The Awkward Meeting of Richard Taylor, Edward Canby and Peter Osterhaus

Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Sean Michael Chick

Taylor's memoir
Taylor’s memoir

In considering the ways Americans have debated the American Civil War, its meaning and influence, one particular illustrative episode can be found in Richard Taylor’s eloquent memoir Destruction and Reconstruction. Taylor was the son of Zachary Taylor, serving on his staff in the Mexican-American War. He grew up on a Kentucky plantation and later became a Democratic Party operative.. By all measurements he held a privileged position within a privileged social class. Taylor had a strange career in the American Civil War. A favorite of Jefferson Davis and “Stonewall” Jackson, Taylor fought superbly in the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Poor health and the need for a fighting commander led to Taylor’s transfer to Louisiana, where he earned a reputation for skillful generalship. He ended the war leading the last major Confederate forces east of the Mississippi River.

Taylor, although certainly a talented general, was also arrogant. His disputes with Kirby Smith were legendary for their bitterness. His haughty manner led to a particular scathing depiction of Taylor in the memoirs of St. John Liddell. Most men liked Taylor, but his manner could be imperious and his tongue was as acidic as Daniel Harvey Hill’s fabled barbs. Taylor though, seems to have at least been less prosaic in his condemnations than Hill. Regardless, Taylor was free with his opinions in Destruction and Reconstruction, concerned more with honesty than bruised feelings.

This riotous mix of eloquence and stubborn pride is evident in one of Destruction and Reconstruction’s best passages: Taylor’s surrender of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana on May 4, 1865. Taylor recalled the event as an illustration of the contrasting fortunes of the sections. Major General Edward Canby and Commodore James Shedden Palmer, who had both overseen the capture of Mobile, arrived with a military band, escort, and large assortment of officers dressed in their best uniforms. Taylor came with only Colonel William Levy, a member of his staff and future Louisiana Congressman and judge. They both wore tattered uniforms.

Canby was every bit as gracious as Ulysses Grant and William Sherman. It was perhaps unsurprising. Canby was a thorough professional, respected for his skill in administration. His manner was typically described as modest and fair. His politics are a bit obscure, but being a border state man, born in Kentucky and raised in southern Indiana, Canby was likely not a political radical. He likely would have been at ease with Sherman and George Meade, men who fought the war to maintain the union and uphold democracy. Taylor recalled that Canby provided “A bountiful luncheon…with joyous poppings of champagne corks for accompaniment, the first agreeable explosive sounds I had heard for years.” The band played “Hail Columbia” at Taylor’s behest; Canby had earlier wanted to play “Dixie.” Taylor was already bowing to the need for reunion. Yet, given Taylor’s background and later opposition to even mild Reconstruction, the next passage is especially telling.

“There was, as ever, a skeleton at the feast, in the person of a general officer who had recently left Germany to become a citizen and soldier of the United States. This person, with the strong accent and idioms of the Fatherland, comforted me by assurances that we of the South would speedily recognize our ignorance and errors, especially about slavery and the rights of States, and rejoice in the results of the war. In vain Canby and Palmer tried to suppress him. On a celebrated occasion an Emperor of Germany proclaimed himself above grammar, and this earnest philosopher was not to be restrained by canons of taste.”

The German in question was certainly Major General Peter Joseph Osterhaus, the only high ranking German in Canby’s army. He was a Prussian officer who joined in the Revolution of 1848 and like so many other radical Germans fled to America. Like most of these radicals he was an early supporter of the Republican Party and eagerly enlisted in the Union army. He was a battle tested commander, winning particular laurels at Pea Ridge, Port Gibson, and Jonesborough. In 1865 he was Canby’s chief of staff. Considering his rank, position, and politics he was certainly Taylor’s nemesis on May 4. Osterhaus was also battle proven commander and given his rank and experience would likely not shy from giving his opinions. Why Taylor did not name him is unclear; considering that soon after the war he took a diplomatic position in France, Taylor may have simply forgotten him.

Osterhaus, as befitted his earlier experiences in Germany and the Republican Party, represented the more radical, reforming element of the Union cause. Taylor, every bit the planter-aristocrat, responded with an eloquent bit of Civil War vintage sarcasm:

“I apologized meekly for my ignorance, on the ground that my ancestors had come from England to Virginia in 1608, and, in the short intervening period of two hundred and fifty-odd years, had found no time to transmit to me correct ideas of the duties of American citizenship. Moreover, my grandfather, commanding the 9th Virginia regiment in our Revolutionary army, had assisted in the defeat and capture of the Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, and I lamented that he had not, by association with these worthies, enlightened his understanding. My friend smiled blandly, and assured me of his willingness to instruct me. Happily for the world, since the days of Huss and Luther, neither tyranny nor taste can repress the Teutonic intellect in search of truth or exposure of error. A kindly, worthy people, the Germans, but wearing on occasions.”

This incident, dramatically and fluently, laid out the contorts of the Reconstruction debate to come, between an unrepentant South and a reforming North. Yet, in the short-term, the biggest winner was neither Taylor nor Osterhaus. It was Canby, who represented reconciliation and nationalism. On the one hand, the South would not return to its former place of political and economic strength that Taylor and his class enjoyed before 1861. Yet, the expanded rights promised and hoped for by Osterhaus and his ilk would remain unfilled.

Yet, what strikes one most is the ways in which the debates of today have not changed. Taylor and Osterhaus are still fighting over the war using similar language (although often with less eloquence), with Canby seemingly as helpless as ever within the debate.

1 Response to The Awkward Meeting of Richard Taylor, Edward Canby and Peter Osterhaus

  1. Well chosen Sean!

    A wonderful anecdote. A joyful, confident and hopeful first generation American, lecturing a scion of one of the oldest European families on the confident!

    Hard to find the time for Civics instruction, though. Even today, after four hundred years, some American leaders still cannot transmit the correct ideas of the duties of American citizenship to their constituents.

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