Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Peskin: "Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms"

[Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms by Allan Peskin. (Kent State University Press, 2004). Pp. 310, $49.00, Hardback, photos, maps, notes. ISBN 0-87338-774-0]

Winfield Scott was one of the greatest military figures of his age—truly a giant—yet he fails to excite the imagination of the modern reader. You won’t find him placed highly on many lists of the top American generals by historians and general readers alike. Perhaps Scott’s personality plays a part in this or his professional career was so long that what is remembered most is the general’s deteriorated condition in his later years. Fortunately, several modern biographies have been published in recent years that can provide us with a richer picture of General Scott’s life and career.

Allan Peskin, perhaps best known as a biographer of President Garfield, has written a nice overview of Winfield Scott’s military and political career. It is a balanced account that refreshingly never approaches hagiography. Indeed, Scott’s considerable professional faults and personality flaws are prominently displayed but they are not used to overshadow the general’s exceptional achievements. Although family and personal relationships are not ignored, the central theme of Peskin’s writing is Scott’s lifelong mission of creating and maintaining a professional army in America (in direct opposition to the popular disdain of standing armies and reliance on militia and civilian officers in national crises). The author credits the general with the creation of a vastly more efficient managerial structure for the army along with standardized training and tactical manuals gleaned from European experts.

General Scott’s long military career stretched from 1807 to 1861. He seemed to have a significant hand in all the important events of the times and Peskin provides the reader with able summaries of all of them, from the War of 1812 to the Black Hawk, Seminole, Mexican, Pig and Civil Wars. Additionally, Scott was often the government’s chief firefighter in resolving seemingly endless border disputes and for easing internal problems such as the Nullification Crisis. Beyond his exceptional military skills, Scott was so successful at peace negotiations and in defusing potentially explosive crises that his abilities led some to call him the “Great Pacificator”. He even had a prominent role in national politics and was the last Whig nominee for president.

Peskin’s coverage of military battles and campaigns is brief but serviceable. The author is so evenhanded that he perhaps does not laud Scott enough for his masterpiece Vera Cruz to Mexico City campaign. As for maps, they are mostly well chosen although the single drawing of the Mexico City environs is inadequate to cover the battles for the capital. The military events in Peskin’s book are repeatedly overshadowed by the litany of betrayals and partisan backbiting (whether self-inflicted or not) that all too often characterized Winfield Scott’s relationships with politicians and fellow army officers. In the general’s defense, many of the men who were president during Scott’s career do not come off very well, especially James Polk.

Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms
reaffirms the general’s prominent place in American history. For our purposes here, about ten percent of the book covers Scott’s Civil War service. Significant new information will not be found here and the author’s analysis of this period is conventional. However, any reader interested in a solid overview of the military and political career of Winfield Scott will find this book a helpful read.

(Review reprinted with the permission of North and South Magazine, originally appearing in vol.7 #7, pp. 86-87, reviewed by Andrew Wagenhoffer)

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