July 25, 2010

Four Years With General Lee

I would imagine that most serious readers of Civil War books are familiar with Walter Herron Taylor’s (1838-1916) Four Years with General Lee, which is a cornerstone book of Army of Northern Virginia literature. A graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, Walter H. Taylor was only 23 when he joined Lee as an adjutant in 1861. For the next four years, Taylor would serve as Lee’s principal staff officer. Following the war’s close, Taylor returned to Richmond with Lee where he was able to pose with the general and Lee's son Custis in the famous Brady photograph. He then returned home to Norfolk and began a long and successful business and political career. According to James I. Robertson’s introduction to the 1961 edition, “Walter Taylor was ‘first to last the closest’ of all staff officers to General Robert E. Lee, and his intimate relationship with his commander gives Taylor's writings signal importance in any study of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.” Among the many firsthand reminiscences are descriptions of all the major eastern theater battles from the Peninsula Campaign through the 1864 campaigns as well as discussions of Lee’s opinions regarding various commanders. In a history.net review, Peter Carmichael writes that Taylor’s recollections “never violated Lost Cause dogma, but he also never celebrated it. This is what makes Four Years With General Lee so refreshing to read. While most Confederate veterans attacked one another with the aggressive spirit that they had once reserved for the Yankees, Taylor rose above petty disputes. He wrote a relatively objective history of the Army of Northern Virginia that dissects the war without any particular agenda.” Considered a classic, Four Years with General Lee was first published in 1877 by D. Appleton and Company and was already a collector's item by the turn of the century.

What I was not aware of was that Taylor published a second book of reminiscences in 1906 titled General Lee, His Campaigns in Virginia, 1861-1865: With Personal Reminiscences. This work was published by the Press of Braunworth and Company is somewhat of a reworking of the first book with additional material. The extra material consists of more personal observations and reminiscences which, critically, is why this volume is considered the superior of the two works.

As a further note, Taylor’s wartime correspondence titled Lee's Adjutant: The Wartime Letters of Colonel Walter Herron Taylor, 1862–1865 was published by the Univ. of South Carolina Press in 1995.

Pictured copies offered here and here.

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