By the time the Mexican War ended, Scott was known across America as a fierce fighter and a bold military strategist. In 1852, the Whig political party nominated him for the presidency of the United States. They hoped to take advantage of his fame and popularity. Divisions within the party over the issue of slavery hurt Scott's cause, though, and he was soundly defeated by Democratic Party candidate Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) in the general election.
Scott remained in charge of America's army through the remainder of the 1850s, acquiring the nickname of "Old Fuss and Feathers" because of his affection for military rules and conduct. His health and conditioning declined during this time, however, as advancing age and various physical ailments took their toll. By the end of the decade he was so overweight that he could not even mount a horse, and he sometimes fell asleep in the middle of important meetings. People began to wonder if perhaps he should be replaced.
Questions about Scott's ability to command the Federal military intensified in the spring of 1861, when the American Civil War began. This war came about because of longstanding differences between the nation's Northern and
Southern regions over several major issues. The most important of these issues was slavery. Many Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. They wanted the federal government to take steps to outlaw slavery or at least keep it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played an important role in the Southern economy and culture. Many Southerners resented Northern attempts to contain slavery. They felt that each state should decide for itself whether to allow the practice. They did not want the federal government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life. The two sides finally went to war in 1861, after the Southern states tried to secede from (leave) the Union and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America.
When it became clear that the Southern states were going to attempt to form their own country, both North and South scrambled to convince leading military officers to join
Winfield Scott returned from the Mexican War a military hero. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
their side. Scott remained with the Federal army in the North, even though he had been born and raised in the secessionist state of Virginia. He decided that his greatest loyalty was to his country and the army to which he had devoted his life. But he recognized that his age (seventy-four) and poor health would make it impossible for him to lead armies into combat in the upcoming war. He asked an army officer and fellow Virginian named Robert E. Lee (1807-1870; see entry) if he would accept field command of the Union Army in the upcoming war. But Lee informed Scott that he had reluctantly decided to join the Confederate Army because he could not "raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children" of Virginia. When Scott heard this, he replied, "You have made the greatest mistake of your life, but I feared it would be so."
Scott's second choice as field commander of Union forces was Major General George B. McClellan (1826-1885; see entry). McClellan gladly accepted the offer, and in May 1861, he became the second-highest ranking general in the U.S. Army. During the summer of 1861, both men worked hard preparing defenses around the U.S. capital of Washington. They recognized that if the city's defenses were not strong, Confederate forces might try to capture it in hopes of ending the war with one big victory. But while the generals succeeded in establishing effective fortifications around Washington, their relationship became strained.
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