Mexican-American War: Major General Zachary Taylor

General Zachary Taylor. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Zachary Taylor - Early Life:

Born on November 24, 1784, Zachary Taylor was the son of Richard and Sarah Taylor. A veteran of the American Revolution, Richard Taylor had served with General George Washington at White Plains, Trenton, Brandywine, and Monmouth. Moving his large family to the frontier near Louisville, KY, Taylor's children received a limited education. A poor student, the bulk of Zachary Taylor's education was provided by a series of tutors.

As he matured, he aided in developing his father's growing plantation, "Springfield." In 1808, Taylor elected to leave the plantation and was able to obtain a commission as a first lieutenant in the US Army from his second cousin, James Madison.

Zachary Taylor - War of 1812:

Assigned to the 7th Infantry Regiment, Taylor traveled to the Indiana Territory. Serving on the frontier, he was promoted to captain in November 1810 and assumed command of Fort Knox (Vincennes, IN) the following year. As tensions with the Shawnee leader Tecumseh increased, Taylor's post became the assembly point for General William Henry Harrison's army prior to the Battle of Tippecanoe. Shortly after the outbreak of the War of 1812, Harrison directed Taylor to take command of Fort Harrison near Terre Haute, IN. That September, Taylor and his small garrison were attacked by Native Americans allied with the British. Maintaining a vigorous defense, Taylor was able to hold during the Battle of Fort Harrison.

Temporarily promoted to major, Taylor led a company of the 7th Infantry during the campaign which culminated at the Battle of Wild Cat Creek in late November 1812. Remaining on the frontier, Taylor briefly commanded Fort Johnson on the upper Mississippi River before being compelled to retreat to Fort Cap au Gris.

With the end of the war in early 1815, Taylor was reduced in rank back to captain. Angered by this, he resigned and returned to his father's plantation. Recognized as a gifted officer, Taylor was offered a major's commission the following year and returned to the US Army. Continuing to serve along the frontier, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1819.

Zachary Taylor - Frontier Wars:

In 1822, Taylor was ordered to establish a new base west of Natchitoches, Louisiana. Advancing into the area, he built Fort Jesup. From this position, Taylor maintained a presence along the Mexican-US border. With the beginning of the Black Hawk War in 1832, Taylor was given command of the 1st Infantry Regiment, with the rank of colonel, and traveled to Illinois. The conflict proved brief and following Black Hawk's surrender, Taylor escorted him to Jefferson Barracks. A veteran commander, he was ordered to Florida in 1837 to take part in the Second Seminole War. Commanding a column of American troops, he won at victory a the Battle of Lake Okeechobee on December 25. Promoted to brigadier general, Taylor took command of all American forces in Florida in 1838.

Remaining in this post until May 1840, Taylor worked to suppress the Seminoles and facilitate their relocation west.

More successful than his predecessors, he used a system of blockhouses and patrols to maintain the peace. Turning command over to Brigadier General Walker Keith Armistead, Taylor returned to Louisiana to oversee American forces in the southwest. He was in this role as tensions began to increase with Mexico following the admission of the Republic of Texas into the United States. In the wake of Congress agreeing to admit Texas, the situation with Mexico rapidly deteriorated as the two countries argued over the location of the border. While the United States (and Texas previously) claimed the Rio Grande, Mexico believed the border to be located further north along the Nueces River.

Zachary Taylor - Mexican-American War:

In an effort to enforce the American claim and defend Texas, President James K.

Polk directed Taylor to take a force into the disputed territory in April 1845. Shifting his "Army of Occupation" to Corpus Christi, Taylor established a base before advancing into the disputed territory in March 1846. Building a supply depot at Point Isabel, he moved troops inland and built a fortification on the Rio Grande known as Fort Texas opposite from the Mexican town of Matamoros. On April 25, 1846, a group of US dragoons, under Captain Seth Thornton, was attacked by a large force of Mexicans north of the Rio Grande. Alerting Polk that hostilities had commenced, Taylor soon learned that General Mariano Arista's artillery was bombarding Fort Texas.

