December 20, 2010

Rough and Ready

Zachary Taylor was an utterly competent military commander. Probably the coolest thing about him is that his biographer’s name is Jack Bauer. Here’s what Bauer had to say:

Taylor returned home a great hero. In the public mind he was the architect and leader of the victories at Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Monterrey, and Buena Vista. It was an unearned reputation. Taylor was a successful battlefield commander because he faced opponents whose tactical abilities and nerves were less than his and because his army in the early battles contained well-trained, self-confident subordinates. Taylor demonstrated little tactical virtuosity or the instinct great commanders have for a final crushing blow. More than anything else, Taylor’s performance, especially when his activities were questioned by his superiors, illuminated his petulance. He easily rationalized objections as political attacks and suggestions as traps.

Two things stick out to me about Zachary Taylor. The first is that every time he was commended, it was for having well-trained, orderly men. (Before the war, that is, only before the war. The men he commanded in the war, mostly the Texans, were notorious for being jerks to the Mexican women.) The second is that he frequently wrote really really long letters of complaint to men in authority. He opposed the army’s policy of automatically promoting officers after 10 years, and he wrote a 52-page letter about it to someone in the war department. Fifty-two pages! Ugh! He was a stickler – a stickler for rules, propriety, and behavior. It did not make him a genius at war or at the presidency, but it made him predictable and reliable.
A lot of people were stressed out about James K. Polk being president. He had a habit of making sweeping decisions without consulting anybody, or taking public opinion into account (exhibit A: The Mexican War). It is a great irony that the Whig party spent 4 years opposing, complaining about, and refusing to supply the war, ran a presidential campaign based on how stupid it was the Polk started the war, and then chose a war hero as their presidential candidate.
On the other hand, it makes a lot of sense that after 4 years of the elusive, secretive Polk, an extremely bland and predictable war general was exactly what America wanted. When choosing their candidate, the Whigs essentially decided between General Zachary Taylor and General Winfield Scott. To give you some insight into why they chose as they did, Taylor’s nickname was Old Rough and Ready. Scott’s was Old Fuss and Feathers.

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