Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott

by John S. D. Eisenhower; New York, The Free Press, 1997


Eisenhower is an historian of the storytelling type (think of Catton, Foote, etc.) and very much into the craft of writing, which makes this a pleasant read. There has been no Scott biography in a long time and Scott is a major American historical personality, so this book has gotten significant attention.

It is not only lightweight but disappointing in its lightness. Eisenhower covers all the major business, but does not try his hand much at analysis. Analysis is needed. Scott entered active operations in the Mexican War with highly developed political aims. Later, Scott ran for president without resigning his military office. At yet another point, Scott had to work with Jefferson Davis, a highly suspect character (in Scott's correct view) and yet Scott would not resign or retire, despite Davis' successful attempts to render him irrelevant. These few examples show just one possible line of analysis: civil/military relations. Eisenhower does not engage.

Scott's extremely anomolous position in the history of American civil/military relations is symbolized by the $100 bill that bore his likeness while he was alive and in service. What could such a thing mean? What does any of the Scott residue mean? To Eisenhower and many others: nothing more than conventional and romantic and patriotic greatness. Scott represents a "symbol" and functions merely as a cross-generational military icon of earlier American success and genius. Scott's legacy is his success and his personality, or so it would seem from reading Eisenhower.

If Eisenhower overlays his study with a warm romanticism, he also displays some measure of cold thoroughness in recapitualting certain events and actions that provide readers with enough material for analysis -- even ammunition -- needed to puncture Eisenhower's own conclusions. His Civil War period material is brief but covers a great deal of important ground, including the extensive friction between Scott and the Lincoln Administration; the Administration's informal policy of bypassing Scott on important matters; the key military roles of Franklin and McDowell early in the war; the problematic Scott/McDowell team; Scott's many overturned military decisions and polcicies; Scott's errors of omission and commission.

Scott's tenure probably marks a dividing line in the conduct of the office of the senior military commander, with Scott signifying the past and McClellan (his successor) the present. The division of labor between the General-in-Chief and Secretary of War now follow the McClellan/Cameron model, not any of the various arrangements of Scott. The practice now, a la McClellan, is to resign one's commission before running for president, unlike Scott. The role of the General-in-Chief, almost informal under Scott, began its journey toward rationalization under McClellan. (This is not to belittle Scott at the expense of McClellan but to illustrate the possibilities of an analytic history, as opposed to a romantic one.

Eisenhower's superficiality leads to some predictable outcomes. Thus McClellan is -- as convention requires -- made responsible for Scott's resignation. A nod to current historiography? (The author's own material contradicts this conclusion.) Likewise it is Scott's Anaconda plan that was "implemented in full" by 1865. How is that insight possible? In the picture section, the author laments that it is the image of the old, Matthew Brady Scott that survives in the public imagination rather than that of the robust soldier of decades previous. But hadn't Scott stayed on into infirmity? And were his infirmities physical or judgemental?

This last is a key question. To avoid confronting the quality of Scott's later judgements, many historians have retreated into a few summary comments about Scott's health problems, making him unfit to continue as General-in-Chief. This subterfuge, not the photographs, is the source of Scott's image in the popular culture. It is one of those horrible disservices that everyone pretends to be a service.

Scott was kept on past his usefulness by the Lincoln Administration for its own reasons. We expect an historian to examine those reasons. The Lincoln Administration's worst dealings with Scott anticipated its dealings with McClellan, Burnside, Hooker, et al. We expect an historian to note such patterns. Did Scott's long service resulted in a legacy? What was it? What was the upshot of decades as General-in-Chief?

Perhaps all this is too pragmatic. But if we are going to take the romantic/literary road with Scott, and if we are going to resort to drama and stereotypes and historic sweep and tragedy, different, perhaps better molds are readymade and available. Eisenhower should check character listings under "Shakespeare."

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(c) 1998 The McClellan Society