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Confederate General Richard Taylor (January 27, 1826 – April 12, 1879)

Richard Taylor CSA
US Library of Congress

On this day January 27 Richard “Dick” Taylor (January 27, 1826 – April 12, 1879) was born. He was an American plantation owner, politician, military historian and Confederate general during the War Between the States. Although he had no formal military training he was regarded as an outstanding leader and among only eighteen men to have earned the title of Confederate Lieutenant General. Undoubtedly his most notable service occurred in 1864 when his troops completely thwarted the Union’s Red River Expedition in Louisiana.

Richard Taylor was the only son of Margaret Mackall (Smith) and the future 12th President of the United States Zachary Taylor. He was born in Springfield Kentucky at the Taylor family home near Louisville. He was named for his Grandfather who was a Virginian and had served as a Revolutionary War officer. In his early life while his father was stationed at remote frontier posts Richard remained at home and attended private schools in Kentucky and Massachusetts. After starting his college studies at Harvard College he transferred to Yale College where he graduated in 1845. He received no scholastic honors but spent the majority of his free time reading books on classical and military history.

When the Mexican-American War began in 1846, Taylor joined his father in Texas and served as his military secretary. He was present at the opening Battles of Palo Alto and Reseca de la Palma but declined to join the military so his father sent him to Jefferson County, Mississippi to manage the family cotton plantation. During his tenure there he met Jefferson Davis who would become his Brother-In-Law and the future president of the Confederate States of America. After his father was elected to the White House in 1848, Richard convinced him to purchase Fashion, a large sugar plantation in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana.

After Zachary Taylor's untimely death in July 1850, Richard inherited Fashion. Steadily he increased its acreage, improved its sugar works and expanded its labor force to nearly 200 slaves. On February 10, 1851, Taylor married Louise Marie Myrthe Bringier who was a native of Louisiana and the daughter of a wealthy French Creole matriarch Aglae Bringier. They had five children, two sons and three daughters; Richard, Zachary, Louise, Elizabeth, and Myrthe. Their two sons died of scarlet fever during the War Between the States, for which both Taylors suffered deeply.

During his time in Louisiana Taylor became involved in politics and was elected to the Louisiana Senate which he served in until 1861. Taylor was a familiar figure in the upper-class circles of New Orleans, racing thoroughbred horses at the famous Metairie Track and appearing at the gaming tables of the exclusive Boston Club. Although a staunch Democrat, Taylor was generally moderate on the issue of slavery and he opposed the secessionist wing of his party. He was involved in trying to arrange a compromise between the two factions at the 1860 Democratic convention at Charleston South Carolina. When those negotiations failed Taylor concluded that secession was inevitable and in January 1861 he voted along with the majority of the Louisiana secession convention to join the Confederacy.

Shortly after the War Between the States began in April 1861 Taylor traveled to Pensacola Florida to visit family friend Brigadier General Braxton Bragg. While there Bragg requested that that Taylor aid him in training new units that were destined for service in Virginia. Taylor agreed and commenced working but turned down several offers to serve in the Confederate Army. Highly effective in this role he was recognized by Confederate President Jefferson Davis and in July 1861 Taylor finally yielded and accepted a commission as colonel of the 9th Louisiana Infantry. Taking the regiment north it arrived in Virginia too late to participate at the First Battle of Manassas. That fall the Confederate Army reorganized and on October 21 Taylor received a promotion to brigadier general. With the promotion came command of a brigade comprised of Louisiana regiments.

Taylor enjoyed his brigade's respect along with a reputation as a consummate student of military history, strategy, and tactics. "Dick Taylor was a born soldier," asserted a close friend. "Probably no civilian of his time was more deeply versed in the annals of war." Taylor’s Louisiana Brigade included the infamous battalion of "Louisiana Tigers," and they proved vital to Major General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's brilliant Shenandoah Valley campaign during the spring of 1862. Jackson used Taylor's brigade as an elite strike force that dealt swift flanking attacks against much larger Union forces. At Front Royal on May 23, again at Winchester on May 25, and finally at the climactic battle of Port Republic on June 9 Taylor led the Louisianans in timely assaults against strong enemy positions.

