About Walter Herron Taylor, Jr.
This man had the Honor to ride with General Robert E. Lee for four years of the war and remained his friend until General Lee passed in 1870.
Walter Herron Taylor (June 13, 1838 – March 1, 1916) was an American banker, lawyer, soldier, politician, author, and railroad executive from Norfolk, Virginia. During the American Civil War, he was an officer in the Confederate States Army, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel as an aide to General Robert E. Lee. He was later a Senator in the Virginia General Assembly, and attorney for the Norfolk and Western Railway and later the Virginian Railway.
Taylor was born on June 13, 1838, in Norfolk, Virginia. He was the son of Walter H. Taylor Sr. and Cornelia Wickham Cowdery, and was a descendant of Adam Thoroughgood and his wife Sarah. Throughgood (1604–1640) was an early leader and is widely credited for the naming of various forms of Norfolk County and the Lynnhaven River in the earliest colonial days of the 17th century. Walter graduated from Virginia Military Institute (VMI) at Lexington, Virginia in 1857. He became a merchant and banker in Norfolk.
American Civil War
During the American Civil War (1861–1865), Taylor joined the Confederate States Army on the secession of Virginia in 1861 and joined the staff of General Robert E. Lee. When General Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia in June 1862, during the Peninsula Campaign, Taylor became assistant adjutant general of that army.
Taylor was no ordinary staff officer, but an exceedingly capable and tireless worker with many responsibilities. He was effectively the Chief Aide-de-camp to General Lee throughout the war. And since Lee was noted for his small, over-worked staff, Taylor carried an enormous burden on his young shoulders. He wrote dispatches and orders for Lee, performed personal reconnaissance, and often carried messages in person to corps and division commanders. (The famous "if practicable" order from Lee to Richard S. Ewell below Cemetery Hill in the Battle of Gettysburg was verbally transmitted by Taylor.) He greeted all persons who came to see Lee, and usually decided whether they would be announced to the General. Taylor eventually attained a rank almost commensurate with his great staff responsibilities, being promoted to lieutenant colonel on December 12, 1863. (In postbellum writings, he is generally referred to as colonel, but this is a customary abbreviated title for addressing a lieutenant colonel.)
Taylor's fiancée was Elizabeth Selden "Bettie" Saunders, daughter of United States Navy Captain John L. Saunders and Mrs. Martha Bland Selden Saunders. Miss Saunders lived during the war with the family of Lewis D. Crenshaw in Richmond, Virginia where she worked in the Confederate Mint and for the Surgeon General in the Confederate Medical Department.
In the last few days of the Siege of Petersburg, as it became clear to Lee and his staff that Petersburg was lost and Richmond should be evacuated, 26 year-old Taylor received special permission from General Lee to go to Richmond to give Miss Saunders "the protection of his name." He sent a messenger ahead to Richmond to advise his bride-to-be and have her make arrangements with Reverend Dr. Charles Minnigerode, the rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church.
After midnight, in the wee hours of April 3, 1865, while the evacuating Confederates fired the city and looters ran wild in its streets, Taylor and Miss Saunders were married in the parlor of the Crenshaw house. Afterward, Lewis Crenshaw accompanied Taylor as far back toward the Confederate lines as safety permitted. One week after the surrender at Appomattox Court House, Taylor returned to Richmond with General Lee, picked up his bride, and drove her back to Norfolk in a buggy.
After the war
After the war, Taylor resumed the banking business at Norfolk, Virginia, and also worked as an attorney. He held municipal offices and was elected to the Virginia General Assembly, where he served as a State Senator from 1869 until 1873. He was president of the Marine Bank, and served on the Board of Directors of the Norfolk and Western Railway.
On April 30, 1870, General Lee paid his last visit to the Norfolk area, accompanied by his daughter, Agnes Lee. He arrived in Portsmouth via railroad from North Carolina, and was met by Colonel Taylor. His former aide escorted him through the waiting crowds to ride to Norfolk on the Elizabeth River ferry. He died less than five months later.
Taylor devoted a considerable portion of his postwar years to settling controversies related to the Army of Northern Virginia. He was recognized by former generals from both sides of the war as an unofficial court of last resorts in settling disputes about their wartime reputations. Col. Taylor was petitioned by so many of the war's generals for so much information, he decided to write a book to set the record straight. He asked for permission from the U.S. government to view the national archives related to the Army of the Potomac and was the first man ever granted such a privilege. In 1877, he wrote a book, Four Years with General Lee, which was the source for dozens of anecdotes about Lee. This book, heavily documented by the records from the National Archives, read more like a situation report than a novel so it was not widely popular at the time. Many of the former Confederate generals, General James Longstreet in particular, claimed that if Col. Taylor ever wrote another book about the war, they hoped he would tell the "rest of the story." Col. Taylor wrote another book, published in 1906, Robert E. Lee, His Campaign in Virginia, 1861-1865. This book had the same statistical information as his previous work, but it read more like a novel, and was thus an instant best seller.
Late in the 19th century, Taylor was active in the development of the Ocean View area, located along the south shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Norfolk County. The project had been surveyed and laid out before the American Civil War by William Mahone, who also later served under General Lee. Served by a narrow gauge railroad from Norfolk, which operated a steam locomotive named the "Walter H. Taylor", Ocean View blossomed as both a popular resort area and grew to become a streetcar suburb of the City of Norfolk, which annexed the area in 1923.
In April 1907, while Taylor was the attorney for the new Virginian Railway, then under construction, he met the founder, millionaire industrialist Henry Huttleston Rogers and humorist Mark Twain when they arrived in Hampton Roads aboard Rogers' steam yacht Kanawha. They were in Norfolk to attend the opening ceremonies of the Jamestown Exposition held at Sewell's Point. According to published newspaper reports of the day, Twain drove off with Taylor in an "infernal machine," better known in modern times as an automobile.
Walter Herron Taylor died of cancer on March 1, 1916. He is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Norfolk. Walter H. Taylor Elementary School of the Norfolk City Public Schools is named in his honor.
In popular media
Taylor is portrayed by Bo Brinkman in the films Gods and Generals and Gettysburg.