Mexican-American War 170th: The Politics of Command

Mexican War-header

On November 19, 1846 Winfield Scott went to see President James Polk and the Secretary of War. Convening at the Executive Mansion, the three sat to talk about the ongoing war with Mexico. As the commanding general of the United States Army, Scott had kept close tabs on the operations of Maj. Gen. Zachary Taylor from the Rio Grande all the way to the city of Monterrey.

Talking about the war, Polk soon came to the point of the meeting. He was giving command of future campaigns to Scott, and wanted to know Scott’s thoughts on landing at Vera Cruz, a port city on Mexico’s coast. By the end of the meeting Scott later remembered that “every expression of kindness and confidence was lavished upon me.” The general left the Executive Mansion to start planning his trip to Mexico and his future movements against Vera Cruz.[1] And though Scott felt appreciated by the president, there were other factors at play bigger than the commanding general.

James Polk was scared. As a Democrat, Polk had run his presidential campaign in 1844 with the promise of only serving one term. Though he had no plans of a re-election campaign in 1848, Polk still feared Zachary Taylor, a Whig, and his successes. If Taylor continued to win battles, however outlandish the odds, Polk’s party could find itself out in the cold come next election. What was worse, even though Taylor had spent most of the summer of 1846 shrugging off whispers of a possible nomination in two years, by the fall of 1846, he “was telling his son-in-law and others. . . that he would accept the Whig nomination for president if it was offered,” as one historian writes.[2]

President Polk, though separated from Taylor by almost 2,000 miles, knew of the Whig’s aspirations, too. Because, within Taylor’s ranks, was a mole. And its name was Brig. Gen. Gideon J. Pillow.

Maj. Gen. Gideon Pillow during the Mexican War. (LOC)
Maj. Gen. Gideon Pillow during the Mexican War. (LOC)

Pillow had no formal military training, but had been given a military rank in the army because of his connections to Polk. Those connections, however, ran more than just on a political spectrum—in 1838 Polk’s brother had murdered a man and in standing trial was defended by Gideon Pillow. In getting an innocent verdict Gideon Pillow became a close associate of the Polks that paid dividends with James Polk’s inauguration. And from the army’s camps sitting out the controversial armistice signed at the end of the battle of Monterrey, Pillow wrote to his political sponsor.

Pillow’s letters weighed heavily on the president, as Polk admitted to his diary: “The truth is, from my private letters from Gen’l Pillow and from information from other sources, I apprehend that Gen’l Taylor’s feelings are anything but friendly to the Executive Government.”[3] And it was no secret how Pillow spent his time, as even he knew Taylor was aware that Pillow was “the President’s bosom friend.” Trying to walk carefully, Taylor wrote to a confident of Pillow, “He is I consider a very small man in every respect, but I apprehend has the ear of the President.”[4]

And so, inundated with Pillow’s letters, Polk turned to Winfield Scott. A man who, to scholars of the Civil War only comes to us as an overweight man at the end of a long career. Scott, thought, was in his prime in the 1840s. He had been commanding general of the army for the past five years, and his campaign against Mexico would be his greatest challenge yet.

Winfield Scott
Winfield Scott

Word soon made its way to the Americans in Mexico of the change in command, and Pillow smugly wrote, “Scott succeeds Taylor: It is my work & I am proud to have been able thus to serve my country in getting the service clear. . . of a man who has no respect for the rights of others and who has adopted a system of proscription & persecution towards the President’s friends which was calculated and intended to drive them in disgrace from the service.”[5]

The biggest punch to Taylor came from the fact that Scott planned to take over 9,000 men away from the forces in northern Mexico, leaving the former with just a shadow of his former force to face off against any Mexican threats that materialized. But Taylor would not go down without a fight. And Gideon Pillow was not finished with his underhanded letters.

A new year was approaching, and with it would come new commanders, and new campaigns. The year 1846 had proven to be wildly successful for American forces as they marched undefeated from the Rio Grande to Monterrey alongside successes in California and other theaters. Would 1847 bring the same success?


[1] Winfield Scott, Memoirs of Lieut.-General Scott (New York: Sheldon & Company Publishers, 1864), 399.

[2] David A. Clary, Eagles and Empire: The United States, Mexico, and the Struggle for a Continent (New York: Bantan Books, 2009),  211.

[3] James K. Polk, The Diary of James K. Polk During His Presidency 1845-1849, Vol. II, Edited by Milo Milton Quaife (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1910), 229.

[4]  Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr. & Roy P. Stonesifer, Jr., The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1993), 49; Zachary Taylor, Letters of Zachary Taylor: From the Battle-fields of the Mexican War(Rochester: N.p, 1908), 112-113.

[5] Hughes and Stonesifer, 50.

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