All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
26 June, 2013
"I have always done my duty. I am ready to die. My only regret is for the friends I leave behind me. "
TAYLOR, ZACHARY (1784-1850), twelfth president of the United States, was born in Orange county, Virginia, on the 24th of September 1784. During the following year his father, Colonel Richard Taylor, a veteran of the War of Independence, migrated to Kentucky, settling near Louisville, and thereafter played an important part in the wars and politics of his adopted state. The boyhood and youth of Zachary Taylor were thus passed in the midst of the stirring frontier scenes of early Kentucky, and from this experience he acquired the hardihood and resoluteness that characterized his later life, although he inevitably lacked the advantages of a thorough education. In May 1808 Taylor received a commission as first lieutenant in the 7th United States Infantry, and for the next few years was employed in routine duties. Early in 1812 he was made captain, and during the ensuing hostilities with Great Britain distinguished himself by his gallant defence against the Indians of Fort Harrison, a stockade in central Indiana. For this he was breveted major, and in May 1814 received a regular majorís commission, but being reduced at the conclusion of the war to the rank of captain, temporarily left the service. In May 1816 he was reinstated as major, and in 1819 was promoted to be a lieutenant-colonel; and in the routine discharge of his duties he was stationed at various posts on the western frontier. In 1832, as colonel, he took part in the Black Hawk War, and was the officer to whom Black Hawk surrendered; later he occasionally acted as Indian agent along the upper Mississippi.
In 1836 Taylor was ordered from Wisconsin to take command against the Seminoles in Florida. On the 25th of December 1837, after a difficult campaign, he inflicted a severe defeat upon the Indians at the battle of Okeechobee, and for this was breveted brigadier-general. Then followed four years of harassing service in the Florida Everglades, whence he passed to the command of the First Department of the army, with headquarters at Fort Jesup, Louisiana.
While at New Orleans in 1845, Taylor received orders from President Polk to march his troops into Texas, as soon as that state should accept the terms of annexation proposed by the Joint Resolution of Congress of March 2, 1845. Later in June Polk, who assumed that the Rio Grande rather than the Nueces was the south-western boundary of Texas, ordered him to take up a position at the mouth of, the Sabine, or at some other point best suited for an advance to the former river. By the middle of August Taylor had selected a position at Corpus Christi, on the west bank of the Nueces and within the disputed territory, and here he remained until the following spring. Upon the definite refusal of the Mexican government under Paredes to resume with the United States the diplomatic relations broken off by the annexation of Texas, Taylor was ordered to advance to the Rio Grande for the purpose of anticipating any hostile incursion from Mexico. He himself favoured such a movement if the United States was to maintain its claim as regards the boundary. In obedience to his instructions he left Corpus Christi on the 12th of March 1846, fortified Point Isabel as a base of supplies, and took up his position on the disputed river, opposite the Mexican town of Matamoras. Here he began to construct Fort Texas, afterwards called Fort Brown, upon the present site of Brownsville. The commander of the Mexican Army of the North, Ampudia, immediately summoned him to retire behind the Nueces under the threat of interpreting his advance as an invasion of Mexican territory. Taylor not only disregarded this summons, but within the following week proceeded to blockade the Rio Grande. Hostilities were then unavoidable, and the first passage at arms occurred on the 24th of April 1846, when a large force of Mexicans on the east bank of the Rio Grande ambushed and captured a small party of American dragoons under Captain Seth B. Thornton (1814-1847). The news of this event led President Polk, on the 11th of May, to recommend a formal declaration of war on the ground that it existed "by the act of Mexico herself," for that power "has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil." This statement was incorporated in the bill declaring war, and although severely criticized during the Senate debate, passed both houses of Congress by overwhelming majorities.
Meanwhile Taylor had strengthened his base of supplies at Point Isabel, where he was reinforced by militia from Texas and Louisiana, and during the return march from this post was fiercely attacked at Palo Alto (about 8 m. N.E. of Brownsville, Texas) on May 8th, by the Mexicans under Arista. The latter was easily driven from the field, but on the following day threatened Taylorís advance in a much stronger position, Resaca de la Palma (about 4 m. N. of Brownsville). A brilliant charge by the dragoons under Captain May decided this contest, which Taylor followed up by a pursuit of the Mexican general to the Rio Grande. After relieving Fort Brown, which had been besieged since the 3rd of May, Taylor himself crossed the river, and on the 8th of May occupied Matamoras, from which Arista had already retreated to Monterrey.
