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Reviewed by:
  • Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms
  • Samuel Watson
Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms. By Allan Peskin. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-87338-774-0. Maps. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xi, 328. $49.00.

This is the third Scott biography in five years. Each approaches the subject from a different perspective: Scott as Agent of Manifest Destiny (John S. D. Eisenhower, 1999), as seeker after military glory (Timothy D. Johnson, Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory, 1998), and as leader in military professionalization. Each perspective is viable, but Eisenhower largely repeated the structure and judgments of Charles Winslow Elliott's Winfield Scott: The Soldier and the Man (1937), the only really scholarly biography before the 1990s. Manifest Destiny, either as idea or as the actual process of expansion, was little more than a gloss on Eisenhower's narration of Scott's career.

Johnson's research, documentation, and interpretive effort were much more complete. His Scott was the vain, irritable, self-aggrandizing "Fuss and Feathers" of legend. Yet Johnson went too far. While he credited Scott with great military ability, and gave a nod in the direction of Scott's work at military professionalization, The Quest for Military Glory seems a rather narrow peg on which to hang a career more than half a century long. Lust for glory cannot explain Scott's patient diplomacy with Britain, or in South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis. Nor does it explain the Anaconda Plan, Scott's prescient strategy for strangling the Confederacy through blockade.

Peskin has the advantage in sources, through his extensive use of internal Army correspondence preserved in the National Archives, and provides double the attention to the 1850s and 60s. Peskin suggests that Scott learned from the failure of his rigid, complex plan in the opening stages of the Second Seminole War in 1836, and showed far more flexibility in 1847. Though he still had difficulty, perhaps natural in an age of such limited communications, in maintaining control over tactical formations in battle, his appreciation of joint operations, logistics, and the need to conciliate local public opinion combined with his insight into the minds of his Mexican opponents to make him "truly the indispensable man" in that war (p. 191).

Peskin is critical of the character and extent of Scott's professional vision, arguing that it "was surprisingly narrow" (p. 120). But Peskin seems to view military professionalism largely in terms of manpower policy and technology: was the army to be composed of long-service regulars or citizen-soldiers, and would its tactics adapt to changes in technology? These are two of the great questions of American military policy, but they are not the sum of professionalism. Scott and his fellow "professionals" mistrusted the discipline and capability of citizen-soldiers, but their objective was to maintain a monopoly of command over the militia and volunteers, not to fight major wars with the Regular Army alone. The expansible army established in the reduction in force of 1821 did not "prove inadequate to preserve this professional monopoly" (p. 61): the principal tactical, operational, and strategic commanders of the war with Mexico and the Civil War were Old Army men and West Point graduates. [End Page 234]

The limits of Peskin's vision are further evident in his exaggerated assessment of the impact of the rifle, "which spelled an end to Scott's cherished professionalism" (p. 218). Yet only a profession—an occupation dedicated to the in-depth study of its duties over long careers—could have adapted to the growing complexity of war. Indeed, such complexity was the root of military professionalism. Peskin has a far stronger case when he criticizes Scott for maintaining the Regular Army as an institution rather than dispersing its officers and noncommissioned officers to train the volunteers at the outset of the Civil War, but I wish Peskin had devoted more attention to how Scott's officers and men saw him, to how his example, and his support for professional institutions like the Military Academy, encouraged professionalization. Doing so would have provided a fuller picture of Scott's true impact, of the culture of professionalism he did...


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