Zachary Taylor was a lifelong soldier – up through the ranks.
Colonel Taylor: Commandant
In the early 1830s, Colonel Zachary Taylor (1784-1850) was the commandant of Fort Crawford, a small outpost in Priairie-du-Chien, Wisconsin, as the Black Hawk War was skirmishing. Having risen in the ranks since his late teens, he brought his wife and family along wherever he was posted. Three daughters and a son.
Army life in those still-frontier days was harsh, particularly on one’s health. Death came all too often, and not just in battle. Serious and communicable disease was common; infant and child mortality was high. The Taylors had already lost two children. There was always danger. There were little civilized luxuries and cultural opportunities.
The usual procedure for those early years of Zachary and Peggy Taylor, was to keep the children with them until they were of “schooling” age – perhaps seven or eight. Then they would be sent east where family members could look after their boarding school education. Parental visits were infrequent; occasionally their children returned “west” to spend summer time with their folks.
But by the time schooling ended, when the girls were perhaps fifteen or sixteen, they returned to “army life.” (Their son Richard received a fine classical education – including Oxford University.)
The bottom line was that Colonel Taylor wanted the very best for his children. That meant his stern opposition to his daughters marrying “into army life.”
A Bridegroom Appears
The middle Taylor daughter, Sarah Knox, was seventeen when a new West Point graduate was assigned as Second Lieutenant under Colonel Taylor. At twenty-four, Lt. Jefferson Davis was tall, handsome, with a good family background. “Knox”, as her family called her, was smitten. So was the young lieutenant. He wanted to marry her.
Taylor had no personal animosity to the young soldier; in fact he considered him a fine officer, and admired his abilities and personal presence. But he was adamantly opposed to his daughter marrying into a military life, with all its hardships.
Hoping to “test” the romance by distance, Davis transferred to a different location, but he and Knox stayed in close correspondence. When he returned, the romance had held firm, but to no avail.
Believing that a career change might help change his commander’s mind, he resigned his commission, became a Mississippi planter, and pressed yet again to marry the woman he truly and deeply loved. Three years had passed, and Knox’s father was still vehemently opposed to the marriage.
So the couple eloped. Knox’s parents were not at their wedding.
The Taylor Tragedy
Wishing to introduce his now-21-year-old bride to his family, the newlyweds traveled to Louisiana where they both contracted malaria. He recovered, but within three months of their wedding, Knox died. She had not been reconciled with her family.
Naturally Zachary Taylor and his wife were apprised of the tragic news. Their grief was devastating as one might expect, but they never sought to reach out to their “former” son-in-law. And with a bundle of emotions ranging from resentment to anger to sadness to pride and desolation, Davis did not choose to further roil the already muddied waters.
For the next eight years, he remained mostly at his plantation, in general seclusion, mourning deeply for the young wife he had lost. Her “aura” of virtues became more and more enhanced as time went on. But at thirty five, he met another young woman half his age. It was time for Davis to resume living. He remarried.
The Bridegroom and the Father-in-Law
After the tragedy of his first marriage, ex-Lt. Jefferson Davis became a prominent citizen in Mississippi. His plantation thrived. He was well-to-do. Shortly after his second marriage, he was elected to Congress. He and his new bride, Varina Howell, went to Washington, where his active support of President Polk brought them high level administration regard and visibility.
But the politics of the Administration were fomenting a war with Mexico, and once formally underway, Jefferson Davis, West Point trained, resigned his seat to enlist as Colonel of the 1st Mississippi volunteers.
The story goes that by coincidence, General Zachary Taylor and Col. Jefferson Davis were on the same steamship to Mexico. One can never know the thrust of the private conversation between two intensely private persons, but it is generally believed that it was Taylor who approached with open arms and a warm welcome. He immediately arranged for Davis to be on his immediate staff, where Davis performed heroically at both Monterrey and Buena Vista.
President Taylor and Senator Davis
Jefferson Davis was severely wounded in Mexico, and sent home to nearly two years of recuperation. When Mississippi’s Senator died, Davis was appointed to fill the balance of his term. Jeff and Varina returned to Washington.
Also by this time, General Zachary Taylor, a man of no particular political leanings or experience, became President of the United States.
Even thought Taylor was elected as a Whig, and Davis was a loyal Democrat, the new President became particularly close to his former son-in-law. Taylor understood his former son-in-law’s strong political allegiances which frequently were in conflict to his own, but nevertheless sought his advice and input. Both Jeff and Varina were welcome guests at private dinners in the White House. They were considered family.
As Taylor lay dying in midsummer 1850, Jefferson Davis was summoned to his bedside. He was still their son-in-law, the one who had deeply loved their dear, dead daughter.
Davis, W.C. – The Man and his Hour – HarperCollins, 1991
Eisenhower, John S.D. – Zachary Taylor – Times Books, 2008