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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
With the close of the Shenandoah campaign, Leslie’s sent Taylor to cover Ben Butler’s command on the James River, where Grant’s army was gradually closing in on Richmond and Petersburg. Thereafter the artist was transferred south by sea and joined General William T. Sherman’s army, which had just devastated Georgia and was about to march north from Savannah and continue the process in the Carolinas. Again Taylor was the only “special artist,” sending sketches of the advancing horde, of skirmishes, of river crossings, and of the burning of Columbia, South Carolina. In the closing hours of the war, just after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox further north, Taylor got in a little trouble. Attempting to cover a meeting at Raleigh between Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, who was eager to end his part of the war, and General Sherman, Taylor stowed away on Sherman’s railroad car. But the General had an eagle eye, detected a stranger, slowed the train, and had the artist ejected. Of course Taylor was not frustrated by that. Getting a description of the scene from another officer who attended, he recreated the moment for Leslie’s, which is one of the advantages of art over photography.
After the war ended, Taylor continued working for Leslie’s and its sister magazines until 1883. He spent a year traveling through the conquered South, concentrating on the prospects of its blacks. In September, 1867, he was sent to join a survey party to the West, where he traveled for a while with a young journalist named Henry M. Stanley, and was lucky enough to attend and record a noted peace council between U.S. commissioners and Plains Indians at Medicine Lodge Creek. Tales of Hiawatha and Indian battles now poured in equal profusion from his pencil. Stanley went off to find Livingston. Another Taylor expedition took him to Santo Domingo, accompanying an American commission during President Grant’s abortive attempt to negotiate an annexation.
Most of the remainder of Taylor’s life, however, was spent at his studio home, at 1449 Lexington Avenue, New York City, illustrating books and magazines, painting on commission, and conducting the voluminous correspondence necessary to one who collects everything. The central subject, of course, was always the same—the great experience of his life, the great, romantic war he had shared with so many others of his generation.
As the 1880’s arrived, so did a remarkable new patron, in the person of General Sherman, who not only bought three large paintings of Taylor’s for the War Department, but began recommending his protégé to other influential veterans. Whether or not he recognized in Taylor the former stowaway on his train is not clear, but it is quite certain that the General was turning into an art critic. Here he is, in a letter in Taylor’s scrapbook, groping for words with which to comment on the artist’s large painting The Last Grand Review [the great parade through Washington in May, 1865]: “The troops are well-massed by battalions and all the figures of the officers and men in the ranks have action .... The crowds in the street are also well exhibited. The sky, dust, and atmosphere all have real merit.”
One day in 1883 old Admiral David Dixon Porter stopped by Sherman’s office to study another Taylor painting, this one of his own river fleet running the batteries at Vicksburg. Sherman was out, but Porter rushed off an enthusiastic letter. Sherman sent it to Taylor: “I cannot tell you how much pleased I was with the picture. I don’t hesitate to say that is the best, and in fact the only historical [painting] relating to the Navy in the late war that I have seen. The details are wonderfully correct .... After so many years elapsing after the event, I could almost realize that I was again on the deck of the Benton, as the vessels were passing the batteries amid shell, smoke, shot, and flame .... I only wish that the Navy Department could be induced to patronize [Mr. Taylor] as you have done ....”
Patronage is brisk if you start right, and presently Taylor had commissions, inquiries, and letters from General Sheridan (who had apparently forgotten about Taylor’s hopeless request for a horse); Grenville Dodge, the great builder of the Union Pacific who had been one of Sherman’s generals; and General John W. Fuller, who also led troops with Sherman. Both of the latter got sword-in-hand battle scenes. And there were Confederate commissions as well, including one from General Thomas L. Rosser, who wished to be shown defeating Custer (as he did) in a battle at Trevillian Station, Virginia. In that task, Taylor tangled briefly with the hero’s wife, who wished to have her husband’s facial hair altered to its current rather than wartime state, so that their friends could recognize him. At one point, the artist even found himself illustrating a book glorifying the exploits of the once-dreaded Colonel Mosby—who was, by this time, a fervent Grant supporter and Republican officeholder in the Department of Justice. Such were the fortunes of peace.
Taylor’s memoir, his Life Work in Art, closes with a note from a lady, never mentioned elsewhere. “Personally,” she writes, “Mr. Taylor is very delightful to meet; a clever conversationalist and possessing still the most intense enthusiasm for his Art … his declaration that to his Noble Mother’s guidance he is indebted for whatever success he has attained is one of the most striking characteristics of a man who has proven what concentration, coupled with genius, can accomplish under difficulties....”