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

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One of the rewards of working with American history is that not all the pots of gold have been discovered. A little accretion here, a small discovery there and a picture fills in, a life is reconstructed. In our magazines and books we have used a good many Taylor pictures over the years, without knowing much about him, or really caring to look. Then in 1974 American Heritage acquired an original Taylor black-and-white watercolor, part of a famous old collection which we published as The Century Collection of Civil War Art. The book’s editor, Stephen W. Sears, in collecting biographical information on the some fifty artists represented (some of them fellow “special artists” of Taylor’s) found the pickings slim, and in some cases nonexistent. There was very little on Taylor and that, as we have learned since, not entirely correct, but what Sears had he used.

Two years ago, on a friendly tip, we obtained a photostatic copy of a huge, heavily illustrated manuscript by James E. Taylor, staggering under the title of With Sheridan up the Shenandoah Valley in 1864: Leaves From a Special Artist’s Sketch Book and Diary. It consists of 568 densely handwritten pages, illustrated by over five hundred pictures. The last total depends on how one counts the montages, insets, and other devices so beloved of nineteenth-century designers. The writing was completed in 1898, Taylor explaining that it was all taken from his diary, notes, and sketches made during the campaign. It is clear that the author wanted it published, and equally clear why it never was.

In some unknown way this manuscript, full of both wheat and chaff, came into the hands of a collector named William R. Palmer; before he died in 1929 or thereabouts, Palmer donated it to the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, who kindly furnished it to us on request. A fascinating book, to be sure, but it left many questions unanswered. And when asked for more information about Taylor himself, the society referred us to the biographical note in the appendix of Mr. Sears’s book for American Heritage!

There matters rested, back at square one, until last year when the Kennedy Galleries, well-known New York dealers in art and Americana, sent over for our possible interest three crumbling, dog-eared bound volumes in the familiar hands (he used two distinct styles, to break the monotony) of James E. Taylor. Two of them are a family history, ending abruptly about 1849, unfinished, its writing probably interrupted by Taylor’s death. The third, in wide scrapbook format like With Sheridan et cetera, dated 1900 and as profusely illustrated—with drawings, sketches, pasted-in photographs and other reproductions—is called James E. Taylor’s Life Work in Art and answers many questions.

Kennedy is acting, as art dealers often do, for owners, in this case Taylor’s great-nephew, who has a vault full of the artist’s books, letters, paintings, and photographs—the latter running to uncounted hundreds, perhaps thousands. By his own admission, Taylor was a pack rat, and his inventory at the end of his Life Work in Art lists—among dozens of curious categories—a complete collection of photographs of all the Confederate generals (495, by his count), all the Union generals or colonels killed or otherwise dying in the war (378, he says), 1,500 photographs of Indians, 1,000 stereographs, half of the Civil War and the remainder of Indians, blacks, Cuba, and Mexico.

Here is work for scholars, labor enough for a regiment of them. But what interests us the most is Taylor himself, utterly revealed in his own writing and drawings, and what it was like hour by hour and day by day to be a correspondent at the front in the greatest convulsion of American history.

James Edward (not "Earl," as some sources state) Taylor was born December 19,1839, in Cincinnati, Ohio, one of three surviving children in a family both aspiring and dogged by poverty. The father, Orson Taylor, was a blacksmith; the mother, Mary Ann White, of gentler birth, was reared in Georgetown, D.C. (as it was once called), where—the great moment in the family chronicle—she was selected as a little girl to present a bouquet to the great Lafayette and be kissed in return during his triumphal visit to America in 1824. When James was seven, his father died, and the widow lived by her needle, renting part of her Cincinnati property. Three years later the little family struck out to seek better luck in Notre Dame du Lac, near South Bend, Indiana, where the children had two years of schooling, but they returned to Cincinnati, where twelve-year-old James went to work to help support the family. By turns he fed a type machine, worked in a book bindery, painted houses, clerked in a store, drudged for a dentist. But he lost every job he got; his employers would catch him drawing when he should have been working.

In his manuscript memoir, written in the third person one suspects so that praise when due could be rendered, Taylor tells how recognition first came to him. “At 14 years of age he was sent to the millionaire art patron of Cincinnati, Nicholas Longworth, to submit some drawings. Mr. Longworth was so pleased with the undoubted merit of the boy’s work that he sent him to Robert Conner’s Academy of Art. There he mastered the rudiments of drawing which have since stood him in such good stead.”