On this day, President Abraham Lincoln meets with retired General Winfield Scott, a hero of the Mexican War and the commander of all Union forces at the outbreak of the Civil War. Scott, aged and infirm, still possessed a sharp military mind. More important, he was one of the few impartial advisors surrounding Lincoln.
On June 23, Lincoln took a train from Washington, D.C., to West Point, New York, and called on Scott the following day to discuss Union strategy in Virginia. Lincoln had doubts about George McClellan’s ability to lead the Army of the Potomac, which was stuck in a stalemate with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia outside of Richmond, Virginia. He also sought Scott’s opinion on the various Federal armies operating in northern Virginia. Scott recommended that Irwin McDowell’s corps be sent to aid McClellan on the James Peninsula, since a defeat of Lee at Richmond would, in Scott’s words, “be a virtual end of the rebellion.”
Although it may have been sound advice, Lincoln did not move McDowell’s force. McClellan had provided no evidence to Lincoln that he would effectively apply the reinforcements against Lee. Instead, Lincoln consolidated McDowell’s corps with the commands of John C. Frémont and Nathaniel Banks, who had recently been bested by Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. John Pope, under whom Frémont refused to serve and so went on inactive duty, led the newly formed Army of Virginia. This new army would face its first test in August at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Virginia, where it suffered a humiliating defeat.
More than anything, Lincoln’s visit with Winfield Scott fueled the president’s disenchantment. Lincoln spent the war’s first two and a half years learning about military affairs and searching for the right advisor. He would not find that voice until the fall of 1863–from Ulysses S. Grant.