Updated: Dec 21, 2019
Special thanks to the Ulysses S Grant National Historic Site just outside of St. Louis, MO for their revisions and assistance in spreading the word about this post. Visit them at https://www.nps.gov/ulsg/index.htm to learn more about our 18th President.
Ulysses S. Grant. He was the man who led the Union to victory during the Civil War, the man who became the eighteenth President of the United States, the man who fought hard to deter racism and protect African-Americans from the Ku Klux Klan, the man whose likeness is portrayed on our $50 bill. We know him today for his dogged tactics, his plain manner, and his charity towards all that he encountered. These characteristics got him far during his life, but they did not magically form. Rather, for Grant, the attributes that brought him acclaim and success was cultivated on the dusty Mexican landscape, aided by the example of his role model - General Zachary Taylor.
Long before his name entered the pantheon of American history, Grant was a 22-year-old blue-eyed soldier entering Camp Salubrity in Louisiana. He was born Hiram Ulysses Grant in 1822 and was raised in the Ohio River Valley. He entered the Military Academy at West Point in 1839 and graduated four years later. Grant's life changed at the institution, and even his name was transformed from the experience - by the time he left in 1843, Grant's initials had regularly changed to U.S. Grant, and his friends at the Academy nicknamed him “Sam” after the patriotic symbol “Uncle Sam” (1). After graduating four years later, Grant truly had little aspiration for military life, and longed to exit the service and lead the life of a teacher. But in May 1844, Grant and the Fourth Infantry entered Camp Salubrity in Natchitoches, Louisiana for an important mission. As the American government was negotiating annexation with the Lone Star Republic of Texas, boundary disputes and old divisions caused Mexico to get angsty. With the election of President James K. Polk, the addition of Texas to the Union was practically cemented. But Polk had much larger goals in office, and guided by the principle of Manifest Destiny, the new President began negotiations with the Mexican government to obtain what was then Northern Mexico. When negotiations and relations turned sour, however, Polk took a more hostile tone with the Mexicans, backing his talk with the might of the American army. As Grant stated, “We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it” (2).
The man that was placed in charge of the so-called “Army of Occupation” stationed in Natchitoches was a fifty-nine year old soldier named Zachary Taylor. “Old Rough and Ready” had served in the Army for upwards of three decades in 1844, but few understood Polk’s choice of Taylor for this momentous task. Others were more accomplished and had higher ranks, but Taylor’s leadership qualities became evident early on to Lieutenant Grant. Taylor never proved to be a commanding presence; he was only five feet eight inches tall (one inch taller than Grant) and wore unprepossessing clothes that made him out to be a farmer. But Taylor’s ability to connect to his soldiers immediately caught the eye of the young West Point graduate. Taylor was “frank, down-to-earth, and a fine storyteller,” and Grant’s eventual friend William Tecumseh Sherman noted that the old General was “blunt, honest, and stern [of] character” (3).
In the summer of 1845, Polk instructed Taylor to advance his forces closer to the disputed border between Texas and Mexico. Taylor chose Corpus Christi as the new site of operations, and by August thousands of troops had pitched tents on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico awaiting further orders from Washington. It was in this setting that Grant began to show his growth as a leader and become acquainted with his commanding general. One day, Grant was put in charge of an effort to clear a path for boats to enter Corpus Christi. When Grant’s subordinates failed to comply with his instructions, the lieutenant “jumped into the water, which was up to his waist, and worked with the men.” While some of his fellow officers poked fun at Grant, General Taylor, who was looking on the whole time, remarked that “I wish I had more officers like Grant who would stand ready to set a personal example when needed” (4). These laudatory words found its way back to Grant, and his admiration for Taylor continue to increase.
Grant and the rest of the “Army of Occupation” remained in Corpus Christi throughout the winter. As time passed, Grant and some other officers crafted a theater where the soldiers would occasionally put on productions (5). Although times became tough in camp and disease spread among the soldiers, the Americans prepared for the action that they knew would come within a moment’s notice. That moment came during the second week of March, 1846, when General Taylor determined that an advance to the Rio Grande was practicable. With that, the American army began its march through the disputed territory between Mexico and the United States. Grant encountered beautiful scenery and wild animals on the march, including enormous packs of wolves and horses. The nature lover in him was enamored by the experience, and Grant was able to expand his education, exposing himself to a brand new culture south of the (disputed) border.
