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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
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.