SCOTT MARCHED TO ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA, with the 3d Vermont. There the regiment boarded a transport ship, which steamed down the Potomac River and across the Chesapeake Bay to join a virtual city of ships off Fortress Monroe, Virginia, each waiting to put its men ashore. Major General George B. McClellan, a commander of the Army of the Potomac, had begun his Peninsula Campaign, a plan to move a massive Union force up the peninsula between Virginia's James and York rivers and strike the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia.
It was only a matter of days before the whole campaign bogged down east of Warwick Creek at Yorktown - the very place where British General Charles Cornwallis was defeated 80 years earlier in the Revolutionary War. McClellan settled his army into a siege against a Confederate force he mistakenly believed much larger than his own. About noon on April 16, 1862, the general arrived at the point of Warwick Creek where the Vermont Brigade was stationed. With him were the Prince de Joinville and the Comte de Paris, exiled French noblemen . McClellan ordered 'Baldy' Smith "to occupy the opposing works, but by no means to bring on a general engagement, and to withdraw his troops if serious resistance was encountered."
Led by Captain Samuel Pingree, future governor of Vermont, four companies of the 3d Vermont crossed the creek to feel out the enemy. Securing a rifle pit on the opposite shore and holding off as many regiments as there were companies, the Vermont men held on for nearly an hour. They signaled repeatedly for reinforcement, and sent a man back across the creek with a plea for help, but none was sent.
Having broken through the perimeter of Rebel defenses, it would have been logical and reasonable for McClellan to follow the first wave of men with a full assault, march up the largely undefended peninsula and take Richmond. But it was not to be. As the men retreated through the creek's swollen waters, carrying their wounded captain, the Confederates kept up a steady fire.
Scott was not content to remain a bystander while his fellow soldiers struggled to cross the creek alive. Though not a combat soldier, he waded into the water under fire to help rescue the wounded. He later described the situation in the creek to a correspondent of the New York Tribune, saying, "Why, sir, it was just like sap-boiling, in that stream, the bullets fell so thick."
Smith was so deeply impressed by Scott's courage that he instructed a subordinate to prepare a recommendation that the young fifer be cited for bravery. Scott was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor, with the citation, "Crossed the creek under a terrific fire of musketry, several times to assist in bringing off the wounded."