The rough-hewn general who rose to the nation's highest office, and whose presidency witnessed the first political skirmishes that would lead to the Civil War
Zachary Taylor was a soldier's soldier, a man who lived up to his nickname, "Old Rough and Ready." Having risen through the ranks of the U.S. Army, he achieved his greatest success in the Mexican War, propelling him to the nation's highest office in the election of 1848. He was the first man to have been elected president without having held a lower political office.
John S. D. Eisenhower, the son of another soldier-president, shows how Taylor rose to the presidency, where he confronted the most contentious political issue of his age: slavery. The political storm reached a crescendo in 1849, when California, newly populated after the Gold Rush, applied for statehood with an anti- slavery constitution, an event that upset the delicate balance of slave and free states and pushed both sides to the brink. As the acrimonious debate intensified, Taylor stood his ground in favor of California's admission—despite being a slaveholder himself—but in July 1850 he unexpectedly took ill, and within a week he was dead. His truncated presidency had exposed the fateful rift that would soon tear the country apart.
About the Author
John S. D. Eisenhower is a retired brigadier general, a former U.S. ambassador to Belgium, and the author of numerous works of military history and biography, including General Ike: A Personal Reminiscence; They Fought at Anzio; Yanks: The Epic Story of the American Army in World War I; and So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846–1848. He lives in Maryland.
John S. D. Eisenhower was a retired brigadier general, a former U.S. ambassador to Belgium, and the author of numerous works of military history and biography, including General Ike: A Personal Reminiscence; They Fought at Anzio; Yanks: The Epic Story of the American Army in World War I; and So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846–1848.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., (1917-2007) was the preeminent political historian of our time. For more than half a century, he was a cornerstone figure in the intellectual life of the nation and a fixture on the political scene. He won two Pulitzer prizes for The Age of Jackson (1946) and A Thousand Days (1966), and in 1988 received the National Humanities Medal. He published the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in the Twentieth Century, in 2000.
Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University, is the author or editor of several books, including Chants Democratic and The Rise of American Democracy. He has also written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, and other publications. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
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The American Presidents
By John S. D. Eisenhower, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Sean Wilentz
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2008 John S. D. Eisenhower
All rights reserved.
Zachary Taylor was a man whose looks deceived those who met him for the first time. One glance at that rough physiognomy could convince the casual viewer that here was a son of a poor family, a man of the soil. The fact was that Zack Taylor — Old Rough and Ready — was indeed a farmer, but a gentleman farmer. Throughout his life, even when he was in the army, he kept ownership of several plantations, tilled by numerous slaves. His face was weather-beaten, to be sure, but his exposure to the elements came from his time in camp and field, a place where he endured the same hardships as the youngest and toughest of his soldiers.
Taylor was born on November 24, 1784, in Orange County, Virginia, not far from Montpelier, the home of his distant cousin the future president James Madison. His father, Richard Taylor, had served as an officer in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and enjoyed the status of being the head of one of the prominent families of Virginia. The Taylors never reached the eminence enjoyed by the Lees and the Carters, but they were a family of respect.
Richard Taylor's outstanding service in the Revolution ironically resulted in Zachary Taylor's leaving Virginia and becoming a Kentuckian. A grateful nation, still governed under the Articles of Confederation, granted Richard Taylor a large parcel of land at a point near Louisville, Kentucky. Richard Taylor accepted, presumably with enthusiasm. The land that comprised his extensive holdings in Tidewater Virginia was beginning to wear out from excessive tobacco raising. Further, they could never compare in size and quality with the land he was being offered in the West. Having determined to move, Richard Taylor began the journey with his pregnant wife, the former Sarah Dabney Strother of Maryland. They soon realized, however, that the journey would be too arduous for her. He therefore left her and their two sons with relatives in Virginia while he headed west alone. He returned seven months later, having cleared some ground near his future homestead. Zachary Taylor, meanwhile, had been born in Virginia. But since he spent only his first eight months there, he could hardly be called a Virginian in the traditional sense.
