- Historic Sites
The Civil War: The Truth And The Legend
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
Then he developed a knack for quarreling with Jefferson Davis—the two men eventually became bitter personal enemies, with disastrous effect on the Confederate cause—and he was eventually sent west, to be second in command to another Johnston, Albert Sidney Johnston, and to inherit command of the luckless Army of Tennessee after Johnston was killed at Shiloh. And now nothing went right for him. Shiloh was lost, and many people assumed unjustly that it was all Beauregard’s fault. Ill health caught up with him, and Davis replaced him with Braxton Bragg. Beauregard was sidetracked with the command at Charleston, redeemed much of his fading reputation by defeating the northern attempt to capture that city in 1863, redeemed more of it by his stout defense of Petersburg in 1864, served under Lee for a time, and was shelved again with a western command in which both the organizational setup and the general trend of the war kept him from being effective.
In the end, he was a man who somehow had not quite been the great figure which he and everyone else had expected. He was, says Mr. Williams, a good general but not a great one; as a northern war correspondent remarked, he summed up as a first-class second-rater. Yet his name had trumpets right to the end, and it still rings with a fine romantic sound.
After the war, oddly enough, this perfect exemplar of the Confederate legend departed from the legend entirely. The postwar Confederate general, by tradition and often enough by actual fact, was a displaced person laboring under great difficulties: a professional soldier who could no longer practice his profession and so had to resort to difficult but dignified expedients in order to earn a living. But it never worked that way for Beauregard. He made a success of things; first as a railroad man and then—to the chagrin of the traditionalists—as highly-paid front man for the great Louisiana Lottery. He died rich, one of the few Confederate generals who managed it, and as a result the postwar legend by-passed him. In a land whose heroes were supposed to live in honorable poverty, Beauregard grew wealthy. In addition, he carried on his feud with Jefferson Davis right to the end, and when Davis died Beauregard refused to ride in his funeral procession. At the last he was probably more honored in the North than in the South.
But he was one of the most interesting of all the Confederate warriors, and Mr. Williams has produced a truly first-rate biography.
The Confederate portrait gallery is singularly rich in interesting characters, when you get right down to it, and General Richard Taylor was one of them. The son of former President Zachary Taylor, he was a sugar-planting grandee of the old school; he fought ably in Virginia, in the trans-Mississippi and in the cotton South; and after the war he wrote one of the best of the participants’ books, the engaging and eminently readable memoirs titled Destruction and Reconstruction , published in 1879. This book has now been reissued, edited and introduced by Richard Harwell, and it is a welcome addition to anyone’s Civil War library.
Taylor was proud, even haughty, not overly popular with his fellows; a man of decided opinions, which he had no hesitancy in putting down on paper. He fought under Stonewall Jackson in the famous Valley Campaign, and left an unforgettable pen-portrait of that eccentric military genius which every Jackson biographer since then has drawn on without stint. Then he fought under Lee in the Seven Days, and if he considered Lee’s strategy admirable he thought his battle tactics atrocious; the conduct of the fighting, he said, “was nothing but a series of blunders, one after another, and all huge.” There was, he said acidly, a great deal of praying at headquarters, but none of the activity which would have given the Confederates enough knowledge of the ground they were fighting on to insure a final and complete victory.
After the Seven Days Taylor was sent west, where his career was anti-climactic. He did as well as any man could have done, probably, in connection with the Confederacy’s ineffectual attempt to save the lower Mississippi valley, he won distinction in the victorious resistance to Nathaniel Banks’ abortive Red River campaign, and he served competently thereafter in the declining days of the war in lower Mississippi and Alabama; was, in fact, the last Confederate army commander east of the Mississippi to surrender.
Destruction and Reconstruction , by Richard Taylor, edited by Richard Harwell. 380 pp. Longmans, Green and Co. $7.50.
After the war, Taylor was like a cork. He had been financially ruined, like so many other wealthy planters, but he bobbed back to the surface, restored his fortunes, traveled widely in the North and in Europe, and got on friendly terms with such diverse persons as the King of Denmark, the Prince of Wales, and President Ulysses S. Grant. He came to accept the restored Union, but between reconstruction in the South and the scandalous graft of the Grant era in the North he felt that the country had fallen on very evil days, and in his memoirs he spoke his mind about it, leading a northern reviewer to comment sadly on the “lack of poise and self-control” in his book. Presumably, that bothered Taylor not at all. He said what he thought, and his book is still worth reading.