Walter H. Taylor (1838–1916)


Walter H. Taylor served for most of the American Civil War (1861–1865) as adjutant to Robert E. Lee, overseeing the paperwork and administrative functions of the Confederate general’s commands. A businessman and banker before and after the war, Taylor is best known for writing books that defended the reputations of Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, books that today are considered to be important contributions to Lost Cause literature.

Walter Herron Taylor was born in Norfolk in 1838, the son of Walter Herron Taylor and Cornelia Wickham Cowdery Taylor. He attended Norfolk Academy before entering the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington in 1853. After two years of study there, Taylor returned to Norfolk when his father died during a yellow fever epidemic. He took over his father’s business before going into banking. Like many other young Virginians, Taylor joined a volunteer militia company following John Brown‘s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, and when Virginia seceded in May 1861, Taylor entered military service with his company.

That same month, shortly after the appointment of Lee to command Virginia’s military forces, Taylor was assigned to Lee’s staff. He would remain with Lee for the rest of the war, rising from a rank of captain to lieutenant colonel by the war’s end. As assistant adjutant general, Taylor’s duties primarily dealt with the bureaucratic administration of the army and the administrative functions of headquarters.

Wedding Gift for Walter H. Taylor

On the night of April 2, 1865, after the evacuation plans for Petersburg had been laid, Taylor asked for and received from Lee a leave of absence to travel to Richmond to marry his fiancée, Elizabeth Selden Saunders. Taylor caught the last train to the Confederate capital, married Saunders around midnight, and then returned to the Army of Northern Virginia, remaining with the army until its surrender, following the Appomattox Campaign, at Appomattox Court House on April 9.

After the war, Taylor returned to Norfolk to work as a merchant again. He also involved himself in local politics, representing Norfolk in the Virginia legislature from 1873 until 1876 as part of a conservative coalition of Democrats and former Whigs opposed to the Radical Republican government. He also served two stints on the board of visitors at the Virginia Military Institute. In 1877, Taylor became president of the Marine Bank of Norfolk, in which capacity he served for thirty-nine years. He was also active on the board of the Norfolk and Western Railroad.

Despite Taylor’s political activities and business endeavors with banks and railroads, his most lasting postwar contribution was his defense of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. This defense came in the context of a series of debates—the participants of which were largely Confederate veterans—that provided the foundation for the so-called Lost Cause view of the war. In general, the Lost Cause stressed that the Civil War had not been about slavery, that Northern numbers and industrial might made the South’s defeat inevitable, and that Lee had been a nearly infallible general whose defeats (most notably at Gettysburg in 1863) came because of malingering subordinates, particularly James Longstreet.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Staff

Taylor avoided the scurrilous attacks that former Confederate general Jubal A. Early and others launched against Longstreet, and instead concentrated on shoring up the reputation of Lee and proving that Northern numbers, not military acumen, doomed the South. Taylor’s two books concentrated on buttressing the reputation of Lee and demonstrating the persistent numerical inferiority of the Army of Northern Virginia. His book Four Years with General Lee (1877) was a somewhat dry account centered on pinning down the numerical strength of the armies, but his later book, General Lee, His Campaigns in Virginia 1861–1865, with Personal Reminiscences (1906), provided a much richer and more intimate chronicle of the headquarters of the Army of Northern Virginia. Beyond this, Taylor worked on The Southern Historical Society Papers and in several Confederate veterans organizations, including the Association of the Army of Northern Virginia and the United Confederate Veterans.

Taylor died of cancer on March 1, 1916, in Norfolk.

Major Works

  • Four Years with General Lee (1877)
  • General Lee, His Campaigns in Virginia, 1861–1865, with Personal Reminiscences (1906)

June 13, 1838
Walter H. Taylor is born in Norfolk.
Walter H. Taylor enrolls at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington.
Walter H. Taylor leaves the Virginia Military Institute and returns to Norfolk after the death of his father.
December 1859
Walter H. Taylor joins a militia company in Norfolk in response to John Brown's failed raid on Harpers Ferry.
May 2, 1861
Walter H. Taylor is promoted from his infantry company to the headquarters of the Army of Virginia, where he becomes adjutant to Confederate general Robert E. Lee for the remainder of the Civil War.
Walter H. Taylor returns to Norfolk to once again embark on business.
April 2, 1865
After preparations for the evacuation of Petersburg are complete, Walter H. Taylor catches a train to Richmond to marry Elizabeth Selden Saunders. Early the next day, he returns to duty with the Army of Northern Virginia.
Walter H. Taylor serves in the state legislature as a Democrat and vehemently opposes readjustment of the Virginia state debt.
Walter H. Taylor serves his first stint on the Virginia Military Institute board of visitors.
Walter H. Taylor becomes president of the Marine Bank of Norfolk, where he will remain for thirty-nine years.
Walter H. Taylor serves his second stint on the Virginia Military Institute board of visitors.
March 1, 1916
Walter H. Taylor dies of cancer in Norfolk.
  • Tower, R. Lockwood with John S. Belmont. Lee’s Adjutant: The Wartime Letters of Colonel Walter Herron Taylor, 1862–1865. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
APA Citation:
Luebke, Peter. Walter H. Taylor (1838–1916). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/taylor-walter-h-1838-1916.
MLA Citation:
Luebke, Peter. "Walter H. Taylor (1838–1916)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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