As it was the intention of the administration to wage war for the purpose merely of bringing Mexico to negotiate, Taylor did not immediately advance southward from the Rio Grande. When, however, Mexico persisted in her refusal to treat, Polk decided to conquer her northern provinces. Taylor formed a new base of operations at Camargo, farther up the river, and from this point, in August began an advance towards Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo Leon. After hard fighting he occupied this city in the latter part of September. The truce with which he followed up this success was unacceptable to the administration, and upon receiving notice to resume hostilities, he occupied Saltillo, the capital of Coahuila, and Victoria, the capital of Tamaulipas, thus completing the conquest of the north-eastern states of Mexico. By this time Taylor had been reinforced by some 3000 troops which had marched under Gen. John E. Wool from San Antonio directly towards Chihuahua, but which had been deflected at Monclova to join his "army of occupation." During the war he was breveted major-general (May 1846), and Congress thrice passed votes of thanks and ordered the presentation of commemorative gold medals. President Polk distrusted Taylor because of his supposed Whig views, and now began to express his dissatisfaction with the generalís failure to take full advantage of his victories and his hesitancy to suggest a plan for the future conduct of the war. Taylor was unwilling to lead his own army farther into the desert interior of Mexico and remained non-committal upon the projected attempt from Vera Cruz. When Polk finally determined upon the latter campaign, he selected Gen. Winfield Scott, although the latter was personally unacceptable to himself, as its leader, and despite Taylorís vigorous protests detached most of his experienced troops to join Scottís command. Meanwhile through the connivance of the American authorities, Santa Anna returned from his Cuban exile, and, as the newly elected Mexican president, disregarding his pledges to aid Polk in bringing about a satisfactory peace, prepared to wage a more effective war against the American invaders. Learning of the weakened condition of Taylorís force he made a sudden advance to the northward, with some 20,000 troops, and on the 22nd of February 1847 encountered Taylor with one-fourth that number at Buena Vista, a few miles beyond Saltillo. The all-day battle in the narrow mountain pass was the most stubbornly contested of the whole war, and the brilliant victory of Taylor over such odds made "Old Rough and Ready," as he was called by his troops, the hero of the hour. With this encounter the serious work of his "army of occupation" ended, although he was later joined by Gen. Alexander W. Doniphanís troops, who had marched from New Mexico via Chihuahua. Taylorís brilliant victory, won when he was so greatly handicapped by Polk, emphasized the popular discontent which that presidentís policy had already aroused, and suggested him to the political leaders as a presidential possibility. The general, however, had passed his mature years wholly in military service and had never voted, much less strongly allied himself, with any political party. Nevertheless when Taylor meetings became the fashion and newspapers began to advocate his nomination, party lines threatened to disappear despite the frantic efforts of the old-time chiefs of the two leading organizations to stem the tide against the popular favourite. The Democratic party with its more efficient machinery prevented a stampede of its rank and file, but the Whigs were less successful. Within a month after his victory over Santa Anna a Whig convention in Iowa nominated him for the presidency, and public meetings in Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere quickly took similar action, in many cases without regard to party lines. Taylor first adopted a course of discouraging these suggestions and emphasized his non-partisan attitude, but later gave way to the pressure, and issued a statement that proved satisfactory to the majority of the Whig politicians. Yet it required four ballots in the national convention to overcome the reluctance of Websterís, Clayís and Scottís followers and secure the party nomination. The disaffection of these leaders was more than counterbalanced, however, by the split of the New York Democrats over the slavery question, which assured Taylor of the vote of that state. His residence in Louisiana, his ownership of a large plantation with its slaves, and his family connexion with Jefferson Davis (who had married his daughter), rendered him more acceptable to many of the Southern Democrats than their party candidate, Lewis Cass, an advocate of "squatter sovereignty" and the representative of the democracy of the free North-west. As a result Taylor carried eight slave states while his opponent secured seven, but in the free states the conditions were exactly reversed. He received a majority of electoral votes on each side of the Mason and Dixon line and was confirmed in his preconceived opinion that he was to be the president of the whole people. Both parties had attempted to avoid the burning slavery issue, - the Whigs by adopting no platform whatever and the Democrats by trusting to the well-known views of their candidate, but the political leaders in Congress could not escape the many definite questions presented by the possession of the territory newly acquired from Mexico. The Wilmot Proviso and the bill to organize the territory of Oregon had already aroused both sections and bad given occasion for Webster and Calhoun to state their respective views upon the constitutional questions involved. The three weeksí contest over the election of a speaker in the House of Representatives, in December 1849, emphasized the sectional passions already engendered. Under the circumstances the first message from President Taylor was awaited with great interest. While advising Congress to "abstain from the introduction of those exciting topics of sectional character which have hitherto produced painful apprehensions in the public mind," he favoured the admission of California as a free state, and counselled the legislators to await the action of the people of New Mexico and Utah upon the slavery question. As he had already encouraged California to form the state government it desired, and later took a strong position against the efforts of Texas to possess itself of part of New Mexico, it was apparent that he was less inclined to favour the radical pro-slavery programme than his previous career had seemed to promise. This was still further emphasized by his marked friendship for William H. Seward and his contemptuous reference to the territorial portion of Clayís compromise measures as the "Omnibus Bill." This situation militated greatly against that leaderís cherished policy, and led him to a bitter criticism of the president on the floor of the Senate. Such was the situation when the president, early in July 1850, was stricken by the disease to which he succumbed on the 9th. His remains were temporarily interred at Washington, but afterwards removed to the family cemetery near Louisville.
The only son that survived him, RICHARD TAYLOR (1826-1879), popularly known as "General Dick," graduated at Yale in 1845, entered the Confederate army at the beginning of the Civil War, was commanding officer in Louisiana, and under Kirby Smith helped to administer the western half of the Confederacy, after the fall of Vicksburg. He won the victory of Sabine Cross Roads over the Union expedition under Gen. N. P. Banks on the 8th of April 1864. He finally surrendered to Gen. E. R. S. Canby on the 4th of May 1865. He wrote Destruction and Reconstruction (1879).
H. Montgomeryís Life (Auburn, 2850) and John Frostís Life
(New York and Philadelphia, 1847) are almost wholly devoted to
President Taylorís military career, and are excessively laudatory
in character. A better biography is that (New York, 1892) by
Maj.-Gen. 0. 0. Howard, in the "Great Commanders" series.
There is much material about Taylor in the general histories of
MíMaster, Von Holst, and Rhodes. (I. J. C.)
contributed by Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911
26 July 2006