On this day in 1855, Winfield Scott was promoted to brevet lieutenant general, a rank not held by anyone since George Washington. The term “brevet” designated an honorary rank, usually given to mark some success. In Scott’s case, that was his victory in the Mexican War. To make the point, Congress made the promotion retroactive to 1847, and General Scott, being an old S.O.B., celebrated by immediately suing for nearly $27,000 in back pay.
It should be noted that Scott’s promotion came on the second anniversary of Jefferson Davis being appointed secretary of war by President Franklin Pierce. This is relevant for a couple of reasons: Pierce had been Scott’s subordinate in the Mexican War but had nevertheless trounced the general in the presidential election of 1852. In other words, a grudge just might have been involved. And if Scott could look past Pierce, it was hard to ignore Davis, who was a proactive secretary and often times a micromanager. Davis thought Scott to be “peevish, proud, petulant, vain and presumptuous”—no doubt accurately—but in the end Scott got the last laugh. Pierce’s administration failed to come up with a good argument for why he shouldn’t receive his pay, and Scott eventually received about $10,000.
A version of this post was originally published on March 7, 2012.
IMAGE: Left top: Jefferson Davis (Library of Congress); left bottom: a minié ball, a bullet that greatly increased the accuracy of rifle shots and introduced into the United States army by Jefferson Davis; right: Winfield Scott (Library of Congress)