Robert Kingston Scott
Distinguished Civil War general turned coldblooded killer
Written by HistoryFiled under
Hundreds of men rose to the rank of general in the Union Army during the American Civil War. A few have been immortalized, a large majority have drifted into obscurity, and still others have been dealt with harshly by historians. One such individual—derided by contemporaries and modern historians alike—is Ohio physician-turned-soldier Robert Kingston Scott. Civil War historian Ezra J. Warner once characterized Scott “as unique a mixture of hero and rogue as ever wore a United States uniform.”
General Scott’s career in the Army of the Tennessee was notable even before he was branded as a rogue and murderer. His reputation began to decline around the time he was elected governor of South Carolina in 1868. After serving two turbulent terms he was censured as a fraudulent and corrupt administrator, at which point he moved to Napoleon, Ohio. There he lived in relative tranquility until Christmas Day 1880, when he was arrested for the cold-blooded murder of a twenty-three-year-old drug store clerk.
Who was Robert Kingston Scott?
Scott was born in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, on July 8, 1826. He came from a family with a military background, with his grandfather fighting in the American Revolution and his father a combatant in the War of 1812. In 1842, he moved to Stark County, Ohio, and attended Central College before going on to study medicine at Starling Medical College. During the Mexican War, he was elected captain in the First Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, serving from 1846-48.
After the war, Scott was lured to California by the 1848 Gold Rush, and spent a year panhandling. Unsuccessful, he spent time visiting Mexico and South America before returning to Ohio, where he began practicing medicine. Scott also had a natural aptitude for business, and in 1860 invested heavily in real estate. When his investments began to generate revenue, he retired from the practice of medicine and took up managing his real estate interests full-time.
Service in the Civil War
Scott was appointed as a major in 1861 by Governor William Dennison of Ohio and tasked with organizing and funding a portion of the Sixty-Eighth Ohio Volunteer Regiment. His established wealth and prior military service must have been alluring to Dennison, who offered Scott a commission as colonel before he accepted the role of major.
In 1862 Scott was with Ulysses S. Grant at the bloody Battle of Shiloh and was commended for meritorious service by his brigade commander, Colonel John Milton Thayer. He went on to command the Sixty-Eighth Ohio during the Vicksburg Campaign of 1863, fighting at the Battles of Port Gibson, Raymond, Champion’s Hill, and during the siege of the city. And amid Sherman’s Atlanta campaign, he was in command of a brigade as a colonel. One sergeant recalled that Scott gained the admiration and confidence of all his charges and was “born to command.”
On July 22, 1864, during the Battle of Atlanta, Scott was accompanying Major General James B. McPherson when they stumbled into a Confederate skirmish line. When the two officers attempted to flee, they were fired on by the Confederate pickets. McPherson was shot dead, and Scott was wounded in the neck and his horse was shot out from under him. A Confederate officer rushed up to Scott to capture him and inquired about the identity of the fallen general, Scott responded matter-of-factly: “Sir, it is General McPherson. You have killed the best man in our army.”
Scott attempted to escape his captors on July 25, 1864, but fell down a railroad embankment after jumping from a train. He seriously injured his back, chest, right knee, and leg. He was recaptured and taken to Charleston where he was held until exchanged in September 1864.
In January 1865, Scott was commissioned as a brigadier general of volunteers and received the brevet rank of major general later that year, concluding a noble and distinguished military career. The aforementioned Warner suggested that, “Up to this point Scott seems to have been a thorough soldier, lacking neither in courage nor ability.”
In January 1866, Scott relieved General Rufus Saxon as the Assistant Commissioner of the Fieldman’s Bureau in South Carolina. Upon assuming command he found the city in chaos and the soldiers in a poor condition due to mismanagement. He quickly established order, making a strong impression on the people of Charleston as an efficient administrator. At the request of the citizens of South Carolina, he was not mustered out of service as scheduled. The wire imploring the postponement of discharge was sent by William Aiken, Jr. and six other distinguished South Carolinians, who declared: “Scott is the best man we can have just now.” He continued in his position until he resigned in July 1868.