On July 28, 1862, with the recommendation of Jackson, Taylor was promoted to the rank of Major General and at the time was the youngest man with that rank in the Confederacy. However, he was plagued by acute attacks of arthritis which was probably brought on by exposure to cold weather. Therefore at his own request he was subsequently reassigned to command of the District of West Louisiana which at that time was a part of the Department of Trans-Mississippi under General Edmund Kirby Smith. His orders were to conscript and enroll troops in the District of Western Louisiana.
Historian John D. Winters wrote that Taylor was also to "Command all troops south of the Red River and was to prevent the enemy from using the rivers and bayous in the area. Troops were to be gathered and sent to fill up the ranks of Louisiana regiments serving in Virginia. After this, Taylor was to retain as many recruits as would be needed in the state. Light batteries of artillery were to be organized to harass passing enemy vessels on the streams. ... The enemy was to be confined to as narrow an area as possible, and communications and transportation across the Mississippi River were to be kept open."

In 1862 the Confederacy’s condition in the West was at its lowest point since the war had begun. New Orleans had fallen and Vicksburg would fall a year later and with that Union forces gained complete control of the Mississippi River. The Union commander at New Orleans, General Benjamin Butler made several attempts to invade northern Louisiana but under Taylor’s command his troops brilliantly handled engagements in April and November and drove Butler’s forces back to New Orleans. In the spring of 1864, Union forces intensified their efforts by deploying a large army under General Nathaniel P. Banks and a gunboat flotilla under Commander David D. Porter. These two officers were directed to advance along the Red River into Texas. The Union had four goals at the start of the campaign:
1. To destroy the Confederate Army commanded by Taylor.
2. To capture Shreveport, Louisiana, Confederate headquarters for the Trans-Mississippi Department, control the Red River to the north, and occupy east Texas.
3. To confiscate as much as a hundred thousand bales of cotton from the plantations along the Red River.
4. To organize pro-Union state governments in the region.
Union strategists in Washington thought that the occupation of east Texas and control of the Red River would separate Texas from the rest of the Confederacy. Texas was the source of much needed guns, food, and supplies for Confederate troops. Other historians have also claimed that the campaign was motivated by concern regarding the 25,000 French troops in Mexico sent by Napoleon III and under the command of Emperor Maximillian. At the time, the Confederates offered to recognize the government of Maximillian in return for French recognition of the Confederacy and to gain access to valuable war goods through this recognition.

Taylor’s command meanwhile was severely undermanned and he continually squabbled with Kirby Smith over manpower priorities. With few reinforcements available to him he resolved to resist the Union advance up the Red River with whatever forces he had available. In March 1864 Banks pressed up the Red River towards Shreveport supported by Union gunboats under Porter. Initially withdrawing up the river from Alexandria, Taylor sought advantageous ground for making a stand. On April 8 he attacked Banks at the Battle of Mansfield. His troops overwhelmed the Union forces there and compelled them to retreat back to Pleasant Hill. Seeking a decisive victory Taylor struck this position the next day but could not break through Banks' lines. Though checked, the two battles compelled Banks to abandon the campaign and he began moving downstream. Eager to crush Banks, Taylor became enraged when Smith stripped three divisions from his command to block a Union incursion from Arkansas. Reaching Alexandria, Porter found that the water levels had dropped and that many of his vessels could not move over the nearby falls. Though Union forces were briefly trapped, Taylor lacked the manpower to attack and Kirby Smith refused to return his men. As a result, Porter had a dam constructed to raise the water levels and Union forces escaped downstream.

