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Profile - James K. Polk

Rated the “most successful” one term president, James K. Polk (1795-1849) presided over a contentious war that greatly expanded the United States.

The Polk family was of Scottish descent.  The president’s seven times great-grandfather, Sir John Pollok, was killed during the Battle of Lockerbie, in Scotland, in 1593.  Sir John’s grandson and great-grandson, both named Robert, served as officers with the Scots Covenanters during the English Civil War in the 1640s.  The younger Robert’s several times great-grandsons, the American-born Thomas, Ezekiel, Charles, and John Polk, all served in the Revolutionary War.  The eldest, Thomas, was for a time a County Lieutenant of militia in South Carolina, responsible for drilling the militiamen and maintaining militia records for an entire county.  Later in the war he served as Chief Commissary for the Southern Army, overseeing supplies for the troops, ending the war as a colonel.  Charles and John served in the militia, both becoming officers. 

Ezekiel Polk, the president’s grandfather, had a very curious military career.  In June of 1775, he was elected captain of a militia cavalry company at Mecklenburg, North Carolina.  The following year, having been promoted to lieutenant colonel, he played a prominent role in fighting Indians in the Appalachian region of the state.  Ezekiel continued to serve as a militia officer until the devastating American defeat at Camden (August 16, 1780), when Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates’ army was routed by a smaller British force.  At that point, like a lot of other frontier folk, Ezekiel Polk placed himself “under the protection” of the British Crown; that is, he took an oath to King George.  That didn’t mean that he had abandoned the Revolution, but rather that it was the safest thing to do in the circumstances.  Shortly afterwards Patriot fortunes in the region recovered, and Ezekiel returned to the American cause, and was promptly restored to the status of lieutenant colonel and regimental commander in the militia.  He served in this capacity until the end of the Revolutionary War, so his brief lapse of allegiance to the cause was certainly a temporary expedient.

The president’s maternal grandfather, James Knox, a nephew of the famous British religious reformer John Knox, also served in the Continental Army.  He was promoted to captain after distinguishing himself in the Battle of Hanging Rock (August 6, 1780), in which the young Andy Jackson also fought. 

Born in North Carolina in 1795, when the future president was ten, his family moved to Tennessee.  As a boy, Polk was rather unhealthy.  His father decided that the young man lacked the physical stamina to make a good farmer, and therefore insured that he had a very good education.  Young Polk attended several private schools, and then entered the University of North Carolina in 1815.  He graduated with honors in mathematics and Classics in 1818, and went on to read law.  Polk was admitted to the bar in 1820.  He began to practice law, and dabble in politics.  In 1823, Polk was elected to the Tennessee legislature.  Meanwhile, in 1821, he had joined the militia in Maury County, Tennessee, and was promptly elected captain of a cavalry troop.  He served several years in the militia, rising to colonel.  Meanwhile Polk began accumulating considerable political experience.  He served in the Tennessee legislature, and was then elected to several terms in the House of Representatives, where he became friendly with Andrew Jackson.  From 1835 to 1839, Polk served as Speaker of the House; he is the only Speaker ever to have become president.  He then served a term as Governor of Tennessee (1839-1841).  In 1844 the Democratic national convention deadlocked over the question of whom to nominate for president.  Jacksonians in the party decided to back Polk, and he became the first “Dark Horse” candidate for president and went on to win the election that November, to take office on March 4, 1845.

The principal military event of Polk's administration was the war with Mexico.  The immediate cause of war was the American annexation of Texas in 1845.   Mexico had never accepted the independence of Texas, which had seceded from the republic in 1836.  Certainly in the era of "Manifest Destiny" many Americans welcomed the war.  But so too did many Mexicans.  Nationalistic Mexicans were unwilling to accept the loss of Texas, and some extremists went on to claim that the Louisiana Purchase was invalid, under the terms of a treaty between France and Spain, which Napoleon had violated when he sold the territory to the United states, and that it thus belonged to Mexico.  With little inclination for a peaceful settlement on either side, war was practically inevitable.

When Texas was annexed (December 29, 1845), Polk sent Brig. Gen. Zachary Taylor and 3,500 troops into the vast disputed region between the Nueces River (claimed as the border by Mexico) and the Rio Grande (claimed by Texas).  Meanwhile, 6,000 Mexican troops had been posted just south of the Rio Grande, and Mexican patrols were active north of the river.  On April 25, 1846, two companies of American dragoons were overwhelmed by Mexican cavalry at Rancho Carricitos, about 20 miles northwest of what is now Brownsville.  This initiated hostilities.

