True Stories of Our Presidents - Charles Morris

Zachary Taylor



"Old Rough and Ready"

"Old Rough And Ready" was what the soldiers called Zachary Taylor when he was fighting the battles of the United States in the war with Mexico. He was not a tall, handsome soldier, like General Scott, who fought in the same war, but short and dumpy, with a blunt, plain face. But anybody could see that he was kind and honest, and he was brave as a lion. He was just what the soldiers called him. He could be rough, but he was always ready.

"General Taylor never surrenders," he said, when Santa Anna, with his twenty thousand trained Mexican troops, sent word to him to surrender with his feeble five thousand.

Then he rode along the ranks and said to his men, "Soldiers, I intend to stay here, not only as long as a man remains, but as long as a piece of a man is left."

That is the kind of man that wins battles. And Santa Anna learned that when his twenty-five thousand were put to flight by the five thousand Americans at Buena Vista.

Resaca de la Palma


Zachary Taylor was born in Virginia, though he lived most of his life in Kentucky and Louisiana. He was born on the 10th of November, 1784, the year after the treaty of peace with England brought the war of the Revolution to an end. His father, Colonel Richard Taylor, had fought in that war and was greatly admired by his friends and neighbors for his patriotism and bravery. Like many people even in the present day who have small families, and desire to obtain more land and have greater opportunities to make money, he decided to move west. Zachary was only a baby when the old home in Virginia was left, and the father, mother, and three children set out on their long journey through the wilderness to Kentucky, which was then a wild and dangerous land, with few people except savage Indians. Daniel Boone, the famous Indian fighter, was still there.

Mr. Taylor settled down in the blue-grass country a few miles from where the city of Louisville now stands. He built a rude cottage, and began to clear the ground for his farm. There were no school-houses near, and so young Zachary had very limited opportunities to acquire an education. He began to go to school when six years old, attending only a few months in the year a school held in a log cabin quite a distance from his home. He was known as a bright, active boy who had a mind of his own. He was as brave as a boy could be, was afraid neither of wild animals nor Indians, and learned to rely upon himself and to defend the weak.

Very early he showed a strong desire to go into the army and fight the Indians, who were at that time making attacks upon the frontier towns, burning the farm-houses and killing the people. Knowing his son's desire to enter the army, his father, who was now a man of influence in the new State of Kentucky, succeeded in getting for him a commission, and he was appointed a lieutenant in the regular United States army. He was sent to New Orleans to join the troops stationed there under General Wilkinson. Young Taylor was then twenty-four years of age.

You will remember, from what I have said in previous stories, that the United States had a second war with Great Britain in 1812. For two or three years before this there were quarrels between the two countries, for the British interfered greatly with American ships and sailors. The English officers in Canada were doing their best to rouse the Indians against us, though they knew very well the dreadful way the Indians dealt with the white people.

By the time war broke out, Zachary Taylor had been promoted, and was now called Captain Taylor. He was put in command of Fort Harrison on the Wabash River. This fort, which had been built by General Harrison before the battle of Tippecanoe, was only a row of log huts and high pickets, with a block-house at each end. It had for its guard a small company of foot soldiers numbering about fifty men.

One night, soon after Captain Taylor took command, the Indians crept up stealthily in large numbers upon the fort. It was midnight when the soldiers in the fort were roused by the fearful war-whoop and the wild yells of the savage warriors. But Captain Taylor was not taken by surprise, and his men were on the alert. They knew that if the fort was taken every being captured in it would be put to death with the greatest torture.

I wish I could paint for you the scene. It is really too awful to attempt. The Indians set fire to one of the cabins where there was a large amount of whiskey stored. The sheets of flame rising up made the sky as bright as day, bringing into clear view the surrounding woods and fields. As the soldiers and the women and children looked out from their cabins, they saw the dancing savages, the blaze of the fire, and everything calculated to strike terror to the bravest heart. But no one thought of surrender. The few men in the fort, invalids and all, fought with splendid courage, keeping up the fight until six o'clock in the morning, when the savages, howling with rage, disappeared in the wilderness.

In 1836 the Government sent Colonel Taylor to Florida to make the Seminole Indians move from that territory across the Mississippi, as their chiefs had promised they would do. As they refused to move, Colonel Taylor was told either to make them move or capture them. It was a disagreeable duty, for the Indians had been very badly treated by the whites. But he was a soldier and it was his business to do what he was ordered The Indians had built a fort for themselves on an island in the swamps around Lake Okeechobee. In order to get at them Taylor had to march through a wild country which had no roads or paths, and for nearly one hundred and fifty miles his little army of one thousand men had to cut down trees, build bridges, wade across streams, and sleep on the wet ground. They had to carry their own provisions, and often marched under the greatest difficulties.

