- Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms
The first half of the nineteenth century was a crucial time in the development in the United States military. During this time, the country's military became professional through a succession of events: the establishment of the United States Military Academy at West Point, a victory against the British in the War of 1812, expansion of territory by removing Indians west of the Mississippi River, the acquisition of the southwest by defeating Mexico in a war, the secession crisis, and Civil War. The most influential army officer to deal with all these changes was Winfield Scott, hero of two wars and commanding general of the United States Army from 1841 to 1861. Although other historians have published biographies of Scott within the past ten years, Allan Peskin presents a different interpretation. Peskin, an emeritus professor of history at Cleveland State University and author of the preeminent biography on James A. Garfield, argues that Scott was the chief promoter of the professionalism and modernization of the United States military. Through an examination of Scott's life and time, Peskin produces an in-depth look at the developments and events of the United States Army from the War of 1812 to the early months of the Civil War.
Born on a small farm on the outskirts of Petersburg, Virginia, in 1786, Scott lived a long and full life. Peskin describes Scott as an ambitious man looking for glory, prestige, and celebrity but who later realized there [End Page 178] was more to life. Eventually, Scott grew into a far-sighted thinker about the future of his country and its protection from within and without. He lived both the hard life of a soldier in the field and the plush life of a celebrity and commanding general of the American army, both of which contributed to the decline in his health later in life, especially the French cuisine in which he indulged while not in the field. His life is important to examine due to the insights it provides on the changes in American society during the early nineteenth century and, especially, because he is one of the most influential leaders in United States military history.
Peskin's particular focus is on how Scott modernized and promoted a professional army in the United States, but some of the facts he cites as support for his argument are distorted. One such example is a comparison of the army when Scott entered and when he retired. At the dawn of his career, the army had fewer than 6,000 soldiers and a budget of less than three million dollars, but by 1861, the army had approximately one million men and a budget of one billion dollars. Although the comparison is interesting, Scott did not influence these dramatic changes: The beginning of the Civil War and Lincoln's call to arms produced this vast increase in the size of the army and budget. At times, too, Peskin contradicts himself. After discussing the Mexican War, he states that the army had not experienced any real change since the War of 1812. The only examples that contribute to this thesis involve Scott's obsession with writing instruction manuals, training regular soldiers, disregard for volunteers, selecting sanitary campsites, and improving life for the enlisted soldier through lighter punishments and old soldiers' homes. Peskin examines all of these examples, but they are rarely connected to the overall thesis of Scott's contribution to American military professionalism. Clearly, Peskin has found a great example in Scott of an individual's attitude toward making the army a lifelong profession, yet the conclusion that Scott promoted a professional army is going too far and is too rarely examined throughout the pages.
Overall, this is a well-written book. The author incorporates a wide variety of primary sources in his easy to read narrative. Other strengths include placing the events and ideas of Scott and the United States in context of the time period, such as the Market Revolution, Manifest...