Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Seeing the Old Man Off

Wherein we bid farewell to Winfield Scott

Harper's Weekly cover announcing the retirement of Winfield Scott. A depiction of the last Cabinet meeting.
Before dawn on November 2, in the midst of a heavy rainstorm, retired Bvt. Lt. General Winfield Scott left his headquarters on F and 17th Street near the White House and rode to the B&O Railroad Station, located at the site of today's Union Station. It was still dark, and Scott was trying to leave town before anyone had time to call on him about his retirement the night before. The New York Times recorded:
A drenching rain was falling at the time, and this fact prevented Gen. McClellan and staff, with an escort of cavalry, from accompanying him on the route thither. A numerous assemblage, in view of the hour and the unpropitious state of the weather, had gathered at the depot, among whom were nearly a dozen ladies.
His staff accompanied him; Colonels George W. Cullum, Henry Van Rennselaer, and Edward H. Wright, all aides-de-camp to Scott, and his chief of staff, Colonel Edward D. Townsend. All four were career military men who had enjoyed many years of good fortune under the longest-serving commander of the Army in U.S. history (a record that still holds) and who had earned the respect and praise of the man now leaving in the middle of a gloomy downpour. His replacement would also be his arch enemy, who the Scott staffers had spent the last three months helping the old general attempt to thwart. Their futures were bleak, and it would take the fall of McClellan to fully rehabilitate their army careers.

Scott was met at the train station by a mark of respect from the B&O Railroad, according to the Times:
Learning that the old veteran intended to take his leave in the morning, President Felton, of the Philadelphia and Baltimore Railroad, sent forward his splendid private car for the use of himself and suite, and before daylight it was in readiness for him, at the Baltimore depot.
There he was met by the two members of the Cabinet that had been McClellan's biggest supporters, but who would soon regret their alliances:
As the General alighted, he was received by Secretaries Cameron and Chase, Assistant-Secretary Scott, Gov. Sprague, Senator Harris, Adjutant-Gen. Thomas, and other distinguished citizens. He seated himself in the room at the depot, and soon Gen. McClellan and staff arrived. 
The Times was a pro-McClellan rag, at least in November 1861, so there's little reason for it to invent McClellan's late arrival. McClellan didn't record his tardiness for Mary Ellen when he wrote her mid-morning. "I have already been up once this morning," he related to her. "That was at 4 o'clock to escort Genl Scott to the depot--it was pitch dark & pouring rain--but with most of the staff & a squadron of cavalry I saw the old man off."

The Times describes the meeting this way:
For some minutes the old General and his former pupil, and now successor in the command of our army, were side by side in conversation, in which may prove to be their last interview on earth. A deep silence pervaded the place while this was transpiring. When the conversation ended, Gen. Scott shook hands and bade farewell to each of his friends assembled, and was conveyed to the car. 
McClellan related a similar story to Mary Ellen:
He was very polite to me--sent various kind messages to you & the baby--so we parted. The old man said that his sensations were very peculiar in leaving Washn & active life--I can easily understand them--& it may be that at some distant day I too shall totter away from Washn--a worn out soldier, with naught to do but make my peace with God.
Scott was bound for New York, to live out his days at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He would work on a book about his time in Mexico and from time to time consult with Lincoln about war strategy. But mostly he would battle his many health problems. The old man was stubborn, and would hold on until May 1866, long enough to see his initial strategic plan vindicated.

"The sight of this morning was a lesson to me which I hope not soon to forget," McClellan told Mary Ellen.
I saw there the end of a long, active & ambitious life--the end of the career of the first soldier of his nation--& it was a feeble old man scarce able to walk--hardly any one there to see him off but his successor. Should I ever become vainglorious & ambitious remind me of that spectacle. I pray every night & every morning that I may become neither vain nor ambitious--that I may be neither depressed by disaster nor elated by success--& that I may keep one single object in view, the good of my country.
Waiting for McClellan to return was a report from Brig. General Joe Hooker on the Lower Potomac about the problems Brig. General Dan Sickles was causing in the division (it's unusually focused for a report by Hooker), as well as a request from Brig. General Benjamin Kelley to Winfield Scott for additional troops to secure Romney in the Virginia mountains, thus making the Confederate position at Winchester untenable. Both, plus updates from Missouri, Kentucky, and everywhere else were now McClellan's responsibility.

"At last I am the 'Maj Genl Comdg the Army'," he wrote. "I do not feel in the least elated, for I do feel the responsibility of the position &I feel the need for some support. I trust that God will aid me."

Print Sources:
  • Sears, 123-124.

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