Mexican-American War: Major General Zachary Taylor

Major General Zachary Taylor during the Mexican-American War
Major General Zachary Taylor. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Born on November 24, 1784, Zachary Taylor was one of nine children born to 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. Educated by a series of tutors, Zachary Taylor proved a poor student despite being a seen as a quick learner.

As Taylor matured, he aided in developing his father's growing plantation, Springfield, into a sizable holding that included 10,000 acres and 26 slaves. 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. The availability of the commission was due to an expansion of the service in the wake of the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair. Assigned to the 7th US Infantry Regiment, Taylor traveled south New Orleans where he served under Brigadier General James Wilkinson.

War of 1812

Returning north to recover from disease, Taylor married Margaret "Peggy" Mackall Smith on June 21, 1810. The two had met the previous year in Louisville after being introduced by Dr. Alexander Duke. Between 1811 and 1826, the couple would have five daughters and a son. The youngest, Richard, served with his father in Mexico and later attained the rank of lieutenant general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

While on leave, Taylor received a promotion to captain in November 1810.

In July 1811, Taylor returned to the frontier and assumed command of Fort Knox (Vincennes, IN). 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.

 As Harrison's army marched to deal with Tecumseh, Taylor received orders temporarily calling him to Washington, DC to testify in a court-martial involving Wilkinson. As a result, he missed the fighting and Harrison's victory.

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. The fighting saw his garrison of around 50 men hold off approximately 600 Native Americans led by Joseph Lenar and Stone Eater until being relieved by a force led by Colonel William Russell.

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.

Frontier Wars

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. 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. Ordered to Washington in late 1826, he served on a committee that sought to improve the US Army's overall organization. During this time, Taylor purchased a plantation near Baton Rouge, LA and moved his family to the area. In May 1828, he took command of Fort Snelling in present-day Minnesota.

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 to serve under Brigadier General Henry Akinson.

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.

War Approaches

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. 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.

Fighting Begins

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.

On to Monterrey

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.

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. 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.

President

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.

Taylor 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.