But at 75, he had been forced by circumstances to resign as the Army’s commanding general. And as he made his way to the waiting room, his handsome young replacement was splashing through the storm with his cavalry escort to bid the old man goodbye.
The farewell meeting that morning between the aged warhorse, Winfield Scott, and his former subordinate, the new national hero, Gen. George B. McClellan, 34, was one of the most poignant of the Civil War.
The two men, who had been feuding since McClellan’s summons to Washington in July, appeared to represent the old and the new, past and present, bygone glory and newfound hope in the current emergency.
Indeed, Scott’s fame stretched back to the War of 1812. But the martial saga of the “Young Napoleon,” as McClellan came to be called, was to last only a little over a year — his tenure in command marked by controversy, infighting and recrimination.
On that rainy Saturday, though — just six months into the war — silence fell over the waiting room when McClellan entered and sat down beside Scott.
McClellan had eased the tension with a conciliatory, and calculated, statement the day before calling Scott a hero. Scott offered best wishes to McClellan’s wife and new baby.
He then rose, shook hands and was helped to the luxury rail car that had been sent for him. McClellan rode back to his quarters and recounted the scene in a letter to his wife.
“It may be that at some distant day I too shall totter away from” Washington, he wrote, “a worn out old soldier. . . . Should I ever become vainglorious & ambitious remind me of that spectacle.”
An army in tatters
Exactly a month before, Scott, McClellan, President Abraham Lincoln and a parade of other dignitaries had attended the funeral at Congressional Cemetery of Gen. George C. Gibson, an old friend of Scott, who had died Sept. 30 at age 86.
There was much pomp as the body of Gibson, the oldest general in the army, was borne along Pennsylvania Avenue, escorted by infantry, cavalry and artillery.
But a newspaper correspondent in the crowd was disturbed by what he saw. “No part of the cortege was in full regulation uniform,” he wrote in the Washington Evening Star. “I doubt if there is such a thing in existence as a full regulation uniform.”
“The officers’ horses were not well-groomed or decently equipped,” the correspondent reported. One horseman “rode past with a parcel in a newspaper strapped behind his saddle.”
And elsewhere across the city, where the broken Union army was being reassembled, he found soldiers “most astonishingly shabby, careless and inexact in every respect.”