Despite the looming danger of war, Polk had initiated no preparations.  He had issued contingency instructions to military and naval commanders, but made no effort to increase the 8,000 man Regular Army or to stockpile arms and equipment, and did not even informally alert the states to be ready to raise troops.  Thus, the outbreak of the war led to hasty appropriations and calls for militiamen and volunteers. 

On paper Mexico was far better prepared for war, with a regular army of some 35,000 men backed by strong local and regional forces.  The troops were hardy and brave, and many of them were seasoned in numerous civil wars.  Given this disparity, prevailing opinion among European political and military leaders was that the United States had over-reached itself.

The war nevertheless turned out very favorably for the U.S., in part because of excellent leadership by senior officers such as Zachary Taylor and particularly General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, supported by junior officers drawn largely from West Point.  The Regular Army performed superbly, as did the volunteers, though the militia proved hopelessly inept.  By the war’s end the U.S. had some 85,000 men in the armed forces and spent over $70 million. 

As the mobilization proceeded, fighting spread along the Rio Grande frontier.  General Taylor inflicted several severe defeats on the Mexican battles. The most important military developments in the winter of 1846-1847 took place off the battlefield.  In Mexico, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna became president, a very capable, if corrupt politician and commander. 

Meanwhile, in Washington, the president and General Scott hammered out a winning strategy, a matter complicated by the fact that Polk was a Democrat and Scott a Whig.  A capable war leader, Polk had political reservations about Scott, but realized that his was the best plan for victory.  Scott proposed to land on the east coast of Mexico and march overland to seize Mexico City and dictate peace.  Although most of Polk's appointees to generalcies went to fellow-Democrats, the President realized that Scott was the man to undertake the expedition. 

While Scott began to concentrate an army at Tampico, on the Gulf coast, taken by an amphibious attack in late November, Taylor found himself beset when Santa Anna undertook a surprise offensive with 20,000 men against his small army of only about 5,000 men, mostly volunteers.  After an arduous approach march across 300 miles of desert, Santa Anna attacked Taylor at Buena Vista on February 23, 1847, and was crushed in desperate fighting.

Scott had planned his campaign against Mexico City carefully and in meticulous detail.  His expedition landed near Vera Cruz on March 9, 1847, in what was the most well-executed amphibious operation of the nineteenth century, laid siege to the city, and forced its surrender by the 27th, with remarkably low casualties on both sides, some 80 Americans and about 180 Mexicans had been killed or wounded.  Leaving behind a small garrison, Scott immediately pressed westwards along the highway to Mexico City.

There followed a series of battles in which Scott's outnumbered army repeatedly defeated Santa Anna's more numerous forces: Cerro Gordo (April 16-18), Puebla (May 15),  Contreras (August 19-20), where a volunteer general named Franklin Pierce distinguished himself, Churubusco (August 20), and Chapultepec (September 11-12), to enter Mexico City on September 14th.  Although some skirmishing and irregular operations continued, that effectively ended the war, though a peace was not concluded until February 2, 1848, bringing about a considerable expansion of the nation's territory

Although many people expected Polk to be re-elected president later that year, in fulfillment of a campaign promise made in 1844, Polk chose not to run for re-election.  Surprisingly, he died only three months after leaving office. 

The president and his wife had no children.  Many of the president’s numerous nephews and cousins and their descendants have served.  In the Civil War there were Polks on both sides, the most famous of whom was Leonidas Polk.  After graduating from West Point (1827), Leonidas served for a time in the Regular Army.  But he shortly resigned and was ordained in the Episcopal Church.  By the outbreak of the Civil War, Leonidas Polk was Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana.  Despite being a man of the cloth, he joined the Confederate Army.  Although a poor commander, Leonidas rose to lieutenant general, and was later killed in action.  Bishop Polk’s son, William Mecklenburg Polk, served as a surgeon in the Confederate Army.  William’s son, Frank Lyon Polk served in Squadron A,  New York Cavalry, during the 1890s, and as an officer in the Army Quartermaster Corps during the Spanish-American War.  Other family members served in the War with Spain and in World War I, during which Ralph Polk Buell, an officer in the 107th Infantry (New York’s famous 7th Regiment), earned a Distinguished Service Cross in the attack on the Hindenburg Line in 1918.

In World War II, the family was represented by a number of the late president's several time grand-nephews.  James H. Polk, a West Point graduate and holder of several national horsemanship titles, commanded the 3rd Cavalry Group (now the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment), which served as the “eyes” of George S. Patton’s Third Army.  He eventually rose to full general and commander of the U.S. Army in Europe during the Cold War.  His brothers also served, John F. Polk rising to colonel in the Army and Thomas H. Polk to captain in the Navy. 

BookNote: For more on the Polks, one of American’s most distinguished families, readers are advised to have a look at William Roe Polk’s book, Polk's Folly: An American Family History (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 2000)

 


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