Gallant, fearless, brave, honest, indomitable, humble in victory and magnanimous to the vanquished. There are not enough superlatives in the English lexicon to describe General Winfield Scott of the U.S. Army.
In Riverside, Frederick Law Olmsted chose to name Scottswood, one of our two great commons, after this man. Most of the place names chosen by Olmsted for Riverside were in remembrance of great botanists or landscape designers such as Uvedale Price and Andrew Jackson Downing. Or they were named after topographical features such as Woodside and Bloomingbank.
That Olmsted would depart from this pattern in naming one of the commons is testament to the esteem that the recently deceased General-In-Chief of the Army was held by his countrymen in 1868 when Riverside was designed.
Local legend places Scott in the general locale of Scottswood Common in 1832 as he camped along the Des Plaines River on his way to the Blackhawk War. This cannot be confirmed as historical fact, all we know is that he camped on the high ground of the riverbank and Scottswood Common is the high ground in Riverside.
Scott was on his way to Galena from the hamlet of Chicago and there were not that many routes to get there. He probably did camp near here if not exactly on the common itself. Such is Riverside’s tenuous connection to Scott.
Scott could be vain and pompous. He considered himself “next to Washington” and was derisively labeled “Old Fuss and Feathers.” He was ambitious and loved the adulation of the populace.
Ever eager to perceive a slight, Scott took umbrage at the least offense, especially if it involved his rank. At one point he denied the right of the Secretary of War to give him orders.
Yet his men loved him, for he taught them to wear their uniforms with pride and treated them like a parent, caring for their education, welfare, and morals while relentlessly driving them in fulfillment of their duties. Let’s look at the life of this magnificent American, arguably the greatest military figure that our nation has produced.
Winfield Scott was born on June 13, 1786 on the family plantation [Laurel Branch] in Virginia. Fond of learning, he was educated by Quakers and at a young age expressed an interest in law and politics.
After becoming a lawyer in 1806, he found himself enlisted as a lance corporal in the army in 1807 during The “Chesapeake Incident” in which war with Great Britain was narrowly averted found Scott enlisted in the Army with the rank of lance corporal. Scott captured a British landing party and was promoted to captain in 1808. The War of 1812 against Britain gained for Scott a promotion to lieutenant colonel and he proved himself under fire.
At 27, Scott was promoted to general, and in 1832 he was sent with 1,000 men by President Andrew Jackson to the area around what became known as Chicago in order to suppress an uprising by Sac Indian Chief Blackhawk, who called on tribes to join him in war against the white settlers in the area. It was at this time that Scott reputedly camped in Riverside along the banks of the Des Plaines, althogh most of the action was over by the time Scott arrived on the scene.
In 1841, he was appointed general-in-chief of the Army, a position he would hold for 20 years. He won several of his most famous victories in 1847 in the Mexican War, including at Vera Cruz and Mexico City.
Scott also tried his hand at politics and, after two failed attempts, in 1852 won the Whig Party nomination for president. He lost to Democrat Franklin Pierce in the general election.
Despite hailing from Virginia and begin considered an “arch traitor” by many in his home state, Scott threw his support behind the Union in the Civil War. However, he was humiliated at Bull Run by the Confederates and retired Oct. 31, 1861. Scott lived to see the Union victorious, however, and died May 29, 1865.
Congress adjourned, stock exchanges closed, and the high and mighty converged at West Point to pay their respects. At Battery Knox on the Hudson, the mighty cannons roared their announcement to the nation that its greatest living hero had gone to meet his fallen comrades.
We continue to honor and remember the old General in Riverside. The Olmsted Society will pay tribute to him by centering its biennial housewalk around Scottswood Common on May 21. Who knows? If God grants him permission to stop drilling the troops in Heaven, Winfield himself might make another appearance on the Common that day.