The Taylors made their way to Kentucky by water, reaching Louisville on August 2, 1785. They settled in their log cabin on Beargrass Creek, five miles to the east of town, on a four-hundred-acre farm they called Springfield. There Zachary, his two older brothers, and yet unborn siblings were to be raised.
Louisville, on the wild frontier, bore no resemblance to the genteel Tidewater district the Taylors had left. Wild animals filled the woods surrounding Springfield, and wild Indians in the vicinity had not accommodated themselves to the invasion of the white man. As a result, young Zachary grew up in an atmosphere where danger was accepted. Sometimes it had its humorous side. A nearby neighbor, Mrs. Chenoweth, seemed to derive some strange pleasure in startling the young people by removing her headgear and displaying her bald head, which was described as "peeled like an onion by the Indians' scalping knife," and "shorn of her beautiful hair." So the story went, though the circumstance of her being scalped is not disclosed.
Zachary Taylor's formal education was scanty, despite the fact that both of his parents were considered upper class. He learned to read and write, of course, like many other isolated children, at "his mother's knee." His first extant letter, in which he accepted a commission in the United States Army, was rough and full of misspellings. But given the circumstances of the frontier, his training in farming and taking care of himself was far more important than book learning. He was also, like his father, a shrewd businessman and competent farmer. Throughout his life his properties continued to grow, and his conversation, even in camp, often dealt with agricultural subjects. He was able to accomplish this balancing act because of the peculiar nature of the army at that time. The establishment was scattered in small detachments along the western frontier and except for occasional Indian disturbances was at peace. The authorities, therefore, were generous in granting long leaves of absence whereby an officer could return to his ranch or farm for extended periods of time. Land was wealth, and during his lifetime Zachary Taylor, measured by that standard, became a wealthy man indeed.
Though he was a planter, Zachary Taylor was first and foremost a soldier. The aura of his father's service in the Revolution apparently caught his imagination, and his participation in the various skirmishes with the Indians, while largely unrecorded, seems to have imbued him with a fighting spirit. He was not attracted to fancy uniforms nor to the parade ground, but practical soldiering seems to have become second nature to him. The personal informality was misleading, however; beneath his casual exterior, he was a martinet.
He first joined the army in 1808, at the age of twenty-three, when he applied for and received a commission as a first lieutenant. Taylor was fortunate; normally a young man lacking in formal military experience could never enter service at that rank. It was a troubled time, and the army was being expanded in anticipation of possible war with Britain over the ChesapeakeLeopard Affair, in which the crew of a British ship, the HMS Leopard, had forcibly boarded the United States ship USS Chesapeake, killing three, wounding eighteen, and removing several sailors of British birth. Though President Thomas Jefferson did not resort to war, the tensions and talk of war remained.
On being commissioned, Taylor was assigned to the new Seventh Infantry Regiment, just being organized. It was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William Russell, another Kentuckian. The regiment at the moment existed only on paper; to fill its ranks the men had to be recruited. So Taylor began his career as a recruiting officer. He was sent first to Washington, Kentucky, where he found little enthusiasm on the part of the citizenry for military life. He went on to Mayville, where he had better luck. In April 1809, he took his new company of about eighty men by boat from Kentucky to New Orleans.
The situation at New Orleans was hardly conducive to inspiring a young man to remain in military life. The troops were suffering in the heat of the New Orleans summer, and to make matters worse they were commanded by a rogue, Brigadier General James Wilkinson. At a time when rogues abounded, Wilkinson was unique in the varieties of his villainy. Some officers were treacherous, some were avaricious, and some were simply incompetent. Wilkinson managed to combine all three. Perhaps the least of his flaws was his greed. "One of the more senior officers in the Army," writes the historian Edward Coffman, "set an extraordinarily bad example. In the range of his ventures — land speculation, assorted business enterprises, including some of dubious legality, and being a paid agent of Spain — General Wilkinson took second place to none."
