American history, biographies, book reviews, Jack Bauer, presidential biographies, Presidents, Zachary Taylor
“Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old Southwest” is K. Jack Bauer’s 1985 biography of the twelfth U.S. president. Early in his career Bauer worked at the National Archives and later became a naval historian. He was also a history professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for more than two decades. Bauer died in 1987.
This book is widely regarded as the definitive biography of Taylor, and for good reason. Relying on a wide array of primary sources, this biography is clearly the result of exhaustive research. I suspect that nowhere other than at Langley or Fort Meade (or perhaps the J Edgar Hoover Building) has anyone compiled so thorough an account of the movements of any one individual throughout his or her life.
Two things are quickly obvious when reading Bauer’s narrative of Taylor’s career. First, despite Zachary Taylor’s long service as a military officer and his roles in multiple wars (beginning with the War of 1812) his life was far more dull and uneventful than one might assume. The author admits as much in his introductory remarks when he warns the reader that Taylor’s career was largely “mundane” and “boring.”
Second, where most biographers tend to exhibit a conspicuous sympathy for their subjects, the deeper Bauer gets into this soldier-president’s life the less enthusiastic the author seems to become. Bauer castigates Taylor for his lack of education, sophistication and imagination. He variously labels Taylor self-centered, illogical, lacking in curiosity and virtuosity, and devoid of great military instincts. Even Taylor’s military victories are ascribed more to incompetent opponents than clever tactics by General Taylor.
Rather than seeming grossly unfair or imbalanced, the author’s perspective comes across as a harsh but probably entirely accurate assessment of Taylor’s competencies as a soldier and a statesman. Based on Bauer’s review of Taylor’s life through his service in the Mexican War, the fact he was nominated by the Whig party, much less elected president, seems not only improbable but almost preposterous.
But if the strength of Bauer’s biography is in his ruthless reporting of Taylor’s shortcomings, the greatest weakness in the book is the author’s pathologically detailed survey of Taylor’s life – trivialities and all. Although Bauer was meritoriously studious in following Taylor’s actions during long stretches of time when a less patient biographer would have lost the trail, the reader is subject to so much uninteresting (and unimportant) day-to-day minutia as to prove mind-crushing.
The first two-thirds of the book covers Taylor’s pre-presidency and it is during this stretch that the less tolerant reader will move on to other tasks…such as painting the house or filing tax returns. While Bauer’s analysis of various skirmishes and battles is excellent, most of this insight is useful only for a military historian. And few will enjoy reading of Taylor’s exploits building roads for the army or learning how he procured mules for supply wagons.
The remaining chapters, on Taylor’s nomination, election and service as president, are more interesting. Although these pages are not uniformly inspirational, Bauer supplies a steady stream of insight and wisdom pertaining to Taylor’s actions as president. For most readers, the majority of the book’s merit is absorbed here. But the curious reader is left wondering what inspired Bauer to study Taylor’s life with such intensity.
Jack Bauer’s biography of Zachary Taylor is almost certain to endure as the definitive study of the twelfth president’s long career – and short presidency – but is unlikely to inspire any but the most devoted of Taylor’s disciples. Although packed with excellent scholarship on Taylor’s life and presidency, Bauer’s biography will prove tortuous and formidable for most readers.
Overall rating: 3 stars
K. Jack Bauer you say? Does that mean you had to read the whole book in 24 hours or else?
Funny – I wondered if anyone would find something about the author’s name vaguely familiar. I loved the first two seasons of 24 but then moved on to other things (like kids). I can’t believe it’s been over a decade since that tv series!
I hope you get to one that digs deeper into his political life– his views have always fascinated me, including his ‘wink-wink’ attitude towards the Wilmot Proviso.
Heather R said:
It is a little disconcerting when the author tells you that the life you are setting out to read is “mundane”. This was my book to read on Taylor – especially since it’s definitive, but as you say, I might find I want to move on to something else instead. I will likely push this one off toward the later end of my reading list.
I can’t wait to see what you read on Taylor! There aren’t too many choices, and I’m not sure how one could ‘spice’ up his life much.
sounds like I’d be scared off by the pre-presidency stuff in this book – but do you think there’s value in starting 2/3rd of the way through?
Pat McKim said:
Steve, I agree that Bauer was not a very complementary author, but disagree that the assessment was accurate.
