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Comparing Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott
Both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott can be considered as two of the most efficacious American military commanders, their successes most arguably tied to the victories they achieved during the Mexican-American War. The conjectural question concerning who is the better commander is thus immediately complicated by the skill and prowess of both men. Scott was recognized as a war hero by the conclusion of the 1812 conflict; furthermore, he was a keen student of military strategy, for example, traveling to France in order to study the French army in person. Taylor’s biography is no less impressive. Scott himself recommended to U.S. President Polk that Taylor lead the northern campaign in the Mexican-American war, demonstrating Scott’s high regard for Taylor as a military man. The southern offensive during this same war was led by Scott, thus further showing the entanglement of their respective biographies. Insofar as both Taylor and Scott were enormously successful in Mexico, it is the context of this war that perhaps provides the best possibility to evaluate these men in a similar setting. It can be suggested that Taylor’s task in the war, however, was more arduous and thus his successes in this conflict were greater, to the extent that Scott’s subsequent victories in the South were arguably made possible by Taylor’s victories in the North. In this regard, when selecting a preferred commander between the two, it is perhaps best to follow Scott’s own lead and select Taylor.
Comparing these two leaders within the context of the Mexican-American war is tantamount to asking the following question: which campaign was superior, the northern campaign of Taylor, or the southern campaign of Scott? Scott’s contribution during the war is immediately characterized by his “bold operation” at Veracruz, which consisted of the “largest amphibious landing in American military history up to that time.” Following “meticulous planning”, Scott’s force of twelve thousand troops attacked from their stations at Lobos Island, facing a Mexican army numbered at four thousand, a good portion of which were stationed in the Veracruz fortress. In conjunction with the amphibious landing, Scott employed heavy naval bombardment, pounding Veracruz into submission, while also amassing only eighty casualties. The victory at Veracruz marked Scott’s first great contribution to the war effort: however, when considering the quantity of the Mexican forces, the mystique surrounding Scott’s offensive is perhaps more the result of the audaciousness of the amphibious landing itself. Scott’s subsequent march into the Mexican mainland was decisively more arduous than the attack at Velacruz: thousands of soldiers died from malaria and other ailments during this advance. Scott was nevertheless successful in further operations, such as a successful repulsion of an ambush at Cerro Gordo, in which Scott defeated a force led by Santa Anna. Scott’s following victories at Contreras and Churubusco culminated with an eventual march into Mexico City that brought the war to a definitive conclusion. As Lee Stacey phrases Scott’s victory, “in just over five months, he achieved what many thought impossible”, such that Scott’s subsequent emergence as an American war hero was the result of his irrevocable successes during the conflict.
Despite the boldness of Scott’s amphibious landing and his relentless march into the heart of Mexico, it is arguably Taylor who showed greater skill as a military commander when one considers the greater obstacles he faced. Moreover, Scott’s amphibious landing was deemed possible only after Taylor had secured the northern front through a string of decisive victories. Yet Taylor’s successes were gained under trying circumstances. Taylor effectively began the American campaign with his crossing of the Rio Grande: “despite being heavily outnumbered his 4,300 troops won the first battles at Palo Alto on May 8, and Resaca de la Palma on the 9th.” Taylor’s immediate victories under such conditions can be interpreted as giving a boost to the plausibility of the American operation. Despite losses of soldiers to dysentery, resulting from a lack of supplies, Taylor nevertheless continued his progress into Mexico, winning a decisive battle at Monterrey “with an army of 3,080 regulars and 3,140 [Mexican] volunteers” in contrast to Mexican forces consisting of “7,000 Mexican soldiers and 3,000 militia men.” The latter battle was nevertheless marked by controversy, as, without approval from President Polk, Taylor granted an armistice to Mexican soldiers, allowing them to leave the captured city with their arms, thus leading to accusations of Taylor’s insubordination. From a contrasting perspective, however, such an act may be interpreted as indicative of Taylor’s fierce independence as a military leader. On the one hand, such an act arguably demonstrates Taylor’s dedication to military honor, respecting a certain decorum of war. On the other hand, when considering that over half of Taylor’s forces consisted of Mexican volunteers, this decision demonstrates an understanding of the psychological aspect of battle: the acceptance of the armistice would further bolster the moral of his Mexican volunteers, allowing him to win hearts and minds in the area. That Taylor was correct in his decision is demonstrated by his subsequent victories, such as when his forces both occupied and maintained Saltillo after a Mexican counter-attack. With Taylor’s successes, the northern front was stabilized, thus allowing for Scott’s adventurous operations on the coast.
Accordingly, Taylor’s successful command at the outset of the Mexican War can be said to have engendered confidence in the military, a confidence which carried over and manifested itself in the audaciousness of Scott’s amphibious landing. Taylor was a pivotal early figure in the conflict, winning battles in a decisive manner, despite being outnumbered: Taylor’s forces essentially did the grunt work required to secure the northern part of Mexico under unfavorable conditions, allowing for the opening of a new front by Scott. Whereas the successes of both commanders is clearly undeniable, it is arguably the greater difficulty of Taylor’s campaign, a campaign in which he was nevertheless clearly victorious, that suggests his superiority as commander.