Hero of the Mexican-American War, twelfth U.S. President Zachary Taylor served only sixteen months in office before dying in the White House on July 9, 1850.
Zachary Taylor was born in Orange County, Virginia, on November 24, 1784. He was the third of nine children born to Richard and Sarah Dabney (Strother) Taylor. Richard Taylor descended from a prominent Virginia planter-family, and he was a Continental Army officer who attained the rank of lieutenant colonel during the American Revolution. Following American independence, Taylor received a large tract of land a few miles east of Louisville, Kentucky in return for his service. In 1785, Taylor moved his family to a log cabin in Kentucky and established a successful plantation known as “Springfield” that housed up to twenty-six slaves.
Young Zachary received little formal education growing up in the Kentucky wilderness, but he picked up frontier skills in hunting, tracking, horsemanship, and musketry that prepared him for life in the military. On June 6, 1808, Taylor accepted a commission as a first lieutenant with the 7th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army, launching a military career that spanned four decades.
Young Army Officer
Taylor’s first military assignment was recruiting soldiers for his regiment in Kentucky. By April 1809, he had raised enough men to travel to New Orleans to join a force being assembled to repel a rumored British invasion. During May and June 1809, Taylor temporarily commanded Fort Pickering near Memphis, where American Indians had killed his brother, William, the year before. Following a bout with yellow fever and another short assignment, the army ordered Taylor back to Louisville after disbanding his unit.
Marriage and Family
Taylor’s return to Louisville enabled him to reunite with Margaret Mackall Smith, who he had met the previous year while she was visiting her sister in Kentucky. The couple wed on June 21, 1810, and remained married until Taylor’s death forty years later. Their union produced five daughters (two of whom did not survive childhood) and a son. Their first child, Sarah Knox Taylor, was the first wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Their last child, and only son, Richard Taylor, became a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army.
Five months after his marriage, the army promoted Taylor to captain on November 13, 1810. Taylor’s wages at the time were less than $50 per month, and his family struggled to live on the meager earnings of an army officer. As a wedding present, Taylor’s father had given him 324 acres of land. Taylor eventually sold the land for a handsome profit that he used to purchase profitable bank stock, more land, and slaves. By the time of his death in 1850, Taylor was a wealthy man who owned plantations in Kentucky and Mississippi, including over 200 slaves.
Rising Military Officer
During the War of 1812, Taylor distinguished himself commanding an out-manned garrison during the Siege of Fort Harrison (September 4–15, 1812) near Terre Haute, Indiana. For his leadership in saving the fort and its occupants during a surprise attack by a large force of American Indians, Taylor received a brevet promotion to the rank of major.
On February 1, 1815, the army promoted Taylor to the rank of major effective May 15. During the interim, however, Congress downsized the army and Taylor reverted to his previous rank as captain. Refusing to accept the demotion, Taylor resigned from the army. His retirement did not last long. With the support of President James Madison, the army recommissioned him as a major on May 17, 1816, and sent to Fort Howard, Wisconsin.
For the next three decades, Taylor steadily climbed through the officer corps. In April 1819, army officials promoted him to lieutenant colonel and ordered him to Louisiana. Tragedy struck when his family followed and two of Taylor’s daughters died of a “bilious fever” in the fall of 1820. In 1822, Taylor established Fort Selden and Fort Jesup in Louisiana. He also purchased a cotton plantation near Bayou Sara.
Between 1824 and 1826, Taylor was back in Louisville on recruiting duty. In May 1828, the army sent him to Fort Snelling, Minnesota. In 1832, Taylor took part in the Black Hawk War against the Sauk Indians. During that conflict, officials promoted him to colonel on April 4, 1832.
In 1837, the army sent Taylor to Florida to campaign against the Seminole Nation. On December 25, 1837, he led American forces at the Battle of Lake Okeechobee, one of the larger and last major encounters during the Second Seminole War. The next year, officials promoted Taylor to brevet brigadier general “for distinguished services” at the Battle Lake Okeechobee and placed him in command of all American troops in Florida. Taylor remained in Florida for the next three years, and it was during that time that he earned the nickname “Old Rough and Ready” because of his willingness to share the hardships of field duty with his men.
In 1840, Taylor briefly returned to Louisiana before being assigned to the command of the Second Department of the Western States in 1841. For the next three years, he lived with his family at department headquarters in Fort Smith, Arkansas. While stationed there, Taylor purchased a large plantation along the Mississippi River, including over eighty slaves. In 1844, army officials reorganized the department and returned Taylor to Fort Jesup, Louisiana.
On March 1, 1845, just three days before lame-duck President John Tyler left office, he signed legislation authorizing the annexation of Texas, effective December 29, 1845. Texas statehood transformed the border feud between Mexico and the Republic of Texas into an international dispute between Mexico and the United States. Citing the Treaties of Velasco, American authorities claimed that the southern border of Texas was the Rio Grande River. Mexican officials maintained that the southern extent of Texas was the Nueces River, approximately 150 miles north of the Rio Grande.
