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.
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.
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.
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.
Assuming that Congress would declare war and that the city of Monterrey, some 250 miles to the west, would be his target, he began preparations. In the absence of definite instructions from Washington, however, it was hard to commit himself with single-minded intensity.
He neither expected nor wished to take command of American land operations against Mexico. Rather, he wrote his son-in-law, Robert Wood, in charge of the hospital at Point Isabel, his great desire was to be relieved entirely so that he could retire to his plantation at Baton Rouge. His insistent luck, however, was not going to let him escape.
In Washington, Congress on May 11 and 12 had declared war and had authorized Polk to recruit up to 50,000 twelve-month volunteers. The inevitable next question was the selection of a supreme commander. Secretary of War Marcy pointed to the logical candidate, Winfield Scott, six feet four inches tall and majestic of mien, the only major general in the Army of the United States. Polk, an intensely partisan Democrat, demurred. Scott, a Whig, was ambitious to be President. At the Whig nominating convention of 1839 he had been a strong contender to be that party’s candidate. Success in war might well transform him from an also-ran into a dangerous competitor. Polk wanted someone less unsettling, but on canvassing the small list of available generals, he could find no one who was an avowed Democrat. Faced by that vacuum, he yielded reluctantly and on May 13 appointed Scott to top command.
According to the reminiscences of Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, Polk wanted a small war, “not large enough to make military reputations.” A small war meant a primarily defensive war. The strategy which Polk and his Cabinet evolved centered on seizing northern Mexico as quickly as possible, blockading the enemy’s principal ports, and then sitting tight until the bankrupt Mexicans agreed to sell the United States the territory Polk wanted.
Three drives were to implement that concept. Stephen Watts Kearny led one column of invaders from the Missouri River toward New Mexico and California. Another, commanded by General John E. Wool, was to rendezvous at San Antonio, Texas, and march across almost totally unknown deserts to Chihuahua. The third and biggest force, 14,000 men ranged around a nucleus of Taylor’s battle-tested regulars, was to be led by Scott in person against Monterrey.
Polk chose to regard the hasty remark as insolent. While he was simmering, dispatches reached Washington about Taylor’s victories at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. Bells pealed, whistles shrilled. Taking advantage of Old Rough and Ready’s whirlwind popularity, Polk on May 25 removed Scott from command in the field, despite the general’s grovelling apologies, and named Taylor in his place. The humiliation occurred less than two weeks after Scott’s initial elevation.
Meanwhile, resolutions of gratitude and Latin odes inscribed on crinkly parchment were pouring in on Taylor from dozens of American villages. A Louisiana delegation sailed to Matamoros with a promise of a golden commemorative sword. Back in the United States, Thurlow Weed, a Whig political boss, mused in the columns of his newspaper that Zachary Taylor might make a good Whig candidate in 1848. Reporters hurried south to interview the General. Naively he admitted to them that he had never yet voted in a presidential election, but added that if he had cast a ballot in 1844, it would have gone to the Whigs’ Henry Clay—a remark that set Polk’s political antennae quivering afresh.
Robert Wood had constituted himself a clipping bureau and diligently forwarded to his father-in-law batches of flattering editorials. In June, Weed transmitted to Old Rough and Ready certain unofficial feelers about his proposed candidacy. Taylor snorted. Neither Polk nor Scott, he answered on the twenty-first, need worry about his interfering with them in a quest for that high office, “which I would decline if proffered & I could reach it without opposition.”
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.
Probably Ampudia knew nothing of Polk’s intrigue with Santa Anna. But he did know of Santa Anna’s order to abandon Monterrey, and he assured Taylor that Mexico’s new government desired peace. Taylor, who was aware of the plotting, believed him. Besides, Taylor’s small force had been badly battered and he needed time in which to recoup and reorganize. For all these reasons—which, however, did not satisfy his subordinates—he granted Ampudia, on September 24, a generous respite of eight weeks. During that time neither army was to cross an armistice line that followed, roughly, the summit of the Madre Oriental Mountains.
The cease-fire, which seemed eminently reasonable to Taylor and to Jefferson Davis, who helped draw up its terms, caused consternation in Washington. Elections were approaching, and the Democrats wanted victories to smooth the rough road to the polls. Furthermore, Santa Anna was not offering to negotiate as planned, although he did intimate in an otherwise unfriendly letter to Secretary of State Buchanan that things might change after the new Mexican Congress assembled on December 6, 1846.
