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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
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.
Its members liked the proposed assault on Mexico City but advised against placing Benton in charge. The secretaries also rejected Polk’s proposal that Patterson be made commanding general. Uniting behind Marcy, they recommended Winfield Scott, who throughout the summer and autumn had been attending faithfully to high-level paper work in Washington. On November 19 Polk yielded to all this advice. Once again Taylor was ordered to confine himself to Monterrey and to release the best of his troops to Scott for the new campaign.
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?