At about the time of Taylor's arrival at New Orleans, Wilkinson was about to embark on the project for which he is most infamous. At that time, the bulk of the army, about two thousand men, was concentrated under his command, and the condition of the troops was grim. They suffered from the heat and indulged in the fleshly temptations of the city to the extent that everyone, even Wilkinson, agreed that they had to be moved. Secretary of War Henry Dearborn therefore ordered Wilkinson to move his army up the Mississippi River to Fort Adams, near Natchez, where conditions were said to be relatively healthy. Wilkinson may not have received this order in time because communications were slow. In any case he moved, not to Natchez but to a spot below New Orleans on the Mississippi only thirteen miles away from the city. (It has been assumed that his business interests, plus the allurements of his current mistress, were instrumental in his choice.) The name of the spot was Terre Aux Boeufs, and a worse place could not be found. As aptly described by Taylor's biographer, Holman Hamilton,
Here the general stood by helpless as his troops suffered, sickened, and died. The Kentuckians, who composed the Seventh Infantry and who had undergone the coldest winter in memory, succumbed even faster than their comrades. Conditions at camp beggared description. More men were sick than well, and it was impossible to care for all their needs. Sanitation did not exist. Spoiled food, supplied by seedy and frequently corrupt contractors, revolted those who were supposed to eat it. Attempts at burial were pitiful. Interred higgledy-piggledy in shallow graves, the protruding arms and legs of the deceased took the place of missing markers in reminding the living of the fate that might be theirs.
The story did not end there. When orders finally arrived insisting that Wilkinson's troops be moved to Natchez, the trip by water, involving weakened men, was as deadly as the camp. Nearly the entire army was wiped out. It was one of those rare instances in which an army was destroyed without the firing of a single bullet.
Taylor himself was spared most of the trials of the Terre Aux Boeufs calamity because he succumbed to the prevailing illness early but survived it. He was sent home to Louisville to recover while Wilkinson's army was being rebuilt at Natchez. He took his time back at Louisville in getting his personal holdings in order.
While on this extended leave at Louisville, Zachary Taylor met his future wife, Margaret Mackall Smith, who was visiting her sister, Mrs. Samuel Chew, in nearby Jefferson County. The couple secured their marriage license on June 18, 1810, and three days later were married. In honor of the occasion, Taylor's father presented the couple with 324 acres of land. In the spring of the next year, their first daughter, Ann, was born.
When he returned to duty, Taylor found himself in an entirely different situation from that at New Orleans. The immediate crisis with Britain had passed, and the bulk of the army was now once more spread out across the western frontier, which at that time ran along the Ohio River. This dissipation of force was brought about primarily by the need to protect the civilian settlers against Indian attack. Added to that, however, was the distaste that sophisticated easterners had for the army in general. With memories of the arrogance of the British redcoats of the Revolution, Americans had always held the military with some suspicion. On the other hand, the American people nevertheless recognized the need to maintain a small standing army. Their attitude is well expressed in a letter from Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin to his wife, written in 1802:
The distribution of our little army to distant garrisons where hardly any other inhabitants is to be found is the most eligible arrangement of that perhaps unnecessary evil that can be contrived.
That deployment, a string of small posts, meant that every fort consisted of perhaps twenty or so men and one or two officers, who were, as mentioned, granted long periods of leave.
Taylor had taken full advantage of this liberal policy of the army, and he went back to duty willingly. At age twenty-six, he was now launched on three careers: planter, family man, and soldier. Try as he would not to neglect any of them, the career as soldier would always take priority.CHAPTER 2
When he returned to military duty in early 1811, Captain Zachary Taylor had already attained a reputation for reliability and responsibility, despite the fact that his service had been relatively limited. At the outset he was given a difficult assignment, the command of Fort Knox, Kentucky, a post near Vincennes, Indiana, to straighten out a nasty situation. His predecessor was undergoing a court-martial for allegedly having shot and killed one of his lieutenants, with whom he had quarreled for some time. The situation was symptomatic of the tensions that could arise on the frontier, usually out of sheer boredom. Taylor was the only officer in the area in whom the local commander, Major George Clark, had confidence to restore order.
