Zachary Taylor, a well-known war hero, arrived in Washington, D.C. to be President of the United States in 1849 after serving for many years in the military.
He fought in the War of 1812, the Second Seminole War (Florida), and the Mexican-American War where he gained the rank of major general. When it was suggested that he run for president, Zachary Taylor (1784-1850) was surprised. He was not interested in politics—he’d never even voted–and he loved being in the military.
The Whig Party thought he was a winner, and party representatives got Taylor to agree to run. He was from a Kentucky family of slave-holders, which would interest Southerners. Northerners would respect his long and excellent military career.
Political operatives were right. Taylor won the presidency with 163 electoral votes to 122 achieved by Lewis Cass, the Democratic nominee.
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Household to D.C.
Taylor (1784-1850) and his wife, Margaret Mackall Smith, had six children. The Taylors undoubtedly had various pets, as most families did at that time. (To read about a lively household with lots of pets, read about the pets in the Benjamin Harrison household.) The only documented animals, however, are a horse and a pony—Old Whitey and Apollo. Old Whitey carried Taylor on to many battlefields; Apollo was a former circus pony who was a gift to one of the Taylor daughters, Bettie.
How Taylor Acquired Whitey
Old Whitey is described as looking more like a “family horse” than the war horse he became under General Taylor. The horse was slightly knock-kneed, and by the time Taylor entered the Executive Mansion, Whitey was showing his age.
Whitey had been sold to General Taylor by Captain George McCall. McCall was as fine a horseman as the well-respected rider, Ulysses Grant. He rode the most spirited horses, and he loved the challenge.
But Whitey was not one of those horses.
Old Whitey was McCall’s favorite buggy horse. That was a good credential to have, but not what one would expect of a war horse. Zachary Taylor did not care. He liked the horse’s docile temperament. The General thought he would be unflappable in battle.
Taylor’s fellow soldiers tried to dissuade him from riding Whitey in battle. They pointed out that a light-colored horse (he was actually a pale grey) was much easier for the enemy to spot than a horse that was dark in color.
Taylor stayed with his decision. Whitey proved to be calm and steady just as Taylor hoped.
Horses to D.C.
Because Zachary Taylor’s presidential committee had built up his war hero status, images of Taylor on Whitey were frequently printed on leaflets and in newspapers. As a result, the public felt they knew Whitey, and he was almost as well-liked as his rider. The public wanted to see him.
Since Whitey was of an age where he should be retired, Taylor almost certainly considered leaving him on the Taylor plantation in Louisiana. But public interest in Whitey was enormous, and Taylor was fond of him. He made plans for Whitey to be brought to Washington, D.C.
Travel Itinerary Publicized
With the care one would use if planning travel for a dignitary, a staff member carefully planned out Whitey’s itinerary. The White House Historical Association speculates that Whitey was shipped via boat and train to cover the distance from Taylor’s plantation in Louisiana to Washington, D.C. At each place where Whitey was brought into town, both the public and the press were notified.
People loved seeing the general’s horse and being close enough to touch him. By the time Whitey reached D.C., he had very little hair left in his tail. People wanted a memento of the horse and its owner.
Upon arrival on Pennsylvania Avenue, he was made to feel at home in the stable that was on the White House grounds, east of the house.
Whitey was Popular with Tourists
Whitey became a D.C. tourist sensation. He was permitted to stroll the White House grounds at his leisure, munching on grass most of the day. If he saw people gathering by the iron fence, Whitey was likely to wander over to see if they had an apple or carrots or some sweet treat for him to enjoy.
This was not a risk-free experience. Whitey had two bullet wounds—one on his neck and one on his right hip—people loved to pet him and feel the indentation. And if his hindquarters got near the fence, stealthy hands would reach through to pluck a few of the last remaining hairs from Whitey’s tail.
Visits from the President
At least three times each week, the president came down to the stable to visit “old Billy,” as Taylor called him. “Come Billy,” the General would say.” And Whitey would come forward and “fondle his head about his master’s shoulders like a pet dog,” according to The Natchez Daily Courier (April 23, 1850).
When the General waved a kerchief, Whitey knew this was a familiar signal from battle. He pranced as if on the battlefield, moving at the sound of martial music and the roar of cannon.”
A Pony Friend, Too
Before assuming the presidency, the Taylor family received the gift of a former circus pony named Apollo.
A gentleman in Louisiana who was friends with Zachary Taylor purchased Apollo for his own daughter. The girl died shortly afterward in a terrible carriage accident (unrelated to Apollo). Her father couldn’t bear to sell the pony, but he knew that Taylor’s daughter would love him.
Apollo went along with Old Whitey to the White House, and as a pony of Bettie Taylor, lived a long and good life.
Zachary Taylor as President
Had Zachary Taylor lived longer than 16 months after taking office, he might have changed history. He saw the trouble that slavery was causing the country, and he wasn’t afraid to confront the issue. Taylor urged California and New Mexico residents to write constitutions and apply for statehood. As he saw it, if these two territories came in as free states, it would begin to swing the balance of power.
This, however, angered the South. As early as 1850, the Southern leaders threatened secession. If Taylor served out his term of office, he would have needed to begin talking to both sides.
Whitey Soon Had Funeral Responsibilities
In early July of 1950, President Taylor became very ill. He suffered severe stomach pains and was diagnosed with cholera morbus. He died only a few days later.
Millard Fillmore, his vice president, took office on July 9, 1850.
Because it was so unexpected, Zachary Taylor’s funeral was a particularly sad affair. A religious service was held in the East Room of the Executive mansion, and the coffin was placed on elaborate carriage that had a great eagle on top.
In the processional, Old Whitey, let by a coachman, followed along behind the carriage that served as a hearse. Whitey was saddled with General Taylor’s military saddle, but of course, there was no rider. General Taylor’s boots were placed backward in the stirrups to symbolize that he was taking one last look back at his family and the troops he commanded.
Taylor was buried near his childhood home in Kentucky.