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Profile - Zachary "Old Rough and Ready" Taylor

Nicknamed “Old Rough and Ready,” Zachary Taylor (1784-1850) spent over 40 years in the Army before becoming president.

The Taylors were a prosperous old Virginia family that had moved to Kentucky by the time the future president was born.  His great-grandfather and grandfather had both served in the Virginia militia, and his father Richard had served in Patrick Henry’s 1st Virginia Regiment of the  Continental Line during the Revolution.  Richard was in combat numerous times, notably at White Plains (October 28, 1776) and Brandywine (September 11, 1777), and rose to lieutenant colonel commanding the 2nd Virginia Continentals by war's end.  During the Revolution he married Sarah Dabnery Strother, also of Virginia, who by some accounts had made bullets during the war, and once been severely burned on her hands by hot lead.

Zachary Taylor had a very limited education, and never learned to spell properly.  From an early age he worked on his father’s plantation in Kentucky, but farm work apparently didn’t suit him; in 1808 he sought a commission in the newly formed 7th Infantry Regiment, and on May 3, 1808 was appointed a first lieutenant.  His pay was $30.00 a month plus rations and a quarters allowance, a goodly sum at a time when ordinary workers usually earned only $150.00 a year.  For almost all of the next 40 years Taylor was a soldier, and all four of his brothers became soldiers as well; William was killed in an Indian fight in 1808, two others retired before the Civil War, and the fourth, Joseph, became a brigadier general in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Early in the War of 1812 Taylor commanded Fort Harrison, near Chicago in the Northwest Territory.  In September of 1812 he held the fort against a greatly superior force of Indians, and it was one of the few posts that the United States was able to hang on to in the region.  This made Taylor something of a national hero.  He spent most of the next three years fighting Britain’s Indian allies on the northwest frontier, while rising to major.  With the army reduced after the war, in 1815 Taylor resigned from the service to become a plantation manager.  A year later returned to the Regular Army as a major.  Over the next 15 years Taylor commanded various garrisons and served on the Militia Board, which attempted to restructure the nation’s militia system.  This was routine duty during the 1820s, which saw few “Indians troubles.”  But this period of peaceful relations with the Native Americans began to come apart in the early 1830s. 

In the Spring of 1832, shortly after Taylor was promoted to colonel, the Black Hawk War erupted in Illinois and WisconsinTaylor had recently been promoted colonel and commander of the 1st Infantry, and played a critical role in the war, which culminated on August 2, 1832, when he led a large force on a night march through a swamp to ambush the Sauk and Fox Indians at the Bad Axe River.  Although Taylor’s Regulars attempted to prevent it, local militiamen committed many atrocities against the defeated Indians. 

By this time, Andrew Jackson had initiated his “Indian Removal” program, to move all tribes east of the Mississippi to the West.  The Seminoles resisted, igniting the Second Seminole War (1835-1842).  Although characterized by only occasional clashes, as the Seminole made effective use of their knowledge of the local swamps and forests, casualties were high from disease.  In 1837, after two  years of indecisive operations, Taylor was brought in to command the “Army of the South.”  He greatly improved the effectiveness of the army, organized inter-service operations with the Navy and Marine Corps, and eventually inflicted a severe defeat on the Seminoles in the Battle of Okeechobee (Christmas Day, 1837).  This brought Taylor a promotion to brevet brigadier general – a largely honorary rank – and command of all U.S. forces in Florida, but it not end the war.  The Seminoles slipped back into the Florida swamps and jungles and the desultory struggle continued.  In 1840 the U.S. pretty much abandoned the effort to relocate the Seminoles, and a peace was worked out in 1842 which saw some Seminoles go to the west, and the rest remain on their traditional lands.  The war had cost the United States some 1,500 lives—mostly from disease—and the then enormous sum of $40 million (c. $10 billion today).  Taylor then spent several years commanding American forces on the western frontier.

In 1845, when Taylor, by then a full brigadier general, was commanding in Louisiana, the U.S. annexed the Republic of Texas.  This precipitated a crisis with Mexico, which was still not reconciled to having lost Texas to the Revolution of 1835-1836.  In fact, Mexico had been carrying out a desultory war with Texas due to a disputed border.

Upon the annexation of Texas, Taylor was sent to secure the Rio Grande border with 3,500 troops, out of an army of fewer than 10,000 men.  He established a base at Port Isabel, on the coast near the mouth of the Rio Grande, and another further upstream at Camp Texas (now Brownsville).  On April 11, 1825, a patrol of American dragoons was ambushed and overwhelmed by Mexican cavalry at Rancho Carricitos, north of the Rio Grande.  Acting on his standing orders, Taylor declared that hostilities had commenced and called upon nearby states for  militiamen and volunteers.

On May 3, 1846, 6,000 Mexican troops laid siege to Camp Texas.  It held.  With 2,250 men Zachary Taylor marched to its relief from Port Isabel.  On May 8th Mexican General Mariano Arista offered battle with about 4,500 troops at Palo Alto, 10 miles east of Camp TexasTaylor opened the fight with a deliberate infantry advance against the Mexican left.  Arista responded by attempting to flank the attackers with cavalry.  When his cavalry was beaten off, Arista tried to attack Taylor's left with infantry and cavalry together.  Taylor’s leftmost units executed a rapid change of front and supported by superbly managed artillery, beat off the attack. 

The next day Arista took up some good defensive terrain a few miles to the west at Resaca de la Palma.  Taylor was able to deliver blows against Arista's center and left flank, throwing the Mexican forces into retreat.  He then marched to Camp Texas as Arista withdrew across the Rio Grande.  In two days of fighting, the Mexicans had lost about 1,100 men, killed, wounded, or missing, and the Americans only about 170.  A few days later Taylor occupied Matamoros, just south of the Rio Grande.  There he awaited reinforcements.

