The Presidents of the United States, 1789-1914/Zachary Taylor

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881519The Presidents of the United States, 1789-1914 — Zachary TaylorJefferson Davis


Zachary Taylor, twelfth president of the United States, born in Orange County, Va., September 24, 1784; died in the executive mansion, Washington, D. C., July 9, 1850. He was fifth in descent from James Taylor, who came to this country from Carlisle, on the English border, in 1658. His father, Col. Richard Taylor, an officer in the war of the Revolution, was conspicuous for zeal and daring among men in whom personal gallantry was the rule. After the war he retired to private life, and in 1785 removed to Kentucky, then a sparsely occupied county of Virginia, and made his home near the present city of Louisville, where he died. Zachary was the third son. Brought up on a farm in a new settlement, he had few scholastic opportunities; but in the thrift, industry, self-denial, and forethought required by the circumstances, he learned such lessons as were well adapted to form the character illustrated by his eventful career. Yet he had also another form of education. The liberal grants of land that Virginia made to her soldiers caused many of them, after the peace of 1783, to remove to the west; thus Col. Taylor's neighbors included many who had been his fellow-soldiers, and these often met around his wide hearth. Their conversation would naturally be reminiscences of their military life, and all the sons of Col. Taylor, save one, Hancock, entered the U. S. army. The rapid extension of settlements on the border was productive of frequent collision with the Indians, and almost constantly required the protection of a military force.

In 1808, on the recommendation of President Jefferson, congress authorized the raising of five regiments of infantry, one of riflemen, one of light artillery, and one of light dragoons. From the terms of the act it was understood that this was not to be a permanent increase of the U. S. Army, and many of the officers of the “old army” declined to seek promotion in the new regiments. At this period questions had arisen between the United States and Great Britain which caused serious anticipations of a war with that power, and led many to regard the additional force authorized as a preliminary step in preparation for such a war. Zachary Taylor, then in his twenty-fourth year, applied for a commission, and was appointed a 1st lieutenant in the 7th infantry, one of the new regiments, and in 1810 was promoted to the grade of captain in the same regiment, according to the regulations of the service. He was happily married in 1810 to Miss Margaret Smith, of Calvert County, Md., who shared with him the privations and dangers of his many years of frontier service, and survived him but a short time. The troubles on the frontier continued to increase until 1811, when Gen. William H. Harrison, afterward president of the United States, marched against the stronghold of the Shawnees and fought the battle of Tippecanoe.

From a photograph by Brady, Washington, D. C.

In June, 1812, war was declared against England, and this increased the widespread and not unfounded fears of Indian invasion in the valley of the Wabash. To protect Vincennes from sudden assault, Capt. Taylor was ordered to Fort Harrison, a stockade on the river above Vincennes, and with his company of infantry, about fifty strong, made preparations to defend the place. He had not long to wait. A large body of Indians, knowing the smallness of the garrison, came, confidently counting on its capture; but as it is a rule in their warfare to seek by stratagem to avoid equal risk and probable loss, they tried various expedients, which were foiled by the judgment, vigilance, and courage of the commander, and when the final attack was made, the brave little garrison repelled it with such loss to the assailants that when, in the following October, Gen. Hopkins came to support Fort Harrison, no Indians were to be found there about. For the defence of Fort Harrison, Capt. Taylor received the brevet of major, an honor that had seldom, if ever before, been conferred for service in Indian war. In the following November, Maj. Taylor, with a battalion of regulars, formed a part of the command of Gen. Hopkins in the expedition against the hostile Indians at the head-waters of the Wabash. In 1814, with his separate command, he being then a major by commission, he made a campaign against the hostile Indians and their British allies on Rock river, which was so successful as to give subsequent security to that immediate frontier. In such service, not the less hazardous or indicative of merit because on a small scale, he passed the period of his employment on that frontier until the treaty of peace with Great Britain disposed the Indians to be quiet.

