Born November 24, 1784 Montebello, Virginia
Died July 9, 1850 Washington, D.C.
American military leader and president of the United States
One of two commanding U.S. generals in the Mexican American War, Zachary Taylor led troops to victory in several battles in northeastern Mexico. A career army officer, he was known both for his courage and aggression on the battlefield and his plainspoken, easygoing manner and casual style of dress. Well-liked by his soldiers, who called him "Old Rough and Ready," Taylor also became very popular with the U.S. public through his success in the war. Despite his lack of political experience, he was elected president soon after the war's conclusion. Although he died only a little more than a year after taking office, Taylor was forced to deal with an issue that would have lasting consequences on the country: whether the institution of slavery would be allowed in the nation's new states.
Growing up in Kentucky
The third of nine children of Richard Taylor and Sarah Dabney Strother, Zachary Taylor was a member of a family that had settled in Virginia in 1640. As a reward for serving as an officer in the Revolutionary War (1775-83), Richard Taylor received 6,000 acres of land in Kentucky, which was then a new state on the nation's western frontier. Soon after Zachary's birth, the family settled on Beargrass Creek near present-day Louisville. Richard Taylor was active in state politics and served as a customs official for the port of Louisville.
Even though his family was fairly prosperous, Zachary Taylor received only a little education from private tutors, and he would never become a confident reader or writer. He spent most of his time working on the family plantation (a large farm), but when he grew up he did not choose to become a farmer. He was drawn to the military instead, and in 1808, with the help of his second cousin, secretary of state and future president James Madison (1751-1836), Taylor was made a lieutenant in the U.S. Army's Seventh Infantry. Thus began Taylor's forty-year career in the army.
A frontier army officer
In 1810, Taylor also began a career as a devoted husband and father when he married Margaret Mackall Smith of Maryland. The couple had five daughters (two of whom died in infancy) and one son. Taylor's eldest daughter, Sarah, went against her father's wishes and married Jefferson Davis (1808-1889), who was then a soldier serving under Taylor, but who would one day play a major role in the American Civil War (1861-65) as president of the Confederacy. After several years, however, Taylor overcame his dislike of Davis. Taylor's son Richard was a Confederate general in the Civil War. His daughter Mary Elizabeth, who married Taylor's devoted aide, Colonel William "Perfect" Bliss (1815-1853), served as White House hostess during her father's presidency, when Taylor's wife was too ill to fulfill that role.
Serving at various posts throughout the western frontier of the United States, Taylor gradually rose through the ranks of the army. During the War of 1812 (1812-14), a conflict with Great Britain that erupted over trade and territorial issues, Taylor gained fame for his successful defense of Fort Harrison in Indiana Territory. Taylor's force of only fifty men fought off an attack by four hundred Native American warriors led by the great Shawnee chief Tecumseh (c. 1768-1813). After the war and until 1831, Taylor's assignments included service in Wisconsin, Louisiana, and Minnesota.
Promoted to the rank of colonel in 1832, Taylor was sent to Fort Crawford (now Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin) to command four hundred troops in the Black Hawk War, in which a Native American alliance of the Sauk and Fox tribes fought the United States over territorial rights. From 1837 to 1840, Taylor took a leading role in the effort to bring Florida's Seminole Indians under U.S. control. With a force of eleven hundred soldiers, Taylor defeated the Seminoles in a battle at Lake Okeechobee on December 25, 1837. It was during this period that Taylor earned the nickname "Old Rough and Ready" from his men, who admired his determination and his indifference to physical hardship.
In 1840, the sixty-year-old Taylor was assigned to command the army's Southwest Department, based at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Taylor bought a house in Baton Rouge and also purchased a 2,000-acre cotton plantation, Cypress Grove, located on the Mississippi River near Natchez, Mississippi. Taylor now became the owner of one hundred slaves; despite his status as a slaveholder, Taylor would later oppose the extension of slavery to the new western territories.
