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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
It was Taylor’s, and Leslie’s, great good fortune that he was the only special artist in the corps of correspondents now gathered around Sheridan’s fast-moving headquarters. His were the pictures of the seesaw Battle of Winchester, the taking of Fisher’s Hill, the devastation of the valley (“Look out for smoke!” cried Custer) at Grant’s orders. Like Sheridan himself, Taylor almost missed the final big struggle at Cedar Creek—where that tough Confederate general, Jubal Early, surprised and drove back the larger Union army in disorder when Sheridan was away. Coming up through the disorganized retreat, Taylor was lucky enough to witness Little Phil making his famous ride, on his great black horse Rienzi, rallying and exhorting the troops to turn back. And he sketched the victory snatched from the jaws of defeat (Taylor’s style is catching), the tragic death of young Colonel Charles R. Lowell of Boston, and the mortal wounding of the Confederate General Stephen Ramseur. (Custer passed up the victory celebration to sit that night with Ramseur, his old West Point classmate and friend, as his life ebbed away, a moment “recreated” by Taylor, although he actually did see the body in the room.)
Neglecting nothing, Taylor wandered among the dead before the burial parties, horrified yet sentimental to the core—here two brothers side by side in death, there a dead Rebel’s body jealousy guarded by his dog. But he was also capable of a somewhat detached interest in the attitudes of those killed in battle: men hit in the head and killed instantly tended to land spread-eagled, expressions of horror in their open eyes, he said; those struck in the lower body and dying more slowly would draw up one leg, roll on their sides, and expire with more peaceful faces.
What gives Taylor’s huge “diary” its greatest interest, quite aside from the historic scenes he shows, is his own personal story, which is interwoven throughout and recorded in enormous detail. There is, for example, the problem of getting money, and he shows himself cashing a draft from Leslie. Then there is his military pass, obtained from General Lew Wallace. We see the interview. Transportation beyond the end of the railroad, much of it torn up repeatedly by passing armies, meant a horse. They were scarce, and we see Taylor brashly getting in to see Sheridan to ask for one. Barely restraining a smile, Sheridan explained quickly but politely the more pressing needs of the army. And so at first Taylor walked to war, along with a correspondent of the New York Herald; later we meet all three of the horses whom Taylor obtained by one stratagem or another—Billy, who wore out; Tom, who was shamefully stolen by some U.S. trooper; and Kate, who was turned in at the end.
Lacking the conveniences of the twentieth century, how does one get his sketches sent back quickly to the main office in New York? Re-stock art supplies and clothes? One rides slow old Billy or Tom back to the railroad at Harper’s Ferry through empty country dominated by the fast-moving cavalry parties of such Confederate guerrilla leaders as the legendary John S. Mosby—who might, if he caught you, send you to the prison pens at the South, or simply hang you in retaliation if Ouster had executed any Mosby men lately. Often Taylor rode alone, watchful and full of dark thoughts. Once he had a narrow escape, reaching Federal lines barely ahead of three fast-moving pursuers. On other occasions he felt safer riding with a guarded supply train, or a Union detachment, although one of these latter escorts, “Blazer’s Scouts,” were wiped out shortly afterward by Mosby.
All of this, of course, is illustrated in the diary, but there is much more than that. There is previous history, for example, like the grave of the original Harper at Harper’s Ferry, which Taylor felt bound to find and draw. He also visited the scenes of Brown’s raid, trial, and execution, and drew portraits of all the main characters in the drama. Then there was the poet Whittier to be straightened out on his facts. Taylor loved to quote poetry, and his pages are full of it but he seemed to have no sympathy with poetic license. For instance, he denounces as “mere fustian” the tale about old Brown kissing a Negro baby as he left jail for his execution. Anyone “of reasoning mind” should have known, says Taylor, “that it was all a slave’s life was worth to have shown himself on the streets of Charles Town that fateful day.”
In Frederick, Maryland, Taylor paused while “pencilling” all the public buildings to reprove Mr. Whittier again. Why did he not realize that Barbara Fritchie, although she flew a defiant Union flag from her house, lived on a street along which the invading gray host did not pass? Whittier should have known that the lady who actually tangled with the Rebels over a Union flag was Miss Mary A. Quantrill. And he renders the scene, which is more satisfactory because Mary was younger and more comely than ancient Barbara.
In his use of epithets and artifices for avoiding the repetition of names, Taylor varies between low Homer and high W. C. Fields. A pretty dark-haired daughter of one of his overnight hosts becomes, on second reference, “the handsome Hebe of the midnight tresses,” and her lovesick sister “the roseate maiden of the tell-tale blush.” Rather than merely “eat,” Taylor “gets outside of his food,” an interesting concept. A talkative black waiter becomes a “loquacious Nubian,” and his fellow correspondents a crowd of “quill drivers.”