After the war, March 3, 1815, a law was enacted to fix the military peace establishment of the United States. By this act the whole force was to be reduced to 10,000 men, with such proportions of artillery, infantry, and riflemen as the president should judge proper. The president was to cause the officers and men of the existing army to be arranged, by unrestricted transfers, so as to form the corps authorized by the recent act, and the supernumeraries were to be discharged. Maj. Taylor had borne the responsibilities and performed the duties of a battalion commander so long and successfully that when the arranging board reduced him to the rank of captain in the new organization he felt the injustice, but resigned from the army without complaint, returned home, and proceeded, as he said in after years, “to make a crop of corn.” Influences that were certainly not employed by him, and are unknown to the writer of this sketch, caused his restoration to the grade of major, and he resumed his place in the army, there to continue until the voice of the people called him to the highest office within their gift. Under the rules that governed promotion in the army, Maj. Taylor became lieutenant-colonel of the 1st infantry, and for a period commanded at Fort Snelling, then the advanced post in the northwest. In 1832 he became colonel of the 1st infantry, with headquarters at Fort Crawford, Prairie du Chien. The barracks were unfinished, and his practical mind and conscientious attention to every duty were manifest in the progress and completion of the work. The second Black Hawk campaign occurred this year, and Col. Taylor, with the greater part of his regiment, joined the army commanded by Gen. Henry Atkinson, and with it moved from Rock Island up the valley of Rock river, following Black Hawk, who had gone to make a junction with the Pottawattomie band of the Prophet, a nephew of Black Hawk. This was in violation of the treaty he had made with Gen. Edmund P. Gaines in 1831, by which he was required to remove to the west of the Mississippi, relinquishing all claim to the Rock river villages. It was assumed that his purpose in returning to the east side of the river was hostile, and, from the defenceless condition of the settlers and the horror of savage atrocity, great excitement was created, due rather to his fame as a warrior than to the number of his followers. If, as he subsequently declared, his design was to go and live peaceably with his nephew, the Prophet, rather than with the Foxes, of whom Keokuk was the chief, that design may have been frustrated by the lamentable mistake of some mounted volunteers in hastening forward in pursuit of Black Hawk, who with his band — men, women, and children — was going up on the south side of the Rock river. The pursuers fell into an ambuscade, and were routed with some loss and in great confusion. The event will be remembered by the men of that day as “Stillman's run.”

The vanity of the young Indians was inflated by their success, as was shown by some exultant messages; and the sagacious old chief, whatever he may have previously calculated upon, now saw that war was inevitable and immediate. With his band, recruited by warriors from the Prophet's band, he crossed to the north side of Rock river, and, passing through the swamp Koshkenong, fled over the prairies west of the Four Lakes, toward Wisconsin river. Gen. Henry Dodge, with a battalion of mounted miners, overtook the Indians while they were crossing the Wisconsin and attacked their rear-guard, which, when the main body had crossed, swam the river and joined the retreat over the Kickapoo hills toward the Mississippi. Gen. Atkinson, with his whole army, continued the pursuit, and, after a toilsome march, overtook the Indians north of Prairie du Chien, on the bank of the Mississippi, to the west side of which they were preparing to cross in bark canoes made on the spot. That purpose was foiled by the accidental arrival of a steamboat with a small gun on board. The Indians took cover in a willow marsh, and there was fought the battle of the Bad Axe. The Indians were defeated and dispersed, and the campaign ended. In the meantime, Gen. Winfield Scott, with troops from the east, took chief command and established his headquarters at Rock Island, and thither Gen. Atkinson went with the regular troops, except that part of the 1st infantry which constituted the garrison of Fort Crawford. With these Col. Taylor returned to Prairie du Chien. When it was reported that the Indians were on an island above the prairie, he sent a lieutenant with an appropriate command to explore the island, where unmistakable evidence was found of the recent presence of the Indians and of their departure. Immediately thereafter a group of Indians appeared on the east bank of the river under a white flag, who proved to be Black Hawk, with a remnant of his band and a few friendly Winnebagoes. The lieutenant went with them to the fort, where Col. Taylor received them, except the Winnebagoes, as prisoners. A lieutenant and a guard were sent with them, sixty in number — men, women, and children — by steamboat, to Rock Island, there to report to Gen. Scott for orders in regard to the prisoners. Col. Taylor actively participated in the campaign up to its close, and to him was surrendered the chief who had most illustrated the warlike instincts of the Indian race, to whom history must fairly accord the credit of having done much under the most disadvantageous circumstances. In 1836 Col. Taylor was ordered to Florida for service in the Seminole war, and the next year he defeated the Indians in the decisive battle of Okechobee, for which he received the brevet of brigadier-general, and in 1838 was appointed to the chief command in Florida. In 1840 he was assigned to command the southern division of the western department of the army. Though Gen. Taylor had for many years been a cotton-planter, his family had lived with him at his military station, but, when ordered for an indefinite time on field service, he made his family home at Baton Rouge, La.

