He briefly attended the College of William and Mary, studied law at Petersburg, and joined the military. At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Scott was made a lieutenant colonel. He was captured at Queenston Heights (Oct., 1812), but after his exchange he returned to the Niagara frontier and led a successful assault of Fort George (May, 1813). He was made a brigadier general in Mar., 1814. The thorough training he gave his troops paid off in July when his brigade bore the brunt of the fighting at Lundy's Lane, where Scott was severely wounded. Scott became a hero and was brevetted major general.
His subsequent army career was long and varied. In 1815–16 he visited Europe, where he studied French army practices. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson dispatched him to Charleston, S.C., where Scott ably handled the potentially explosive nullification troubles. He served in the Seminole and Creek campaigns and in 1838 supervised the removal of the Cherokee to the Indian Territory (now in Oklahoma). His talent for peacemaking was displayed in 1838, when he was sent to the Canadian border in the Caroline Affair, and again in 1839, when he went to Maine during the so-called Aroostook War. In 1841, Scott was appointed supreme commander of the U.S. army.
In the Mexican War, Scott approved the northern campaign of Gen. Zachary Taylor; then Scott himself accepted command of the southern expedition. With the cooperation of the navy, he took Veracruz early in 1847 and began the long march to Mexico City. Cerro Gordo fell in Apr., 1847, and Scott's army entered Puebla, where it remained inactive for several months. In August the Americans resumed their advance. Fighting at Contreras and Churubusco preceded an attack on the outposts of Mexico City. An engagement at Molino del Rey was followed by the storming of Chapultepec, which fell on Sept. 13, 1847, clearing the way to the capital. The campaign was a triumph for Scott's daring strategy and confirmed his reputation as a bold fighter. Scott was now a national hero, but as a Whig he was disliked by the Democratic administration of James K. Polk. As a result Scott was recalled to the United States early in 1848. A court of inquiry, however, dismissed charges leveled at him by some subordinate officers, and he was brevetted a lieutenant general.
In 1852, Scott was chosen as the Whig candidate for president, but he made a poor showing against his Democratic opponent, Franklin Pierce. In 1859, Scott once more took a hand in a boundary disagreement, going to Washington Territory in an effort to settle the San Juan Boundary Dispute. The outbreak of the Civil War brought onerous burdens to the general, who, though a Southerner by birth, opposed secession and was loyal to the Union. He wished some delay before any military action was taken, so that the Union's civilian army could be more adequately trained, and the disastrous first battle of Bull Run, fought against his wishes, bore out his views. Old and in failing health, Scott was compelled to retire on Nov. 1, 1861.