Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Winfield Scott Sits Down to a Hasty Plate of Soup

If you do a search for Winfield Scott at the Library of Congress site, you will come across a number of illustrations alluding to Scott’s consuming “a hasty plate of soup.” In his biography of James K. Polk, Robert W. Merry provides the amusing background.

President James K. Polk learned about the outbreak of hostilities with Mexico on Saturday May 9, 1846. On Wednesday May 13, Polk and Secretary of War William Marcy met with Scott, the army’s general in chief, and offered him “the position of commander of U.S. troops in the field.” Scott, delighted, accepted on the spot.

Then the problems began. Polk and Marcy expected, perhaps unfairly, that Scott would depart for Mexico almost immediately. Scott apparently saw himself as wearing two hats – head of the army and field commander – and planned to defer his departure for a number of months while he attended to numerous administrative tasks in Washington.

Marcy expressed the president’s displeasure to Scott on May 20. Scott responded to Marcy with a pompous letter in which “he catalogued the arduous labors attending his effort to get the front.” Merry quotes the following paragraphs, “dripping with self-pity” (and, I might add, bloated rhetoric):
In the midst of these multitudinous and indispensable occupations, I have learned from you that much impatience is already felt, perhaps in high quarters, that I have not already put myself in route for the Rio Grande; and now, with fourteen hours a day of preliminary work remaining on my hands for many days, I find myself compelled to stop the necessary work to guard myself against, perhaps, utter condemnation in the quarters alluded to. . . .

Not an advantageous step can be taken in a forward march without the confidence that all is well behind. . . . I am, therefore, not a little alarmed, nay, crippled in my energies, by the knowledge of the impatience in question. . . . My explicit meaning is, that I do not desire to place myself in the most perilous of all positions – a fire upon my rear from Washington, and the fire in front from the Mexicans.

When Polk read Scott’s letter, “he instantly concluded that the general lacked the requisite stability and sense for field command.” At about the same time, word arrived of Zachary Taylor’s initial victories at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. After several cabinet meetings to consider a response, Marcy was authorized to send a reply on May 25. “[A] masterpiece of pained condescension,” Marcy’s letter expressed shock that Scott could think that the president, who had just appointed him to a position of the greatest trust, was "firing upon his rear." The letter concluded by relaying the decision that Scott would remain in Washington and not command the troops in the field.

Now Scott plated his soup.

Scott responded almost immediately with a letter of his own, even more unfortunate than his first. Incredibly, he contended that his earlier reference to “high quarters” did not impugn the president, because Scott meant to accuse Marcy himself. In Merry’s words,
Having found himself in a hole, Scott dug furiously. . . . Scott responded with a combination of defensiveness and sycophancy. Seeking with great orotundity to explain his previous expressions and ingratiate himself with his superior, he urged reconsideration of the president’s decision . . ..

But what really grabbed the attention of the press and the public was the very first line of Scott's letter to Marcy, which seemed to capture perfectly Scott’s bloated sense of self-importance, pomposity and self-pity:
Sir: Your letter of this date, received about 6, p.m., as I sat down to a hasty plate of soup, demands a prompt reply.

Scott’s misguided effort to change the president's decision was in vain, at least for the time being:
Marcy sent back a terse reply saying Polk wasn’t inclined to reverse his previous judgment. Polk already had sent to Congress a message nominating General Taylor for promotion to the brevet rank of major general. Taylor would be the president’s man at the battlefront.

It's interesting that the Mexican War era illustrations that refer to the line gently tweak Scott but are largely benign. In the wake of military success, the illustrators seem to have cast Scott as something of an quirky eccentric, rather than a buffoon. But the line haunted Scott for the rest of his public career. The plate of soup returned in a substantially darker form when Scott ran for president as the Whig nominee in 1852.

About the illustration at the top of the post, entitled Distinguished military operations with a hasty bowl of soup:
The satire apparently perceives President Polk's reinstatement of Winfield Scott over Zachary Taylor as commander of U.S. forces in the Mexican War in November 1846 as an attempt to squelch the extreme personal popularity won by Taylor through dazzling early victories at Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, and Monterey. Scott (center) is shown emptying a large tureen of soup onto Taylor, saying "Take that! you're my subordinate!" The "hasty bowl of soup" was a recurring jibe which haunted Scott throughout the rest of his public career. (See also "Battle of Cerro Gordo" and "Battle of Churubusco," nos. 1847-2 and 1847-3.) It originated in Scott's opening comment in a May 25, 1846, letter to Secretary of War William L. Marcy protesting his removal as commander, "Your letter of this date, received at about 6 p.m., as I sat down to take a hasty plate of soup . . ." Here Scott is urged on by Polk (right), who says, "That's right Scott, we must Smother him [i.e., Taylor]!" Scott asks Taylor, "Where were you when I was ordering my hasty plate of Soup?" Taylor, in his customary wide-brimmed hat and simple civilian coat, is in marked contrast to the elegantly uniformed Scott. As a troop of soldiers at attention looks on, Taylor bears the indignity, responding, "Please your Excellency and Commander in Chief I was at the Pallo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, & Monterey." One of the soldiers adds, punning on Taylor'a name, "Aye Aye, the People will put him right, although he's a Taylor he "leads" to danger and dont "follow" suit." Although unsigned the print is quite close in drawing, if not in political bias, to Edward Williams Clay's pro-Scott "Santa Anna Declining a Hasty Plate of Soup at Cerro Gordo" (no. 1847-4). The similarity between the portraits of Scott in the two prints is especially convincing evidence of Clay's authorship.

