Taylor, Zachary (1784–1850)

By: K. Jack Bauer

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: April 30, 2019

Zachary Taylor, United States Army general and president of the United States, was born in Orange County, Virginia, on November 24, 1784, to Richard and Sarah Dabney (Strother) Taylor; he grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. He joined the army as a lieutenant in 1808 and four years later attracted attention by his defense of Fort Harrison, Indiana, against an Indian attack. Taylor left the army for a few months after the war but returned to fill a series of frontier assignments that lasted for the next thirty years. He saw action in the Black Hawk War in 1832 and in Florida in 1837–40 during the Seminole War. During his last two years in Florida he commanded the forces pursuing the elusive Indians. His unpretentious manner and appearance led troops there to nickname him "Old Rough and Ready." In 1845 Taylor became commander of the force ordered to Texas after annexation. He established his base camp at Corpus Christi; by the spring of 1846 it housed nearly half of the United States Army. In March, on orders from Washington, Taylor moved his force to the north bank of the Rio Grande and established Fort Brown opposite the Mexican town of Matamoros, a move that Mexico considered an invasion of her territory. In May the Mexicans ambushed one of Taylor's dragoon patrols, an attack that President James K. Polk used as the basis for his request for a declaration of war on May 13. Meanwhile, Taylor overwhelmed the northern Mexican army in the battles of Palo Alto (May 8, 1846) and Resaca de la Palma (May 9, 1846), victories for which he was promoted to major general. Although progress was hampered by logistic problems, Taylor crossed the Rio Grande and in September seized the key Mexican city of Monterrey. A change in American strategy left him with a small force in northern Mexico, while the main army under Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott struck at Mexico City from Veracruz. On February 22–23, 1847, Taylor's depleted force turned back a Mexican offensive in the battle of Buena Vista.

The victories in Texas and Mexico set off a Taylor presidential boom, especially when it became clear that he was a Whig. In 1848 he received the Whig nomination and won the presidency. Although he was a southerner and a slaveowner, as president he disdained support from the moderate Whig leadership and increasingly allied himself with the antislavery faction of the party. He opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories and resisted the Texas claims to the region around Santa Fe, going so far as to insist he would personally lead the army to prevent any extension of Texas authority. Taylor married Margaret Mackall Smith in 1810. They had six children, one of whom, Richard Taylor, was a lieutenant general in the Confederate States Army. Taylor died on July 9, 1850, while still in office. His death removed a major obstacle to the adoption of the Compromise of 1850, which set the western and northern borders of Texas. See also MEXICAN WAR, BOUNDARIES.

K. Jack Bauer, The Mexican War, 1846–1848 (New York: Macmillan, 1974). K. Jack Bauer, Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985). Justin H. Smith, The War with Mexico (2 vols., New York: Macmillan, 1919).

Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

K. Jack Bauer, “Taylor, Zachary,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 15, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/taylor-zachary.

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April 30, 2019