The legendary Lieutenant General Winfield Scott submitted his formal letter of resignation from the U.S. Army after 53 years of service. The 75-year-old general-in-chief suffered from various ailments and could no longer even mount his horse. He was also feuding with Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Army of the Potomac. McClellan was more than 40 years Scott’s junior, and he aspired to take Scott’s job.
President Abraham Lincoln had rejected Scott’s attempt to resign in August, but now the growing rift between the generals made Lincoln conclude that Scott’s retirement would be for the best. Many administration officials felt that Scott no longer had the ability to deal with the crisis at hand. His “Anaconda Plan” to slowly strangle the Confederacy into submission was met with derision by the northern press, as well as younger commanders like McClellan who believed a rapid thrust into Virginia would end the war.
In a cabinet meeting on the 18th, it was unanimously agreed that Scott must retire, but the vote was kept secret until the time was right to let him go. Scott had recommended that he be replaced by Major General Henry W. Halleck, a brilliant military theorist. But Lincoln made it fairly clear that he wanted McClellan to be general-in-chief. McClellan was told about the meeting and wrote his wife Ellen, “It seems to be pretty well settled that I will be Comdr in Chf within a week.” He also noted that Lincoln was “not in favor of Halleck” as Scott’s successor.
Lincoln and Secretary of War Simon Cameron met with McClellan on the 30th, where they discussed the military situation. Lincoln then showed McClellan the letter of resignation that Scott had written in August, and said that Scott had recommended Halleck 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 his wife, “I presume the Scott war will culminate this week, & as it is now very clear that the people will not permit me to be passed over it seems easy to predict the result. I feel a sense of relief at the prospect of having my own way untrammeled, but I cannot discover in my own heart one symptom of gratified vanity or ambition.” But having his way untrammeled meant that McClellan would no longer have a scapegoat if his future plans proved less than successful.
Scott’s resignation became official the next day, when he submitted the letter to Cameron:
“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.
McClellan was pleased that Scott was stepping down. But it did nothing to keep him from turning against the president and his cabinet in a way that would soon become routine. He wrote his wife, “I have a set of scamps to deal with–unscrupulous & false… But it is terrible to stand by & see the cowardice of the Presdt, the vileness of Seward, & the rascality of Cameron–Welles is an old woman–Bates an old fool. The only man of courage & sense in the Cabinet is Blair, & I do not altogether fancy him!”
This would foreshadow the future relationship between the young commander and his superiors. But for now, all eyes turned to McClellan as the man in charge.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.