zachary taylor and war -- 5/23/22

Today's selection -- from A Wicked War by Amy S. Greenberg. Zachary Taylor was one of the heroes of the Mexican-American War, and soon enough became the twelfth U.S. president. But he was not pleased when Democratic President James Polk ordered him to Texas to prepare for the possibility of that war, first because he was a member of the Whigs, the opposition party; and second because he believed the U.S. was intentionally provoking the war by claiming the Rio Grande River as the border instead of the more northerly Sabine River:

Taylor, c. 1843–1845

"Taylor may have felt ambivalence when Polk ordered him to leave Loui­siana for Texas in the summer of 1845. Like most officers, Taylor supported the Whig Party over the Democrats. While neither side advocated a large peacetime army, Whigs repeatedly pushed for increased funding for the army and were steadfast supporters of the military academy at West Point. The Democratic Party feared the consolidation of power associated with a standing army, and wistfully believed state militias capable of protecting the nation. They didn't trust professional military men, and suggested that West Point might as well be disbanded. Army officers were suspicious, as well, of Democratic schemes for expansion. Less than four years had passed since the United States withdrew from a brutal guerrilla war of attrition against the Seminole Indians of Florida. The seven-year-long war, which failed to remove the tribe from their ancestral home, was fought in the blis­tering heat of the Everglades' swamplands. It was remarkably unpopular with officers and enlisted men alike, many of whom sympathized with the Seminoles and grew to hate the white settlers of the region. Many West Point officers resigned as a result of service in the Seminole War. Taylor, like most other Whigs, had serious misgivings about the annexation of Texas. According to one of his officers, Taylor privately denounced annexation as 'injudicious in policy and wicked in fact.' 

"But Taylor followed orders and marched his troops to the edge of the contested territory. Not long after his arrival along the banks of the Sabine River, he received a novel map of Texas from the quartermaster general's office. It superimposed a new boundary mark at the Rio Grande over the earlier boundary mark at the Sabine. Lieutenant Colonel Ethan Allen Hitch­cock of Vermont marveled in his diary at the 'impudent arrogance and domineering presumption' of both the map and the administration that made it. Hitchcock, a close friend of Taylor's for twenty-five years, was the grandson of Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen, and had served as both commandant of cadets and assistant professor of tactics at West Point. He would soon celebrate his forty-eighth birthday, and as a man born at the close of the eighteenth century, he had seen many things in his life. But he was sickened by the implications of this map for the future mission of the troops. 'It is enough to make atheists of us all to see such wickedness in the world, whether punished or unpunished,' he wrote in his diary."



Amy S. Greenberg


A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico


Vintage Books, a division of Random House


Copyright 2012 by Amy Greenberg


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