Produced circa 1835-40
With the exception of George Washington, no one person would have more influence on the United States Army during its first 80 years of its existence than General Winfield Scott. During the War of 1812 he led a series of attacks against combined British and Canadian forces between Fort George and Fort...
With the exception of George Washington, no one person would have more influence on the United States Army during its first 80 years of its existence than General Winfield Scott. During the War of 1812 he led a series of attacks against combined British and Canadian forces between Fort George and Fort Erie, on the Canadian side of the border. At the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, Scott’s force was ambushed by a force of British regulars, and he managed to prevent a disaster before being seriously wounded himself. After the war, Scott studied European military methods, and wrote a manual that led to reorganization of the army and remained the standard for decades.
It was the Mexican War that brought Scott lasting renown. He was ordered to Mexico in November 1846. Obstructed by poorly equipped troops, limited reinforcements and supplies, desertions, and disease, Scott nevertheless undertook a successful five-month campaign from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. For taking that city, and thus guaranteeing the successful conclusion of the war, Congress voted him its thanks and a gold medal. In 1852, Congress passed a measure offering Scott the pay, rank, and emoluments of a lieutenant general, the first person to hold that office since Washington. That same year, he was the Whig party’s unsuccessful candidate for President.
When the secession crisis developed during the latter part of 1860, Scott was the head of the U.S. Army. He pleaded unsuccessfully with President James Buchanan to reinforce the southern forts and armories against possible seizure. He even brought his headquarters from New York to Washington, D.C., so that he could oversee the recruiting and training of the capital’s defense. He personally commanded Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguard at the inauguration, and advised Lincoln on strategy when the Civil War broke out. It was he who developed the Anaconda Plan for subduing the seceding states by blockading Southern ports to deprive the South of its necessities, and advancing down the Mississippi River to cut the South in two. Now 75 years old, Scott felt a younger man was needed to run a major war, and he retired in November 1861. A large and imposing figure, Scott as a young man stood six feet, five inches tall and weighed 230 pounds. His career was extraordinarily long, some fifty years, and he was the associate of every President from Thomas Jefferson to Lincoln.
Writing desks (sometimes called lap desks) came into general use at the end of the 18th century because of the growth of commercial activity and the corresponding need to travel, and the needs of military officers in the far-flung Napoleonic wars who were on the move. Both groups required a desk that could withstand the rough and tumble of strenuous journeys. By 1790 the British were producing solid and substantial writing desks, and in the early 19th century Americans began producing fine ones as well.
These desks were typically made of wood and had brass plaques and trim, the plaques bearing the name of the owner. It was decidedly a personal rather than a household possession, and a rather expensive one at that. The desks were not merely writing surfaces of felt or leather, but had cabinets or drawers to store pen, paper, ink, and incoming or outgoing correspondence. At a time of expanding intellectual curiosity, communication, literacy and increased commercial activity, the writing desk was an item of style and fashion, but it was also an item connected with intelligence, commerce and world awareness. Authors used them (Jane Austen had one), travelers headed overseas used them, and as did government officials and military men. Nicholas Trist had one; he was the State Department Chief Clerk who negotiated and signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo that ended the Mexican War, initially working closely with Scott in Mexico, then on his own when Scott returned to the U.S.
Winfield Scott was just the sort of man to use a writing desk, and we offer what was apparently his actual brass-bound wooden one. Though it could well be as much as 20 years older, the desk’s construction is of the type most common circa 1835-1840. The plaque, clearly contemporaneous with the writing desk, uses a flowery calligraphy, one that would have appealed to Scott, known as “Old Fuss and Feathers” because of his marked fancy for discipline, ornamental trapping in his uniform and otherwise. The desk is somewhat similar to Trist’s and would possibly have been used by Scott in Mexico. In support of our determination that this is Scott’s own desk, rather than that of a namesake, we offer the 1850 U.S. Census. This shows that of all the males named Winfield Scott in the country, and assuming the desk was purchased in 1840, no man but General Scott was more than 25 years old at that time (all but two or three were minors), and likely to have the need for a fine and expensive writing desk.
This research leads us to the conclusion that was likely the General’s writing desk.
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