Guest post by William Floyd, Jr.
On May 2, 1861, Walter Herron Taylor received a telegram from Virginia Governor John Letcher (1860-1864), instructing him to report for military service in Richmond. Upon arriving in Richmond, he was assigned to headquarters of the Army of Virginia, of which Robert E. Lee was in command. At the time, Taylor was a twenty-three-year-old militia officer from Norfolk. Taylor was immediately deeply impressed upon meeting Lee and later remembered commenting that, “he appeared every inch the soldier and a man born to command.” Lee, in turn was also impressed with his new aide, finding in Taylor the type of character that he admired and which appealed to him most: honesty, hard work, religious values, and most importantly, devotion to duty. Taylor would serve with Lee for the duration of the war, through all of the major campaigns, all the way to the end at Appomattox.
Taylor always appeared to be closest to Lee, first serving as aide-de-camp and, by the end of the war, assistant adjutant general of the Army of Northern Virginia with a rank of lieutenant colonel. Taylor proved to be very efficient at his job and saw one of his major responsibilities as shielding Lee from a flood of administrative duties.
Walter Taylor was born on June 13, 1838 in Norfolk, Virginia—one of several children of a prominent Virginia family. As a young man, he attended Norfolk Academy and then the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. Taylor only completed two years at VMI, returning home when his father died in Norfolk during a yellow fever epidemic. Upon his return, he took over his father’s business and later went into banking. He joined a volunteer militia unit after the John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry. When Virginia seceded from the Union in May of 1861, Taylor and his unit began full military service, and he was assigned to Lee’s staff. He was basically charged with the administrative work of the army and that of headquarters and would deliver important communications to battlefield commanders. Over time, Taylor would become Lee’s alter ego, and would on occasion sign Lee’s name to certain documents when the commanding general was unavailable.
Up until June of 1862, Lee had not possessed a formal field command but was serving as an advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Lee had seen some action in the western part of Virginia that had ended disastrously and had overseen construction of defenses along the south east coast. On June 3, 1862, Lee took over field command of Confederate forces around Richmond when General Joseph E. Johnston was wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. When Lee took over, he retained Robert H. Chilton and A.P. Mason from Johnston’s staff and brought A.L. Long, Charles Marshall, Charles S. Venable, and Walter H. Taylor with him from Richmond. These men now made up Lee’s official military family. He kept his personal staff to an absolute minimum, in part, because the general wished to have as many qualified officers available for service in the ranks.
Taylor was the best known at army headquarters to visitors and was on close terms with the staffs of other generals. He was the youngest officer on the staff and could be seen as “inside man.” He developed a great skill in handling official correspondence—a job responsibility Lee absolutely detested. Taylor possessed an unassuming personality but was friendly and understanding. He had a terrific memory and was capable of accomplishing difficult tasks. His one weakness, if it could be called that, was his impulse to leave his post during a battle and participate in a charge. Fortunately, Lee never caught him doing this; had he, Lee would have definitely put a stop to it.
The physical appearance of headquarters was in keeping with Lee’s own personality of being very simple and Spartan like. The general and his staff normally ate what the troops ate and slept in tents even when more comfortable accommodations were available. In regards to this, Taylor is quoted as saying, “Tis one of my commander’s idiosyncrasies to suffer any amount of discomfort and inconvenience sooner than to change a camp once established.”
One trait of General Lee that Taylor and others of the staff found unpleasant were his outbursts of temper. This was very evident in letters Taylor wrote to family and friends. The Lee that Taylor described was very demanding and could often be inconsiderate. Taylor stated that he was glad to “feel that I am of such use. I never worked so hard to please anyone, [but] with so little effect as with General Lee. He is so unappreciative.” Taylor resented Lee’s self-absorption and crossness but continued to be impressed by his commitment to duty and his deep piety. (Although Taylor found Lee to be very unpleasant at times, he felt President Jefferson Davis was even more so.)
Perhaps Taylor’s most profound statement about Lee came in a letter he wrote to Bettie Saunders, his future wife, where he stated, “I might serve him for ten years to come and couldn’t love him at the end.” In the same letter he also wrote, “Ah! But he is a queer old genius. I suppose it is so with all great men.” Later, in another letter to Bettie, he complained about Lee’s slowness to arrive at a decision frustrated him. “He is too undecided,” Taylor would say, “takes too long to firm his conclusions.” In contrast to this, Taylor remarked, “I have never known a man more thorough and painstaking in all he undertook.”