Taylor reestablished discipline quickly but was not to remain long in command. After he had been only a month at Knox, unexpected orders arrived, sending him to Frederick, Maryland, where he was to testify as a witness in a court-martial. General James Wilkinson was being tried for misconduct at Terre Aux Boeufs, and for some reason he thought that Taylor's testimony would help his case. Taylor was never actually called to the stand, however, probably because his testimony was not needed. Wilkinson had enough friends in high places that, as with his other courts-martial, he was acquitted and restored to command. Taylor returned to recruiting duty at Louisville.
That period of idleness deprived Taylor of participation in a major event, for while he was at Frederick, William Henry Harrison, the governor of Indiana, fought the much-touted Battle of Tippecanoe against the forces of the legendary Indian leader Tecumseh. The battle itself was not the shining victory that was later portrayed in Harrison's political campaign literature. His force of one thousand regulars and volunteers marched north from Vincennes to destroy the village of Prophetstown, the domain of Tecumseh's brother. On November 7, 1811, at the point where the Wabash joins Tippecanoe Creek, Harrison's men walked into an ambush set by a congregation of four hundred Indians. Harrison's tough frontiersmen rallied and finally drove off the attackers. Having done so, they proceeded to burn Prophetstown. The action, though unduly expensive in American losses, was lavishly celebrated by the public, and even when the truth became known, the legend was already too firmly implanted to be discredited. Nearly thirty years later its aura would carry Governor Harrison into the White House. Missing that battle meant Taylor's missing a chance to make a name for himself.
Tippecanoe was a relatively small battle, and the burning of an Indian village in itself was of little consequence. Nevertheless, it was significant in that it made undying enemies of the Indians, who might have been ambivalent in choosing which was the lesser of two evils, the Americans or the British, who were energetically wooing them. Tecumseh stepped up his depredations against American villages, thus creating a public perception that the British in Canada were encouraging Tecumseh and his tribesmen to drive the settlers out of the area. Though the official justification for the American declaration of war against Britain in June 1812 was the British impressments of American seamen, involving as it did an insufficient acceptance of the United States as a full-fledged nation, the British fomenting of Indian unrest also played a major role.
Taylor's big moment in the War of 1812 came very early. In March 1812, before the actual declaration of war, he had been ordered to take eighty men, women, and children, mostly men, to Fort Harrison, a critical outpost on the eastern bank of the Wabash River north of Vincennes. As Taylor's contingent was on the way, they were struck by disease; only fifty-six men and nine women and children eventually made it to the fort. Even after settling into the garrison, the members of the party did not quickly recover. As late as September the vast majority of them were still sick with fever. Taylor himself was just recovering from some mysterious disease called "bilious fever," for which we today have no explanation. By one account, only a dozen men were free from disease, and only two sergeants and four privates could mount guard at a time.
When Taylor arrived at the fort, he was told that the local Indians had been outwardly quiet recently, and for the time between Taylor's arrival and early September they remained so. However, any complacency that existed among the garrison was eventually erased when two young farmers outside the fort were killed, scalped, and mutilated. Taylor buried the bodies near the fort and from that time on kept an elevated alert despite the poor physical condition of his troops.
On the night of September 4, 1812, a figure was seen approaching the fort. It turned out to be an Indian named Joseph Lemar, with whom Taylor was familiar. The visitor was bearing a flag of truce and was followed by a band of forty people, some of them women. The local chief, Lemar said, would come to the fort the next morning to discuss how the Americans could provide some food to help his people, who were suffering from starvation.
Excerpted from Zachary Taylor by John S. D. Eisenhower, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Sean Wilentz. Copyright © 2008 John S. D. Eisenhower. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
1 - Early Career,
2 - Unsung Hero,
3 - Old Rough and Ready,
4 - Fort Jesup to the Rio Grande,
5 - War with Mexico!,
6 - Monterrey,
7 - Buena Vista,
8 - The Election of 1848,
9 - Inauguration and Early Days in the White House,
10 - California and New Mexico,
11 - Foreign Affairs,
12 - The Great Debate,
13 - The Death of the President,
ALSO BY JOHN S. D. EISENHOWER,
THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTS SERIES,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,