On this day 31 October American Civil War

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1861 Winfield Scott steps down


Citing failing health, General Winfield Scott, commander of the Union forces, retires from service. The hero of the Mexican War recognized early in the Civil War that his health and advancing years were a liability in the daunting task of directing the Federal war effort.

Scott was born in Virginia in 1786. He graduated from William and Mary College and joined the military in 1808, where he had become the youngest general in the army by the end of the War of 1812. He was an important figure in the development of the U.S. Army after that war, having designed a system of regulations and tactical manuals that defined the institution for most of the 19th century. Scott borrowed heavily from the French, but his tactics were of little use in the irregular warfare the army waged against the Seminoles and Creek in the southeast. His methods, however, worked brilliantly during the war with Mexico in 1846 and 1847. His campaign against Mexico City, in particular, was well planned and executed.

During the crisis of 1861, Scott remained at his post and refused to join his native state in secession. President Lincoln asked Scott to devise a comprehensive plan to defeat the Confederacy. Scott's strategy called for the blockading of ports to isolate the South economically, then an offensive down the Mississippi River. In the optimistic early days of the war, this strategy seemed hopelessly sluggish-in fact, critics dubbed it the "Anaconda Plan" after the giant Amazonian snake that slowly strangles its prey. Despite initial criticism, it was the basic strategy that eventually won the war.

Scott also drew criticism for ordering the advance of General Irwin McDowell's army into Virginia, which resulted in the disastrous Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. With the arrival of George McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac shortly after, Scott's influence waned. He weighed over 300 pounds, suffered from gout and rheumatism, and was unable to mount a horse. His resignation on October 31 did not end his influence on the war, however. Lincoln occasionally sought his counsel, and many of his former officers commanded forces and executed the same maneuvers that he had used in Mexico. Scott retired to West Point to write his memoirs before he died in 1866.
 

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