On March 28, Grant found himself on the banks of the Rio Grande (6). Taylor’s forces set up camp across from the Mexican cattle town of Matamoros, and once the Stars and Stripes were raised, tensions began to flare. April 24 saw the arrival of the Mexican General Mariano Arista in Matamoros. After he informed Taylor that the United States and Mexico were now at war, Arista sent General Anastasio Torrejon across the Rio Grande to intercept the predatory Americans. After Torrejon and some 1600 soldados captured and killed members of a detachment led by Captain Seth Thornton, General Taylor wrote back to Washington that “hostilities may now be considered as commenced,” and immediately organized his troops to defend their position. To prevent the Mexicans from cutting off the American supply line, Taylor led Grant and two thousand other troops thirty-three miles east to Point Isabel to fortify his resources (7). After doing so, Taylor’s men began their march back along the Matamoros Road. On May 8, Taylor’s forces were met by Arista at a coastal prairie named Palo Alto.
For Grant, this was his first taste of battle. Hearing the booming guns of war off in the distance, Grant felt utterly vulnerable. In his old age, he wrote “for myself, a young second lieutenant who had never heard a hostile gun before, I felt sorry that I had enlisted” (8). As his confidence fell, Grant empathized with his commander - “As I looked down that long line of about three thousand armed men, advancing towards a larger force also armed, I thought what a fearful responsibility General Taylor must feel, commanding such a host and so far away from friends” (9). As the battle neared, Grant was able to find some comfort in the example of someone that exhibited true and pure leadership. Although he didn’t assume a pivotal role in the American victories, the Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma (fought the next day, May 9) introduced Grant to real bloodshed. Men around him were decapitated by Mexican cannonballs, and hundreds of soldiers were killed over those two days. Grant wrote his fiancee, Julia Dent, that it was a “terrible sight” to see the ground “strewed with the bodies of dead men and horses” (10). Despite his nerves, Grant appeared to thrive in this environment. A fellow soldier commented that Grant “was cool and quick in battle…. Nothing ever ‘rattled’ him” (11). He probably took his cue from General Taylor, who was noted for staying calm, cool and collected in the face of extreme adversity on the battlefield. It was reported that when Taylor was told by a subordinate at Resaca de la Palma that he was too exposed to the enemy, the hardy General replied “Let us ride a little nearer, the balls will fall behind us” (12). Grant also noticed Taylor’s ability to change tactics quickly and his effective strategy of placing his artillery at the same level or in front of his infantry at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. During the Civil War, General Grant was able to make use of what he learned in Texas to lead Union troops to victory (13).
Grant’s premiere in battle was triumphant, as Arista led a disorganized Mexican retreat across the Rio Grande. After Taylor received confirmation that the Mexicans had fled Matamoros, the Americans crossed the river on May 18 and became, as Grant dubbed the American forces, the “Army of Invasion” (14). As the army settled in and thousands of volunteers began pouring in from communities across America, Grant was able to once again observe his commander, a man who spent almost the entirety of his career in obscurity but was now finding himself showered with medals and praise. Taylor remained humble, even as his name was being shopped around as a possible presidential candidate. His humility, in fact, was one of his guiding strengths, showcased by an anecdote that Grant supplied in his “Personal Memoirs.” To ensure that his supplies could be transported by the Navy along the Rio Grande, Taylor was set to meet with Commodore David Conner, a man that valued his military appearance, a value that Taylor lacked. Out of respect, the two men attempted to dress according to the style of the other. So when Taylor, dressed in his crisp blue uniform, met Conner, dressed in plain civilian clothing, the two were quite puzzled. “The meeting was said to have been embarrassing to both,” wrote Grant, “and the conversation was principally apologetic” (15). Another characteristic that Grant observed and adopted was the old General’s compassion towards the people of Matamoros. American troops would often disrespect the rights of the folks residing in the Mexican towns that they had overtaken. In extreme cases, some local women were even raped by the invading Americans. Grant remarked to Julia that “the better class are very proud and tyrannize over the lower and much more numerous class as much as a hard master does over his negroes, and they submit to it quite humbly” (16). Taylor was quick to advocate for the people that he conquered, mandating that his soldiers purchase products for market price and to treat all with respect, no matter what creed, gender, or religion. Grant affirmed General Taylor’s response, and learned a powerful lesson in sympathy for subjugated citizens. Grant carried this from his Mexican War days into his generalship during the Civil War and onward to the White House.
Strategic difficulties and a lack of instructions from Washington guaranteed that Taylor’s forces would stay in and around Matamoros for a couple months. The public fervor from the American victories had subsided, and Taylor was being called “General Delay” by war hungry citizens (17). But by early July, the troops began their two month, 200 mile trek to their next destination, Monterrey. After halting in Camargo in August, the Americans arrived at camp in Walnut Springs on September 19, just outside of the city. The scenery was breathtaking; Grant explained that “the town is on a small stream coming out of the mountain-pass, and is backed by a range of hills of moderate elevation” (18). Looks can be deceiving, however, and the fighting that would ensue over those next four days would be some of the bloodiest of the war. The day after arriving in camp, Taylor split up the troops. General William Worth would command forces to cut off the Saltillo road from the west, while Grant would accompany General William O. Butler, General David Twiggs, and Taylor to attack from the east (19).