Called to action in Texas
Beginning in the 1820s, settlers from the United States had been pouring into the Mexican region of Tejas y Coahuila (which U.S. citizens called Texas). Under an agreement with Mexico, these settlers were to become Mexican citizens in exchange for land. This arrangement had not worked well, though, and Texans had established an independent nation, the Lone Star Republic, in 1836. Nine years later, Texas became part of the United States, despite Mexico's threat to wage war if this occurred, since that country never officially recognized Texas as an independent nation.
At this point, many expansionists (those who believed the United States should expand beyond its current borders), including President James K. Polk (1795-1849; see biographical entry), were looking towards the Mexican territories of California and New Mexico. They wanted not only this land, but the area that lay between the traditional border of the Nueces River and the Rio Grande river about 100 miles south.
In August 1845, Polk decided to provoke Mexico into making good on its threat. He ordered Taylor to proceed with four thousand troops from Fort Jesup, Louisiana, to Corpus Christi, Texas, on the Nueces River. These soldiers would spend the next five months here, suffering from the harsh weather and from the diseases that soon ran rampant through the camp. Their leader, however, was a popular figure who inspired confidence and loyalty by putting up with the same hardships as his men.
Now in his mid-sixties, Taylor was a stocky man with graying hair and a deeply lined face. He dressed casually in a wide-brimmed straw hat and mismatched pants and shirt, just like a southern farmer. In fact, a story is often told about one young officer who did not recognize Taylor when he saw him. Passing by the general's tent, the officer saw an old man sitting on a chair, polishing a sword. He offered the old man a dollar to clean his sword as well, to which the man readily agreed. Later in the day, the young officer was introduced to Taylor and realized his mistake.
War with Mexico begins
In early 1846, Taylor was ordered to move his troops across the disputed territory between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. They halted on the banks of the Rio Grande, at a spot directly across from the Mexican town of Matamoros. Mexican general Pedro de Ampudia (1805-1868), stationed with his troops in Matamoros, sent Taylor a strongly worded message demanding that he retreat. Instead, Taylor ordered his men to set to work immediately to build a fort, which would be called Fort Texas (and later Fort Brown).
For a few uneasy months, the two armies watched each other from their opposite sides of the Rio Grande. In late April, suspecting that General Mariano Arista (1802-1855), who had by now taken over for Ampudia, may have begun moving his troops across the river, Taylor sent about sixty soldiers on a scouting mission. These troops were surrounded and attacked by a Mexican force of about sixteen hundred men. Eleven U.S. troops were killed and the rest taken prisoner. Taylor immediately sent a report of the incident to Polk, declaring that hostilities between the two nations had now begun.
On May 11, two days after receiving Taylor's report, Polk sent a declaration of war to Congress, stating that Mexico had "invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil." Despite some opposition, Congress approved the declaration on May 13. Mexico and the United States were now officially at war.
The battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma
Even before the declaration of war had been signed, however, several battles had been fought. On May 1, in desperate need of supplies, Taylor had taken most of his force to the army's arsenal (a place where weapons and other equipment are stored) at Point Isabel, about 30 miles from Fort Texas. Arista moved his soldiers into position in order to intercept Taylor's much smaller force on their return trip; at the same time, he began a bombardment of Fort Texas.
The armies met in two battles, one the flat plain of Palo Alto on May 8, and another at nearby Resaca de la Palma the next day. At Palo Alto, Taylor used his artillery (large guns, such as cannons) effectively against the Mexican troops, and the U.S. infantry and cavalry both performed well at Resaca de la Palma. When both battles were over, the Mexicans had suffered three times as many casualties (dead, wounded, and missing soldiers) as the U.S. troops. As recorded in the writings of a young lieutenant named George Meade (1815-1872), who would one day command Union Army troops in the Civil War, Taylor expressed pride in his "gallant little band" of soldiers. Many of the men fighting were inexperienced, but they had been inspired by the personal courage shown by Taylor himself during the heat and chaos of the battles.
A victory at Monterrey
News of these victories made Taylor an instant hero in the United States, where people were waiting anxiously to hear how the war was going. He received a promotion to major general and two gold medals from a grateful Congress. Not pausing long to receive these honors, Taylor soon set out with his army of six thousand for the city of Monterrey, where Ampudia was waiting with about seven thousand defending troops. Between September 21 and September 23, Taylor's force attacked the city in a bloody battle that ended with hand-to-hand combat in the streets.
