War Correspondent, 1864: The Sketchbooks Of James E. Taylor

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“Mr. Taylor’s entire career has been fraught with vicissitudes and picturesque adventures” —James E. Taylor

One of the strange legacies of the Civil War, if you reflect on it a little, is the professional television correspondent, that devil-may-care type in the trench coat standing in front of some frontier or scene of carnage while he—or she—concludes his report, makes sure again that you heard his name, and returns you to Walter or John in New York. Technology whirls along. Trench Coat travels by plane and helicopter, with a camera crew; his brief message bounces home off an earth satellite, to be broadcast in seconds to millions. He is such a power in the land, people say, that the biggest power of them all, good, calm, sensible Walter Cronkite, could—if he wished—be elected President.

The basic idea, of course, is news and pictures together. Not much of a notion, one might shrug, except that this combination was absolutely blindingly new in the mid-nineteenth century when the first illustrated weekly newspapers sprang into being—the Illustrated London News, Harper’s Weekly, The New York Illustrated News, Leslie’s (whose enterprising founder had been an engraver for the London journal that started it all). And the professional ancestor of Trench Coat was the “special artist” hired by these publishers to cover the news; he came into his own in 1861. Eagerness for news from the front, and then the many fronts, was intense. The nineteenth century simmered with the spirit of “go ahead.” It wanted to see the war as it happened and not wait, as had all the centuries and milleniums before, for the slow and stately productions of court painters and historians.

What made the picture weeklies possible were not only improvements in printing and distribution but also a crude though effective method of getting pictures speedily into print. No machines existed for making linecuts or half-tones. Photographs could not be directly printed, even if the then-primitive state of the art had permitted the bulky wet-plate apparatus of a Brady to catch action. And so the work of the special artists was rushed to a roomful of wood engravers who copied (or at least approximated) the original into blocks of wood by carving away that part of the surface which was not to print. It was such an assembly line that a large picture might be broken up into many blocks, not all handled by the same man. When an artist was in a hurry and the quartermaster’s pouch was about to depart, one could get away with leaving things unfinished, with instructions to the engraver like “more tents,” “extend cavalry column,” or “trees here.”

If the results sometimes dismayed the artists, they delighted readers. There was the battle, the very scene, barely a week, or two weeks, after it happened! The papers were highly prized in army camps, and the artist, at first a fellow of no great account in his “citizen dress” and plug hat, suddenly found himself welcome at headquarters among senior officers jostling for reputation and promotion. A seat was found at the mess and oats for the artist’s nag—in fact, even the general could find a moment to have his likeness taken. It could come in handy after the next battle, when the general might appear in print rather prominently, rallying the men with his sword, perhaps, leading a charge, or—who knows?—capturing an enemy standard in person. A great many men dreamed that kind of heroism back in that old-fashioned war, and a few lived it.

A handful of famous artists eventually emerged from the hundreds who covered it—Winslow Homer, for example, and Joseph Pennell. Rather a bit down the list in fame or talent but nevertheless entirely competent and professional was the subject of this article, James E. Taylor, who in 1864 at the age of twenty-four became a “special artist” for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. He was hired by the proprietor himself, who, Taylor says, pressed on him the importance of missing nothing, “not even sticks, stones and stumps” to ensure the fidelity of his work—“regardless of flying bullet and shell.”

The advice was unnecessary. In his long career, industrious Taylor never missed anything, sketching not only sticks and stumps but about everything of interest he passed—almost anyone he met, companions of the road and bivouac, any interesting building, every place where he ever laid his head, from hut to hotel (usually he would try to catch the proprietor, too, and sometimes his family). Taylor took a good likeness on the fly and collected photographs of notables he had not seen. He was ready, in a word, for any of those battle pieces—those sword-waving and charge-leading scenes, which, if they include the right heroes, lead to success in military art.

If this seems to suggest that Taylor was a conscious politician, the impression is unintended. If anything, the young man was a kind of innocent, dazzled by heroics, overwhelmed by brushes with greatness. Drawing came to him, he said, “as naturally as breathing,” and he could not remember a time when he was not covering some piece of paper with boyish fancies. The subject, from the start, was war, beginning with redcoats and redskins and running through history. Taylor was what might be called a “war lover.” Not warlike, or pugnacious, let alone heroic, although brave enough when necessary. A better, if more modern phrase would be “war buff,” which is to say one who takes a romantic view of a problem which has plagued the human race for rather a long time.

Why Taylor? someone may ask. The answer is simple. Three parts of a puzzle came together.