Having read Hamilton’s biography, and Eisenhower’s (which I found excellent, albeit short), as well the books of his known correspondence during his campaign, and books on all of his battles (A Perfect Gibraltar: the Battle for Monterrey, Climax at Buena Vista, and many others), I thought Bauer’s book was truly biased, and worse than McFeely’s Grant. His criticism only makes sense if you accept everything he says as gospel.
Even Bauer admitted his prosecution of the Indian wars he fought in was excellent. Bauer credits Taylor with understanding counter insurgency tactics better than anyone else in his day with his distributed positioning of his his forces. Taylor was also successful where others weren’t. In Mexico Taylor fought four battles: Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Monterrey, and Buena Vista. In each battle he was in foreign territory and out numbered, and he won them all decisively. The first two battles were more of a running battle where he followed up his first victory with a second. The next was an attack on a “Perfect Gibralter” Monterrey where he was outnumbered almost 2:1 and he won against odds. In the last, he had ALL of his veterans that he had campaigned with taken away by President Polk and General Scott, and was left with only a few veterans to defend all of northern Mexico and yet while outnumbered almost 4:1, he won a decisive victory over Santa Anna (the Latin Napoleon) at Buena Vista. Each battle was different, in each he took the right advice from his subordinates and used them well. He allowed and encouraged the new artillery tactics developed by his subordinates and was, like an Erwin Rommel always at the right place at the right time. It interesting that Baur glosses over or misses the fact that his second in command who picked the defensive location, had to be “bucked up” by Taylor midway during the battle. He was able to get along with and use the expertise of this general while General Scott was not.
Winning this defensive battle at Buena Vista with odds 4:1 against is incredible, but because he did not follow it up and chase Santa Anna across a desert further into enemy territory, while still out numbered with no supplies, he was criticized by Bauer as well as the president and the Secretary of War, (thousands of miles away in Washington DC) who had no military knowledge and no knowledge of the ground or tactical situation.
It was Taylor that Grant admired in his Memoirs and noted by Jean Smith in his biography that Steve noted in his review. It was Taylor that Grant modeled himself after. It was Taylor’s example in his un-supplied foray into Mexico that Grant most likely based his own foray into enemy territory to capture Vicksburg during the Civil War. It was Taylor’s simple treatment of his troops that Grant liked so much and emulated while general Scott, Old Fuss and Feathers stayed to the rear.
Taylor, like Grant and Eisenhower, is just another example of intellectual historians that prefer to rip up these down to earth practical men who did extremely well in war and peace. It is sad that such historians exist that would denigrate this rare success as luck. No other commander in American history was as consistently successful while being consistently outnumbered in foreign soil. While one might claim that general Scott has similar challenges, most historians of the time and the press noted that Mexico’s morale was broken by Taylor’s string of four consecutive victories.
I found Bauer’s book to be uninspiring with extremely poor judgement after reading so many other sources on Taylor. it is not surprising that one of the best books on Taylor is from another military man whose father was a general turned president.
As President, Taylor was similar to Jackson in his non political way, and Eisenhower wonders if he wouldn’t have halted the extension of slavery, which seems strange since Taylor was a southern slave holder. Yet he saw the problems for the country of extending slavery.
Read the other books i mentioned then read Bauer and see if it was just luck that did so well.
I just finished Zachary Taylor and the man was pretty uninteresting, a forty year military career of little note or renown as he punched his ticket at various frontier posts, served in the War of 1812 and a few Indian Wars, before making his reputation in the Mexican War. Even there, the man was no Stonewall Jackson or George Patton, let alone Grant or Lee. He was competent, but overly cautious. Reminded me of George McClellan.
The peace time army in the 19th Century was just not that interesting.
One point about Taylor’s brief presidency that I found interesting. The historical record on him is pretty limited, because most of his papers and personal correspondence was burned when Union troops set fire to his Louisiana plantation during the War. Taylor, despite being a slave-owner, was not wedded to knee jerk politics of the Southern aristocracy. He was genuinely in favor of the Compromise of 1850, despite knowing that it would throw out the balance of the previous compromise of 30 years before and he made several appeals to Northern free-soilers and even abolitionists. Taylor, like Garfield a few decades later died too soon into their presidencies to make a difference. Both men could have been surprises.
One final note, is that I feel the need to do some “foot note chasing”, a term one of my Duquesne history profs used to use, about the first shots fired in the Mexican War. As the US and Mexican armies faced off at the Rio Grande, the Taylor bio reports that “The presence of Americans, nevertheless, did not prevent Mexican senoritas from swimming nude in the river. But when young American officers tried to join them, Mexican guards opened fire.” Did the first shots of the Mexican War occur over skinny dipping? 😉 That’s a primary source I need to find.
