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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
Despite President John Tyler’s support, the annexation treaty of 1844 failed of passage. James K. Polk of Tennessee, the Democrats’ candidate for the Presidency, thereupon made a campaign issue out of “the re-annexation of Texas and the re-occupation of Oregon,” and won a razor-thin victory over the perennial Whig hopeful, Henry Clay. Determined not to let Polk have the credit for bringing Texas into the Union, retiring President John Tyler thereupon proposed annexation by joint resolution of both houses of Congress. The maneuver succeeded, and Tyler signed the bill into law just before Folk’s inauguration. Angrily the Mexican ambassador departed for home, declaring the action of the United States to be an unjustifiable aggression against his country.
No one in the new administration, President Polk least of all, believed that Mexico would actually go to war over Texas. The country was backward industrially, torn by revolution, and all but bankrupt. Polk was sure that after the proper amount of bluster for saving face, the Mexican government would yield not only Texas but all of what is now the American Southwest, California included, in exchange for hard cash. Accordingly he prepared to send John Slidell, a Spanish-speaking congressman from Louisiana, to Mexico City to negotiate with the potential enemy. To strengthen Slidell’s hand with a show of force, he directed his Secretary of War, massive-headed, snuff-breathing William L. Marcy, to order the Corps of Observation southward deep into Texas. The drift toward war had begun. So had Taylor’s drift toward the Presidency.
The corps spent the rainy, miserable winter of 1845–46 at the trading post of Corpus Christi, just south of the Nueces River. During that time almost 4,000 men assembled under Taylor’s command—nearly half of the entire Army of the United States. Because of the wretched weather, drilling was spasmodic and morale low. The older officers were contemptuous of Taylor’s handling of the camp. He was indifferent about sanitation, relatively lax about discipline, sloppy in his personal dress. The common soldiers liked him. He resorted reluctantly to the then-standard punishment of flogging, and when he rode through the camp on his familiar horse, Old Whitey, he wasn’t above stopping for an exchange of pleasantries, slouching in his saddle and chewing tobacco like the lowliest private.
The Mexican government refused to receive Folk’s purchasing agent, John Slidell. As its counter to this recalcitrance, the administration ordered Taylor to move his force still farther south, to the Rio Grande. In the spring of 1846, he established a supply port at Point Isabel, north of the river’s mouth, and then moved eighteen miles inland over an execrable road to a salient in the curving stream opposite the white-walled, flat-roofed city of Matamoros. On that salient, his engineers constructed a star-shaped earthen redoubt named Fort Texas. Minor breastworks were also erected at Point Isabel. Practically no effort was made, however, to protect the narrow road that wound through dense chaparral between the two points—the only road by which Taylor could supply himself. Like his superiors in Washington, the General still did not believe the Mexicans were ready to fight. After all, they had just finished another revolution, during which a man named Paredes had replaced one named Herrera, and affairs in Mexico City remained shaky.
Contrary to Taylor’s expectations, Paredes hurried a new general, redheaded Mariano Arista, to Matamoros with orders to act. On April 25, 1846, a large force of cavalrymen crossed the Rio Grande sixteen miles upstream from Fort Texas and overran an American patrol of 63 men. Completely startled, Taylor rushed a courier to Polk with word that “Hostilities may now be considered as commenced.” Other messengers besought the governors of Texas and Louisiana for 5,000 short-term militia volunteers. And finally, on May 1, he marched 2,000 of his 2,500 available men to Point Isabel to bring back supplies, leaving a garrison of 500 at Fort Texas.
He was lucky. Arista had intended to block the road but arrived a few hours too late because of a shortage of transport for ferrying his men across the river. Well, then, he’d stop the Americans on the way back, encumbered as they were with 250 loaded, ox-drawn wagons.
The collision came May 8 at Palo Alto, a meadow of dusty saw grass bordered by bushy trees slightly taller than most of the other growth in the vicinity. Smartly outduelling the Mexicans’ faulty cannons, Taylor’s highly mobile, horse-drawn field guns, nicknamed “flying artillery,” readily broke Arista’s lines. Learning from the incident, the Mexican general the next day regrouped his men behind the low banks of a dry stream bed, Resaca de la Palma, where terrain and dense brush would check the movement of the American cannons. Fierce hand-to-hand fighting ensued. During it, Captain Philip Barbour discovered an unguarded trail through the chaparral that allowed a flanking movement. The Mexicans panicked. Many of them drowned during a wild flight back across the Rio Grande.
Taylor made no effort to pursue. His men had worked hard to reach and load the supplies at Point Isabel. They had fought two battles in suffocating heat. They lacked material for pontoon bridges, a deficiency that foresight perhaps should have filled—except that foresight had never seriously predicted, either in Washington or on the Rio Grande, that such a conflict would develop. From a tactical point of view, however, Taylor faltered. Not until May 18 did he cross the river and invest Matamoros.