Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Private to Colonel: Marylanders in the Army of the Potomac, Part 6.

Which Marylander was the Army of the Potomac’s brightest star? The answer to this question is a matter of opinion, but I have a candidate for it. There were only two Marylanders who began the war as privates and who rose to the rank of colonel before the war ended. One of these was Col. Stephen W. Downey of the 3rd Maryland Potomac Home Brigade. The other was Col. Benjamin Franklin Taylor of the 2nd Maryland.

Colonel Taylor is the subject of this post. He’s a remarkable character for several reasons. First, in addition to going from private to colonel, he was wounded three times during the war: at Fredericksburg, Petersburg, and Fort Mahone. He recovered from all three wounds and led his regiment back to Baltimore in 1865 amid great fanfare. Second, Taylor’s story involved disappointment and redemption. In 1865, his brigade commander almost cashiered him, but Taylor redeemed himself by leading his regiment in a gallant charge on April 2, 1865. (Like so many Marylanders, he was in at the war’s close in a rather profound way.) Third, and by no means least, as a veteran, Taylor did not shy away from the war’s memory. He spent years writing tales of his wartime experiences and he even completed a regimental history for his well-traveled regiment, the 2nd Maryland Volunteer Infantry. And yet, almost nothing from his personal papers or correspondence has ever been published. His excellent regimental history lies languishing unseen inside the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore.

If Maryland was the Army of the Potomac’s most unsung state, then Col. Taylor might be the state’s most unsung hero.

If Marylanders want to honor a valiant officer from the Army of the Potomac, they need not look any further than him.

This is Taylor’s story. I regret that it is incomplete.

Benjamin Franklin Taylor was born in Baltimore, November 13, 1840. He was the son of a War of 1812 veteran. Based on some circumstantial evidence, Taylor appeared to grow up in comparatively wealthy circumstances. During his teenage years, he entered St. Timothy’s Hall, a military academy located in Catonsville, Maryland. In fact, the Booth boys—Edwin and John Wilkes—were among his classmates. There is no indication that he was friends with them, nor was he influenced by their pro-Southern politics. Taylor seems to have been a lifelong Republican. In 1859, at age 19, Taylor graduated St. Timothy’s and he entered the Maryland Agricultural College, staying there for one year.

Like many young men, in 1861, when the war’s trumpet sounded, he felt called to action. Promptly, he enlisted in one of the first companies forming in Baltimore City, Captain Andrew Brunner’s. On June 30, 1861, Taylor mustered into the service of the United States, starting out as a private in Company B, 2nd Maryland Infantry. Readers will recognize this regiment as the one that was troubled by the questionable leadership of Lt. Col. Jacob E. Duryée, the subject of a previous post.

Taylor rose through the ranks quickly. On October 8, 1861, regimental leadership promoted him to sergeant-major, the highest-ranking non-commissioned officer in the regiment. On July 12, 1862, he received an officer’s commission, becoming second lieutenant of Company B. As an officer, he fought at Second Bull Run, Chantilly, and Antietam. On September 23, 1862, a few days after the bloody fight at Burnside’s Bridge, Taylor received a promotion to captain of Company B. A few months later, he fought at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and there he received a wound, a shell fragment to the left thigh, from which he recovered.

In 1863, the division to which Taylor (and the 2nd Maryland) belonged transferred to the Department of Ohio. For two months, the Marylanders operated in Kentucky, and at the end of the year, they went to Eastern Tennessee, fighting at the Battles of Blue Springs, Campbell Station, and Knoxville. In November, Captain Taylor left his regiment to serve as an aide-de-camp on the staff of the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 9th Corps. He held that position throughout December, and then in January 1864, became acting inspector general for the staff of the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, 9th Corps. In January 1864, his regiment went home on veteran furlough and it returned to the front in February. When it went back, the 2nd Maryland went to Virginia, rejoining the Army of the Potomac.

The 2nd Maryland participated in the Overland Campaign, skirmishing with Confederate forces near Spotsylvania. After that, the Marylanders participated in the combat actions at Totopotomy Creek, Cold Harbor, and in the opening assaults on Petersburg. On June 25, 1864, Captain Taylor received a gunshot wound to the left shoulder. As with his previous wound, he recovered from this one as well.