By mid-August 1846, Taylor had about 3,000 regulars plus 9,000 militiamen and volunteers at Matamoros.  With his regulars and 3,000 volunteers, Taylor marched on Monterey, 200 miles to the west of Matamoros.  Although defended by some 10,000 Mexican troops, Taylor took Monterey on September 22nd.  He faked an attack against the northeastern side of the city, while slipping a division around to attack from the west and south.  He then pressed on to occupy Saltillo against light resistance, while the Mexican army fell back more than 300 miles to San Luis Potosi, ending operations for the year.  His success won Taylor a promotion to major general.

Early in 1848 the new Mexican president, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna undertook a surprise offensive with 20,000 men.  By then, transfers of personnel and expiring enlistments had reduced Taylor's army to some 5,000 men, mostly volunteers.  After an arduous approach across 300 miles of desert, Santa Anna approached Taylor's army, which was holding a position near Buena Vista.  Santa Anna called upon Taylor to surrender, and Taylor reportedly was told, “Go to hell!”  Santa Anna attacked on February 23, 1847.  After beating off several determined Mexican attacks, Taylor counterattacked.   By tradition yelling at an artillery officer “ . . . double-shot your guns and give ‘em Hell!,” Taylor threw in all his remaining fresh troops.  These included the 1st Mississippi Mounted Rifles, under Lt. Col. Jefferson Davis, who many years earlier had been married to Taylor’s daughter Sarah until her untimely death.  The counterattack drove Santa Anna from the field.  Loses were heavy, the Americans suffering 750 casualties, and the Mexicans 1,500.  This victory virtually ended the war in the north.  The Mexican War was Taylor’s last campaign.

Zachary Taylor was an uncommon soldier.  His nickname was “Old Rough and Ready” because of the casualness of his attire.  To put it bluntly, Taylor dressed like a slob.  One soldier described him as wearing “an old oil cloth cap, a dusty green coat, a frightful pair of trousers,” while another saw him wearing “a loose, unbuttoned blue coat, a check shirt and black tie, broad brimmed planter’s black felt hat with a low crown, boots that slipped down about his calves, and trousers that were never quite stuffed in.”  Taylor’s carelessness about appearances even extended to his “war horse”; unlike most generals, who would ride large, handsome horses, Taylor's favorite mount, "Old Whitey" was a nag, and the general just as  often went into battle riding a mule, which was just as well, since he was a poor horseman, once being described as looking “like a toad” when on horseback.

In his Memoirs, U.S. Grant, himself not noted as a snappy dresser, observed that he knew of only two occasions on which Taylor actually wore his full rig as a major general.  The first occasion was prompted by an acrimonious dispute over rank that had erupted between two subordinate generals, William J. Worth and David Twiggs.  Taylor held a formal review of his little army, at which he wore his full uniform, which stressed the fact that he was in charge.  The second occasion on which Taylor wore his proper uniform was when he was visited by the commanding officer of the U.S. Navy’s Gulf Squadron, operating off the mouth of the Rio Grande, Commodore David Conner.  For a change, Taylor decided to go all out so that the Navy would not outshine the Army, and on the appointed day he donned the proper outfit, including sword, feathered bicorn hat, epaulettes, aiguillettes, gloves, sash, and whatnot.  But when Conner gentleman arrived it turned out that, knowing of Taylor's reputation as a careless dresser, he had chosen to wear civilian clothes as a compliment to his host!

Taylor was elected president in November of 1848.  He resigned his major generalcy in the Army on March 3, 1849, the day before he inauguration.  Militarily, Taylor's presidency was a quite one, though politically rather tumultuous, since the acquisition of so much land from Mexico had re-ignited the section quarrel over slavery, which ultimately led to the "Compromise of 1850"; an attempt to settle matters permanently, it merely postponed the conflict.

On July 9, 1850, after less than 15 months in office, the president died.  After taking part in the dedication of the Washington Monument, he had eaten some strawberries and cream that had been improperly refrigerated, and came down with a fatal case of food poisoning.

Like most professional soldiers, Taylor hated war, once saying “My life has been devoted to arms, yet I look upon war at all times, and under all circumstances, as a national calamity, to be avoided if compatible with national honor.”

The president’s son Richard served as a volunteer during the Mexican War, acting for a time as his father’s military secretary, and later became an able officer in the Confederate Army, rising to lieutenant general.  The president’s daughter Sarah had married 1st Lt. Jefferson Davis in 1833, but died shortly afterwards.  Another daughter, Betty, married Lt. Col. W.W.S. Bliss, a Regular Army officer who remained true to the Union during the Civil War, and after whom Fort Bliss in Texas is named.  A third daughter, Anne, married Robert C. Wood, a Regular Army surgeon, who also served the Union during the Civil War.  Their two sons served the Confederacy; John Taylor Wood resigned from the U.S. Navy to join the Confederate Marine Corps, and was an officer in the famed ironclad Virginia/Merrimac during her encounter with the USS Monitor, before becoming a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army, as did his brother.  After the war John Taylor Wood relocated to Canada, and two of his grandsons served in the Canadian Army during World War I, one of whom, Stuart Taylor Wood, went on to serve for many years (1938-1951) as Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the “Mounties.”

BookNote:  The most recent biography of Taylor is John Eisenhower's Zachary Taylor: The American Presidents Series: The 12th President, 1849-1850 , a volume in the American Presidents series


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