John S. D. Eisenhower. Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott. New York and London: The Free Press, 1997. xiv + 464 pp. $27.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-684-84451-0.
Reviewed by Susannah U. Bruce (Kansas State University)
Published on H-War (April, 1999)
Two Views of "Old Fuss and Feathers"
It has been nearly sixty years since an historian presented a biography of Winfield Scott, hero of the battles of Chippewa and Lundy's Lane, brilliant strategist of Veracruz, American Civil War planner, and one of that nation's first professional soldiers. Recently, two men accepted the challenge, offering scholars and the general public new insights into Winfield Scott, the man, the soldier, and his times.
In 1997, John S. D. Eisenhower offered his Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott. This was followed quickly by Timothy D. Johnson's Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory. Johnson is a Professor of History at Lipscomb University in Tennessee, and his work is the latest contribution to the Modern War Studies series published by University Press of Kansas. Despite the close proximity of the subject matter and publishing dates of these studies, the authors' approaches to Scott and their contribution to the historiography are quite different.
A "popular" military historian and author of several studies in American military history, John S. D. Eisenhower remains true to his narrative tradition with Agent of Destiny. The central purpose of the work is to reveal what Eisenhower considers the less well-known Winfield Scott. While his accomplishments as a commander and military thinker are significant, Eisenhower argues that these are not Scott's greatest contributions. Too often overlooked, Eisenhower maintains, is the general's role as "the agent of Manifest Destiny," arguing that Scott was the driving force behind the expansion of the nation and its ability to remain a single entity.
Eisenhower leads the reader through Scott's life with graceful prose. He discusses Winfield Scott's early years as a lawyer, his decision to enter military service, and Scott's rise to fame at the battles of Chippewa and Lundy's Lane in the War of 1812. Eisenhower addresses Scott's military career in the Early American Republic and his tense political relationship with Andrew Jackson. The description of Scott's planning and execution of the amphibious landing at Veracruz during the Mexican War and the capture of Mexico City is engaging, as is Eisenhower's discussion of Scott's bid for the presidency in 1852 (without resigning from military service).
The final chapters focus on Scott's role as general of the armies and his relationship with the Lincoln administration. Indeed, Eisenhower explains that one of his "great theses" in Agent of Destiny is that during Scott's Civil War career "he was performing very, very valuable services." His planning "at the very beginning was indispensable, possibly his greatest contribution." Eisenhower does offer a detailed discussion of Scott's early role in the planning, as well as his gradual exclusion and eventual retirement from military service in November 1861. He does not, however, expand his analysis of this period much beyond the general story. The remainder of the study is devoted to Scott's brief visit to Europe and his final days at West Point, closing with his death in April 1866.
Though Scott's life narrative is well presented, Eisenhower fails to make any closing remarks about the general's significance or his impact on American society, politics, or military tradition. If Scott's contribution to the Civil War was one of his greatest achievements, where is the evidence? What impact did Scott have? Was his contribution limited to the Anaconda Plan to strangle the Southern resistance, or did his influence have more far reaching effects? Eisenhower fails to address these questions in his analysis of the Civil War, and this shortcoming is not out of character with the rest of Agent of Destiny. While the book is a pleasure to read and relates the highs and lows of Scott's career, it lacks depth. Eisenhower asks the reader to look beyond the military genius of his subject to see a social and political architect as well. Such a view is not without merit, but Eisenhower fails to provide adequate evidence or discussion of Scott's impact in these areas for the reader to share in the author's vision.
This illustrates a characteristic of the popular history genre. While such works are often enjoyable to read, they are just as commonly short on analysis. This is not universally true, nor does the obverse apply to their counterpart, academic history. It is the depth of analysis in academic studies, which some claim can be excessive, along with a de-emphasis of the prose, that frequently influences the general reader to choose a popular narrative over an academic work. These studies of Scott are an example of this phenomenon. The general public will be more likely to read Eisenhower's study, because of his narrative style and the reputation it has earned him. Unfortunately, this will not contribute to their understanding of Scott's lasting legacy on the American military, and they may miss the reflection of nineteenth-century America in his decisions and general personality.
Understandably, popular readers may hesitate before beginning Johnson's study due to past experiences with academic history, which they may have found overly analytical and tedious to read. Commendably, however, Johnson has presented a study that will appeal to the public and academe alike. Winfield Scott is a well-written and highly professional examination of one of the great captains in American military history, due in part to the author's determined and comprehensive research of his subject.
As Johnson states in the prologue, one of the greatest challenges facing Scott biographers is the difficulty of locating and researching collections of the general's personal papers. Many were destroyed by fire in 1841, and those that remain are in libraries and private collections dispersed across the country. This explains why most biographers, including Eisenhower, have chosen to trust the published primary and secondary sources rather than engage in a nation-wide search for materials that might yield a deeper understanding of Winfield Scott. Determined to avoid such limitations, Johnson visited manuscript collections throughout the country, including the American Antiquarian Society, the Burton Historical Collection in Detroit, Michigan, the Library of Congress, the New York Historical Society, the U.S. Military Academy Library, and the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan. All of these collections contained papers of Winfield Scott and are but a small representation of Johnson's archival research.
