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Richard Taylor, 1826-1879
Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War
New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1879.


Richard Taylor, son of President Zachary Taylor and Margaret Mackall Taylor, was born January 27, 1826, near Louisville, Kentucky, at the family's estate, "Springfields." Young Taylor was tutored in Lancaster, Massachusetts, until 1841, when he traveled abroad to study in Scotland and France. In 1843, he returned to the United States to enter Harvard University but soon transferred to Yale University, where he graduated in 1845. He then traveled widely before settling down to manage his father's cotton plantation. He later managed his own sugar plantation, "Fashion," in Louisiana's St. Charles Parish. While active in politics, Taylor read and studied widely, with special interest in military history and English and French literature. In 1856, Taylor left the Whig party and became a Democrat. He served as a Louisiana state senator from 1856-1861. While chairman of the committee on federal relations in the Louisiana senate, he was one of the voices that proposed organizing a secession convention, though he opposed other Southern attempts to fracture the Democratic Party along sectional lines. Taylor was elected to this convention and served as chairman of the military and naval affairs committee. He voted for secession and urged speedy preparations for war.

When the war began, Taylor joined the 9th Louisiana infantry and was elected colonel. Six months later, Jefferson Davis promoted him to Brigadier-General. He fought first with Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, and then, as a Major General, he led a successful guerilla campaign in the West Louisiana territory in 1862. After a victory at the Battle of Mansfield, Louisiana, in the spring of 1864, Taylor was promoted to Lieutenant General and assigned to the Department of East Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. He took over command of John Bell Hood's battered troops, but, plagued by fraud, desertion, and fatigue among his men, Taylor could not muster the strength to withstand further Union assaults. Taylor's army was defeated at Citronelle, Alabama, and he surrendered the last Confederate army stronghold east of the Mississippi.

Although Taylor was paroled shortly after the war, his estate had been confiscated, and the war left him penniless. Moved to secure the release of other Confederate veterans, Taylor visited Washington frequently and is said to have influenced President Johnson's Louisiana policies. He later became trustee of the Peabody Education Fund, which sought to promote Southern letters. Taylor died of dropsy April 17, 1879, at his friend Colonel S.L.M Barlow's New York home.

Destruction and Reconstruction, Taylor's reminisces of the Civil War and its aftermath, originally appeared in the North American Review in January-April 1878. A veritable who's who of the second half of the nineteenth century, the memoir combines nuanced details about Civil War battles and Reconstruction politics with Taylor's reflections. These reflections concern the personal and social challenges that arose during and after the "War Between the States." Taylor provides so many specifics that the text concludes with an index of names and places discussed in the narrative.

The details are most remarkable in Taylor's descriptions of the Confederacy's notable leaders and their military maneuvers. He outlines strategies and writes of his own tendency to fight imaginary battles in his head in order to prepare for real moments on the battlefield. Referring often to ancient warriors and battles, he provides reasons why he believes battles were won or lost, explaining, for example, the crippling effects of rain and mud on an army's advance. Overall, Taylor believes that the "Southron" makes a better soldier than a Northerner "not because of more courage, but because of the social and economic conditions by which he was surrounded." The Northerner, spoiled by his urbanity and dependence on manufactured goods, suffered from a "weakened individuality of character" (p. 20). In spite of this sentiment, however, Taylor writes of a particular, although sometimes qualified, fondness for Union army General George McClellen and later for Ulysses Grant.

Other sections of Taylor's story read like a travel narrative, with vividly written portraits of the land and the people. While in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, he dwells extensively on the terrain and scenery. He also praises the inhabitants of the region for their loyalty to the Confederacy. Similarly, when he serves in Louisiana, Taylor debunks racist stereotypes, commenting on the gentility of two Creole men he meets.

When the war ends, Taylor—homeless and left only with worthless Confederate currency#x2014;sells his horse to raise the money needed to bring his family back to New Orleans. He continues to work with General Edward Canby, the officer in charge of Louisiana's occupation, and is displeased by the flight of Confederate soldiers and officers to Mexico. Believing himself just as guilty as Jefferson Davis, Taylor petitions President Andrew Johnson tirelessly for permission to see the imprisoned former president of the Confederacy. He is ultimately successful, and Taylor and Davis become close friends. Taylor praises the South for its graceful acceptance of defeat, but he believes that the North was unable to forgive the South for its rebellion. He explains, "The leaders of the radical masses of the North have indicted such countless and cruel wrongs on the Southern people as to forbid any hope of disposition or ability to forgive their victims; and the land will have no rest until the last of these persecutors has passed into oblivion" (p. 238). Thus, he sees most of his efforts to secure significant concessions for the South as ultimately fruitless.

In the chapters that Taylor devotes to Reconstruction, two main themes pervade his discussion: cotton and African American suffrage. He laments cotton's corrupting influence on North and South and its seemingly unrestrained power. Of African American suffrage, Taylor is equally skeptical, stating firmly, "the influence of universal suffrage seemed to have destroyed all sense of personal manhood" (p. 209). Taylor believes that before African Americans are given the vote, they should be educated. He is careful, however, to distinguish between suffrage and slavery. Taylor is firmly anti-slavery, and he asserts that many in the South share his view. He is suspicious of northern liberal claims about the suffering of African Americans at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, but he does acknowledge that racial violence is a problem in the South.

In his final chapter, Taylor broadens his scope to criticize the country as a whole. He writes of labor disputes, corruption, and the lack of education among American youth. He ends with his fear that the Civil War's heroes will be forgotten but reasserts his enduring hope that loyalty to patriotic traditions will guide the nation.

Works Consulted: Stephenson, Wendell, "Taylor, Richard." Dictionary of American Biography, Ed. Dumas Malone, New York: Scribner's, 1936; Wakelyn, John, Biographical Dictionary of the Confederacy, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Jennifer L. Larson

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