The Indians were hard to catch. They could run like so many deer, and, knowing all the country round, they could easily keep out of the way of the soldiers. Finally Colonel Taylor found them in their stronghold on Lake Okeechobee. He ordered his soldiers to rush upon them, and try to drive them out. This was not easy to do. At first the soldiers were driven back by the Indians, but they finally attacked them from another side, drove them out from their strong place and killed a great number. The remainder of the Indians surrendered and consented to move to the region where the Government wanted them to go.

Osceola's Indignation


For his skill and courage in conducting this war against the poor Seminole Indians, Colonel Taylor was promoted again and made Brigadier-General. He spent two years more in Florida, and then was put in charge of the department of the Southwest, which took in the States from Georgia to Louisiana. He bought a plantation near Baton Rouge, in Louisiana, moved his family there, and saw his wife's eyes grow glad as they rested on the fair southern landscape, with its carpet of flowers. Here he had a true home at last, and here he lived nearly five years. At the end of that time a new war broke out in which General Taylor was one of the leading generals, and had an opportunity of winning the renown which finally brought him to the Presidency. This was the war with Mexico.

General Taylor, who was at that time at New Orleans, was ordered to march with the force under his command into Texas, and take up a position on the banks of the Rio Grande River. This the Texans claimed as their western boundary, while the Mexicans said the boundary was on the Neuces River, which was a hundred miles or more further east.

General Taylor was a soldier, and knew that it was his business to obey orders. Although he did not think there was a good cause for war, he did as he was directed, and marched his troops to the Rio Grande. Mexican troops had crossed this river and soon there was fighting. This was followed by a declaration of war. General Taylor won two small victories on Texas soil and then crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico. He had been given the thanks of Congress and been made a Major-General for the victories already won.

The most famous battle in which General Taylor was engaged was the battle of Buena Vista. There he met the Mexican General Santa Anna. He had only about 5000 men, while the Mexicans had about 20,000. They were in the mountains, where Taylor selected a good position for his army, and drew them up to the best possible advantage. Anxiously the soldiers awaited the approach of the Mexicans, who could be seen coming amid great clouds of dust. Everybody watched the face of the commanding officer. Some one told General Taylor that a Mexican with a flag of truce wished to see him. It was a messenger from Santa Anna telling General Taylor that he had 20,000 troops and asking him to surrender. You have already been told the bold answer which the blunt soldier sent back, and what he said to his soldiers. You may be sure they cheered him warmly as he rode along their ranks on his old white horse and in his rusty uniform.

When the battle was hottest, and the Mexicans were coming on very boldly, General Taylor rode up to a captain of artillery and quietly said, "Captain Bragg, give them a little more grape." By this he meant that Captain Bragg should load his cannon with fine shot and drive back the enemy. And that was what the captain did, driving the Mexicans back in dismay.

It was a fearful battle, and at the close of the day over 700 of the American soldiers were killed or wounded, and nearly three times as many Mexicans. Many a time that day it was doubtful which side would win; but finally General Taylor's little band won the victory over Santa Anna's great army of 20,000 men. This victory caused the wildest enthusiasm throughout the United States. Everybody praised General Taylor as one of the greatest of soldiers.

Soon after this came the time for nominating a man for the Presidency to succeed President Polk. The Whig party thought that it was a good opportunity to take advantage of the popularity of General Taylor, and he was nominated for the Presidency. When he heard of it he said he would not consent to such a thing, declaring that he was only a soldier and was not fit to be President. For nearly forty years he had not cast a vote. There were many distinguished men who wanted the honor, and who had rendered their country valuable services, and these, of course, were sorely disappointed when General Taylor was nominated for the Presidency.

General Taylor had been given very little education. He did not know much of the ways of the world nor the history of different countries. Like every one else who undertakes something that he does not know much about, it caused him a great deal of worry when he found that he was elected President over two other candidates, Martin van Buren, who already had served one term as President, and General Cass.

However, his friends helped him write his speeches and prepare his public documents. When he went into office he found the people were very much agitated over the slavery question, and those who were opposed to slavery were very bitter against those who were for it. This gave much trouble to the poor President, who knew nothing about politics or the great national questions. It was easier for him to fight a battle than to try to please the different parties. All this worried him greatly and no doubt hastened his death. At any rate, he had not been in office much over a year before he took a severe cold, and after a brief illness of five days died July 5, 1850. His last words were: "I am not afraid to die. I am ready. I have endeavored to do my duty." He was the second President who had died in office. The people loved him dearly and respected him for his honesty.

Presidents, 1829 to 1850


So the kindly, honest, faithful old soldier, well named "Rough and Ready," left the world. Simple in his habits, kind-hearted, and true to his friends, brave as a lion before the enemy, and eager to do his duty in every position in life, his country had rewarded him with the highest honor it could bestow. But the weight of his new duties were too heavy for the old soldier, and soon he laid his high office down as another old soldier had done nine years before.