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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
And yet, at the very time that he was making the protestation, dark suspicions were beginning to oppress him. He was being swamped with trouble. The militia he had asked for when the Mexicans had first crossed the Rio Grande were arriving in greater numbers than he could handle. On top of them came contingent after contingent of Polk’s twelve-month volunteers. Sickness flared in the dreadful heat of the unsanitary camps. Discipline crumbled. With righteous clucks, newspapers opposed to “Polk’s War” printed tales of brawling, pillage, and rape; many of them were true. The administration chided Taylor for not keeping better control. Feeling put upon, he snapped back that the War Department was at fault for sending him so unwieldy a mass of untrained men.
The unprecedented demand for supplies staggered the Quartermaster Department. Shortages developed—tents, horseshoe nails, shallow-draft steamboats for transporting the army to its next staging point upriver at Camargo. “Ignorance and imbecility,” Taylor growled to Wood, were all around him—and he would be the scapegoat. If he really were a candidate for the Presidency, he added grimly, he would be tempted to believe that the confusion was deliberately designed to ruin him. It was a suggestive line of thought.
In mid-July, as he was starting segments of his army through the fiery heat toward Camargo, he received an unauthorized visit from Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, an agent of Polk’s who had been conducting secret talks with General Antonio López de Santa Anna, one-time dictator of Mexico currently exiled with his teen-age bride in Havana, Cuba. Santa Anna hoped to return to power with American help. His argument ran like this. The recently installed Paredes government was unpopular. To complete its downfall Taylor should seize both Monterrey and the city of Saltillo, fifty-some miles farther to the southwest. The American fleet should take the port of Tampico and threaten Veracruz. In this crisis Santa Anna would be summoned home to replace Paredes and save the nation. Using American money, he would win the support of the church by paying what the government owed it, and that of the army by producing the soldiers’ long-overdue pay. Only if he had the backing of those two powerful groups would he be free to enter into any negotiations with the United States that involved the relinquishment of territory.
Polk had fallen in with the scheme in the hope that Santa Anna’s appearance in Mexico City would create dissensions harmful to the enemy’s war effort. And if the wily Mexican did regain power, he just might keep his promise about opening negotiations. There is no evidence that Polk made a down payment in cash. But he did order Commodore David Conner of the gulf squadron to pass Santa Anna through the American blockade of Veracruz, which had begun in May, and he did send Mackenzie to Cuba for confirmatory talks with the schemer. Mackenzie was so taken with what Santa Anna told him that he disregarded instructions about returning directly to Washington and made a side trip to the Rio Grande, to impress upon Taylor the importance of taking Monterrey as soon as possible.
Taylor, who was already bound for Monterrey, eased Mackenzie out of camp and went on wrestling with logistics. Unable to obtain enough wagons for moving his supplies from Camargo to Monterrey, he substituted 1,900 half-trained mules. They did not suffice, and he had to leave several thousand recruits behind and drive against Monterrey, a heavily fortified city, with only 6,600 men, half of them regulars and half untested volunteers. The best of the volunteer regiments, probably, was Colonel Jefferson Davis’ First Mississippi Rifles, its troopers gaudily uniformed in red shirts and white trousers, with eighteen-inch bowie knives strapped to their waists.
Santa Anna meanwhile had been helped through the blockade on schedule, and was back in power by mid-August. Through his figurehead president, José Mariano Salas, he ordered Monterrey abandoned. Even after a hundred years it is not possible to say why. He may have been intending to follow through with his promises to Polk. Possibly he wanted to spare the city a brutal siege. Or, more probably, he was playing for time. He was deeply involved in Mexico City, where he was not being welcomed as enthusiastically as he had hoped. He needed a military victory to consolidate his position, yet had no time to reach Monterrey. Perhaps he hoped that the Americans, if unopposed, would roll on overconfidently into the bleak deserts beyond Saltillo, and that he would then be able to fall upon them triumphantly with an army reorganized to his own liking. The speculations, however, are bootless, for General Pedro de Ampudia, in charge at Monterrey, ignored the order to retreat and instead fought back.
The fierce battle lasted from September 20 to 23, 1846. During its early stages Taylor, driving from the north against the main redoubts of the city, was stopped with heavy casualties. A flanking movement by General William Jenkins Worth was more successful, capturing, on successive days, two fortified hills at the city’s western edge. The American columns, their activities poorly co-ordinated, then drove in a pincer movement, house by house, toward the central plaza, jammed with thousands of frightened townspeople and hundreds of plunging cavalry horses. At last Ampudia asked for an armistice.