Thursday, January 13, 2011

`War Is a Little Hardening'

“In retreat, [Stonewall] Jackson would fight for a wheelbarrow.”

These are the tough, pithy, Chandleresque words of Confederate Gen. Richard Taylor, son of President Zachary Taylor, master of a sugar plantation in Louisiana, brother-in-law of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and able author of Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War (1879), from which the sentence above is quoted. Since reading Helen Pinkerton’s “Alike and Yet Unalike: General Richard Taylor Writes to Henry Adams” (Taken in Faith: Poems, 2002), I’ve wanted to learn more about Taylor and finally have read his memoir.

It’s stupidly arrogant to dismiss a book like Destruction and Reconstruction because its author owned slaves and fought for the Confederacy. Taylor was a thoughtful man of his time, fond of the classics, devoted husband and father, and a gifted soldier though without formal military education. He led the Louisiana Brigade in Virginia during Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign, and in 1864 his troops defeated a larger Union force led by Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks in the Red River Campaign. Taylor surrendered the last organized Confederate forces east of the Mississippi River.

In an age of hyper-specialization, one is surprised by the ease with which a non-professional – to call him an “amateur” sounds patronizing – could excel at farming, war and writing. As a writer he has a gift for clear, vivid description and sardonic understatement. Here’s Taylor on the conclusion of the Valley Campaign:

“We passed the night high up the mountain, where we moved to reach our supply wagons. A cold rain was falling, and before we found them every one was tired and famished. I rather took it out of the train-master for pushing so far up, although I had lunched comfortably from the haversack of a dead Federal. It is not pleasant to think of now, but war is a little hardening.”

Describing a fight with the German troops of Brig. Gen. Louis Blenker near Cedar Creek on June 1, 1862, Taylor writes:

“Sheep would have made as much resistance as we met.”

As Pinkerton explains in the notes to her poem, Taylor was working after the war in Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist for Louisiana interests when he and Henry Adams became friends:

“…Adams was beginning his History of the United States in the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison (1889-91). They read one another’s work in manuscript. Taylor published an essay on George Mason, `A Statesman of the Colonial Era,’ in North American Review (February 1879). A lifelong sufferer from rheumatoid arthritis, he died of heart disease April 12, 1879, one week after publication of his memoir…”

Pinkerton’s poem, a dramatic monologue in the form of a ten-page letter from Taylor to Adams, is dated January 1879. It includes a moving account of the death of Stonewall Jackson, shot by Confederate pickets during the Battle of Chancellorsville:

“It was a night that seemed to some of us
To sum up all our losses. Our good man,
Our great man, downed by his own soldiers’ fire.
God’s humor seems sardonic as my own.”

Taylor writes as a veteran not only of the war but of an irrecoverable past, a world gone, and perhaps a civilization. His voice is close to our own (Taylor has been reading Adams’ first novel, Democracy):

“…these days
When none remember what we were, or what
We might have been, had the war never come.
Your manuscript held me from sleep all night,
For it seemed hardly fiction but the truth
About a generation without honor.”

ADDENDUM: A reader in Dallas writes: "I'll have to put Taken in Faith and Gen. Taylor's memoir on my list of things to read. My father's grandfather, 1st Sgt. Samuel H. Stribling, was part of Taylor's army when it surrendered. According to family tradition, he was made a sergeant when the company was organized in 1864 because he was one of the older enlistees. He turned seventeen just after the surrender."

1 comment:

Stephen Cahaly said...

More Helen Pinkerton please. As for Richard Taylor, anyone who could keep General Banks away from my beloved Sarah Morgan's Baton Rouge is fine by me.