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War Correspondent, 1864: The Sketchbooks Of James E. Taylor
When old James E. Taylor exercised his powers of near-total recall to set down memories of the Shenandoah campaign, he left us a unique record of a very new, very hazardous profession
August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
Longworth, great-grandfather of the Nicholas Longworth who became Speaker of the House of Representatives and married the late Alice Roosevelt Longworth, was thus the first in a long line of Taylor patrons. Before too long, unfortunately, family need forced young Taylor back to work, this time addressing newspapers to the subscribers of the Cincinnati Commercial. The job had one great advantage—ready access to large sheets of blank paper, on which he painted, gluing the sheets together, a huge, brittle panorama of the American Revolution; he mounted it on rollers in the accepted style of that then-popular art form, much to the interest of the office staff.
When, inevitably, he lost the addressing job because of inattention to what he was supposed to be doing, James got another as apprentice to a professional panorama artist who was painting the story of the Bible. This time he stayed to the end, spending a whole year, and then, with a little backing from a rich uncle, undertook a real, professional, on-canvas panorama of his own. The subject again was the American Revolution. Liberally sprinkled with dead redcoats, it consisted of fifty pictures, nine by twelve feet each, on a continuous roll. It took a year to complete, and when it ended a bit short of desired length (the panorama was the feature movie of the day), Taylor fleshed it out with the landings of Columbus and the Pilgrims. The show opened to a large crowd on September 12, 1857, and the “lecturer” who gave the accompanying talk was none other than young John Shaw Billings, later the noted head of the New York Public Library. ( His grandson, another John Shaw Billings, was the first managing editor of Life, the picture magazine, the picture show of its heyday, nearly a century later; life is full of connections.)
The panorama was a success and went on the road for a while in Ohio and Kentucky. Then Taylor took a job to learn lithography, but found the medium too confining. For six months he studied oil painting. There ensued a brief partnership with an artist named Frank Beard, son of the noted painter James H. Beard, whereupon, on order, Taylor painted another panorama about John Brown’s raid in 1859. The subject was so noteworthy that it was finished within two months, which included Brown’s trial and execution. Just turned twenty, the speedy young illustrator was elected to the Cincinnati Sketch Club, and there won a prize for a painting of Saladin fighting with Richard Coeur de Lion. The elder Beard called the painting to the attention of an eminent New York divine then visiting Cincinnati, Dr. Henry W. Bellows, who became another Taylor patron. Digging into a fund at his command, Bellows brought the young man to New York to study art. He arrived in January, 1860, working day and night for over a year until the bugles sounded in April, 1861, and Lincoln issued his call for volunteers.
As might be expected, Taylor answered. And as he says, with a sure instinct for clichés, “he laid down the brush…and shouldering his gun at his Country’s Call went to the Front.” The lucky regiment of his selection was the 10th New York Volunteers, which saw both quiet service garrisoning Fortress Monroe and very active campaigning at Antietam. When it was mustered out at the end of its two-year enlistment, Taylor had made sergeant, filled a portfolio with “camp studies,” and developed so strong an ambition to become a war artist that in each of his two books he uses almost the same words in describing it. Here is the Third Person, as written: “At the Expiration of his Service, through which Ordeal he passed Unscathed owing to fortuitous Circumstances, Taylors appetite was wetted to study field Manoeuvers in their entirety as a soldiers opportunity for study was necessarily limited, owing to his environments—he seeing only what transpired in his immediate Vicinity and little at all when in the hurly burly of the fight, shrouded in battle Smoke.”
However wet his appetite, a year seems to drop unaccountably out of Taylor’s life between his mustering out and his departure, as a brand new “special artist” for Leslie’s to cover the beginning of General Philip H. Sheridan’s “momenteous” campaign in the Shenandoah Valley in August, 1864. Momentous it was when Sheridan in a series of narrowly won battles finally closed that Confederate granary and back door to the North during the next few months and put it to the torch. The valley had been the graveyard of many earlier Union reputations, but this campaign made heroes of the hard-riding little Sheridan and his dashing yellow-haired cavalryman, George Armstrong Custer. And we can excuse Taylor his ornate, semiliterate style for the detail in which he reports and illustrates the valley, its people of divided loyalties, his own experiences, and war itself in this primitive masterpiece of a diary.