The primary issue during the siege was the defensive capabilities of the city. Mexican soldiers were able to utilize the architecture of Monterrey to prepare nearly impenetrable fortifications. The soldados made use of roofs, cathedrals, abandoned forts, sandbags, and stone houses to sharpshoot at the incoming Americans (20). With this information, it is not surprising to understand that the Mexican army felt more confident about their chances, and that Taylor and Grant’s first day at Monterrey was a rough one. Grant, as local quartermaster, was delegated to supervising camp during the bloodshed. However, when Grant was startled by an intense volley of fire, his instincts took control. “My curiosity got the better of my judgment,” he wrote, “and I mounted a horse and rode to the front to see what was going on.” Grant eventually found himself in the midst of a cavalry charge, in which a full third of the Fourth Infantry fell (21). Morale was low amongst the Americans, so much so that Taylor actually fought alongside his men to encourage them to continue the battle (22). 394 Americans were killed on that first day of fighting, September 21, including 34 officers (23).
For Taylor and Grant on the eastern front, things seemed bleak. But General Worth had accomplished his missions with speed and relatively low casualties in the west, and after the Americans had regrouped and Taylor had revised his plan of attack, the troops began to penetrate the supposedly indomitable defenses. As Americans neared the center of the city, they had to adapt to their surroundings. Taylor ordered his troops to use axes to break down the walls of homes, and much of the fighting was accomplished in close quarters (24). The might and discipline of the American army was wearing away at the Mexicans, and the strength of Moterrey’s defenses were dwindling. During the fighting on September 23, Grant was assigned a hazardous task. In the thickest of the fight, Grant’s regimental commander, Colonel Garland, was low on ammunition, and needed a soldier to ride through the city streets to obtain more. Lieutenant Grant volunteered, hopped on his horse, Nellie, and started at full speed through enemy territory. As the stunned Mexican soldados besieged Grant with clouds of bullets at every street opening, he swung himself over to the side of his horse, leaving his leg draped over the saddle and his body shielded from hostile fire. Grant and Nellie were even able to successfully hop over a barricade that was four feet tall during the daring voyage (25). “I got out safely without a scratch,” Grant would later write (26). Although Grant’s legendary ride didn’t secure any tactical advantages for the Americans at Monterrey, his courage and bravery in the face of immense personal endangerment were showcased and praised throughout the army.
Two days later, on September 25, Taylor ordered a cessation of the attack, and General Pedro de Ampudia surrendered Monterrey to the Americans. The astounding victory marked the indomitable fighting spirit of the “Army of Invasion,” but Taylor knew that his troops needed to recuperate after suffering heavy casualties. Therefore, “Old Rough and Ready” negotiated an eight week armistice with Ampudia, more benevolent terms than expected (27). Taylor backed up his logic in a letter to his son-in-law, where he explained that he “thought it would be judicious to act with magnanimity towards a prostrate foe” (28). Many military men agreed with Taylor’s stance, including Grant, who called the armistice a “humane policy” and would echo similar sentiments nineteen years later at Appomattox Court House (29). Unfortunately for Taylor, President Polk and his administration in Washington was not of the same opinion.
The disagreement between President Polk and General Taylor occurred largely because of the technological deficiencies of the time. Up to that point, Taylor had been ordered to act leniently towards the defeated Mexican army due to ongoing diplomatic negotiations. But over in Washington, that policy changed. Taylor was unaware that the Polk administration “had concluded that nothing short of a further military campaign would bring serious negotiations” (30). So when Polk received news of the armistice on October 11, he was livid (31). Polk ordered that the armistice be cancelled immediately, and began diverting many of Taylor’s regulars to General Winfield Scott’s command for the final push to Mexico City. When Taylor had received the dispatch containing this information, Grant was present to observe his commander’s reaction: “Taylor was apt to be a little absent-minded when absorbed in any perplexing problem, and the morning he received the discouraging news he sat down to breakfast in a brown study, poured out a cup of coffee, and instead of putting in the sugar, he reached out and got hold of the mustard-pot, and stirred half a dozen spoonfuls of its contents into the coffee. He didn’t realize what he had done till he took a mouthful, and then he broke out in a towering rage” (32). Taylor’s demotion left the popular General in the middle of northern Mexico, stagnant of any action and vulnerable to Mexican attack. Historians have debated the reason as to why this shift occurred, and have concluded that it was the combination of a few different components. The march to Mexico City from Taylor’s position a few miles south of Monterrey would be 800 miles, and if Taylor were to continue it would be a logistical nightmare for the American army (33). Additionally, Polk was becoming more skeptical of Taylor’s abilities as a commander. Despite Taylor’s innate abilities in the field, the President began to suspect that the Major General was “not the man for command of the army” (34) and that he was “wholly unqualified” (35) to lead the Americans to victory. This suspicion, however, was rooted in a deeper meaning. After Taylor’s victories at the Rio Grande and at Monterrey, Whig newspapers lauded “Old Rough and Ready” and began throwing his name around as a potential challenger in the 1848 presidential race. Taylor had no political agenda whatsoever at the start of the war, and refused to consider any presidential possibilities until after the conflict was finished. But President Polk was a career politician, a Democrat that began to see Taylor as a threat to his faction. By transferring Taylor’s troops to another theatre of the war, Polk attempted to take the wind out of the General’s sails to halt any potential political opposition in the near future (36). Grant was one of the many experienced officers that would leave General Taylor in early 1847, and would note that “the Mexican war was a political war, and the administration conducting it desired to make party capital out of it” (37).