Texas having been annexed to the United States in 1845, Mexico threatened to invade Texas with the avowed purpose to recover the territory, and Gen. Taylor was ordered to defend it as a part of the United States. He proceeded with all his available force, about 1,500 men, to Corpus Christi, where he was joined by re-enforcements of regulars and volunteers. Discussion had arisen as to whether the Nueces or the Rio Grande was the proper boundary of Texas. His political opinions, whatever they might be, were subordinate to the duty of a soldier to execute the orders of his government, and, without uttering it, he acted on the apothegm of Decatur: “My country, right or wrong, my country.” Texas claimed protection for her frontier, the president recognized the fact that Texas had been admitted to the Union with the Rio Grande as her boundary, and Gen. Taylor was instructed to advance to that river. His force had been increased to about 4,000, when, on March 8, 1846, he marched from Corpus Christi. He was of course conscious of the inadequacy of his division to resist such an army as Mexico might send against it, but when ordered by superior authority it was not his to remonstrate. Gen. Gaines, commanding the western department, had made requisitions for a sufficient number of volunteers to join Taylor, but the secretary of war countermanded them, except as to such as had already joined. Gen. Taylor, with a main depot at Point Isabel, advanced to the bank of the Rio Grande opposite to Matamoras, and there made provision for defence of the place called Fort Brown. Soon after his arrival, Ampudia, the Mexican general at Matamoras, made a threatening demand that Gen. Taylor should withdraw his troops beyond the Nueces, to which he replied that his position had been taken by order of his government, and would be maintained. Having completed the intrenchment, and being short of supplies, he left a garrison to hold it, and marched with an aggregate force of 2,288 men to obtain additional supplies from Point Isabel, about thirty miles distant.

Gen. Arista, the new Mexican commander, availing himself of the opportunity to interpose, crossed the river below Fort Brown with a force estimated at 6,000 regular troops, 10 pieces of artillery, and a considerable amount of auxiliaries. In the afternoon of the second day's march from Point Isabel these were reported by Gen. Taylor's cavalry to be in his front, and he halted to allow the command to rest and for the needful dispositions for battle. In the evening a request was made that a council of war should be held, to which Gen. Taylor assented. The prevalent opinion was in favor of falling back to Point Isabel, there to intrench and wait for re-enforcements. After listening to a full expression of views, the general announced: “I shall go to Fort Brown or stay in my shoes,” a western expression equivalent to “or die in the attempt.” He then notified the officers to prepare to attack the enemy at dawn of day. In the morning of May 8 the advance was made by columns until the enemy's batteries opened, when line of battle was formed and Taylor's artillery, inferior in number but otherwise superior, was brought fully into action and soon dispersed the mass of the enemy's cavalry. The chaparral, dense copses of thorn-bushes, served both to conceal the position of the enemy and to impede the movements of the attacking force. The action closed at night, when the enemy retired, and Gen. Taylor bivouacked on the field. Early in the morning of May 9 he resumed his march, and in the afternoon encountered Gen. Arista in a strong position with artillery advantageously posted. Taylor's infantry pushed through the chaparral lining both sides of the road, and drove the enemy's infantry before them; but the batteries held their position, and were so fatally used that it was an absolute necessity to capture them. For this purpose the general ordered a squadron of dragoons to charge them. The enemy's gunners were cut down at their pieces, the commanding officer was captured, and the infantry soon made the victory complete. The Mexican loss in the two battles was estimated at a thousand; the American, killed, forty-nine. The enemy precipitately recrossed the Rio Grande, leaving the usual evidence of a routed army. Gen. Taylor then proceeded to Fort Brown. During his absence it had been heavily bombarded, and the commander, Maj. Brown, had been killed. The Mexicans evacuated Matamoras, and Gen. Taylor took possession, May 18.

