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How To Make It To The White House Without Really Trying
President Polk, a Democrat, needed a commander to win his war with Mexico, but all the good generals were Whigs. Now, could the winning general steal the Presidency from the party? As a matter of fact, he did.
June 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 4
Destiny and Fate are not, historically speaking, respectable concepts. Yet throughout the war with Mexico, Zachary Taylor’s luck was so uniformly bright that in retrospect it almost seems that some conscious providence, having determined to make him President of the United States, would thereafter let nothing operate to his harm. Laggard communications that left him ignorant of the intentions of the War Department in Washington, the intrigues of his jealous Commander in Chief, President James Knox Polk, even Taylor’s own blunders and his calculated disobedience of orders—all these redounded to his gain as fully as did the mistakes of his principal military opponent, General Antonio López de Santa Anna of Mexico. And all helped lift him, a hero by accident, into the highest office his countrymen could offer.
The lusterless beginnings of his career gave no forecast of its surprising end. Young Zachary grew to manhood on a dull, relatively prosperous, slaveholding Kentucky frontier farm, where his mother provided most of his education. In 1808, aged twenty-three, he entered the Army as a first lieutenant, a commission gained through the political influence of his relatives. During the opening phases of the War of 1812, he fought coolly and well one night when Indian allies of the British set fire to the wooden stockade of his station, Fort Harrison on the Wabash River in Indiana. For decades thereafter nothing much happened to him. He did recruiting duty, hewed out military roads, built and commanded frontier outposts, and in 1832, as a colonel, participated in the grandiosely named Black Hawk “War,” actually a disorderly pursuit of a meager band of Sauk and Fox Indians.
He fathered six children, five of them girls. In time the three daughters who reached maturity proved to be not the least part of his good fortune. One of them, Sarah, married Jefferson Davis, but she died three months after the wedding. The declaration of war against Mexico in 1846 led Davis to pick up his arms and serve once more under his former father-in-law (under whom he had served in the Black Hawk War), this time as commander of a regiment of volunteers known as the Mississippi Rifles. Another daughter, Ann, at seventeen married an Army surgeon named Robert C. Wood; it was Wood, more than any other man, who kept nudging Taylor’s slow ambitions toward the Presidency. The youngest girl, Mary Elizabeth, was to marry Taylor’s adjutant, W.W.S. Bliss, a well-read West Pointer who throughout the conflict transformed Taylor’s knotty prose into smooth-flowing reports that helped capture the public’s fancy. But until war came, all these contacts remained imponderable things, awaiting opportunity.
Taylor’s first good chance actually occurred before the war, in 1837. After a series of generals had failed to dislodge the Seminoles from swampy Florida and move them west of the Mississippi, command devolved on Taylor. On Christmas Day he attacked Chief Alligator’s warriors through the black slime and tall saw grass north of Lake Okeechobee. The outnumbered Indians inflicted 138 casualties on the whites, then withdrew. They were not beaten—another four years would pass before the bulk of the Seminoles surrendered and were moved west—but the War Department counted the engagement a victory and rewarded Taylor with the brevet rank of brigadier general. Of equal import to his future, he also won, during the Everglades campaign, a catchy nickname, immortalized later in popular songs written for the presidential contest of 1848:
In 1841, aged fifty-seven, Brigadier General Taylor assumed command of the Second Military Department, whose southwestern border was the uneasy Republic of Texas. Despite the resonance of his title, he was a small cog in a small army. When the Seminole War ended in 1842, an economy-minded Congress cut the country’s land forces to 7,833 men. Actual enrollment sagged even below that figure—at one point to 633 commissioned officers and 5,612 privates, musicians, and noncoms.
It seems strange, in hindsight, that the legislators should have been so oblivious to the possibility of war in the Southwest. Each time debates began in Washington about the possibility of annexing Texas, the Mexican government warned that it would construe such a step as an act of deliberate hostility. In 1844 discussions were so strident that Sam Houston, president of Texas, asked the United States for military protection against a possible invasion from Mexico.
Although our government was unwilling to order American troops onto what was then foreign soil, it did decide to station a Corps of Observation at Fort Jesup, near the Red River border between Louisiana and Texas. Because Zachary Taylor happened to be in command of the military department embracing the area, he was placed in charge of the corps.