Mobilizing the army, Taylor began moving south from Point Isabel to relieve Fort Texas on May 7. In an effort to cut off the fort, Arista crossed the river with 3,400 men and assumed a defensive position along the road from Point Isabel to Fort Texas. Encountering the enemy on May 8, Taylor attacked the Mexicans at the Battle of Palo Alto. Through the superb use of artillery, the Americans forced the Mexicans to retreat. Falling back, Arista established a new position at Resaca de la Palma the next day. Advancing down the road, Taylor again attacked and again defeated Arista at the Battle of Resaca de la Palma. Pushing on, Taylor relieved Fort Texas and on May 18 cross the Rio Grande to occupy Matamoros.

Lacking the forces to push deeper into Mexico, Taylor elected to pause to await reinforcements. With the Mexican-American War in full swing, additional troops soon reached his army. Building his force through the summer, Taylor began an advance against Monterrey in August. Now a major general, he established a series of garrisons along the Rio Grande as the bulk of the army moved south from Camargo. Arriving north of the city on September 19, Taylor was confronted by Mexican defenses led by Lieutenant General Pedro de Ampudia. Commencing the Battle of Monterrey on September 21, he compelled Ampudia to surrender the city after cutting off its supply lines south to Saltillo.

After the battle, Taylor earned Polk's ire by agreeing to an eight-week armistice with Ampudia. This was largely motivated by the high number of casualties sustained in taking the city and the fact he was deep in enemy territory.

Zachary Taylor - Politics at Play:

Directed to end the armistice, Taylor received orders to push forward to Saltillo. As Taylor, whose political alignment was unknown, had become a national hero, Polk, a Democrat, became concerned about the general's political ambitions. As a result, he ordered Taylor to stand fast in northeastern Mexico while ordering Major General Winfield Scott to attack Veracruz before advancing on Mexico City. To support Scott's operation, Taylor's army was stripped of the bulk of its forces. Learning that Taylor's command had been reduced, General Antonio López de Santa Anna marched north with 22,000 men with the goal of crushing the Americans. Attacking at the Battle of Buena Vista on February 23, 1847, Santa Anna's men were repulsed with heavy losses. Mounting a tenacious defense, Taylor's 4,759 men were able to hold though they were badly stretched.

Zachary Taylor - President:

The victory at Buena Vista further enhanced Taylor's national reputation and marked the last fighting he would see during the conflict. Known as "Old Rough & Ready" for his gruff demeanor and unpretentious attire, Taylor had largely remained silent on his political beliefs. Leaving his army in November 1947, he handed command to Brigadier General John Wool. Returning to the United States, he aligned himself with the Whigs though he was not in full support of their platform. Nominated for president at the 1848 Whig convention, Millard Fillmore of New York was selected as his running mate.

Easily defeating Lewis Cass in the 1848 election, Taylor was sworn in as President of the United States on March 4, 1849. Though a slaveholder, he took a moderate stance on the subject and did not believe that the institution could successfully be exported to the newly acquired lands from Mexico. He also advocated for California and New Mexico to immediately apply for statehood and bypass territorial status. The issue of slavery came to dominate his term in office and the Compromise of 1850 was being debated when Taylor suddenly died on July 9, 1850. The initial cause of death was believed to be gastroenteritis caused by consuming contaminated milk and cherries.

Taylor was initially buried in his family plot at Springfield. In the 1920s, this land was incorporated into Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. On May 6, 1926, his remains were moved into a new mausoleum on the cemetery grounds. In 1991, Taylor's remains were briefly exhumed following some evidence that he may have been poisoned. Extensive testing found this not to be the case and his remains were returned to the mausoleum. Despite these findings, assassination theories continue to be put forward as his moderate views on slavery were highly unpopular in Southern circles.

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