In order to put pressure on the stubborn Mexican, Polk’s Cabinet urged him to expand the conflict by a co-ordinated attack on the gulf province of Tamaulipas. While the Navy seized the port of Tampico, the Army would march inland against Ciudad Victoria, the capital of Tamaulipas—but not with Taylor at its head. In the President’s mind, the General’s slowness in taking Matamoros and then in moving against Monterrey, and his superficial response to Polk’s request for detailed information about all northern Mexico, were signs of incompetence, an opinion no doubt intensified by the Whigs’ growing interest in the General. The Ciudad Victoria campaign was therefore assigned to Robert Patterson.
Patterson, a successful Philadelphia merchant, had had no useful war experience, but he was a loyal Democrat and Polk had named him a general of volunteers. Currently he was in charge of the reserve camps along the Rio Grande. Orders were prepared directing Taylor to supply this neophyte with troops for the Victoria campaign and then to create a diversion by moving with what men remained across the deserts toward San Luis Potosí.
Amidst this eager planning at Washington came word, on October 11, of the battle of Monterrey and of the armistice concluding it. Hungry for victory, the country celebrated wildly. Polk, however, was furious. Taylor, he scribbled in his diary, should have crushed the Mexican army while it was in his grip. Instead, he had given the enemy eight weeks in which to recover—eight weeks which would bring the proposed Tamaulipas campaign to a standstill.
The angry President urged the Cabinet to rebuke Taylor formally, but Old Rough and Ready was too popular for such extreme measures. Although Marcy crisply repudiated the armistice, he censured Taylor only by implication, officially praising the army for its victory at Monterrey but not mentioning Taylor.
Taylor now grew furious in his turn, seeing the Tamaulipas campaign as a plot to reduce his appeal as a candidate by taking control of the war away from him. Why else should he be shunted off on a hopeless move against San Luis Potosí, while Ciudad Victoria, the plum that was ripe for picking, went to a purely political general? And not a word of thanks for Monterrey! As for the armistice, he wrote angrily to Washington, the administration knew why he had supposed peace was their desire.
Busily he began scheming on how best to regain mastery of events. Again luck helped. First, he found an opportunity to let the Cabinet know he was still general in chief. Marcy, in a hurry to get the Tamaulipas campaign rolling, injudiciously sent orders about troop dispositions directly to Patterson. Wrapping himself securely in military protocol, Taylor instantly put the Secretary back into line. So long as he commanded the army in northern Mexico, “I must claim the right of organizing all detachments from it, and regulating the time and manner of their service.”
More importantly, the scheming General obtained at this same time unexpected reinforcements. Under the original, three-pronged campaign plan, John E. Wool had been ordered to advance on Chihuahua. But because of a late start from San Antonio, unavoidable alterations in his route, and finally the armistice (whose line he could not legally cross) he had reached no farther toward his goal than the town of Monclova, northwest of Monterrey. This brought 3,000 trail-toughened men within Taylor’s reach. Bolstered by them, he just might be able to carry off a campaign in the direction of San Luis Potosí. Swiftly he began preparations to occupy Saltillo, the first step on the way south.
On November 11, 1846, before he could launch these movements, another communiqué arrived from Washington. Plans had changed once again. Taylor was not to advance toward San Luis Potosí, but was to stay in Monterrey, completely on the defensive. Patterson meanwhile was to embark 4,000 troops not for Ciudad Victoria (Tampico had fallen without resistance to the navy) but for an assault on Veracruz.
Rusting in Monterrey meant obscurity. Besides, Taylor doubted the wisdom of the new strategy. With cool insolence he wrote his superiors that they were showing neither prudence nor foresight in sending Patterson against Veracruz with only 4,000 men. What was needed, in his opinion, was a strong holding line across northern Mexico, one that would invite the enemy to attack and be defeated.
This, of course, was an echo of the defensive strategy with which the Cabinet had started the war but which it was now abandoning, as Taylor surely realized from the decision to attack Veracruz. A holding line suited his own purposes better, however, and in bland defiance of orders he set down the necessary anchors. On November 16, he occupied Saltillo, 50 miles beyond the limit decreed by the administration, and protected Saltillo’s flank by directing Wool to occupy Parras, 75 miles west of Saltillo and 125 miles beyond the prescribed limit. He justified himself to the Adjutant General in Washington by saying that the occupation of the area deprived Santa Anna of important road hubs and food-producing regions. This was true. But it wasn’t what had been ordered.