After heavy casualties had been suffered by both sides (120 killed and 368 wounded on the U.S. side; 700 killed and an unknown number wounded on the Mexican side), the Mexicans surrendered on September 24. Assuming that Polk would now try to arrange peace negotiations with Mexico, Taylor arranged a very generous eight-week armistice (end of fighting) that allowed Arista's troops to leave the city. But Polk had never intended to be so lenient with the Mexicans, and he was very angry at Taylor for letting the Mexicans leave. The U.S. public, on the other hand, was happy to hear of another victory.
Polk had mixed feelings about Taylor's success in Mexico. Although he wanted the United States to win the war, he did not want Taylor to become too popular. Polk's reason behind this was because leaders of the Whig political party were talking about Taylor as a possible presidential candidate. If Taylor became too popular, it would be possible that Taylor would easily defeat the Democratic candidate, of which Polk was a member, during the next presidential election. Thus, when military leaders determined that winning the war would require an invasion of Mexico City, Polk chose a different general to lead that invasion.
Defeating Santa Anna's troops at Buena Vista
Polk's choice was Winfield Scott (1786-1866; see biographical entry), a well-respected veteran of the War of 1812 and a very different soldier than Taylor. While Taylor was informal, plainspoken, and often dressed in a casual manner, Scott believed in strict discipline, formal manners, and perfectly starched and pressed uniforms. Not surprisingly, the two generals disliked each other. Taylor's resentment increased when, in early 1847, Polk transferred half of his troops—including most of his regular soldiers, leaving him with less experienced, less professional volunteers—to Scott's command.
The two armies move into place
Meanwhile, Mexico's dynamic general, as well as its president, Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876; see biographical entry) had spent the previous fall gathering and equipping an army of twenty thousand that was based at San Luis Potosí (about halfway between Mexico City and Monterrey). From an intercepted letter, Santa Anna learned that Taylor's army had been reduced in order to support Scott's planned invasion. Determined to defeat Taylor in the north before dealing with Scott, Santa Anna relentlessly pushed his army north, losing about a quarter of them along the way to disease and desertion.
Taylor was moving his own forces, which numbered about five thousand, including five hundred regulars, at this time. The two armies would meet in a rugged area about 150 miles south of Monterrey, at a narrow pass near a ranch called Buena Vista. On one side of the pass were mountains, on the other were a number of treacherous gullies, or ditches. Arriving on the scene on February 22, Taylor's force set up a series of defensive trenches in the pass, beyond which the Mexican troops waited. The next day, Santa Anna sent Taylor a formal demand for a U.S. surrender. As recorded in Don Nardo's The Mexican American War, Taylor's immediate response, "Tell Santa Anna to go to hell!" was edited by his more refined aide William Bliss to read, "I decline acceding [agreeing] to your request."
The Mexicans retreat
After some minor clashes that afternoon, the two armies spent a rainy night preparing for what would be the main battle the next day. Before it began, the U.S. troops admired the sight of the Mexicans' fancy uniforms and colorful banners. But pageantry fell by the wayside as the fighting began. The Mexicans, who outnumbered the U.S. troops four to one, made repeated assaults, but Taylor shifted his forces around so effectively that Santa Anna's troops could make no progress.
As the sun set, the fighting came to what was supposed to be a temporary end. But when the U.S. troops awoke the next morning, expecting to resume the battle, they were surprised to find that the Mexicans had disappeared. Having suffered an estimated two thousand casualties (while the U.S. side had seven hundred), Santa Anna had no doubt thought it best to retreat. Santa Anna called Buena Vista a victory for the Mexicans, but in the United States it was considered ringing proof of how well an outnumbered, mostly volunteer U.S. force could perform.
