Sarah Knox Taylor: The First Mrs. Jeff Davis

Sarah Knox Taylor, the second daughter of Zachary Taylor, and the first wife of Jefferson Davis.

Sarah may have been a tiny little blip in history, but her connections are cool!

Sarah Knox Taylor: The Army Brat

General Zachary Taylor, career military officer who came up through the ranks. They called him “Old Rough and Ready.”

Zachary Taylor was a forty-year career soldier who rose through the ranks. He was born in Virginia and raised on a respectable plantation outside Louisville, Kentucky and eventually married Margaret Mackall Smith, of ditto gentry from Maryland.

Sarah Knox Taylor (1814-35) was born and raised in the U.S. Army. Called “Knox” by the family (for her birth at Ft. Knox which was then in Indiana), she was the second daughter born to the Taylors. They would have six children, four living to maturity: three daughters and a son. Taylor’s career kept him moving from pillar to post in keeping with the army’s deployment requirements. It was a harsh and dangerous life.

Accordingly, the customary upbringing for military children in the early 19th century was to keep them at home until they reached schooling age, somewhere around seven or eight. Then they would be taken “back east” to be educated under the general supervision of family members. Once they were in their mid-teens, they reunited with their parents.

Sarah Knox Taylor Falls In Love

When Knox was seventeen, she was back with her parents at Ft. Crawford in Wisconsin. It was the time of the Black Hawk War (known primarily as the skirmish that gave Abraham Lincoln “veteran” status). Her father was in command of the fort. His second-in-command was a young West Point graduate, Lt. Jefferson Davis. He had the fortune (or misfortune) to fall in love with his commanding officer’s daughter. She returned the affection with all her heart.

While there is a fair amount of controversy about exactly why Zachary Taylor disapproved of the match, the one thing that stands out is the simple fact that Taylor was adamantly opposed to any of his children marrying into the army. He believed it was too harsh a life and detrimental to their health. Two young daughters had already died from frontier-related ailments. In short, he wanted better for his kids. Most sources generally believe that Taylor respected Davis as an officer and gentleman, and that the objection was “not personal.” They were both, of course, flinty-natured, stubborn and difficult.

The romance between Jeff Davis and Knox Taylor (who he always called “Sarah,”) lasted for three years, steady and true. When he was deployed elsewhere, their romance was maintained via correspondence. It seems that stubbornness ran in the Taylor family. She was not about to change her mind or affection either.

The Davis-Taylor Elopement

Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor, a little known First Lady. She was first and foremost, an army-wife.

Jefferson Davis tried many times to sway then-Colonel Taylor to consent to the marriage. It was impossible. If Mrs. Taylor had anything to say about it, it is unrecorded. Davis however, had a “plan B”: Since his military “obligation” had been fulfilled, he decided to resign his commission and enter the private sector. Perhaps by offering his bride a non-military life he would surmount Taylor’s objections. It didn’t work. So Jeff and Sarah decided to elope. It was a hard decision, since both of them truly wanted her parents in attendance. But they wanted to get married even more.

They tied the knot in June, 1835, at the home of Sarah’s aunt, who lived in Louisville. It was a small wedding, saddened by the fact that neither Colonel nor Mrs. Taylor were in attendance. Then, private citizen Davis took his new bride to New Orleans to introduce her to his family.

Sarah and Jeff Davis: The Sad Little Story

JeffDavis2a

Jeff Davis mourned his first wife for eight years. Some say he mourned her forever.

The Davis family liked Sarah and welcomed her warmly.  But New Orleans was hot and sultry, especially in the summer, when it was enveloped by a miasmal atmosphere. Both bride and groom developed malaria. She died. He recovered. They had only been married for three months. He buried her in the Davis family plot, and would mourn her death deeply for the next eight years, living reclusively on his plantation in Mississippi. Some say, he mourned her death for the rest of his life.

Naturally this did not improve the relationship between Davis and his erstwhile in-laws. They believed he contributed to their daughter’s death via such an inhospitable climate. This did not deter Colonel Taylor from purchasing a plantation in equally sultry Baton Rouge, Louisiana however.

The Davis-Taylor Reconciliation

A dozen years later, recently-remarried Jefferson Davis was a Congressman. Zachary Taylor was now a full General of the Army, in senior command during the War with Mexico. Davis, West Point-trained, and always a soldier at heart, resigned his congressional seat to re-enter the army in charge of a voluntary Mississippi brigade.

In one of those accidents of fate, General Taylor and ex-Congressman Davis met on a steamboat headed for the Texas-Mexican border, and it is said that Taylor embraced Davis as a “son.” Perhaps it was his remaining link with his daughter; perhaps Davis had redeemed himself in Taylor’s eyes. Whatever it was, the relationship was re-cemented, and now-Colonel Davis was invited to join Taylor’s personal staff, where his performance as a soldier was commendable.

Not long afterwards, Taylor grudgingly accepted the Whig nomination for U.S. President in 1848, and won easily. Davis, by that time, was back in Congress. Both he and his second wife would be considered “family.” They were at Taylor’s bedside when the old General died in the White House.

The P.S. to the story: all three of Zachary Taylor’s daughters married soldiers. His son, Richard Taylor, would be a military man himself, and a General under his former brother-in-law, Confederate President Jefferson Davis. So much for parental authority.

Sources:

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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