As tensions between the two nations mounted, in July 1845, President James K. Polk ordered Taylor to mobilize approximately 3,500 soldiers, at Corpus Christi, Texas, near the mouth of the Nueces River. After Mexican authorities rejected Polk’s attempts to purchase the disputed territory, the president ordered Taylor and his troops to cross the Nueces River.
In March 1846, Taylor advanced his forces into the Nueces Strip, the disputed area between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. Under the direction of Captain Joseph K. Mansfield, Taylor’s soldiers built a star-shaped earthwork named Fort Texas on the north bank of the Rio Grande, opposite the Mexican village of Matamoros. Mexican authorities responded by dispatching troops commanded by General Mariano Arista to Matamoros. On April 25, 1846, a cavalry detachment of two thousand Mexicans encountered a patrol of seventy U.S. soldiers north of the Rio Grande. The ensuing engagement, known as the Thornton Affair, resulted in the death of sixteen Americans. When President Polk learned of the event, he sent a message to Congress on May 11, proclaiming that “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.” Two days later, on May 13, 1846, Congress approved a declaration of war against Mexico. Mexican officials reciprocated by declaring war against the United States on July 7.
Following the Thornton Affair, Mexican General Arista began siege operations against the small American garrison at Fort Texas. General Taylor responded by marching 2,200 soldiers into a position to confront Arista. Leaving a small contingent behind to continue the siege, Arista moved to accept the challenge. On May 8, 1846, Taylor’s outnumbered army defeated Arista’s force of 3,400 Mexicans at the Battle of Palo Alto, near present-day Brownsville, Texas.
After the American victory, Arista moved his troops to a nearby strong defensive position in a dry river bed known as Resaca de la Palma. Taylor’s forces routed the Mexican army on May 9, 1846, at the Battle of Resaca de la Palma, forcing the enemy back across the Rio Grande. During the two days of battle, Arista lost nearly one-third of his army, compared to fewer than 200 casualties for the Americans.
In mid-May, Taylor received a brevet promotion to major general. After the declaration of war, he moved his army across the Rio Grande and occupied Matamoras. From there, Taylor launched an offensive into northern Mexico. On June 27, President Polk nominated Taylor for a promotion to the rank of major general. The Senate approved the nomination on the same day. By then, the size of Taylor’s army had swelled to nearly 6,000 soldiers.
Taylor next moved against the Mexican city of Monterrey, defended by roughly 7,000 Mexican soldiers commanded by General Pedro de Ampudia. Hostilities began on September 21, 1846, and following three days of brutal urban combat, Ampudia surrendered on September 24. After the American victory at the Battle of Monterrey, President Polk and others severely criticized Zachary Taylor for offering generous surrender terms to Ampudia, which allowed the Mexican army to retreat south.
By the end of 1846, Taylor’s Army of Occupation controlled most of northern Mexico. After Mexican officials rebuffed Polk’s attempts to reach a negotiated settlement, the War Department decided to strike at the heart of Mexico. Polk directed General Winfield Scott to lead an amphibious invasion into Central Mexico.
In early 1847, Scott ordered nearly 8,000 of Taylor’s soldiers to depart for the Gulf Coast to prepare for the invasion. Scott’s orders left Taylor with approximately 5,000 men, most of whom were volunteers, garrisoned at Saltillo. When General Santa Anna, who had returned from exile and assumed command of the Mexican army, learned of Scott’s plan, he struck Taylor’s army while it was vulnerable.
After marching north from San Luis Potosí, Santa Anna positioned 20,000 Mexican soldiers at Encarnacion, south of Saltillo, on February 20, 1847. Learning of Santa Anna’s approach, Taylor deployed his troops in a strong defensive position at the mountain pass south of Buena Vista on February 21. The next day, Santa Anna’s army attacked, after Taylor refused a demand to surrender. Despite being outnumbered nearly four to one, the Americans withstood furious assaults by the Mexican army for the next day-and-a-half. After failing to dislodge Taylor’s army, Santa Anna withdrew on the night of February 23. The American victory at the Battle of Buena Vista was the last major engagement of the Northern Mexico Campaign.
By the end of the Mexican-American War, Old Rough and Ready was a national hero. On three occasions, Congress had conferred votes of thanks upon Taylor and ordered commemorative gold medals struck in his honor. As the 1848 presidential election approached, leaders of both major political parties, the Democrats and the Whigs, courted the popular general as their candidate. Although Taylor belonged to neither party and had never voted in his life, he tossed his hat into the ring as a Whig.
