and writing the appropriate letters. Scott was trounced, and the Whigs never recovered from the loss, or fielded another candidate.

Lincoln and Scott: The Civil War

When Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, Fort Sumter was already being besieged in Charleston Harbor, and General Scott, at 75, was still the Commanding General of the Army.

old winfield scott

General Winfield Scott was past seventy-five when the Civil War began. Obese and gouty, and some say approaching senility.

By this time, Scott was aware of the tall fellow from Illinois. Scott was taller, by an inch, but outweighed Lincoln by more than 100 pounds. He was obese and gouty and could no longer mount a horse. The younger generation mocked him as “Old Fat and Feeble.”

Lincoln had great respect for the older man, had campaigned for him in 1852, and understood his own lack of knowledge about the military. General Scott knew just about everything.

President Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was fifty-two when he was inaugurated President in 1961.

In April, 1861, South Carolina fired the opening shots of the Civil War, and Winfield Scott, provided two important suggestions. First and foremost, realizing that he should retire, he recommended that Col. Robert E. Lee of Virginia be made the Commanding General. Lincoln took the suggestion, and an offer was made. Lee declined once Virginia seceded.

The second suggestion was Scott’s long-range “Anaconda Plan.” Knowing that the South had neither resources, manufacturing, economy, infrastructure and manpower to wage war indefinitely, his plan was to form a naval blockade along the Eastern coast, along the Gulf Coast, and through the inland rivers all the way to the Mississippi River, splitting the Confederate states in two, and strangling it into submission.

It was not a popular strategy. Northern diehards preferred the frontal assault, crying “On to Richmond!” The North, in a circuitous way, did both.

General Scott, had outlived his time and effectiveness, and retired to West Point. His mind, however, was unimpaired, and he continued to follow the events and the seemingly endless round of Commanding Generals that Lincoln appointed over the next three years.

General Henry Halleck

General Henry Halleck was put in charge of the Army after the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.

Lincoln visited him West Point in June, 1862. Some research indicates they discussed reinforcing McClellan’s army on the Peninsula (at the expense of protecting Washington). Other sources suggest he was looking for another Commanding General, and Scott recommended Henry Halleck this time.


The pivotal year of 1863-64 was momentous for General Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln had found his general.

It would be the last meeting between Lincoln and Scott.  By 1864, Lincoln had grown in confidence – and he had also found his Commanding General.

Scott died in 1866, a year after Lincoln’s assassination. During his retirement he had written his memoirs and sent a copy to General Ulysses S. Grant, inscribing it “from the oldest general to the greatest general.”


Henig, Gerald S. & Niderost, Eric – Civil War Firsts – Stackpole Books, 2001






About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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3 Responses to Lincoln’s First General: Winfield Scott

  1. energywriter says:

    Great info. Thank you. As a child and teen, I had a classmate named John Hancock. His father was Winfield Scott Hancock, named after the illustrious general and ancestor. I don’t know if John was also a descendant of THE John Hancock. sd

    • Your classmate’s GRANDfather was probably Winfield Scott Hancock. No relation to Gen. Winfield Scott, but he WAS named for him, and was an illustrious CW general in his own right (Gettysburg, for one). He ran unsuccessfully for POTUS in 1880 (against Garfield). No relation to John Hancock either.

  2. The Log Cabin Sage says:

    Well written article on Winfield Scott! I enjoyed reading it, & learned some things. For the learning, I thank you! I’m sure you know this, but I found it interesting when reading Lincoln’s House speech of 1848, (the one where he harangues President Polk) that he mentions Scott & Polk’s Trump-like treatment of Scott for disagreeing with him. History is FUN isn’t it? lol Thanks again for the good read & I look forward to another post.

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