A war hero runs for president
Scott would go on to lead a successful invasion that began in the coastal city of Vera Cruz and ended inside the gates of Mexico City, but Taylor's role in the war was essentially over. He had already accomplished enough to fix himself in the public eye as a hero and great leader. Soon after his November 1847 return to the United States, people were begging him to run for president in the 1848 election. Reluctant at first, for he had no political experience and had never even voted in an election, Taylor was finally persuaded to run as the candidate of the Whig Party. New York public official Millard Fillmore (1800-1874) was his vice presidential candidate.
The most divisive issue of the election was slavery. Southerners defended the practice vehemently, claiming that their agricultural economy depended on it. But many northerners had come to see slavery as wrong, and they sought not only to limit its spread but to outlaw it altogether. So far, the number of states in which slavery was allowed and those in which it was illegal was equal, but with victory in the Mexican American War came more than 500,000 square miles of new territory that would be divided into several states.
Interestingly, Taylor's greatest advantage in the election was the fact his views on this and other issues were not known. "Old Rough and Ready" was not only a war hero but a plainspoken, unassuming figure who believed the president should represent all the people and not just a particular party or region of the country. His being a slaveholder, however, helped gain him southern votes. Taylor's opponents were Michigan senator Lewis Cass (1782-1866), who ran on the Democratic ticket, and former president and strong abolitionist (someone who believes slavery should be illegal) Martin Van Buren (1782-1862), who had formed the new Free Soil Party. Because some Democrats voted for Van Buren instead of Cass, Taylor was able to win a narrow victory.
Slavery issue is hotly debated
Taylor's short presidency was dominated by the slavery debate, which caused such strong feelings on both sides that some members of Congress got into fistfights, while others came to the House and Senate armed with guns. The central question was whether the new states of California and New Mexico would become free or slave states. Taylor saw this as a problem with a simple solution: admit them both immediately and allow each to decide for itself. Taylor owned slaves himself and recognized slaveholders' rights, but he did not believe that slavery could or would be expanded into the new territories.
Meanwhile, other leaders thought the issue was more complicated. Led by Senator John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) of South Carolina, southerners threatened to secede (leave) the union if the Missouri Compromise (an 1820 agreement that allowed slavery below the 49th parallel line) was not honored. Even though he was himself a southerner, Taylor vowed to use the U.S. Army to preserve the union if any states tried to secede. The issue was only resolved after Taylor's death, and even then, only temporarily, with the Compromise of 1850. Among other measures, this agreement allowed for the admittance of California as a free state and New Mexico with no reference to slavery; abolished slavery in the District of Columbia; and strengthened the Fugitive Slave Law, which aided slaveholders seeking to recapture runaway slaves.
In foreign affairs, Taylor's main achievement was the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, through which the United States and Great Britain agreed to cooperate to promote the building of a canal through Central America, which would ease trade between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
A short presidency ends unexpectedly
By the time Taylor became president, he had spent forty hard years as an army officer, serving mostly on the western frontier. He had been president for only eighteen months when the demands of the job seemed to take a heavy toll on his health. On July 4, 1850, Taylor spent a long day on his feet, presiding at a ceremony at the Washington Monument. It was a very hot day, and he drank a lot of cold water and ate some cherries and iced milk to cool off. Suddenly, Taylor became extremely ill with what was probably gastroenteritis (a stomach ailment) and fever. He died on July 9. More than a century later, suspicions that Taylor may have died from intentional arsenic poisoning were ruled out when an exhumation of his body revealed no presence of arsenic.
Taylor may not have been the most brilliant military strategist, but he is remembered as a strong leader whose soldiers admired him for his courage and willingness to share their hardships. Indeed, those qualities influenced such future leaders as Jefferson Davis, Andrew "Stonewall" Jackson (1767-1845), and Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), all of whom served under Taylor before going on to win fame in the American Civil War.
For More Information
Bauer, K. Jack. Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.
Downey, Fairfax. Texas and the War with Mexico. New York: American Heritage Publishing, 1961.
Eisenhower, John S. D. So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848. New York: Random House, 1989.
Frazier, Donald, ed. The United States and Mexico at War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Hamilton, Holman. Zachary Taylor, Soldier in the White House. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1951.
Smith, Elbert B. The Presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988.
"Zachary Taylor." The White House. [Online] Available http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/zt12.html (accessed on January 31, 2003).