If there were any weaknesses in Taylor they were bad health and an equally bad temper. One of his officers remembered, "Taylor well was charming company [but] Taylor sick was not a pattern of patience and amiability." Whether he was sick or not, Taylor's temper often got the best of him. Another veteran wrote that Taylor was "a very quiet, unassuming little fellow, but noisy on retreats, with a tendency to cuss mules and wagons which stall in the road." Irate over Smith’s orders, Taylor attempted to resign as he was unwilling to serve with Kirby Smith any further. This request was denied but on July 18 1864, President Davis promoted Taylor to Lieutenant General and placed him in charge of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana. He arrived at his new headquarters in Alabama in August but found the department lacking troops and resources. Earlier in the month Mobile had been closed to Confederate traffic in the wake of the Union victory at the Battle of Mobile Bay. While Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry worked to limit Union incursions into Alabama, Taylor lacked the men to block Union operations around Mobile. In January 1865 following General John Bell Hood's disastrous Franklin-Nashville Campaign Taylor was given command of the remnants of the Army of Tennessee. Resuming his normal duties after this force was transferred to the Carolinas he soon found his department overrun by Union troops later that spring. Following the surrender at Appomattox in April, Taylor attempted to hold out for as long as possible.

In late April reports reached Taylor of the meetings between Johnston and Sherman about the terms of Johnston's surrender of his armies. Taylor agreed to meet with Major General Edward R. S. Canby for a conference north of Mobile, and they settled on a 48 hour's truce on April 30. Then on May 4 at Citronelle, Alabama Taylor agreed to surrender his armies and was the last to do so east of the Mississippi river. The terms stated that Taylor could retain control of the railway and river steamers in order for his men to return to their homes. Taylor stayed in Meridian Mississippi until the last man was sent on his way. He was paroled on May 13 and then went to Mobile to join Canby. Canby took him to his home in New Orleans by boat.

Taylor’s return found economic collapse and widespread financial devastation. With his plantation in ruins and confiscated he reunited with his family in Natchitoches. He divided his time between there and New York and began working for wealthy New York City attorney Samuel Latham Mitchell Barlow. Barlow was an influential powerbroker in the Democratic Party and being the son of a former President, Taylor was able to gain access to places and people other Confederates were not. At Barlow’s request, Taylor negotiated with Presidents Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant and also lobbied members of Congress in an attempt to advance democratic principles mainly by gaining more lenient treatment for the South. Increasingly distrustful of Radical Republicans, Taylor finally cursed Reconstruction “as a loathsome evil, with Johnson as its inept victim and Grant as its corrupt handmaiden.”

Shortly after his wife's death in 1875, Taylor moved with his three daughters to Winchester, Virginia. He became very involved in New Yorker Samuel J. Tilden's Democratic presidential campaign in 1876. While in New York a few weeks before his death Taylor completed his memoirs; Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War. It has been recognized as one of the most respected, non-biased histories of the War. On April 12, 1879 at the age of 53, Taylor died at Barlow's home in New York City succumbing to severe internal congestion resulting from his long battle with rheumatoid arthritis. Although Taylor had never demonstrated strong religious convictions an Episcopal clergyman was present to minister to him. His body was returned to New Orleans and he was buried in the family crypt at Metairie Cemetery.

Most of Taylor's contemporaries and subordinates held his military prowess in high regard. Nathan Bedford Forrest commented that "He's the biggest man in the lot. If we'd had more like him, we would have licked the Yankees long ago." Stonewall Jackson and Richard S. Ewell frequently commented on their conversations with Taylor. Ewell stated that he came away from his conversations with Taylor more knowledgeable and impressed with the amount of information Taylor possessed. He was one of the most capable Confederate leaders of the west and with sufficient resources might have exerted decisive impact in that hard-fought theater. The Lt. General Richard Taylor Camp #1308, Sons of Confederate Veterans in Shreveport Louisiana is named for General Taylor. The camp was chartered in 1971.

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