ZACHARY TAYLOR AS MILITARY COMMANDER
Zachary Taylor’s career as a military commander is closely tied to the events of the Mexican-American War. Taylor was clearly one of the crucial figures of this conflict, insofar as he was present as commander from the very outset, leading U.S. forces into the annexed Texas territories and the Rio Grande at the behest of President Polk. Taylor’s contributions to the war consist of a series of successes throughout both the annexed Texas and Mexican territory, including Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Monterrey and Veracruz in Central Mexico. When considering these victories, Taylor’s stint as commander can invariably be looked upon as a successful one. However, controversy nevertheless surrounded Taylor’s actions, particularly in the form of his so-called lenient treatment of Mexican soldiers, which from another perspective could be viewed as a humane approach dictated by the commitment to the honor and integrity of a soldier in combat. In this regard, Taylor’s career as commander can be interpreted as successful not only in terms of his lucid record of military victories, but moreover because of the integrity of his military character.
In order to maintain this thesis, it is important to immediately note Taylor’s successes. At the time of the annexation of Texas, Taylor had been ordered to cross the Rio Grande, after which he occupied Matamoros. Despite being outnumbered “his 4,300 troops won the first battles at Palo Alto on May 8, and Resaca de la Palma on the 9th.” Following these successes, Taylor nevertheless was unwilling to advance further, waiting instead for the presence of reenforcements, which had “been promised by the U.S. government.” These promises, however were not kept by President Polk, who instead proclaimed that the “army could live off the land.” This led to a high number of deaths of U.S. military personnel from dysentery. However, because of instability in the Mexican government and its chain of military command, no attacks were made against Taylor’s weakened position during this period. Accordingly, at the very outset of the conflict, Taylor’s contributions as a military commander can be summarized in terms of his fidelity to his soldiers and his tensions with the U.S. government. Taylor evidently was a humane commander, placing the lives of his soldiers as central to the entire strategy of his campaign, thus not advancing further, despite clear successes. That such humaneness was ultimately ignored by the U.S. government, thus leading to the deaths of U.S. soldiers, does not so much speak to Taylor’s capabilities as a commander, but rather indices a certain hostility politicians felt towards Taylor.
Such a tension between the military and the political is also demonstrated in Taylor’s subsequent successes during the war. Taylor’s forces seized Monterrey after a relatively short siege, while also granting a requested truce to the Mexican General Pedro de Ampudia. Once again,Taylor’s decisions were looked upon with contempt from the U.S. government, who ordered that Taylor continue his offensive, which he did successfully, eventually ocuppying Saltillo and successfully repudiating an offensive by the Mexican army in Jaunary of 1847.
Accordingly, Taylor’s career was marked by key decisive military victories. At the same time, he maintained a strong personal code of honor and integrity, emphasizing the lives of his soldiers as central to his strategy, while also respecting the enemy. That such decisions brought him into conflict with the U.S. government is not an indictment of Taylor’s competence, as Taylor’s victories clearly indicate. In contrast, Taylor’s character and military successes evince his exemplary status as commander.
The accusations of insubordination against General Zachary Taylor for his granting of an armistice at Monterrey that allowed the Mexican Army to withdraw from the city with their weapons would at first glance seem to be a sign of Taylor’s failure as commander. However, a closer examination of the reasons for this decision combined with a consideration of Taylor’s character demonstrates the faultiness of this interpretation. Taylor’s string of victories during the Mexican-American War, despite being outnumbered, clearly evinces his competence as a commander. Accordingly, the decision for accepting the armistice suggests that the latter was part of Taylor’s strategy, while also being demonstrative of his dedication to a concept of military honor. In this regard, Taylor’s actions at Monterrey were not subordinate, but rather were yet another of his accurate judgments as a successful commander, one who refused to be bound by the demands of politicians.
Firstly, it is important to note Taylor’s successes that led to the capture of Monterrey. Taylor “advanced with an army of 3,080 regulars and 3,140 volunteers from the town of Matamoros” towards Monterey, which was “defended by 7,000 Mexican soldiers and 3,000 militia men.” Despite the advantage held by the Mexicans led by General Ampudia, after Taylor’s arrival at Monterrey on September 21, the commander only required three days to take control of the city, as his daring tactic of dividing his army into two wings that covered the east and West of Monterey proved successful.
What is controversial about this campaign is that “without consulting President James K. Polk, Taylor agreed to allow Ampudia and his men to evacuate the city.” (588) At first glance, this decision can be viewed as symptomatic of Taylor’s lack of aggression and failure to take the initiative. However, Taylor’s decision bears various significant layers. Firstly, Taylor’s decision represents a commitment to a sense of military honour. After such a decisive victory, Taylor acquiesced to the requests of his fellow soldier, Ampudia. From Taylor’s perspective, this can be considered as an act that maintains honor amongst military men: the consultation with a politician beforehand would be completely irrelevant to his decision. Moreover, considering Taylor’s competence as a commander, as evidenced by the victory at Monterrey and his previous successes, the decision also possesses a strategic and tactical significance. One of the supports for such an argument can be made by reference to the constitution of Taylor’s forces. The fact that the number of Mexican volunteers from Matmaros in Taylor’s army outnumbered his own U.S. personnel suggests that any type of over-aggressive act against Ampudia’s men could be interpreted by these irregular volunteers as a greater anti-Mexican gesture, thus spawning conflict between Taylor’s forces. In other words, Taylor pursed a military strategy that emphasized winning the hearts and minds of the Mexican populace – by allowing the armistice, Taylor not only captures Monterrey, but also wins over both the populace and his volunteers – this is a decisive strategic and tactical victory, which could prove enormously useful for future military actions.
At the same time, it is useful to consider that the Mexican-American war was also interpreted by Mexicans as “heralding a war of aggression” by the United States. By respecting the armistice request of the Ampudia, Taylor attempted to shift the Mexican public opinion regarding this conflict. Curtailing to Polk’s request would have merely deepened the opinion of the native Mexican populace that the war signified a purely hegemonic act by U.S. forces.
Accordingly, Taylor’s decision can be viewed as consistent with his own competence as a commander. The decision to allow for the armistice without consultation marked yet another of Taylor’s bold decisions that contributed to his successes.