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

July 2024
17min read

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

“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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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....”

The handwriting begins to look a little like Taylor’s own, but we persevere: “In closing it may be of interest to state that Mr. James E. Taylor is a bachelor. Perhaps that is the only fault to be found with an otherwise entirely admirable career. But it is never too late to mend.—Ellen Corinne Bergen, January, 1900”

Ellen Corinne Bergen?

But it really was too late for the old bachelor, who had given all his love to that last chivalric war. On June 22, 1901, forty years after the 10th New York marched off, bands playing, pipes shrieking, the vicissitudes and the adventures ended, the old war buff struck the tent.

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