The order making Lee commander of the Confederate forces around Richmond, carried, for the first time, the name “Army of Northern Virginia,” which would become legendary. Taylor remained with this army through all of its engagements. After Lee took command, the Federals eventually withdrew after The Seven Days Battles. This was followed by a Confederate victory at the Battle of Second Manassas. The next major strategic move for the army was its march into Maryland, which resulted in the Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam) on September 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day of the war. Taylor felt the army was well prepared for this fight, but in the end the best it could possibly claim was a draw. In December of that same year, Taylor witnessed the slaughter of Union troops under Burnside as they charged the fortified sunken road at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Early in May of 1863, Taylor was with Lee at Chancellorsville, thought by many to be Lee’s greatest victory of the war. This was followed by what could be said to be Lee’s worse defeat, Gettysburg, the last Confederate campaign in the north.
In January of 1864, Taylor was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and in effect was now Chief of Staff. In May of 1864, during the Spotyslvania Campaign, Taylor led a charge that secured the broken Confederate line. Taylor made this decision to stop Lee from making the charge himself, which he was insisting on doing. Taylor would faithfully remain at his chief’s side through the Battle of Cold Harbor, the Siege of Petersburg, and the surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. The only real exception to Taylor being present was on April 2, 1865, when Lee granted Taylor permission to go to Richmond to marry Bettie Saunders, after which he immediately returned to duty.
After the surrender, Taylor and Charles Marshall accompanied Lee back to Richmond. Taylor spent time with Lee helping him to transition from a military to a civilian life. There is a famous photograph taken during this period showing Lee seated with Taylor and G.W.C. Lee on the porch of Lee’s house on Franklin Street in Richmond.
After leaving Richmond, Taylor met his new wife for a delayed wedding tour of Goochland County before returning to Norfolk to look for work. He eventually went into business with a partner, Andrew S. Martin, operating a hardware business known as W.H. Taylor and Company. He returned to his true interest, banking, in 1877, where he served as president of the Marine Bank until his death in 1916. However, he did not limit himself solely to banking. At various times he was president of the Seaboard Insurance Company, director of the Mutual Fire Insurance Company of Virginia, president of the Perpetual Building and Loan Association of Norfolk. While serving in the State Senate, he played a large part in the passage of legislation that led to the consolidation of other rail lines with the Norfolk and Petersburg system into what would eventually be the Norfolk and Western Railroad.
Despite his leading role in business and public service, his family and church always came first. As was very common at the time, Walter and Bettie raised a large family of eight children, four boys and four girls. In religion, Taylor had faith in the usefulness of prayer. For years he was a member of the vestry and a trustee of Christ Church in Norfolk where he owned Pew No. 1 adjacent to the altar. In politics, not to anyone’s surprise, he was a Democrat, serving Norfolk in the Virginia State Senate for four years.
In the years after the war, Taylor spent a good deal of time in making certain that the history of the war years would show the overwhelming odds that Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia faced. Lee had hoped to write his own history but was never able to do so. At one point, Taylor was able to obtain information from the archives of the United States War Department in Washington. This information became part of his book, Four Years with General Lee, published in 1878. Taylor’s second book, General Lee, 1861-1865, was more a study of the war’s campaigns. Taylor also contributed to the “Southern Historical Society Papers” dealing with the army’s strength throughout the war. Taylor kept closely in touch with General Lee and also, on a lesser level, with Jefferson Davis and several other Confederate commanders.
General Lee was able to pay a visit to Norfolk in 1870, the same year he died. Taylor accompanied the general through the streets of Norfolk where he was warmly welcomed by its citizens. When Lee died in Lexington in 1870, Taylor was honored, along with his old companion Venable, to be seated with the family in front of the pulpit.
Taylor was very fortunate in his personal health which he enjoyed almost to the very end of his life. He did suffer from what today would be labeled as arthritis and even checked himself into Johns Hopkins for treatment. Taylor died on March 1, 1916 of what had been diagnosed as cancer. Bettie followed him in death four months later and was buried beside him at Elmwood Cemetery in Norfolk.
It is not easy to write about Walter Taylor with having Robert E. Lee playing a prominent role in the story. There Civil War experiences mirror one another in almost every instance. Taylor did not always love Lee but he never lost respect for him.
- R. Lockwood Tower, editor, Lee’s Adjutant: The Wartime Letters of Colonel Walter Herron Taylor, 1862-1865 (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1995).
- Joseph T. Glatthaar, General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008).
- Walter H. Taylor, Four Years with General Lee (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1878).
- Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995).
- Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command (New York: Scribner, 1998).
- Jeffrey D. Wert, A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph, 1862-1863 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011).
- Michael Fellman, The Making of Robert E. Lee (New York: Random House,2000).
- www. Emmitsburg.net/archives-list/articles/history/civilwar/walter-taylor.htm.
- Encyclopedia Virginia.
William F. Floyd, Jr., worked for forty years for the City of Norfolk, Walter Taylor’s hometown. In his retirement, he’s now pursuing the study of history at Tidewater Community College.