The Whig National Convention met on June 7, 1848, in Philadelphia. It took the delegates only one day to choose a presidential candidate and conclude their business. On the fourth ballot, they selected Taylor as their nominee even though no one really knew what his political beliefs were. It took them only two ballots to select former New York Congressman Millard Fillmore as his running mate. Recognizing a winning combination when they saw one, the delegates correctly assumed that Taylor’s war status would overcome the hesitancy of many northern Whigs to vote for a wealthy Southern slave owner. Conversely, they believed that Taylor’s Southern roots and Louisiana citizenship would garner many votes south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
November 7, 1848 was the first time the entire nation went to the polls to elect a president on the same day. When officials tabulated the results, Taylor won the popular election collecting 1,361,393 votes (47.3%) to 1,223,460 votes (42.5%) for Democratic candidate Lewis Cass and 291,501 votes (10.1%) for Free Soil Party candidate Martin Van Buren. In the Electoral College vote, Taylor and Cass each carried fifteen states, but Taylor won the larger states and defeated Cass 163 to 127.
Zachary Taylor’s heroics in the Mexican-American War paved the way for his election to the presidency in 1848. Ironically, his accomplishments as a general spawned the greatest problem he would confront as president—managing the aftereffects of peace.
In 1847, American diplomat Nicholas P. Trist began negotiations to end the Mexican-American War. Trist and his Mexican counterparts reached an accord in January 1848. On February 2, 1848, representatives from both sides signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The peace treaty established the Rio Grande River as the southernmost border between Mexico and the United States. It also required Mexico to cede California, Arizona, New Mexico, and portions of Utah, Nevada, and Colorado to the United States, in return for a payment of fifteen million dollars. The U.S. Senate ratified the peace treaty on March 10, 1848.
When Taylor took the presidential oath of office on March 4, 1849, he inherited a growing crisis regarding the future of slavery in the newly acquired territories. Although he did not address the matter in his inaugural address, events soon forced him to confront the issue.
In 1848, the discovery of gold in California launched the Gold Rush of 1849. By 1850, the swelling population of California began pushing for statehood. Taylor sought to avoid the sectional strife surrounding the extension of slavery in the new territories by urging the residents of California (and New Mexico) to draft constitutions and apply for statehood, bypassing territorial status. His position angered many Southerners. Because most “Forty-niners” were from northern states, the constitution of California would almost certainly prohibit slavery. Southerners opposed California’s petition because the admission of another free state would upset the delicate balance of power in the U.S. Senate. When some Southern leaders threatened secession, Taylor responded with solid Unionist rhetoric. In a February 1850 meeting with Southern Congressmen, Taylor stated that if it were necessary, he would personally take the field to enforce the laws of the nation, and that he “would hang . . . with less reluctance than hanging deserters and spies in Mexico” anyone who attempted to disrupt the Union by force or by conspiracy.
As talk of secession escalated, Congressional leaders struggled to hold the Union together by seeking an accord that would accommodate Northerners and Southerners regarding several slavery-related issues. Taylor, however, remained intractable.
Death of a President
The prospects for compromise improved dramatically in July 1850. On Independence Day, President Taylor attended ceremonies on the future site of the Washington Monument. Following a walk along the Potomac River, he returned to the White House thirsty from the oppressive summer heat. After quenching his thirst with several glasses of ice water, Taylor ate a large dinner including raw vegetables. The president concluded his dinner with a large bowl of cherries washed down with two glasses of iced milk. Something Taylor ate or drank contained deadly bacteria. Within hours, he was suffering from violent stomach cramps and diarrhea. Following five days of agony, Taylor died at 10:35 p.m. on July 9, 1850.
In September, Taylor’s successor, President Millard Fillmore, signed a series of Congressional bills collectively known as the Compromise of 1850. The combined legislation fashioned the mutual accord that Taylor had opposed. Moderates across the country celebrated the legislation, believing that it had saved the Union. Fillmore proclaimed a “final settlement” to the sectional differences that plagued the nation. Extremists on both sides of the sectional issues were not so easily convinced. Free Soil Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio could have been speaking for both sides when he guardedly observed “the question of slavery in the territories has been avoided. It has not been settled.” Occurrences a decade later proved Chase correct when the nation descended into civil war.
Following Taylor’s death, his remains were temporarily interred in the Public Vault of the Congressional Cemetery in the nation’s capital from July 13, 1850 to October 25, 1850. Authorities then transported Taylor’s body to Kentucky, where it was buried on the grounds of his estate near Louisville.
Suspicions about the cause and suddenness of Taylor’s death persisted for nearly a century and a half. In 1991, Dr. Clara Rising convinced Taylor’s descendants to authorize an exhumation of the president’s body to determine if he had possibly been poisoned by arsenic. Tests performed on hair and fingernail specimens recovered from Taylor’s body showed only normal amounts of the element found. Although someone could have used some other untraceable poison to murder Taylor, there is no hard evidence to support such speculation. Currently, the most warranted explanation is that Taylor died of food poisoning.