Friday, June 10, 2011

Races to the Top

Bvt. Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, ca. 1860
General-in-chief Winfield Scott was so fat he could not ride on his horse. Or at least that's the story too delightful for historians to resist repeating, though it is never appropriately cited. Today, 150 years ago and three days from his 75th birthday, he received the detailed report from a young officer who had won the first land battle of the war (in just a month's time it would be thought of as barely a skirmish) and it made life a lot harder for the leader of Abraham Lincoln's war effort.

Scott's feeble condition and gouty legs may have prevented him from riding a horse even if he weren't also severely obese. He was a Virginian, who had taken a few law classes at the College of William and Mary before joining the U.S. Army in 1808 as a captain of artillery, bypassing the entry rank of lieutenant. His continuous service with the army thereafter was the main reason he could not fathom following his native state (and his protege, Robert E. Lee) to the Confederacy.

In the minds of most Americans, Scott was the U.S. Army. He had served time in a British prison during the War of 1812, the war when he first attained general officer status. When Andrew Jackson sought to quell South Carolina secessionists the first time, it was Scott who led the troops that put a lid on their dissent. When Martin Van Buren wanted the Cherokee out of Georgia, it was Scott that sent them on their Trail of Tears. The army's first drill manual was written by Scott as was its first book of tactics for militia. The Seminole and Creek wars were waged by Scott. American troops entered Mexico City under the command of Scott, largely in defiance of President James K. Polk, who hated the man. In 1852 the Whig Party dumped its sitting President (Millard Filmore) to give the nomination for President to Scott (his loss effectively killed the Whig Party, they never ran another candidate for President). In 1855, the Congress voted to give him the title of "lieutenant general" a grade not even in existence in the United States and held only once before -- by George Washington. Scott had served as the general-in-chief of the army - its top ranking officer and thereby commander - since 1841.

Scott entering Mexico City, immortalized by C. Brumidi in the U.S. Capitol rotunda ca. 1880
Which is why the jokes about his weight and his age irked him so damn much. Never known as a good-natured man (his soldiers in the Mexican War nicknamed him "Old Fuss and Feathers" because of his fastidiousness about drill and uniform), Scott was already feeling the pressure. Horace Greeley, the publisher of the New York Tribune and an important political ally for President Abraham Lincoln, had begun running the headline "On to Richmond" every day over its editorials. Scott had spent most of his time thus far simply trying to make sure Washington City wasn't captured by the Confederacy, but he already had a firm conception of a measured, low-cost strategic recommendation he would outline to the President in a few weeks.

George Brinton McClellan
In the meantime, a dashing young general in Ohio was also ratcheting up the pressure for Scott. George B. McClellan, who had graduated second in his class from West Point in 1846 (he lost first because he was a poor draftsman), served as an engineer on Scott's staff outside Mexico City (his father and Scott were friends), and then gone into business with the railroads, was attracting a lot of attention in Washington. Three states had fought over him to lead their militia, with McClellan choosing Ohio largely because of the efforts of its former governor - and Lincoln's new Secretary of the Treasury - Salmon P. Chase. Chase had made the choice worthwhile, securing McClellan's promotion on May 14 to major general, making him second only to Scott in rank in the U.S. Army.

A diversion is necessary here to explain just how significant that event was. Until the Second World War, the United States lived in a culture that was described best as "benignly anti-militaristic." The people in the United States did not trust standing armies, so the government purposefully limited the size of the military, relying instead in times of war on state militias or volunteers (the enormous numbers of which it sent during the War of 1812 earned Tennessee its nickname).

Another way to limit the army's power was to set statutory limits on the number of officers at each grade, especially general officers, could have. What we colloquially call a "rank" is actually "grade", and "rank" refers to the length of time an officer could hold that grade (which is the title, like "colonel"). When one of the slots at a grade opened up, the order of rank determined who would get the coveted and nearly impossible to achieve promotion. That promotion would not be complete until the President nominated you for that grade and the Senate confirmed you, and Senators carefully guarded their favorites by strictly insisting on the ranking list.

Grade Insignia. The gold background on the shoulder straps
indicates cavalry. Different branches had different colors,
such as red for artillery and light blue for infantry.
Generals and their staff always wore dark blue.
Sometimes, though, political will existed to promote an officer to a grade which was already legally full, so the Senate allowed nomination for and would confirm to a "brevet" grade, which created something of a gray area since typically holders of a brevet grade would skip over those who outranked them at their "regular" grade-level (Scott himself became engaged in a dispute that ran through the terms of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson about whether he outranked Edmund Gaines because of his brevet rank -- Jackson finally solved the problem by promoting a third officer over both of them). Scott's promotion to lieutenant general had been a brevet (since there were zero lieutenant generals allowed in the army), but nobody called him "major general" (two-star), the highest legal grade in the army (today, two-star is still the highest grade you can hold in the army permanently -- everyone of a higher grade, like four-star David Petraeus, holds it only for the duration of their time at whatever post they have, though the Senate will always vote to allow them to have their highest grade obtained for purposes of retirement pay).

On June 10, 1861, the United States Army had just two "regular" major generals (despite the fact that there were several slots open at that grade): Bvt. Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, and Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. Add to that the brevet major generals George Gibson and John Wool, both ancient veterans of the Mexican War, and you begin getting a better idea just how fast the star of the 35-year old McClellan was rising. (Just to be a tad more confusing, the Union army would also create "Volunteer" grades to provide high commanders for the duration of the war and, you guessed it, brevet grades of volunteers. Some officers would hold four different grades simultaneously).

McClellan was living up to his big reputation in the eyes of his supporters. He had marched his men through the night of June 2 and surprised Confederate forces at the town of Philippi, Virginia (now West Virginia) the morning of June 3. Completely unprepared, the Southerners quickly fled and the Northern press began mockingly referring to the event as the "Philippi Races". Considering Scott had been refusing McClellan's requests for more men to launch a crushing blow since April 27, the event was a lot less amusing to the general-in-chief. Predictably, McClellan, noted in his official report, submitted from Cincinnati 150 years ago today, that

Had the attack been supported by a few companies of cavalry, it is probable that many of the enemy would have been captured or cut to pieces. As I have no available troops of that description in my department, I would very respectfully urge upon the general commanding [Scott] the importance of a mounted force (regular cavalry if they can be furnished) to insure the success of future operations in this department.

Scott, no doubt, would have been particularly irked by the request for regular cavalry, the precious few horsemen professionally trained to fight as opposed to the masses of volunteer horseman rushing in. As Scott read the report, he must have deduced that the whole affair and this headstrong young general out to make a name for himself would throw his entire carefully managed build-up to war in disarray.

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