Presidential campaigns, the candidate’s military record always is an issue.|
The first Texan to ride military success into high office was Sam Houston,
who won the Battle of San Jacinto – not to mention Texas independence from Mexico
– on April 21, 1836. That September, the people elected him to serve as first
President of the new Republic of Texas.
The man Houston defeated on the
battlefield, Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, later managed to become
president of Mexico. He, too, capitalized on his military reputation, though opportunism
and political acumen also helped.
Of course, every Texan is familiar
with Houston and Santa Anna, the Raven and the Eagle. But a decade after the Texas
revolution, another battle in Texas featured three future presidents on the same
The Battle of Palo Alto occurred May 8, 1846 on the road between
Port Isabel (then called Point Isabel) and Matamoras, just north of what is now
Brownsville. The Mexican military had besieged the U.S. garrison on the Rio Grande
called Fort Texas (later Fort Brown, at Brownsville) and a large U.S. relief expedition
was en route when Mexican forces attempted to prevent it from reaching the fort.
Though outnumbered, the U.S. won the battle, and a second engagement
the following day, the Battle of Resaca de la Palma.
The American forces
were led by Gen. Zachary Taylor. After the war that he played a major role
in winning, he succeeded James K. Polk as President.
The next principal
in the Palo Alto fight to become the leader of a republic was Gen. Mariano
Arista, commander of the Mexican forces defeated by Taylor. But his road to
the presidency of Mexico was some rougher than old Rough and Ready’s political
Criticized by his subordinates after losing the two battles, Arista
handed over his command to Gen. Franciso Mexia. But rather than ride off into
the political sunset in disgrace, Arista asked to be court-martialed. In that
proceeding, he was exonerated.
Indeed, he probably was a pretty competent
general. What really defeated him was what still helps America win wars – superior
firepower. Taylor not only had more artillery, he had better artillery. And his
men used it against Arista’s troops with devastating results.
of 1848, Arista’s reputation had recovered and he ascended to secretary of war.
Two-and-a-half years later the Mexican Congress made him President of Mexico.
He managed to survive two years of Mexican political intrigue before being forced
into exile in Portugal, where he died in 1855.
The third participant
of the battle to earn the title of Mr. – or Senior – President had been a young
lieutenant fresh out of West Point. He did not move into the White House until
1869, but he established his military credentials in the conflict that came after
the fight with Mexico, the Civil War. His name was Ulysses S Grant.
Aside from the three presidents it produced, the Battle of Palo Alto was
much more important than casual students of the war may think. Though Arista made
it back to Mexico, his papers did not.
As the New York Weekly Tribune
reported on June 6, 1846, “The plan of campaign, as developed by Arista’s papers,
was for that General, after demolishing the small force under command of Gen.Taylor,
to overrun Texas.”
Assuming the “conquest of that revolted province,”
another Mexican army would have entered Texas with 5,000 more troops to “secure
the fruits of victory.”
In other words, after defeating the U.S. army,
Mexico intended to retake Texas. But Mexico had not had control of Texas since
1836, and that was not likely to change, no matter who was in the White House.