If my wife were to one day reclaim the library room in our house and force me to sell off my collection of Civil War books, one indispensable volume that I’d need to insist on keeping would be With Sheridan Up the Shenandoah Valley, also known as the James E. Taylor Civil War sketchbook. Published in 1989 by the Western Reserve Historical Society the long out-of-print book is nearly impossible to find on the secondary market and regularly commands a price of several hundred dollars.
Taylor was an artist working for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and had attached himself to the General Philip H. Sheridan’s command during the late summer and fall of 1864. He would keep a diary of his travels up the Shenandoah Valley but the real gem is his voluminous sketches, not only of battles but of landscapes, houses, villages and the inhabitants of the Valley during the late stages of the Civil War. We frequently dismiss woodcuts, sketches and engravings as secondary to the original wet plate photographs of the period, and often for good reason. Sketches could look rudimentary and hurried while woodcuts could be created hundreds of miles away from the scene and based on second or third hand information. As such details may be embellished or misconstrued. Having earlier served a two year enlistment with the 10th New York Infantry in the Army of the Potomac, Taylor had a trained eye to the scenes and events he was sketching. The end result is a visually pleasing and incredibly accurate rendering of the sites and scenes of Sheridan’s Valley campaign.
On a recent work trip to the eastern panhandle of West Virginia I took a few minutes to orient a few of Taylor’s sketches in Middleway, West Virginia. Middleway is a sleepy town located appropriately ‘midway’ between Charles Town, Inwood and Bunker Hill. Established in 1786 as the town of Smithfield (later changed to avoid confusion with another Smithfield in Virginia), Middleway retains a stunningly intact historic district. If other towns in the area offer visitors a feeling of stepping back into the 19th century, Middleway is like stepping back into the 18th century. I’d encourage readers to visit the historic district devoid of almost any modern intrusions.
Taylor had been contracted by noted historian John Gilmary Shea, that if Taylor were to come close enough to Middleway he would sketch the environs of a particular piece of nearby property known as ‘The Clip’ or ‘Priest’s Place,’ where a demonic manifestation had occurred in the late 18th century. On September 17, 1864 Taylor found himself in the vicinity of Middleway and determined to visit and sketch the area. Only two weeks earlier Middleway had seen a running battle between two divisions of Confederate infantry under Jubal Early and a division of Union cavalry under Wesley Merritt. The battle moved directly through town, Taylor noting “evidences, in bullet and shell scars, of the fierce conflict that had recently raged through its street.”[i]
Taylor drafted six sketches of Middleway proper. The following sketch of main street (modern day Queen Street/Leetown Road) is looking north, drafted from the corner of Grace and Queen Streets. The building at Taylor’s back (today is a state of severe deterioration) had been used as a Confederate hospital following the Battle of Antietam. Taylor notes “the corner opposite furnished me material to enliven an otherwise prosaic scene in a struggling crowd of Federals about the “Town Pump,” each struggling to be first to secure its modicum of the cooling beverage.”[ii]
And here’s a modern view. Note the water pump is still in place at left…
Taylor later moved a block up to East Street (identified by Taylor as Church Street), where he sketched the Episcopal Church and the fresh graves from the recent battle. Taylor was “greeted with rows of fresh earth mounds with rough, rude lettered boards, recording the names and regiments of the tenants who had fought their last fight. These represented the Blue only, erected by their surviving comrades who, holding the field, were thus enabled to five them proper sepulture – rites that were not accorded their foe who had gone down in the sanguinary conflict in the suburbs and in the streets of Smithfield, who were buried hard by in a long trench without markers for obvious reasons.”[iii]
I was not able to exactly replicate this view. What had appeared during my visit to be a private drive Google maps instead shows as an extension of East Street. Not wanting to trespass I was only able to get a closer view of the church. Now knowing drive is a public street I can update this view during my next visit to the area.
Taylor then moved to the opposite end of East (Church) Street, sketching the street he’d just come down…
The same view is easily replicated today, with the Odd Fellows hall, cemetery and Episcopal Church on the left and the Lutheran Church on the right….
Taylor’s eye for detail is still visible in both buildings…
I would hope that Taylor’s sketchbook may one day be reprinted and made available to a wider audience, perhaps with an associated tour guide of sites visited and sketched by Taylor.
[i]Taylor, James E. With Sheridan Up the Shenandoah Valley in 1864: Leaves from a Special Artist’s Sketchbook and Diary. Cleveland, OH: Western Reserve Historical Society. 1989. 332.
[iii]Taylor, pg. 334