October 31, 1861 – The legendary General-in-Chief Winfield Scott submitted his formal letter of resignation from the U.S. army after 53 years of service.
At 75 years old, Scott suffered from various ailments and could no longer even mount his horse. He was also feuding with Major General George B. McClellan, a man more than 40 years his junior who aspired to take his job. President Lincoln had rejected an attempt by Scott to resign in August, but now the growing rift between the generals made it seem to Lincoln that Scott needed to retire.
While meeting with McClellan on the 30th, Lincoln showed him Scott’s unofficial letter of resignation and told him that Scott had recommended Henry W. Halleck, a brilliant military theorist, to replace him. But Halleck was still on his way to Washington from far-off California, and McClellan cleverly noted that Scott had never put the recommendation in writing.
After the meeting, McClellan wrote to his wife expressing “a sense of relief at the prospect of having my own way untrammeled.” This sense became even greater the next day, when McClellan learned that Scott’s resignation had become official. In his letter to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Scott wrote:
“For more than three years I have been unable, from a hurt, to mount a horse or walk more than a few paces at a time, and that with much pain. Other and new infirmities, dropsy and vertigo, admonish me that a repose of mind and body, with the appliances of surgery and medicine, are necessary to add a little more to a life already protracted much beyond the usual span of man.
“It is under such circumstances, made doubly painful by the unnatural and unjust rebellion now raging in the southern states of our so late prosperous and happy Union, that I am compelled to request that my name be placed on the list of army officers retired from active service.”
Scott had served in the army longer than any man in U.S. history, and had led troops in the field since the War of 1812. The struggles with McClellan undoubtedly influenced Scott’s decision; McClellan had used his immense popularity to challenge Scott on various military issues and publicly stated that he believed Scott was unfit for command. Cameron forwarded the letter to Lincoln as the news quickly spread throughout Washington that Scott was retiring. All eyes soon turned to McClellan as the man in charge.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 77; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 133