The longest serving military member in US history: ‘Old Fuss and Feathers’

There are many people who have served in our nation’s military for a significant amount of time. Gen. John William Vessey, Jr., was not only a general, but the tenth Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff during his military career that stretched over 46 years – starting with combat in WWII. CSM Donna A. Brock put over three and a half decades into the Army before retiring. This level of dedication is rare, especially when retirement that has been earned comes knocking on one’s door.

Then there is Gen. Winfield Scott, born June 13, 1786, who served in the U.S. Army for 53 whole years. Those of you who have spent 4 or 10 or even 20 years can pick your jaw up off the ground now.

His career included several major wars, serving as the commanding General of the U.S. Army, and a few runs for presidential office. He is generally regarded as one of the best generals in American history. At one point he was nicknamed the “Grand Old Man of the Army.”

After some thoughts about going into law, he first experienced combat arms alongside the Virginia Militia. His father had fought in the American revolution, and Scott soon followed in his father’s footsteps, deciding to pursue a career in the Army. He did so while already milling around in higher up circles, and at 22 was being interviewed by President Thomas Jefferson and a few others before commissioning as a captain in the Light Artillery.

The man had quite the career. He fought in the War of 1812, eventually becoming a POW at the hands of the British. After an exchange, he went back into the fray and earned the respect of many as he led troops through harrowing battles in 1813 and 1814. Later he commanded men in the Mexican-American War.

Like many capable leaders, he sought to replace himself with someone capable. Scott, however, found that his replacement was not quite on his level, so he jumped back in. Through several decisive battles he helped win the war entirely.

He also fought Native Americans in the Indian Wars, as well as in the effort to relocate Cherokees into modern-day Oklahoma. Despite removing people from their homes, he still insisted that the Native Americans were at least treated with some level of dignity, saying that treating them with cruelty would be “abhorrent to the generous sympathies of the whole American people.” Though it would be severely disingenuous to say that horrific acts did not occur during their expulsion, as they certainly did. A total of 4,000 Cherokee died in these efforts, culminating in what is now known as the Trail of Tears.

Despite knowing he would incur severe backlash from politicians back home, Scott insisted that the “removal” (to put it lightly) efforts be led by the Cherokee themselves and not herded like cattle by the Army. Though as we can see from history, his request was not honored. After all, the efforts he was now leading would become a profound stain on U.S. history, which happened by direction of higher authorities, though ultimately under his military leadership.

You can read more about that here.

And even as his career may be controversial today, it was also controversial back then. Like we see now, the times of early America were laden with politics and divisiveness — the opposing party gave him the name “Old Fuss and Feathers.”

When the Civil War broke out, Scott was in command of the U.S. Army, though he was well into his 70s by then. He recognized the skill and aptitude of Robert E. Lee and sought to see him take charge — when Lee asked if he could just stay out of the war altogether, Scott replied, “I have no place in my army for equivocal men,” and Lee left with Virginia. Scott had a reputation as being staunchly anti-slavery, and so this was likely a significant factor in his own life during the Civil War.

Scott left the military in late 1861, though the Civil War would rage on until 1865. And even after he left, he remained at West Point until the day he died — a year after the Civil War’s end, he passed at the age of 79.

The man served his country under 14 presidential administrations, 53 years total in the Army. His replacement, Gen. McClellan, wasn’t even born when Scott was first promoted to General.  He was described by Fanny Crosby as having a “gentle manner [that] did not indicate a hero of so many battles; yet there was strength beneath the exterior appearance and a heart of iron within his breast. But from him I learned that the warrior only it is, who can fully appreciate the blessing of peace…”


Featured images from Wikimedia Commons.

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