About the second image, entitled Battle of Cerro Gordo:
An attack on James K. Polk's attempts to undermine Winfield Scott's military efforts and reputation through his handling of the Mexican War in April 1847. Shortly after Scott's victory at Cerro Gordo, Polk dispatched State Department official Nicholas Trist to Mexico to negotiate peace with the Mexican government. The artist views the move, as did many contemporaries, as motivated by political concerns about the Whig general's presidential ambitions. Scott, on a large hill at right, offers a steaming plate of soup to departing Mexican commander Santa Anna, who rides away on horseback. (For the soup allusion see "Distinguished Military Operations," no. 1846-15). From a ravine behind Scott, Polk goads Trist as he aims a water hose at the general. The hose is fueled by a pump operated by two boys in the background. In the distance American troops engage the Mexicans on the hills near Cerro Gordo. In the upper left appears the dialogue: Scott: "General Santa Anna!! do stop and take 'a hasty plate of soup?'" Santa Anna: "I thank you, Sir, your soup's too hot-I must be off!" Polk: "Trist, take care & cool 'old Hasty's' soup, before "our friend" meets him again." Trist: "Your Excellency will pardon me, but I've tried in vain to cool 'Old Hasty's' soup." Polk: "Then put out 'Old Hasty's' fire, or "that fatal soup will burn our fingers yet!" Trist: "Your excellency would do well to send 'Old Hasty' home and give "our friend" 'Pillow' for his Comfort." The last reference was to Gen. Gideon J. Pillow, an incompetent but a favorite of Polk, whose antagonism toward Scott was public knowledge, particularly after Cerro Gordo.

About the third illustration, entitled A Piercing Piece of Loco Foco Hocus Pocus:
The title plays on Franklin Pierce's last name, at the expense of Whig presidential hopefuls Millard Fillmore, Winfield Scott, and Daniel Webster. The print was probably published shortly after the June 1852 Whig national convention, judging from the reference to Scott's nomination. The artist is critical of the Whig party's preference for military heroes as candidates, as manifested by their selection of Scott over his civilian rivals. In the center is Scott, flanked by Fillmore and Webster, balancing an empty plate of oyster soup on his head. He stands on the wooden floor of the "Whig Platform [of] Soup Fuss And Feathers." Scott's excessive concern with image and decorum earned him the nickname "Old Fuss and Feathers;" for Scott's early offhanded reference to a "hasty plate of soup," which clung to him throughout his public life, see "Distinguished Military Operations . . ." (no. 1846-15). He holds out empty oyster shells to the two disappointed candidates, saying: "My dear fellows you neither of you got the oyster because you couldn't agree and you have never smelt powder.--The whig party is essentually chivalric, and they must have a military man at their head, and, of course, chose me--To be sure Harrison was a granny, and so was Taylor, but I am a Granny dear [i.e., grenadier]! I present you each a shell as as a proof of my regard!--But hulloh! where's the oyster? Was it a vision!" Pierce stands at the far left, on the raised "Democratic Platform [of] The Constitution And The Union," displaying the meat of an oyster labeled "President U. S. A." He addresses Scott: "You will have to go without your soup this time General I've go the Oyster by sleight of hand, and a good fat one it is, a real old Blue pointer. I shall pickle it and keep it for four years!" Fillmore (left) exclaims, "A shell without a fish! how selfish! what a scaly trick." Webster, standing alone at far right, offers a melancholy soliloquy: "Farewell! a long farewell to all my greatness! This is the state of man.---To-day he puts forth the tender leaves of hope, tomorrow blossoms and bears his blushing honors thick upon him--The next day comes a frost a killing frost, and when he thinks, good easy man, full surely his greatness is ripening, nips his root & then he falls as I do!"

About the fourth illustration, entitled Managing a Candidate:
A caustic portrayal of the abolitionist Whigs' manipulation of Winfield Scott during the 1852 campaign. Influential Whigs (left to right) New York "Times" editor Henry J. Raymond, "Tribune" editor Horace Greeley, and New York senator William Seward escort Scott across Salt River via the "Baltimore Bridge." The bridge is composed of eight planks, representing the eight parts of the Whig platform as adopted at their June national convention in Baltimore. With Seward on his shoulders, Scott steps carefully across the bridge, carefully avoiding stepping on plank number eight, which reads "The series of acts of the Thirty-first Congress, commonly known as the compromise or adjustment, (the act of the recovery of fugitive from labor included) are received and acquiesced in by the Whigs of the United States, as a final settlement in principel and substance of the subjects to which they relate." The plank was an endorsement of the Compromise of 1850. Seward, who opposed the compromise, covers Scott's mouth with his hand, saying, "General, I have been trying to get safely over this Stream for some time, and your Shoulders, are broad enough to bear me; never mind your tongue or your pen I'll manage them, but look well to your footsteps as this particular spot, it takes a pretty long Stride but stretch your legs, as I do my Con-science,--and you can get over anything." Greeley, another vociferous abolitionist, follows behind carrying a tureen of "Free Soil Soup" and Scott's heavily plumed hat. He adds, "That's the talk Bill! you take care of his mouth, and his fingers, & Ill look out for the, feathers, and soup, perhaps you had better Stop and let him have a 'hasty plate' of it, as I have seasoned it highly with "black" pepper, to suit our taste, & we can give him a mouthful of Graham bread when he gets through." The "hasty plate of soup" was a lingering joke at Scott's expense dating from the general's Mexican War career. (See "Distinguished Military Operations," no. 1846-15.) "Black" pepper is a racist allusion, while "graham bread" was actually a well-known dietary preference of Greeley's. Raymond trails behind Greeley, carrying a copy of the New York "Times" and a document marked "Telegraphic Dispatches." He marvels, "Well I declare! Seward will get the old joker across after all; since he had that severe attack of the Botts, I thought he would never go over Safe." Virginia Whig John Minor Botts caused a stir at the convention by reading a letter from Scott wherein, for the first time, he endorsed the compromise.


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