By Ephriam D. Dickson III, Programs and Education
National Museum of the U.S. Army Project Office
Among the historical treasures that will be on display at the future National Museum of the U.S. Army will be the original Congressional Gold Medal presented to General Winfield Scott for his leadership during the War of 1812. Crafted at the Philadelphia Mint, this medal bears the youthful likeness of the general on its obverse and cites on the reverse his successes at the Battles of Chippewa, July 5, 1814, and Niagara, July 25, 1814.
Today, the Congressional Gold Medal is awarded to individuals who have profoundly impacted American history and culture, ranging from inventors and politicians to writers and entertainers. But initially, this special commemoration was reserved for military officers who had especially distinguished themselves. George Washington was presented with the first medal by the Continental Congress in 1776.
At the beginning of his military career, Winfield Scott seemed an unlikely candidate for success. Trained as a lawyer, he had secured a commission in 1808 at age 19 as a second lieutenant in the artillery, but two years later was suspended for a year following a court martial for insubordination. Undaunted, he studied tactics from European manuals and was assigned to General Wade Hampton’s staff. By the time the War of 1812 erupted with Great Britain, he had been promoted to lieutenant colonel.
Serving on the Niagara frontier, Scott faced a number of challenges. American forces endured a series of defeats by stronger and better trained British units. In October 1812, having crossed into Canada on an American offensive, Scott and his troops were captured and held as prisoners for several months. Upon his return, Scott organized a Camp of Instruction near Buffalo, N.Y. and drilled his men incessantly using an early French manual to prepare them for the chaos of battle. When he and his troops crossed back into Canada in 1814, this fundamental training enabled them to push back the British at the Battle of Chippewa and then Lundy’s Lane. “Those are Regulars, by God!” the British commander is reputedly to have exclaimed as Scott’s men advanced amidst cannon fire.
General Scott went on to become the General-in-Chief of the army (later known as commanding general). More than any single individual during the 19th century, this strong-willed officer moved the Army towards a more professional organization. He wrote one of the first sets of Army regulations, and he adapted European manuals to produce standardized tactics for use throughout the service. He led the final overland campaign during the Mexican War, earning a second Congressional Gold Medal in 1848. When Scott retired at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, he was recognized as one of the greatest American military thinkers of his day.
The exhibit surrounding Scott’s initial gold medal will open a conversation with Museum visitors about how the Army of today has been built upon the individual contributions of many. To learn more about General Scott’s important impact on the modernization of the U.S. Army during the nineteenth century, see Allan Peskin, Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms (Kent State University, 2003).