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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
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.