Saturday, September 24, 2011

This Day in Presidential History (Grant Shows Daring, Absorbs Lessons at Monterey)

September 24, 1846—If a novel were ever written about the Battle of Monterey, you could do worse than title it A Tale of Three Presidents, for this action in the Mexican War involved the current chief executive of the United States; a general he suspected of harboring ambitions for that office; and a junior officer who drew lessons from their turbulent relationship when he himself commanded the nation’s army and was elected to America’s highest office.

These three men were, respectively, James Knox Polk, Zachary Taylor and Ulysses S. Grant (pictured right). Polk, a workaholic President who did not survive a year out of the White House, was intent not only on bringing Texas into the Union as a slave state, but also on facing down army commanders who a) did anything to short-circuit that aim, or b) might want to run for President themselves. Taylor’s actions in concluding the engagement at Monterey typified Polk’s micromanagement of the war—a pattern of continual interference with his generals virtually without parallel in Presidential history.

Taylor had only come to occupy his current position as the key American commander in the war because of Polk’s hostility to General Winfield Scott, who did little to hide either his Whig Party sympathies or his opposition to the President‘s policies—stances which led the Democratic Polk to give pride of place in maneuvering against Mexico to Taylor.

On the morning of the 24th, Taylor prepared for a fourth day of battle. The prior three had been difficult--especially the last one, featuring door-to-door street fighting in Monterey. But superior American artillery power, and the disorganized Mexican command, gave unpretentious “Ol’ Rough and Ready” the upper hand. More remarkably, Taylor, for the third straight battle, had beaten a force that considerably outnumbered his own and that was well-entrenched in ground with which it was familiar. It was a triumph of his leadership.

But now, Taylor’s victories had led the Whigs to view him, too, as potential Presidential timber. The Polk administration, not thrilled by this prospect, cast about for a pretext upon which to clip the general’s wings--one soon provided, through no fault of his own.

The Mexican general, Pedro de Ampudia, requested a parley with Taylor on the 24th. The two generals worked out an eight-week truce in which Ampudia's troops were permitted to evacuate the city, taking with them their weapons and one six-gun battery. Taylor admitted that the terms were generous to the foe, but he felt that his prior victories would allow Polk’s administration to gain an upper hand in negotiating the end of war and the session on favorable terms to the U.S. Besides, he was not sure how much longer he could continue, as his own ammunition was running low. Lacking access to the still relatively new telegraph, Taylor determined to make the best short-term arrangement he could. Upon hearing the news, the Polk administration made it plain that they felt that Taylor had usurped his authority and that he had not pressed his advantage. Pointedly, their subsequent communications with him refused to thank him for his victory.

The administration then awarded overall command to Scott, who, as ranking general at the start of the conflict, should have had it anyway. Scott proceeded to reel off victories as impressive, and maybe even more so, than Taylor’s.

Again, with Polk’s unwillingness to yield any inch on direction of the war’s denouement to his commander, the relationship between the President and his general unraveled--perhaps even more so this time, as it involved nasty squabbling between Scott and some senior officers, and an eventual Congressional investigation that cleared Taylor of wrongdoing.

Compared with the struggles that the army’s two leading generals waged against Polk, Grant’s participation in the battle and larger campaign was relatively minor. But it would prove decisive for the course of his career.

As World War I turned out to be for the generation of armed-forces commanders in World War II, the Mexican War proved to be a great training ground for important American generals on both sides in the Civil War, including Grant himself, Robert E. Lee, as Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, George McClellan, Joseph Johnson, Jubal Early, A. P. Hill, Meade, P.G.T. Beauregard, Joseph Hooker, James Longstreet, Winfield Scott Hancock, and George H. Thomas. The Mexican War enabled these young soldiers, many recent West Point cadets, to form a bond with one another. Later on, when they split along sectional lines in the Civil War, Grant knew enough about the Southerners--most important, Robert E. Lee--not to be overawed by them.

Monterey provided an opportunity for Grant to shine--in particular, through the willingness to take calculated risks to win a battle. While graduating only 21st out of 36 at West Point, he had made a name for himself with his equestrian skills. In fact, recalled his friend Longstreet, "he was noted as the most proficient rider at the academy." At Monterey, that skill came in handy at the most opportune time.

One of Grant's abiding characteristics was restlessness. As a recently appointed regimental quartermaster he had already been ordered to stay at camp. But curiosity got the better of him, and he ended up close to the line to get a better view of the fighting when the American troops received the order to charge. Rather than slink back, Grant joined them, and was fortunate to survive a charge that ended up with one-third of the Americans killed or wounded in only a few minutes.

On the morning of the 23rd, the Americans were forced to fire up at Mexican troops, who, shielded by sandbags, were shooting down at them from behind the roofs around the central plaza. Before long, General Garland, alarmed that his men were running short of ammunition, asked for a volunteer to carry a mission to divisional commander General Twiggs, asking for more ammunition and/or reinforcements. Grant stepped forward to accept the task.

Let’s stop at this point to consider the implications of this move. Fifty years ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Mackinlay Kantor wrote a speculative history, If The South Had Won The Civil War, which took as its central departing points from what actually occurred a) a Union loss at Gettysburg, and b) an equestrian accident at the beginning of the Vicksburg campaign that ended up killing Grant. The latter was not at all a far-fetched notion: the future commander of Union forces in the war, his son Frederick recalled, liked to ride horses most people considered unmanageable.

Now Grant was facing considerably greater perils: dodging bullets in territory he didn’t know well, from snipers he couldn’t see. But Grant was unafraid. His solution to the problem made the most of his equestrian skills while allowing him to evade enemy fire: He rode on the side of his gray horse Nellie with one foot hooked on the cantle of the saddle and an arm around Nellie’s neck. He made it through without a scratch.

Grant’s courage was of a piece with perhaps his most important decision of the Civil War: how to take Vicksburg, the redoubtable fortress holding the key to controlling the Mississippi River and cutting the Confederacy in half. At this point, Grant recalled a highly unorthodox maneuver made by General Scott after the Monterey campaign—i.e., cut loose from his base. Grant’s subordinate, William Sherman, had been fearful of such a move. But when he saw the result—a victorious campaign—he decided to employ a similar tactic in Georgia and have his troops live off the fat of the land in his famous March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah.

Grant absorbed two other lessons from the Mexican War. First, he saw how Polk undermined Taylor and Scott—two commanders of vastly different styles but each enormously skilled. His judgment of the administration’s resulting maneuvering was blunt: “The Mexican war was a political war, and the administration conducting it desired to make political capital out of it.” As the cancer-ridden odd soldier rushed to finish his Personal Memoirs nearly 40 years later, he pointed out the contrast between Abraham Lincoln, who was “willing to trust his generals in making and executing their plans,” and successor Andrew Johnson, who was fatally handicapped by his warring feelings of bitterness and insecurity in dealing with the South during Reconstruction.

Even more pointed was his characterization of the war as a whole, “an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.” His summary of the results of Polk’s land-grab for Texas (and much of the rest of the current American Southwest) from Mexico echoes Lincoln’s Second Inaugural on the penalty levied by God on America for extending slavery: “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”

No comments: