Jefferson Davis was the son-in-law of Zachary Taylor. Marrying the daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor, of General Zachary Taylor, who opposed the marriage, he resigned his commission in the Army in 1835. Tragically the new bride died three months after her marriage of malaria. She was 21. Taylor blamed Davis for bringing his daughter to the malarial infested region in which his plantation was located in Mississippi. War would end the enmity of the two men who loved Sarah Knox Taylor.
Although he had resigned from the Army, however, Davis never ceased to be a military man, always retaining a fascination for all things martial. Thus it was only natural that Davis, a Congressman from Mississippi at the beginning of the Mexican War, resigned from Congress and raised a volunteer regiment, the Mississippi Rifles, which he led as colonel.
On July 21, 1846, the regiment sailed from New Orleans to join the army of Zachary Taylor in northern Mexico.
Davis had armed his regiment with 1841 percussion rifles, the latest technology, with much more reliable percussion caps substituted for flint locks. Davis’ men during the war would use the rifles with such deadly skill that ever afterwords the rifles became known as 1841 Mississippi percussion rifles.
Davis and his men participated in the siege of Monterrey in September of 1846. The war in northern Mexico then entered a quiet phrase which was shattered in February of 1847 by a Mexican offensive.
I find it comforting that conspiracy theorists have always been with us, and that they are not only a feature of our times. On July 4, 1850 Taylor had a busy day attending several Independence Day celebrations and a fund raising event for the Washington Monument. The day was hot and Taylor drank a lot of ice milk and ate a great deal of raw fruit. Unsurprisingly he came down with a gastric ailment thereafter. Physicians treated him with the best medicine of the time, which often weakened or finished off the poor patients subject to it: Taylor was dosed with ipecac, calomel, opium, and quinine at 40 grains per dose (approximately 2.6 grams), and bled and blistered. Several of Taylor’s cabinet members came down with similar symptoms. The 65 year old Taylor died on July 9, 1850.
In hindsight an analysis of Taylor’s death is pretty straightforward. The White House had a tainted water supply with raw sewage running into it. This probably killed three presidents: Harrison, Polk (who died shortly after his term in office) and Taylor. Cholera was the big killer in 19th century urban centers until sewers were installed, and Taylor likely died of some variant of that bacterial infection.
Taylor had opposed what became known as the Compromise of 1850, wanting to keep slavery out of the territories won from Mexico. Some abolitionists claimed, without any evidence, that pro-slavery advocates had poisoned the president. Although rumors abounded, no official investigation ever took place.
Yesterday I ran a post containing Abraham Lincoln’s eulogy on Zachary Taylor. Go here to read it. It is an interesting eulogy and deserves some comment. It should be noted that Lincoln was disappointed that the Taylor administration did not offer him a post that he had been seeking. As one of the leaders of the Whig party in Illinois, he felt that this was a slight not only to him but to Illinois Whigs. Outwardly he remained supportive of the Taylor administration, but privately he regarded Taylor as a weak leader and an immense disappointment. Thus his eulogy was delivered more out of duty than out of any fondness for a man who turned out to be the last Whig elected president. On to the eulogy.
I have never liked Presidents’ Day. Why celebrate all presidents when only a select few of them, like Washington and Lincoln, deserve to be celebrated? Officially the date is still the commemoration of George Washington’s birthday, which actually won’t occur until February 22. However, I will keep up my tradition of writing about presidents on this day.
American presidents all fit into two broad categories: those who had political careers and held political offices prior to their presidency and those who did not. Only five presidents held no political office prior to being elected President: Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Donald Trump. Zachary Taylor, the first non-politician to become president, is now an obscure figure to most Americans, his fame in the Mexican War almost entirely forgotten by the oblivion that has largely swallowed that conflict, and his relatively brief time in office ensuring that his administration would be one of the forgotten ones in popular memory. Ironically, one of our two most famous Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, deliver a eulogy on the death of Taylor. Tomorrow I will comment on the obituary. Today, I want us to focus on Lincoln’s words, as we use the eulogy as a springboard to look at “Old Rough and Ready” throughout this week. Here is Lincoln’s eulogy:
EULOGY PRONOUNCED BY HON. A. LINCOLN, ON THE LIFE AND SERVICES OF THE LATE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, At Chicago, July 25th, 1850
GENERAL ZACHARY TAYLOR, the eleventh elected President of the United States, is dead. He was born Nov. 2nd,  1784, in Orange county, Virginia; and died July the 9th 1850, in the sixty-sixth year of his age, at the White House in Washington City. He was the second  son of Richard Taylor, a Colonel in the army of the Revolution. His youth was passed among the pioneers of Kentucky, whither his parents emigrated soon after his birth; and where his taste for military life, probably inherited, was greatly stimulated. Near the commencement of our last war with Great Britain, he was appointed by President Jefferson, a lieutenant in the 7th regiment of Infantry. During the war, he served under Gen. Harrison in his North Western campaign against the Indians; and, having been promoted to a captaincy, was intrusted with the defence of Fort Harrison, with fifty men, half of them unfit for duty. A strong party of Indians, under the Prophet, brother of Tecumseh, made a midnight attack on the Fort; but Taylor, though weak in his force, and without preparation, was resolute, and on the alert; and, after a battle, which lasted till after daylight, completely repulsed them. Soon after, he took a prominent part in the expedition under Major Gen. Hopkins against the Prophet’s town; and, on his return, found a letter from President Madison, who had succeeded Mr. Jefferson, conferring on him a major’s brevet for his gallant defence of Fort Harrison.
(Reposting this from 2010 in light of Father Z’s comment, with which I agree, that he would prefer to vote for Millard Fillmore’s rotting corpse in preference to Clinton-Kaine.)
Time for my annual rant on Presidents’ Day. I see no reason for a day to honor all presidents. The great presidents, my personal list includes Washington, Jefferson, Polk, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Truman and Reagan, are deserving of honor, and should not be lumped in with bad, mediocre and justly obscure presidents. One of our worst presidents is also perhaps our most obscure president, Millard Fillmore. Therefore, on a holiday I dislike, I will write about a President who deserves to have something toxic named after him.
Fillmore was born on January 7, 1800, in Moravia, New York, the first of the American presidents to be born after the death of George Washington. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a cloth maker. Not wanting to spend his life making cloth, Fillmore attended the New Hope Academy in New Hope, New York for six months in 1819, and began to study law, that never failing route of social advancement for people who are glib but have no other discernible talent. Admitted to the bar in 1823, he hung out his shingle in East Aurora, New York. In 1826 he married Abigail Powers who he had met at the New Hope Academy. They had two children, Millard Powers Fillmore and Mary Abigail Fillmore. Fillmore prospered as a lawyer and in 1834 he formed a law partnership, Fillmore and Hall, which eventually became one of the most prestigious law firms in western New York.
In 1828 Fillmore took his first step into politics by being elected to the New York state legislature as a member of the anti-Masonic party. The anti-Masonic party came into being to oppose Freemasonry after the disappearance of a William Morgan in 1826 in Batavia, New York. Morgan had left the Freemasons and had made it known that he intended to write a book exposing them. After he disappeared, a public furor erupted, with many people suspecting that Freemasons had murdered Morgan. The anti-Masonic party was the result, with members vowed to oppose the influence of freemasons in society. The party grew in strength as it became a vehicle for protests against social and political ills, and waned in strength as anti-Masonry lost its saliency as a driving issue, with most of the members of the party becoming Whigs, opponents of the Democrat Party established by Andrew Jackson.