The Rio Grande, except at time of flood, offered little obstacle to predatory incursions, and it was obviously sound policy to press the enemy back from the border. Gen. Taylor, therefore, moved forward to Camargo, on the San Juan, a tributary of the Rio Grande. This last-named river rose so as to enable steamboats to transport troops and supplies, and by September a sufficiently large force of volunteers had reported at Gen. Taylor's headquarters to justify a further march into the interior, but the move must be by land, and for that there was far from adequate transportation. Hiring Mexican packers to supplement the little transportation on hand, he was able to add one division of volunteers to the regulars of his command, and with a force of 6,625 men of all arms he marched against Monterey, a fortified town of great natural strength, garrisoned by 10,000 men under Gen. Ampudia. On September 19 he encamped before the town, and on the 21st began the attack. On the third day Gen. Ampudia proposed to surrender, commissioners were appointed, and terms of capitulation agreed upon, by which the enemy were to retire beyond a specified line, and the United States forces were not to advance beyond that line during the next eight weeks or until the pleasure of the respective governments should be known. By some strange misconception, the U. S. government disapproved the arrangement, and ordered that the armistice should be terminated, by which we lost whatever had been gained in the interests of peace by the generous terms of the capitulation, and got nothing, for, during the short time that remained unexpired, no provision had been or could be made to enable Gen. Taylor to advance into the heart of Mexico. Presuming that such must be the purpose of the government, he assiduously strove to collect the means for that object. When his preparations were well-nigh perfected, Gen. Scott was sent to Mexico with orders that enabled him at discretion to strip Gen. Taylor of both troops and material of war, to be used on another line of operations. The projected campaign against the capital of Mexico was to be from Vera Cruz, up the steppes, and against the fortifications that had been built to resist any probable invasion, instead of from Saltillo, across the plains to the comparatively undefended capital. The difficulty on this route was the waterless space to be crossed, and against that Gen. Taylor had ingeniously provided. According to instructions, he went to Victoria, Mexico, turned over his troops, except a proper escort to return through a country of hostiles to Monterey, and then went to Agua Nueva, beyond Saltillo, where he was joined by Gen. Wool with his command from Chihuahua.

Fac-simile of last page of letter from Zachary Taylor to John J. Crittenden ]

Gen. Santa-Anna saw the invitation offered by the withdrawal of Gen. Taylor's troops, and with a well-appointed army, 20,000 strong, marched with the assurance of easily recovering their lost territory. Gen. Taylor fell back to the narrow pass in front of the hacienda of Buena Vista, and here stood on the defensive. His force was 5,400 of all arms; but of these only three batteries of artillery, one squadron of dragoons, one mounted company of Texans, and one regiment of Mississippi riflemen had ever been under fire. Some skirmishing occurred on February 22, and a general assault along the whole line was made on the morning of the 23d. The battle, with varying fortune, continued throughout the day; at evening the enemy retired, and during the night retreated by the route on which he had advanced, having suffered much by the casualties of battle, but still more by desertions. So Santa-Anna returned with but a remnant of the regular army of Mexico, on which reliance had been placed to repel invasion, and thenceforward peace was undisturbed in the valley of the Rio Grande. At that time Gen. Taylor's capacity was not justly estimated, his golden silence being often misunderstood. His reply to Sec. Marcy's strictures in regard to the capitulation of Monterey exhibited such vigor of thought and grace of expression that many attributed it to a member of his staff who had a literary reputation. It was written by Gen. Taylor's own hand, in the open air, by his camp-fire at Victoria, Mexico.

