Sunday, June 7, 2015

Dinwiddie County's Own Winfield Scott

Yesterday I spent part of my morning roaming some of the main thoroughfares and back roads of Dinwiddie County. In doing so, I took some time to snap a few shots of the numerous highway historical markers that dot the area around the town of Dinwiddie (formerly known as Dinwiddie Courthouse). 

I think I should actually get a bumper sticker that reads, "Stops frequently for historical markers," because I noticed that I received a few strange looks from some of locals. They must have thought it a bit strange for some dude to be out taking pictures of the highway markers they pass everyday. That made me in turn wonder how much they knew, cared about, or understood the important historical people native to their area. I'm sure, like most everywhere else, some seek out and treasure their local history while others take it for granted and could care less.

Dinwiddie County was formed from Prince George County in 1752, over twenty years before the Revolutionary War erupted. It was named in honor of colonial Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie. Over the years many notables have called Dinwiddie County home, but one of the county's most famous natives is General Winfield Scott. 

Scott was born on his father William's plantation, Laurel Hill, just south of what became Dinwiddie Courthouse on June 13, 1786. Young Scott was provided a good education for time by his mother's wishes. However, by the time he turned seventeen, both of his parents had passed away. Scott studied law at William and Mary College in Williamsburg for a short time before apprenticing in the profession in nearby Petersburg as well as his hometown of Dinwiddie Courthouse.   

Scott's law career, like his formal college education was quite brief. During his time studying law Scott participated in the local  militia activities where he got a taste of the military, and while the United States Military Academy at West Point had been established in 1802, Scott apparently found his way into army life through other means when was commissioned as a captain of light artillery in 1808. Scott ran into trouble though when he criticized a superior officer, was thus court-martialed, and suspended from duty for a time. However, Scott must have shown some promise as he was soon reinstated and made a lieutenant colonel. 

At about the same time the War of 1812 provided Scott with opportunities to show his military skill. He took advantage of his situation and quickly rose through the ranks. And although captured at one point in the conflict he rose to brevet major general by the end of the war.

During the antebellum years Scott drew a number of duties, many of which included punitive actions against Native Americans, including the Black Hawk War, the Second Seminole War, and enforcing the Indian Removal Act. Scott also was involved in the Nullification Crisis with South Carolina in 1832-33. 

Winfield Scott's greatest reputation was gained during the Mexican-American War (1846-48). Scott led a United States force that captured Vera Cruz on the Gulf of Mexico coast and then traveled inland toward Mexico City, which he eventually captured although often opposed by superior numbers.

Scott attempted to use his wartime fame to obtain the presidential nomination of the Whig Party at the war's conclusion. However, the nomination went to one of his subordinate officers, Zachary Taylor, who won the 1848 election. Scott did finally gain the party's nomination in 1852, but was overwhelmingly defeated by Democratic candidate Franklin Pierce.

In 1855, Scott was promoted to "brevet" lieutenant general, a rank not achieved since George Washington. And although Ulysses S. Grant would be the next "full" lieutenant general, Scott's military expertise was widely acclaimed as civil war broke out between the North and South. As a Virginian, Scott, like Robert E. Lee, had a difficult decision to make, but unlike Lee, Scott chose to remain with the Union cause.

As commanding general, Scott formulated a plan that came to be known as the "Anaconda Plan," which sought to defend the capital, blockade the southern coastal ports, take control of the Mississippi River, and invade the South on multiple fronts. Criticized for this seemingly over ambitious plan, in what was then believed would be a short war, Scott's plan is actually what eventually won the war for the Union.

Scott's age and physical disabilities began to tell in 1861, and he resigned his commission on November 1. Gen. George B. McClellan was soon placed in command by President Lincoln to fill the void. Although Scott did live to see the Union restored, he died about a year after the Civil War, on May 29, 1866. He was buried at West Point, New York.

Today, Dinwiddie County High School's nickname is the "Generals." That moniker probably comes from well known Civil War commanders such as Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Philip Sheridan, James Longstreet and others who traversed the county fighting for their respective causes in 1864 and 1865. But in my opinion it should also apply to the less famous, but arguably just as important historical figure, native son Winfield Scott.

Scott photograph and "Anaconda Plan" image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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