Please let us know what you find chasing the footnotes.
Duquesne? I spent my first 29 years in the Pittsburgh area.
Pat McKim said:
Holman Hamilton’s 2 volume piece on Taylor is better in some respects and Einsenhower’s much better. Ironically you fell for Bauer’s poorly researched negative book on Taylor similar to McFeely’s negative book on Grant. Grant by the way patterned himself after Old Rough and Ready Taylor, not Old Fuss and Feathers Scott. Read his memoirs and you will find Grant’s opinion of Taylor 180 degrees out from McClellan who he saw as having a lot of “quill men.” Grant’s comparison of Taylor vs Scott was telling and poignant. In the end he said Taylor was a pleasure to serve WITH. It doesn’t get any better from Grant. If you want to read two better books on Taylor’s battles read, A Perfect Gibralter on Monterrey and Climax at Buena Vista. Like Grant, Taylor won every battle he fought, inlcuding Indian Wars where he figured out counterinsurgency 120 year before Vietnam — even Bauer admits.
By the time Scott faced the Mexicans in his march to Mexico from Veracruz on the sea, the Mexicans were pretty much already defeated morally and did not expect to win because by then the self described Napoleon of Latin America Santa Ana had already been drubbed badly twice.
In Taylor’s first two battles at Palo Alto and Reseca de Palma, he was outnumber 2:1. His use of artillery really saved the day. While Taylor didn’t develop the artillery tactics he knew how to take advantage of it. Also like Patton and Rommel, he seemed to turn up in the battefield at the right time. Smith, in Grant’s excellent bio, said he had perfect Sangfroid. Taylor was very good at incorporating good ideas from others and was very aggressive like Grant when finally properly supplied.
(The reason he waited so long to move on those battles was that he had new, raw volunteers and no supply train. Napoleon remarked that an Army moves on its stomach and like Grant, Taylor understood the value of good logistics. Please check your map and you will find that Taylor went as far inland as Scott did from
The second battle against Monterrey shows that aggressiveness. Rather than lay seige to this “perfect Gibralter.” He attacked it. The tactics learned by Taylor’s men in Monterrey were successfully used by the same under Scott, another reason why Scott was so successful. Scott had 3/4’s of Taylor’s veterans.
The third and crowning victory at Buena Vista was where Taylor moved aroudn the most and made sure his supply line was protected as he did at Palo Alto. again Taylor was everywhere, “More grape Mr Bragg.” This is why Grant, who was action oriented and aggressive liked Taylor so much. Again Taylor was outnumbered 2.5:1 and with mostly raw troops, thankfully westerners and southerners. Again Taylor allowed a senior subordinate to pick the area to defend, but made sure the battle went the right way.
Unless you read other sources and read between the lines, particularly if you have no military experience, you will fall for Baur’s biased analysis. Having read all of Taylor’s and Grant’s campaigns, as well as Washington’s and Jackson’s, there are many intellectual historians with no military understanding who under rate these four. The fifth general to become president was probabably the only of the five who was not a good combat general because he had no combat experience.
Probably no general in any war the US ever fought was so poorly supported by his president. Baur makes a point of quoting President Polk’s Secretary of War who like the President was a politician and only a politician, both democrats. Polk could have lost the war by undercutting Taylor and taking all of his experienced troops before Buena Vista. That was unforgiveable. What is also interesting is that Polk intrigued with Santa Ana when he was exiled in Cuba. The intrigue backfired and Polk helped Santa Ana once again accede to power. in Mexico. You could not this, but Bauer wrote a nasty biography of Taylor who was so highly rated by probably the finest strategic and tactical generals in American History. Grant.
Thank you for your detailed comment. The fact that the Eisenhower book is part of the rather pithy American Presidents Series, means I may check it out. With Lincoln and Grant on the horizon on my reading schedule, don’t feel the need to do any more depth on Taylor, yet. Actually the Mexican War is something that I had ready almost nothing about in a lifetime of reading history. I got more from the Polk and Taylor bios than my entire schooling combined, so I may buy a good military history of that war in order to see your points about Taylor.
Pat McKim said:
Thank you. May I suggest to round out that period that you read A Wicked War by Amy S Greenberg. To be honest I was reluctant to read it, but she does a good job of chronicling how the war became very unpopular becaause of so many casualities and because people began to realize that it would dramatically extend slavery. All the very good Presidents except for Polk were good war presidents and supporter their military. Polk was a party hack politician through and through.