Many years of military routine had not dulled his desire for knowledge; he had extensively studied both ancient and modern history, especially the English. Unpretending, meditative, observant, and conclusive, he was best understood and most appreciated by those who had known him long and intimately. In a campaign he gathered information from all who approached him, however sinister their motive might be. By comparison and elimination he gained a knowledge that was often surprising as to the position and designs of the enemy. In battle he was vigilantly active, though quiet in bearing; calm and considerate, though stern and inflexible; but when the excitement of danger and strife had subsided, he had a father's tenderness for the wounded, and none more sincerely mourned for those who had bravely fallen in the line of their duty.

Before his nomination for the presidency Gen. Taylor had no political aspirations and looked forward to the time when he should retire from the army as the beginning of a farmer's life. He had planned for his retreat a stock-farm in the hills of Jefferson County, behind his cotton-plantation on the Mississippi river. In his case, as in some other notable instances, the fact of not desiring office rather increased than diminished popular confidence, so that unseeking he was sought. From early manhood he had served continually in the U. S. army. His duties had led him to consider the welfare of the country as one and indivisible, and his opinions were free from party or sectional intensity. Conscious of his want of knowledge of the machinery of the civil service, he formed his cabinet to supplement his own information. They were men well known to the public by the eminent civil stations they had occupied, and were only thus known to Gen. Taylor, who as president had literally no friends to reward and no enemies to punish. The cabinet was constituted as follows: John M. Clayton, of Delaware, secretary of state; William M. Meredith, of Pennsylvania, secretary of the treasury; George W. Crawford, of Georgia, secretary of war; W. Ballard Preston, of Virginia, secretary of the navy; Reverdy Johnson, of Mary land, attorney-general; Alexander H. H. Stuart, of Virginia, secretary of the interior. All these had served in the U. S. senate or the house of representatives, and all were lawyers. Taylor was the popular hero of a foreign war which had been victoriously ended, bringing to the United States a large acquisition of territory with an alluring harvest of gold, but, all unheeded, bringing also a large addition to the elements of sectional contention. These were soon developed, and while the upper air was calm and the sun of prosperity shone brightly on the land, the attentive listener could hear the rumbling sound of approaching convulsion. President Taylor, with the keen watchfulness and intuitive perception that had characterized him as a commander in the field, easily saw and appreciated the danger; but before it had reached the stage for official action he died. His party and local relations, being a Whig and a southern planter, gave him the vantage-ground for the exercise of a restraining influence in the threatened contest. His views, matured under former responsibilities, were tersely given to confidential friends, but as none of his cabinet are living (Stuart was the last survivor), their consultations cannot be learned unless from preserved manuscript. During the brief period of his administration the rules that would govern it were made manifest, and no law for civil-service reform was needful for his guidance. With him the bestowal of office was a trust held for the people; it was not to be gained by proof of party zeal and labor. The fact of holding Democratic opinions was not a disqualification for the office. Nepotism had with him no quarter. Gen. Winfield Scott related to the writer an anecdote that may appropriately close this sketch. He said he had remarked to his wife that Gen. Taylor was an upright man, to which she replied: “He is not”; that he insisted his long acquaintance should enable him to judge better than she. But she persisted in her denial, and he asked: “Then what manner of man is he?” when she said: “He is a downright man.”


As president he had purity, patriotism, and discretion to guide him in his new field of duty, and had he lived long enough to stamp his character on his administration, it would have been found that the great soldier was equally fitted to be the head of a government. He was buried in the family cemetery, five miles from Louisville. Gen. Taylor's life was written by Joseph R. Fry and Robert T. Conrad (Philadelphia, 1848), by John Frost (New York, 1848), and by Gen. O. O. Howard, in the “Great Commanders” series (1892).

His wife, Margaret, born in Calvert County, Md., in 1790; died near Pascagoula, La., August 18, 1852, was the daughter of Walter Smith, a Maryland planter. He was descended from Richard Smith, who was appointed Attorney-General of Maryland by Oliver Cromwell. She received a home education, married early in life, and, until her husband's election to the presidency, resided with him chiefly in garrisons or on the frontier. During the Florida war she established herself at Tampa bay, and did good service among the sick and wounded in the hospitals there. Mrs. Taylor was without social ambition, and when Gen. Taylor became president she reluctantly accepted her responsibilities, regarding the office as a “plot to deprive her of her husband's society and to shorten his life by unnecessary care.” She surrendered to her youngest daughter the superintendence of the household, and took no part in social duties. Her eldest daughter, Ann, married Dr. Robert Wood, Assistant-Surgeon-General of the Army. Another daughter, Sarah Knox, became the wife of Jefferson Davis, the marriage taking place near Louisville, Ky., the bride's uncle, Hancock Taylor, acting for her father, who was then with his command on the frontier.