To complete the eastern end of his line he next decided to move in person against Ciudad Victoria, and directed Patterson, who expected to go to Veracruz, to support him by advancing a parallel column from Matamoros. By unhappy chance Patterson had, without consulting Taylor, just sent a thousand troops to Tampico at the request of the Navy. Northern Mexico was Taylor’s area, however, and he meant it to stay so. He countermanded Patterson’s order, fiercely dressed his subordinate down, and then, ignoring his own disobediences, crisply informed Polk that he wanted no more “mischievous meddling” from underlings. While still burning with resentment he wrote his son-in-law that although he did not desire the Presidency, he would serve “if the good people were inprudent enough to elect me.” The gauntlet was down.
News travelled slowly. Taylor did not yet know that the November elections had gone against the Democrats and that the Whigs controlled the House of Representatives. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, in discussing causes with Polk, blamed Taylor’s conduct of the war for the setback and suggested an aggressive drive through Veracruz against Mexico City itself—with Benton himself as lieutenant general in command, a special rank that would have to be created by Congress for him. Polk agreed. He did not know yet of Taylor’s recent insubordination, but what he did know of the summer’s delays, the poor reconnaissance, the barely civil letters, and the armistice was enough, and he proposed Benton’s plan to his Cabinet.
A false alarm about Mexican troop movements into the north had meanwhile led Wool to pull back from Parras to a bivouac at Agua Nueva, an estancia, or ranch complex, some twenty miles south of Saltillo on the road to San Luis Potosí. Taylor approved the change and resumed his march toward Ciudad Victoria. En route, he received letters from Scott (“I am not coming, my dear general, to supersede you … imperious necessity … I rely on your patriotism”) requisitioning his troops and suggesting a meeting at Camargo.
Taylor went livid. His juggling had failed. A vigorous offense, not defense, was definitely the new concept, and Scott would win the country’s plaudits. In a vindictive letter to Wood, Taylor blamed the rival general, along with “Marcy & Co.,” for deliberately intriguing to remove him from the public eye. To Scott, now his commander, he wrote that affairs in Ciudad Victoria would prevent their meeting in Camargo. On he went, sullenly, and entered the Tamaulipas capital on January 4, 1847. But without adequate troops he could not keep his long supply lines open against raiding cavalry. Besides, what was the use of a holding line now? Ten days after entering Ciudad Victoria he abandoned the city, sent the bulk of his force east to Scott’s staging area near Tampico, and himself returned slowly with Davis’ Mississippi Rifles to Monterrey.
Scott meanwhile had reached the Rio Grande. He already had ordered the officers in charge at Monterrey and Saltillo to send him the men he needed; now he moved majestically on toward Tampico. When Taylor arrived in Monterrey he found that he had only 7,000 men left out of 16,000. Of these 7,000 only 800 were regulars. With this reduced force he was supposed to keep open hundreds of miles of communications and fend off whatever attack the Mexicans chose to make—an attack he himself had invited by establishing his unauthorized holding line.
Bitterly he wrote Scott that such treatment was “unprecedented in our history.” He struck a martyr’s pose. In spite of everything, he would stay and do his duty. And then, almost as if consciously defying his circumstances, he officially informed Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky that he was at last prepared to seek the Whig nomination for the Presidency of the United States.
All this while alarms were wracking the under-manned garrison at Monterrey. Mexican vaqueros at a place called Villa Gran had captured dispatches that revealed the stripping of Taylor’s forces for the sake of Scott’s advance on Mexico City. Shortly thereafter American patrols scouring the desert south of Saltillo had been set upon and taken. Did not these matters suggest that Santa Anna was hurrying northward to strike the weakened Yankees there?
Taylor thought not. Though once he had invited a Mexican movement into the north, he now professed to believe, as did many of his staff, that the enemy could not transport an army big enough to hurt him, weak as he was, through the gaunt deserts below Saltillo. Furthermore, if Santa Anna knew of Scott’s threat to Mexico City he would, by all rules of military logic, swing south to meet it, not north. Still, there might be a diversionary attack against the north, and it was well to be prepared.
