The Court-Martial of Winfield Scott

Two hundred and ten years ago the War of 1812 was about to break out.  Winfield Scott would become a national hero in that war, rising from Captain to Brigadier  General, with a brevet rank of Major General, all before his thirtieth birthday.  However, before the War his military career almost ended when he was convicted at a court-martial.

One of the greatest scoundrels in American history was doubtless James B. Wilkinson.  Twice commander of the American Army between the Revolution and the War of 1812, Wilkinson was also a spy for the Spanish government.  In addition to this treachery, Wilkinson was corrupt and was always quite ready to harm his country if he would personally benefit.  Although his being a spy for Spain was not discovered until after his death, enough of his other infamies were known during his lifetime for him to be held in low esteem by his fellow officers.

In 1809 Captain Scott was court-martialed for accurately calling Major General Wilkinson a liar and a scoundrel, and ventured the opinion that serving under Wilkinson was as dishonorable as being married to a prostitute.  There was also a trumped-up charge of Scott pocketing the money of the men under his command.  In January 1810 Scott was convicted on the fairly nebulous charge of engaging in conduct unbecoming of an officer and suspended from the Army for one year.  Many another man would have given up a military career after this rocky start, but not Captain Scott.  He merely resumed his duties after the year and proceeded on with his meteoric career as if nothing had happened.  His bete noir General Wilkinson would go on to lead American forces to defeat in two battles in 1814 and was relieved of command.  The war that made the career of Scott ended the career of his arch enemy.  President Theodore Roosevelt in the third volume of his The Winning of the West has this to say about Wilkinson:

In character he can only be compared to Benedict Arnold, though he entirely lacked Arnold’s ability and brilliant courage.  He had no conscience and no scruples;  he had not the slightest idea of the meaning of the word honor;  he betrayed his trust from the basest motives, and he was too inefficient to make his betrayal effective.  He was treacherous to the Union while it was being formed and after it was formed;  and his crime was aggravated by the sordid meaness of his motives, for he eagerly sought opportunties to barter his infamy for money. In all our history there is no more despicable character. 

Published in: on January 14, 2022 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. Don

    Great post.

    Certainly the examples of the best and worst in the military.

    Perhaps in thired paragraph you mean “serving under Wilkinson”

    • Oops! Thanks for the correction Hank!

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