Zachary Taylor (1784-1850) was the 12th president of the United States. Born on Nov. 24, 1784 in Orange County, Virginia. The Taylor family moved to Louisville, Kentucky when Zachary was an infant. Although he didn’t have much in the way of formal education, he was well schooled in frontier skills such as farming, horsemanship, and using a musket. In 1808, he left home and became a first lieutenant in the Army. Two years later he married Margaret Mackall Smith. They had six children, one of them, Sarah Knox, married future president Jefferson Davis.
Before the War of 1812, Taylor helped police the western frontier against Native Americans. He commanded troops in the Black Hawk War of 1832 and the Second Seminole War in Florida from 1837 to 1840. During the annexation of Texas, which sparked a war with Mexico, he served as brigadier general and the commanding officer of the Army’s First Department at Fort Jesup, Louisiana. As he and his troops won victories, he gained a recommendation from President James Polk and was promoted to major general. Taylor earned the nickname “Old Rough and Ready” because of his willingness to get his boots dirty alongside his men.
After capturing Monterrey in Mexico, Taylor granted the Mexicans an eight-week armistice against Polk’s wishes. Polk was concerned about Taylor’s growing clout with the Whig Party and canceled the peace agreement, ordering Taylor to stay in Mexico while he transferred the best of Taylor’s troops to General Winfield Scott’s army. But the major general was not happy about that and in Feb. 1847, Taylor disobeyed the president’s orders and marched his troops into Buena Vista, using his artillery to defeat a Mexican force more than three times the size of his.
Taylor took the presidential office in 1849 facing the tenuous issue of slavery and expansion into western territories. In Feb. 1850, some southern leaders threatened secession due to Taylor’s handling of slavery issues, and the president responded by saying he would personally lead the army if it became necessary in order to enforce federal laws and preserve the Union.
On July 4, 1850, Taylor attended a ceremony at the unfinished Washington Monument. The temperature was extremely hot, and the president reportedly only ate raw vegetables, cherries, and milk that day. However, by the next day he became violently ill with stomach cramps and died on July 9 of acute gastroenteritis. Some think the president was poisoned, but an autopsy later debunked that theory. Taylor became the second president to die while in office; William Henry Harrison died only one month after taking his oath.