He strengthened his supply dumps at Saltillo and advanced his headquarters at Agua Nueva. Scott sent orders to him there, once again directing him to withdraw to Monterrey. Taylor wrote back that he would not obey unless he received specific instructions directly from Washington.
His luck rode with him still. Whether because the illiterate Mexican vaqueros at Villa Gran did not realize the importance of the dispatches they had captured and failed to send them on to Santa Anna, or because he had been stung by criticism of his “inactivity,” the Mexican general accepted Taylor’s implicit invitation to attack and started north from San Luis Potosí with some 20,000 men. On that dreadful march, upwards of 4,000 died or deserted. But 15,000 or more reached within thirty-five miles of Agua Nueva before Taylor’s patrols detected them.
The American force numbered 4,759 officers and men, backed by a handful of light six- and eight-pounder field pieces. Eight hundred men guarded the supply dumps at Saltillo—but 1,200 Mexican cavalry flankers were coming at them through a side pass in the mountains. A few hundred volunteers watched the long supply roads to the Rio Grande—but General José Urea was leading cavalry against them, too. The trap looked, on paper, inescapable.
Taylor set fire to the stores at Agua Nueva and scrambled back in the direction of Saltillo. When Santa Anna reached the deserted estancia at dawn he thought the Americans were in full flight and decided to press on for the kill. It was a mistake. His men had just crossed a thirty-five mile stretch of waterless desert without rest and with very little food. He drove them ahead nevertheless, and soon ran into a surprise. The Americans had not fled, but had taken up defensive positions on a ravine-seamed bench bordered on one side by deep gullies and on the other by soaring, barren mountains. At their backs, where the wagon trains were parked, were half a dozen flat-roofed ranch buildings surrounded by a low adobe wall. The place was called Buena Vista.
The mountainsides were lightly guarded. During the night of February 22–23, 1847, Santa Anna managed to push 1,500 weary infantrymen up the dark slopes above the American patrols. None of the Mexicans ate that night or the next morning. As daylight strengthened, Santa Anna launched columns of cavalry and infantry along the base of the slope, under the protective fire of the skirmishers above. The American flank broke. The Mexicans poured through, heading for the supply wagons.
Taylor, who had been at Saltillo attending to his supply dumps, rode back into apparent disaster. Quickly he improvised, sending Davis’ First Mississippi Rifles up a ridge against the largest concentration of enemy. The flying artillery whirled here and there in support. As the battle wore on, Taylor sat boldly on Old Whitey, an easy target but an inspiration to the troops. Davis held. So did a knot of men crouched on the rooftops and behind the walls of the ranch. Santa Anna contributed by not mounting the diversionary attacks that might have checked the free movement of the American field guns. The fight swirled back onto the bench and raged inconclusively until dark. So far it had been a draw. But the Mexicans were too fagged to try again. Under the dim light of a crescent moon they slipped away. The next morning the field belonged by default to the Americans.
Taylor exulted. He had disobeyed and was justified. To the Adjutant General in Washington he wrote triumphantly, “No such results could have been obtained by holding Monterrey.” The country was dazzled—all but Polk, who railed to his diary that Taylor had not won. The hungry Mexicans had retreated. If Taylor had been beaten, as all the rules of military science said he should, he would “have been universally execrated.” In his bitterness the President refused permission for the army to fire salutes in honor of the victory.
Even Taylor’s righteousness was enhanced by a lucky chance of timing. Shortly before Buena Vista, Marcy had written him a stiff letter of censure about a private epistle of Taylor’s, critical of the administration, that had been published without the General’s consent. The rebuke reached Taylor after the battle. Secure in his triumph, he used the Secretary of War’s communication as a whipping boy, scorning it as “abusive … contemptable, pitiful & ungentle-manly.” And “Scott, Marcy & Co.,” he snapped, were the ones deserving reprimand, for they had been more interested in crushing Taylor’s candidacy than in defeating Santa Anna. But, he crowed to Wood, “through the blessings of divine providence I have disappointed their expectations.”
Indeed he had. Though Scott won the final battles of the conflict, Taylor’s was the image that fired the nation. In 1848, largely because the war had come to him after he had been checked from going to the war, Old Rough and Ready was elected twelfth President of the United States. His own word, “providence,” may not be a historically proper explanation, but under the circumstances one can see why he felt inclined to use it.