The Deadliest War in American History

Winfield Scott. By: Robert Walter Weir.

President James Polk, at the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, was concerned about the ramifications of a significant, drawn-out conflict. He was aware that a Whig military hero could emerge, just as William Henry Harrison had. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 750.

Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott quickly became military heroes in the Mexican-American War. See id. President Polk was intensely jealous and suspicious of both generals because they both had ties to the Whig Party. Id. A fiercely loyal Democrat, President Polk would do anything to impede the Whigs, it seemed. All of the 13 generals that he named during his time as president were Democrats. Id.

Even for some Democrats this was too much, and this would lead to a falling out with Democrats who were more ideologically aligned with the Jacksonian Democrats, like Martin Van Buren. Id. citing Marcus Cunliffe, Soldiers and Civilians (Boston, 1968), 305-18; Jeffrey A. Smith, War and Press Freedom (New York, 1999), 94-98.

One writer characterized President Polk as wanting “a small war, just large enough to require a treaty of peace and not large enough to make military reputations dangerous for the presidency.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 750 quoting Thomas Hart Benton, Thirty Years’ View (New York, 1856), II, 680.

However, the Mexican-American War “turned into a longer, harder, more expensive struggle than the politicians who provoked the conflict had expected.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 752. It has been deemed “the deadliest that the United States has ever fought” because one out of ten American soldiers died “in less than two years of service, while an equal number were incapacitated and sent home.” Id.

These were significant consequences, and the American public was aware of them. Modern Americans tend to overlook the casualties of the Mexican-American War, as the Civil War often overshadows the Mexican-American War.

However, President Polk’s “small war” clearly became more than his administration expected. It is perhaps one of the first instances of a president undergoing an unwise course of action, largely for political aspirations. Despite his best efforts, President Polk could not prevent others from becoming successful. Any perceived progress in accomplishing that goal would soon come to an end, when General Zachary Taylor would be elected president in the Election of 1848.


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