Winfield Scott was one of the greatest servants in the American Army in the nineteenth century. Even so, he did not just undertake great feats in battle. He was also somebody who helped to promote peace, perhaps most notably in the Aroostook War. Steve Strathmann explains.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Winfield Scott could be found wherever the United States Army was fighting. In uniform for 53 years, he rose through the ranks to eventually command the army. Scott would serve on battlefields across North America, in conflicts as large as the War of 1812 and the American Civil War, and smaller ones against various Native American tribes.
Many remember his invasion of Mexico during the Mexican-American War or his “Anaconda Plan” to defeat the Confederacy in the Civil War. As important as these accomplishments were, one that has been forgotten is a war that he helped prevent, and how it led to the stabilization of the US/Canadian border.
When the United States gained its independence after the Revolutionary War, its northern border with Canada (British territory until 1867) was left to be decided at a later date. Several attempts were made to establish a definitive border, but the two sides could not find common ground. The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, solved nothing when it just reset the vague terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
One region where this indecision led to significant problems was the frontier between Maine and New Brunswick. Both sides claimed a wide swath of territory, including the Aroostook River valley. The area was coveted not only for its natural resources, but also as an overland connection between the Canadian coastline and Quebec. By the late 1830s, several incidents had caused tensions to rise, including the arrest of several Maine officials by New Brunswick authorities and fighting between lumberjacks for the rich timber growing in the valley. By early 1839, Maine state militiamen and British troops were facing each other down, possibly one incident away from starting an international conflict.
The federal government in Washington was being called on to support Maine against the Canadians, so President Martin Van Buren and Congress authorized a body of Federal troops and funds to meet any northern invasion. Winfield Scott was chosen to lead this expedition, and recalled to Washington from Nashville to take over preparations.
There was a second reason to call on Scott for this assignment. He was known to have a professional relationship with Sir John Harvey, the governor of New Brunswick. The two men had served opposite each other during the War of 1812, and often on the same battlefields. In 1813, they served in staff positions that caused them to meet regularly. During truces and negotiations, a friendship of sorts grew between the two soldiers. In fact, Scott once kept Harvey from being shot by a squad of American soldiers attempting to capture him. On another occasion, he bought items taken from Harvey’s captured luggage in order to send them back to the British officer. The two men would continue to correspond with each other in the decades following the war.
This relationship would now prove to be valuable for the two men’s respective nations. The state of Maine might be willing to pull back its militia from the disputed territory, but only if the Canadians did so first. Unfortunately, Governor John Fairfield of Maine and Sir John Harvey had broken off communications, so it was up to Scott to try and calm the border situation down.
Upon arrival in Maine, Winfield Scott realized that he would have his work cut out for him. He had to convince Maine authorities to back down, but first had to get the British to pull back. He chose to open his correspondence with Harvey by answering a letter he had recently received from him while in Nashville. Harvey promptly responded and suggested that future letters between the two men be made public and semi-official to show the progress of negotiations.
Soon afterwards, the two men had come to an agreement. Harvey promised that the British forces would not escalate the situation if Maine would pull back its militia and replace it with only a small posse to maintain the peace. Both sides would continue to hold disputed territory, but would leave it up to negotiators from Washington and London to finally create a definitive border. Governor Fairfield and the Maine legislature accepted this arrangement and pulled back the militia. Negotiations began and eventually led to the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, which established the American/Canadian border from the Atlantic Ocean to present-day Minnesota.
All sides recognized the importance of Scott’s involvement in the settlement of the Aroostook War, a ‘war’ that resulted in no combat casualties. One example of this recognition can be found in a private letter that Harvey sent to Scott as negotiations were just beginning: “My reliance upon you, my dear general, has led me to give you my willing assent to the proposition which you have made yourself the very acceptable means of conveying to me...”
Winfield Scott would find more military glory fighting in Mexico and defending the nation against disunion, and would gain so much fame that he would even run for president in 1852. Still, while many remember and celebrate his accomplishments on the battlefield, it is important that people also take note of the work he did to maintain peace.
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Buckner, Phillip. “HARVEY, Sir JOHN” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 8. University of Toronto/Université Laval, 1985. Accessed 26 September 2014. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/harvey_john_8E.html
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