Presidents of the United States



Zachary Taylor

From: Portrait and Biographical record of Rockland and Orange Counties, New York
By: Chapman Publishing Company
Published: 1895

ZACHARY TAYLOR, twelfth President of the United States, was born on the 24th of November, 1784, in Orange County, Va. His father, Col. Taylor, was a Virginian of note, and a distinguished patriot and soldier of the Revolution. When Zachary was an infant, his father, with his wife and two children, emigrated to Kentucky, where he settled in the pathless wilderness, a few miles from Louisville. In this frontier home, away from civilization and all its refinements, young Zachary could enjoy but few social and educational advantages. When six years of age he attended a common school, and was then regarded as a bright, active boy, rather remarkable for bluntness and decision of character. He was strong, fearless and self-reliant, and manifested a strong desire to enter the army to fight the Indians, who were ravaging the frontiers. There is little to be recorded of the aneventful years of his childhood on his father's large but lonely plantation.

In 1808, his father succeeded in obtaining for him a commission as Lieutenant in the United States army, and he joined the troops which were stationed at New Orleans under Gen. Wilkinson. Soon after this he married Miss Margaret Smith, a young lady from one of the first families of Maryland.

Immediately after the declaration of war with England, in 1812, Capt. Taylor (for he had then been promoted to that rank) was put in command of Ft. Harrison, on the Wabash, about fifty miles above Vincennes. This fort had been built in the wilderness by Gen. Harrison, on his march to Tippecanoe. It was one of the first points of attack by the Indians, led by Tecuniseh. Its garrison consisted of a broken company of infantry, numbering fifty men, many of whom were sick.

Early in the autumn of 1812, the Indians, stealthily, and in large nnmbers, moved upon the fort. Their approach was first indicated by the murder of two soldiers just outside of the stockade. Capt. Taylor made every possible preparation to nieet the anticipated assault. On the 4th of September, a band of forty painted and plumed savages came to the fort, waving a white flag, and informed Capt. Taylor that in the morning their chief would come to have a talk with him. It was evident that their object was merely to ascertain the state of things at the fort, and Capt. Taylor, well versed in the wiles of the savages, kept them at a distance.

The sun went down; the savages disappeared; the garrison slept upon their arms. One hour before midnight the war-whoop burst from a thousand lips in the forest around, followed by the discharge of musketry and the rush of the foe. Every man, sick and well, sprang to his post. Every man knew that defeat was not merely death, but, in the case of capture, death by the most agonizing and prolonged torture. No pen can describe, no imagination can conceive, the scenes which ensued. The savages succeeded in setting fire to one of the block-houses. Until six o'clock in the morning this awful conflict continued, when the savages, baffled at every point and gnashing their teeth with rage, retired. Capt. Taylor, for this gallant defense, was promoted to the rank of Major by brevet.

Until the close of the war, Maj. Taylor was placed in such situations that he saw but little more of active service. He was sent far away into the depths of tile wilderness to Ft. Crawford, on Pox River, which empties into Green Bay. Here there was little to be done but to wear away the tedious hours as one best could There were no books, no society, no intellectual stimulus. Thus with him the uneventful years rolled on. Gradually he rose to the rank of Colonel. In the Black Hawk War, which resulted in the capture of that renowned chieftain, Col. Taylor took a subordinate, but a brave and efficient, part.

For twenty-four years Col. Taylor was engaged in the defense of the frontiers, in scenes so remote, and in employments so obscure, that his name was unknown beyond the limits of his own immediate acquaintance. In the year 1836, he was sent to Florida to compel the Seminole Indians to vacate that region, and retire beyond the Mississippi, as their chiefs by treaty had promised they should do. The services rendered here secured for Col. Taylor the high appreciation of the Government, and as a reward he was elevated to the high rank of Brigadier-General by brevet, and soon after, in May, 1838, was appointed to the chief command of the United States troops in Florida.

After two years of wearisome employment amidst the everglades of the Peninsula, Gen. Taylor obtained, at his own request, a change of command, and was stationed over the Department of the Southwest. This field embraced Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. Establishing his headquarters at Ft. Jessup, in Louisiana, he removed his family to a plantation which he purchased near Baton Rouge. Here he remained for five years, buried, as it were, from the world, but faithfully discharging every duty imposed upon him.

In 1846, Gen. Taylor was sent to guard the land between the Nueces and Rio Grande, the latter river being the boundary of Texas, which was then claimed by the United States. Soon the war with Mexico was brought on, and at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, Gen. Taylor won brilliant victories over the Mexicans. The rank of Major-General by brevet was then conferred upon Gen. Taylor, and his name was received with enthusiasm almost everywhere in the nation. Then came the battles of Monterey and Buena Vista, in which he won signal victories over forces much larger than he commanded.

The tidings of the brilliant victory of Buena Vista spread the wildest enthusiasm over the country. The name of Gen. Taylor was on every one's lips. The Whig party decided to take advantage of this wonderful popularity in bringing forward the unpolished, unlettered, honest soldier as their candidate for the Presidency. Gen. Taylor was astonished at the announcement, and for a time would not listen to it, declaring that he was not at all qualified for such an office. So little interest had he taken in politics, that for forty years he had not cast a vote. It was not without chagrin that several distinguished statesmen, who had been long years in the public service, found their claims set aside in behalf of one whose name had never been heard of, save in connection with Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Monterey and Buena Vista. It is said that Daniel Webster, in his haste, remarked, "It is a nomination not fit to be made."

Gen. Taylor was not an eloquent speaker nor a fine writer. His friends took possession of him, and prepared such few communications as it was needful should be presented to the public. The popularity of the successful warrior swept the land. He was triumphantly elected over two opposing candidates, - Gen. Cass and Ex-President Martin Van Buren. Though he selected an excellent cabinet, the good old man found himself in a very uncongenial position, and was at times sorely perplexed and harassed. His mental sufferings were very severe, and probably tended to hasten his death. The pro-slavery party was pushing its claims with tireless energy; expeditions were fitting out to capture Cuba; California was pleading for admission to the Union, while slavery stood at the door to bar her out. Gen. Taylor found the political conflicts in Washington to be far more trying to the nerves than battles with Mexicans or Indians.

In the midst of all these troubles, Gen. Taylor, after he had occupied the Presidential chair but little over a year, took cold, and after a brief sickness of but little over five days, died, on the 9th of July, 1850. His last words were, "I am not afraid to die. I am ready. I have endeavored to do my duty." He died universally respected and beloved. An honest, unpretending man, he had been steadily growing in the affections of the people, and the Nation bitterly lamented his death.

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