Johnson's determination to reach beyond the published sources and his scholarly presentation of the results of his research become quickly apparent to the reader. Based on a strong foundation of primary sources, Johnson constructs a balanced assessment of "Old Fuss and Feathers" and succeeds in offering new insights into the general's impact on American history. This Johnson accomplishes by supplying both a thorough analysis of Scott's important decisions and actions, and a detailed discussion of what those choices revealed about the general.
While Eisenhower addresses the significance of the Battle of Lundy's Lane on American strategy and morale in the War of 1812 (p. 94), for example, Johnson presents a more specialized analysis of the impact of the battle on the country and the young commander. Johnson argues that "Scott's brush with disaster at Lundy's Lane provided lessons for him. He was overanxious to prove himself, allowing rashness to overcome sound judgment. Still, his experiment with the column formation demonstrated not just his desire to emulate European armies but his willingness to adapt" (p. 65). Johnson concludes that while Lundy's Lane may not have reflected well on Scott's judgment, it did demonstrate his maturation as a military leader and his growing importance in the development of the American military tradition.
Other examples of Johnson's penetrating analysis can be found in his discussion of Scott's planning for American strategy in the Mexican War. Reaching beyond the specific events, Johnson draws the reader's attention to the importance of the thinking behind Scott's actions to demonstrate the impact of European military thought on the general's planning. Johnson argues that this influence did not end in Mexico, but continued through America's bloodiest war. In one of the most insightful segments of his book, the author challenges the commonly-accepted assertion that the commanders who would rise to prominence in the American Civil War were decisively influenced by their study of the works of the great Swiss theorist, Henri Jomini. These leaders, Johnson maintains, did not learn their trade from a personal study of Jomini's Art of War, which, as the author notes, was not required reading at West Point until 1859. Rather they learned from serving under Winfield Scott in Mexico and witnessing his brilliant implementation of Jomini's theories. "The lessons Scott taught," Johnson argues, "were manifold. He demonstrated the importance of flank attacks and the effectiveness of distracting the enemy's attention, usually with a frontal attack, while executing turning movements" (p. 235). Most of the leading officers in both the Union and Confederate armies served under Scott in Mexico, including Robert E. Lee, George B. McClellan, James Longstreet, P. G. T. Beauregard, and Thomas J. Jackson. Johnson illustrates that Scott's lessons shaped these young commanders' leadership in the Civil War, extending Scott's influence in that conflict far beyond his retirement in 1861.
Both of these works offer contributions to the broad military history community. Eisenhower's Agent of Destiny is a good general introduction to Winfield Scott and many readers will find it enjoyable to read. While some may be in search of a more scholarly study, this work may whet their appetites to investigate further into Scott's life.
Those seeking a greater understanding of Winfield Scott within the broader context of an American military, social, political and economic history, however, will want to turn to Timothy Johnson's Winfield Scott. His efforts to clarify or refute past assumptions about Scott through dedicated research offer a rich new resource for the academic community. In addition, Johnson has taken the biographical genre to its full extent, reaching beyond the life of his subject to offer a deeper understanding of the world around him.
Johnson's Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory would be an excellent work for classroom instruction at either the undergraduate or graduate level. His military analysis avoids jargon that could confuse non-military historians while maintaining a level of discourse of value to the military history community. Social and political historians of the early American republic will find Winfield Scott to be of use as well for its penetrating insights into Scott's behavior, personality, and relationships and what these reveal about him and the developing country. Johnson's work will appeal not only to scholars and students, but also to the general public. University Press of Kansas is working on the third printing of Winfield Scott in six months, and it is a selection of the History Book Club, revealing the wide audience for this work and deserved praise for its author.
Both Eisenhower and Johnson offer informative studies. Johnson's dedication to achieving a deeper understanding of Winfield Scott and American society, however, makes Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory the definitive biography of the great commander.
. Previous studies include Edward D. Mansfield, The Life of General Winfield Scott (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1846); Marcus J. Wright, General Scott (New York: Appleton Press, 1894); Arthur D. H. Smith, Old Fuss and Feathers: The Life and Exploits of Lt. General Winfield Scott (New York: Greystone Press, 1937); Charles Winslow Elliot, Winfield Scott: The Soldier and the Man (New York: Macmillan, 1937).
. Some other John S. D. Eisenhower works in this narrative tradition include So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848 (New York: Random House, 1989); Allies: Pearl Harbor to D-Day (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982); The Bitter Woods (New York: Putnam, 1969).
. John S. D. Eisenhower, Discussion of Agent of Destiny, Booknotes on C-SPAN for April 19, 1998, archived at <http://www.c-span.org/guide/books/booknotes/archive/bn0419.htm.
. An example of popular history offering a combination of engaging narrative with depth of analysis is T. R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War: A Study in Unpreparedness. While Shelby Foote may not offer definite analysis, he does offer penetrating insights into the characters and events of his famous three volumes on the definitive American struggle in The Civil War. Both works offer the general reader a deeper understanding than the surface story of their subject.
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Susannah U. Bruce. Review of Eisenhower, John S. D., Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of General Winfield Scott and
Johnson, Timothy D., Winfield Scott: The Quest for Military Glory.
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