Another daughter, Elizabeth, born in Jefferson County, Ky., in 1824, was educated in Philadelphia, married Maj. William W. S. Bliss in her nineteenth year, and, on her father's inauguration, became mistress of the White House. Mrs. Bliss, or Miss Betty, as she was popularly called, was a graceful and accomplished hostess, and, it is said, “did the honors of the establishment with the artlessness of a rustic belle and the grace of a duchess.” After the death of her distinguished father in 1850, and her husband in 1853, she spent several years in retirement, subsequently marrying Philip Pendleton Dandridge, of Winchester, Va., whom she survived, and died there in 1910, the last of General Taylor's children.

His only son, Richard, soldier, born in Jefferson County, Ky., January 27, 1826; died in New York city, April 12, 1879, was sent to Edinburgh when thirteen years old, where he spent three years in studying the classics, and then a year in France. He entered the junior class at Yale in 1843, and was graduated there in 1845. He was a wide and voracious though a desultory reader. From college he went to his father's camp on the Rio Grande, and he was present at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. His health then became impaired, and he returned home. He resided on a cotton-plantation in Jefferson County, Miss., until 1849, when he removed to a sugar-estate in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, about twenty miles above New Orleans, where he was residing when the civil war began. He was in the state senate from 1856 to 1860, was a delegate to the Charleston Democratic convention in 1860, and afterward to that at Baltimore, and was a member of the Secession convention of Louisiana. As a member of the military committee, he aided the governor in organizing troops, and in June, 1861, went to Virginia as colonel of the 9th Louisiana volunteers. The day he reached Richmond he left for Manassas, arriving there at dusk on the day of the battle. In the autumn he was made a brigadier-general, and in the spring of 1862 he led his brigade in the valley campaign under “Stonewall” Jackson. He distinguished himself at Front Royal, Middletown, Winchester, Strasburg, Cross Keys, and Port Republic, and Jackson recommended him for promotion. Taylor was also with Jackson in the seven days battles before Richmond. He was promoted to major-general, and assigned to the command of Louisiana. The fatigues and exposures of his campaigns there brought on a partial and temporary paralysis of the lower limbs; but in August he assumed command. The only communication across the Mississippi retained by the Confederates was between Vicksburg and Port Hudson; but Taylor showed great ability in raising, organizing, supplying, and handling an army, and he gradually won back the state west of the Mississippi from the National forces. He had reclaimed the whole of this when Vicksburg fell, July 4, 1863, and was then compelled to fall back west of Berwick's bay.

Gen. Taylor's principal achievement during the war was his defeat of Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks at Sabine Cross-Roads, near Mansfield, De Soto Parish, La., April 8, 1864. With 8,000 men he attacked the advance of the northern army and routed it, capturing twenty-two guns and a large number of prisoners. He followed Banks, who fell back to Pleasant Hill, and on the next day again attacked him, when Taylor was defeated, losing the fruits of the first day's victory. These two days fighting have been frequently compared to that of Shiloh — a surprise and defeat on the first day, followed by a substantial victory of the National forces on the second. In the summer of 1864 Taylor was promoted to be a lieutenant-general, and ordered to the command of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, etc. Here he was able merely to protract the contest, while the great armies decided it. After Lee and Johnston capitulated there was nothing for him, and he surrendered to Gen. Edward R. S. Canby, at Citronelle, May 8, 1865. The war left Taylor ruined in fortune, and he soon went abroad. Returning home, he took part in politics as an adviser, and his counsel was held in esteem by Samuel J. Tilden in his presidential canvass. During this period he wrote his memoir of the war, entitled “Destruction and Reconstruction” (New York, 1879).