Although Grant found his new commander, General Winfield Scott, to be a resourceful leader and a strategic mastermind, he became aware that this was a much different commander than the one he had before. While Taylor’s nickname was “Old Rough and Ready,” Scott took on the moniker “Old Fuss and Feathers,” a man that basked in the glories of generalship and reveled in his appearance. Grant noted that whenever Scott would rejoin his troops, he would let his subordinates know his exact time of arrival so the soldiers could “salute their chief as he passed. On these occasions,” Grant continued, “he wore his dress uniform, cocked hat, aiguilletes, sabre and spurs” (38). Grant had admired the humility of Taylor, the General’s ability to sympathize with his troops. Therefore, Grant was shocked that his new commander was prone to self-indulgence and vanity, and longed to steer away from Scott’s example. Grant wrote that “both were pleasant to serve under - Taylor was pleasant to serve with” (39).
When Grant left Taylor in early 1847, it would be the last time that the two would ever cross paths. For the rest of the war, both served with distinction; Grant put what he had learned under Taylor into use during the campaign to capture Mexico City, and the old General thwarted Polk’s maneuver when he was victorious at the Battle of Buena Vista, in which American forces were outnumbered four to one. In 1848, Grant was unable to cast his ballot for Taylor in the presidential election (40), but Grant would forever be inspired by the image of his general and the leadership style that he represented. As Grant began climbing through the ranks of the Union Army, he would continue to lean on Taylor’s example to figure out how to earn the respect of his troops and lead them to success. Zachary Taylor inspired many figures that would go on to influence the Civil War, but General George Gordon Meade identified Grant as Taylor’s true disciple. “He puts me in mind of old Taylor,” Meade would write, “and sometimes I fancy he models himself on old Zac” (41) General Grant would make a final assessment of his commander late in his life: “Taylor saw for himself, and gave orders to meet the emergency without reference to how they would read in history…. Taylor was not a conversationalist, but on paper he could put his meaning so plainly that there could be no mistaking it…. No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he. These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage…. He was known to every soldier in his army, and was respected by all” (42). “There was no man living who I admired and respected more highly” than Zachary Taylor (43).
Bauer, K. Jack. Zachary Taylor: Soldier, Planter, Statesman of the Old West. Louisiana State University Press, 1985.
Chernow, Ron. Grant. Penguin Books, 2018.
Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Charles L. Webster & Company, 1892.
Hamilton, Holman. Zachary Taylor: Soldier of the Republic. Easton Press, 1989.
McKinley, Silas Bent, and Silas Bent. Old Rough and Ready, the Life and Times of Zachary Taylor. Vanguard Press, 1946.
Searles, Harry. “Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War General, 18th President of the United States, Biography.” American History Central, R.Squared Communications, LLC, 15 Sept. 2019, https://www.americanhistorycentral.com/entries/ulysses-s-grant/.
White, Ronald Cedric. American Ulysses: a Life of Ulysses S. Grant. Random House, 2017.
1. American History Central “Ulysses S. Grant”
2. Chernow 40
3. Chernow 41
4. White 68
5. Bauer 118
6. White 69
7. Hamilton 176
8. Grant 92
9. Grant 94
10. Chernow 45
11. Chernow 45
12. Hamilton 189
13. McKinley & Bent 144
14. White 75
15. Grant 102
16. Chernow 46
17. White 79
18. Grant 107-108
19. White 82
20. Hamilton 205
21. Chernow 47
22. Hamilton 210
23. White 83
24. Hamilton 213
25. Chernow 48
26. Chernow 48
27. White 84
28. Hamilton 216
29. Chernow 48
30. Bauer 184
31. Bauer 185
32. Chernow 50
33. White 86
34. Bauer 186
35. Bauer 189
36. Chernow 49
37. Chernow 49
38. Chernow 50
39. Grant 139
40. White 103
41. Chernow 42
42. Grant 100, 139
43. Chernow 42