Winfield Scott, the most notable American general between the American Revolution and the Civil War, began his climb to becoming a general at 27 by the heroism he displayed as a Lieutenant Colonel at the battle of Queenston Heights on October 11, 1812. An American defeat, Scott was among the 955 Americans captured.
The British at this time did not recognize the right of any British subject to change his nationality. Such a subject, captured fighting in a foreign army, was considered by the British to be a traitor and liable to summary execution, sometimes being given the opportunity to avoid death by enlisting in the British Army.
At first the American captives were treated rather well. Scott was even invited to dinner by British General Roger Sheaffe, who also protected the Americans from the Indian allies of the British. Shipped to Quebec, the Americans were paroled and were due to leave via ship for Boston on November 20, 1812. The day before a commission of British officers boarded the ship where Scott and his men were waiting to sail. The British began questioning the American enlisted men. If they detected an Irish brogue, the man was arrested as a traitor to the Crown. Hearing the commotion this was causing, Scott rushed from below deck. Defying an order from the British to go below, he ordered the men who had not been interrogated not to say another word. To the 23 men who had been arrested, he promised the United States would protect them. The men obeyed Scott and all refused to say a word. The British eventually gave up and took the 23 men off the ship. Scott and the remainder sailed for Boston on November 20. Of the 23 men arrested by the British, 13 were executed.
Scott was shocked and outraged. When he landed at Boston after a harrowing 46 days at sea during which he and his men were almost starved to death, Scott rushed to Washington to tell what had happened to 23 of his men. When he arrived on January 10, 1813 Scott found himself a national hero, with members of Congress and President Madison eager to hear from him. Scott lobbied successfully for a law passed by February 27, 1813 which vested in the President legal authority to retaliate against enemy prisoners of war for wrongs done to American prisoners by their captors. Madison did not exercise this authority, but the law did serve as a potential threat in the event of any additional execution of American prisoners.
Ironically during the Mexican War General Scott would confirm courtmartial death sentences for 48 members of the San Patricio Battalion. These were men who were enlisted in the United States Army at the onset of the Mexican War, and who had deserted and joined a unit formed in the Mexican Army, the core of which was Irish deserters from the American army. The death sentences were only imposed on men who deserted after the declaration of war, lesser penalties being assessed against men who deserted prior to the beginning of the conflict.
Scott in general during the Mexican War had a high opinion of the Irish who fought in the American army as he wrote in a private letter:
“In Mexico, we estimated the number of persons, foreigners by birth, at, about, 3,500, and of these more than 2,000 were Irish. How many had been naturalized I cannot say; but am persuaded that seven out of ten, had at least declared their intentions, according to law, to become citizens. It is hazardous, or may be invidious to make distinctions; but truth obliges me to say that, if our Irish soldiers – save a few who deserted from General Taylor, and had never taken the naturalization oath – not one ever turned his back upon the enemy or faltered in advancing to the charge. Most of the foreigners, by birth, also behaved faithfully and gallantly.”