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  • Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms
  • Samuel Watson (bio)
Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms. By Allan Peskin. (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2003. Pp. 328. Illustrations, maps. Cloth, $49.00.)

This is the third Scott biography in five years. Each has approached the subject from a different perspective: Scott as Agent of Destiny (John S. D. Eisenhower, 1997), as seeker of military glory (Timothy D. Johnson, Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory, 1998), and now as leader in military professionalization. Each perspective is viable, but the execution has varied substantially. John Eisenhower, an author of popular histories, largely repeated the structure and judgments of Charles Winslow Elliott's Winfield Scott: The Soldier and the Man (1937), the only really [End Page 504] scholarly biography before the 1990s. Manifest Destiny, either as Scott's motivation—which is doubtful in the extreme—or as the actual process of expansion, proves little more than a gloss on Eisenhower's narrative.

Timothy Johnson's study is much more analytical, producing a number of valuable insights. His interpretive thrust is also much more consistent. Johnson hammers his point home chapter after chapter; his Scott was a rather disagreeable fellow, the vain, irritable, self-aggrandizing "Fuss and Feathers." Yet Johnson goes too far, and in the wrong direction, in focusing on Scott's self-centeredness. While he credits Scott with great military ability and gives a nod in the direction of Scott's work at military professionalization, The Quest for Military Glory is too narrow a theme to comprehend a career half a century long. Lust for glory cannot explain Scott's patient diplomacy with Britain (between 1838 and 1842, and again in 1859), in South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis, or in the removal of the Cherokee. Nor does it do much to help us understand Scott's concern for the clothing, feeding, housing, and washing of soldiers, or his pressure, contrary to the beliefs of most of his subordinates, to halt the illegal assaults (usually blows and kicks, and sometimes more) against enlisted men common in the army of that era. Hunger for glory cannot explain the Anaconda Plan, Scott's prescient strategy for strangling the Confederacy through blockade rather than battle.

Allan Peskin's Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms has the advantage in research through his extensive use of Scott's correspondence as commanding general, preserved in the National Archives. He also provides double the coverage of the 1850s and 1860s. His attention to trends in the historiography bears fine fruit: Peskin follows William B. Skelton (An American Profession of Arms, 1992) in recognizing that "in America the military is the oldest profession" (58), "its first big business" (62). Though Peskin does not elaborate, these are very important insights for historians of the early republic, and for American historians in general, as they suggest the significance of the national state in promoting large-scale institutions and organization and the gradual nationalization and rationalization of American society.

Peskin provides a balanced account of Scott's role in the War of 1812, though less critical of his command at the Battle of Lundy's Lane (1814) than I think merited. His account of Scott's generalship is notable for suggesting 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 [End Page 505] in an age of such limited communication technology—in maintaining control over tactical formations in battle, his appreciation of naval power, logistics, and the need to conciliate local public opinion (an insight first emphasized by Johnson) combined with his insight into the minds of his Mexican opponents to make him "truly the indispensable man" (191) in the campaign that secured the conquest of northwestern Mexico.

Despite his title, Peskin's attention to Scott's role in developing military professionalism is concentrated in a single short chapter. A theme that provides ample opportunity for analysis is overwhelmed by the demands of narrative. Peskin is critical of the character and extent of Scott's professional vision, arguing that it...


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