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James K. Polk

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“Dr. Booth's professional services would no doubt be valuable to the army."

James Knox Polk, 1792-1849.  11th President of the United States, 1845-1849.  Presidential date Autograph Letter Signed, James K. Polk, one page, 8" x 7", with integral leaf attached, Washington, [D.C.], April 21, 1847. 

In the midst of the Mexican War, Polk subtly suggests that a physician who had just returned from Tampico, Mexico, should receive an appointment.  He writes:  “I transmit to you the enclosed letter from Gov. Johnson of Louisiana, in behalf of Dr. Booth–, who informs me that he is familiar with the diseases of the South, & particularly yellow fever . . . – He has served some time in the army, and has come directly from Tampico – .  I am not aware that there is at present any vacancy.  Dr. Booth's professional services would no doubt be valuable to the army."

Polk was justifiably concerned about the effect of disease on American troops.  American soldiers suffered high disease mortality in the Mexican War not only because medical knowledge was limited but also because the soldiers often disregarded rules for military hygiene out of disdain for formal training and professionalism, a characteristic of Jacksonian-era egalitarianism.  See Ann R. Gabbert, They Die Like Dogs: Disease Mortality Among U.S. Forces During the U.S.-Mexican War, 31 Military History of the West 27-50 (2001).

Polk wrote this letter in the wake of two American victories in Mexico.  American forces under the command of General Zachary Taylor besieged and, after a hard-fought battle, captured the city of Monterrey on September 24, 1846.  Taylor allowed the Mexican forces in Monterrey to evacuate in exchange for surrender of the city and then, under pressure from Washington, broke the eight-week armistice to which he had agreed and instead occupied Saltillo, southwest of Monterrey.  Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna, who had returned from exile and seized the Mexican presidency, then personally marched north to attack Taylor's forces.  When Taylor, whose 4,600 soldiers were entrenched in a mountain pass called Buena Vista, refused to surrender to Santa Anna's army of 15,000, Santa Anna attacked on February 23, 1847.  In furious fighting, some American forces were routed but were saved by close-range artillery fire against a Mexican advance by Captain Braxton Bragg and a charge by the mounted Mississippi Riflemen under the command of Jefferson Davis.  With large losses himself, Santa Anna withdrew, leaving Taylor in control of northern Mexico.

Polk has boldly penned this letter in black ink and signed it with a large 3½" signature.  The letter has horizontal folds and is slightly toned along the integral leaf fold at the left.  It also has a couple of marginal chips at the left, and, for the sake of accuracy, we note that there are also a small tear in the blank area at the upper right, a split at the bottom of the integral leaf fold, three small stains on the back, and an old dealer pencil notation on the back of the integral leaf, none of which is particularly noticeable or detracts from the overall appearance of the letter.  The letter is in fine condition overall and would be beautiful in a framed display.




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