I’m not sure how long his shoulder wound sidelined him, but apparently, he managed to return to his regiment sometime in the autumn of 1864. While he was recuperating, several Marylanders organized a campaign to have him promoted to command of the 2nd Maryland. At the time, the 2nd Maryland’s colonel was recovering from a wound received at the Battle of the Crater and it did not appear that he would return. The signers included a quarryman, Ebenezer Dickey McClenahan; an educator, Jacob Tome; and two Know-Nothing newspapermen, William J. Jones and Charles H. Haines. Here is the letter they wrote to the governor:

Sept. 15, 1864
To His Excellency, A. W. Bradford,
Governor of Maryland
Dear Sir,

We learn that an application has been forwarded to your Excellency from the Second Maryland Regiment asking for a Commission for Capt. B. F. Taylor as Lieut. Colonel in that Regiment. We beg leave most respectfully but earnestly to join in that recommendation.

Capt. Taylor entered the 2nd Maryland when the Regiment was first formed at a very early period in the War, as a private, and by his bravery and good conduct in all the battles in which the regiment has been engaged has won his way to his present position. He has, we learn, been several times wounded, last in front of Petersburg some three months ago. He is now with and in command of his Regiment.

Capt. Taylor was educated at a Military School and is regarded in Military circles as a most efficient and worthy officer.

We know that he left a comfortable home surrounded by luxury and against the wishes of all his family purely from his love of his country and entered the army as a private. We respectfully submit to your Excellency that such services deserve recognition. We sincerely hope that you will forward to Capt. Taylor this commission and we are sure that his future conduct will accord with his past services and fully justify the confidence thus placed in him.

We are, respectfully,
Your Obt. Servants,
J. Tome
W. J. Jones
Chas. H. Haines
Wm. Parker
E. D. McClenahan

Governor Bradford sent Taylor his commission, and as lieutenant colonel, he led his regiment at the Battles of Hatcher’s Run and Nottoway River. At age 24, he was, at the time, one of the youngest regimental commanders in the Army of the Potomac.

Sometime in February 1865, Taylor angered his brigade and divisional commanders. Currently, I’m not sure what kind of unspeakable act he committed. His personal papers—which are held at the Maryland Historical Society—contain several angry letters written by his no-nonsense divisional and brigade commanders, Brig. Gen. Robert Potter and Brig. Gen. Simon Griffin. In high fury, Potter and Griffin expressed disappointment in Taylor’s comportment, blaming him for some unnamed incident. I don’t know why they were displeased. If I had to guess, I’d say it was drunkenness, a common problem among the officer corps. For some unexplained reason, neither general wished to bring charges against Lt. Col. Taylor. Instead, their letters merely admonished him, warning him to learn from his mistake and strive to restore his good name.

As if on cue, Taylor’s moment of redemption came a few weeks later. On the morning of April 2, 1865, the 9th Corps attacked the Confederate earthworks at Fort Mahone. Lt. Col. Taylor’s regiment, the 2nd Maryland, was part of this attack. During the charge, Taylor fell wounded, struck in the left ankle by an enemy shell. This exciting attack stuck fast in Taylor’s memory for a long time. In 1909, 44 year later, he wrote a lengthy account of the Battle of Fort Mahone and sent it to the National Tribune, a newspaper that paid its bills by publishing stories from Union veterans. The editors of the Tribune loved Taylor’s account. They considered it so good they decided to publish it in their short-lived magazine, the National Tribune Repository. Despite some sleuthing, I’ve been unable to find any existing copy of Taylor’s account. Along with the other stories from the National Tribune Repository, it appears to have disappeared.

Although taken off the front line, Taylor continued to serve the Army of the Potomac. During the final days of the war in the Eastern Theater, he helped command the army’s provost guard. On April 8—two days after the Battle of Sailor’s Creek—he took charge of 7,500 Confederate prisoners, including Richard S. Ewell, Joseph B. Kershaw, G. W. Custis Lee, Eppa Hunton, Dudley DuBose, Montgomery Corse, John R. Tucker, Raphael Semmes, and James Howard. No doubt, it must have been therapeutic to become temporary jailor to these leaders of the rebellion.

Taylor’s superiors were astonished by his heroics at Fort Mahone and they sought to reward him with one final promotion. On July 10, 1865, he advanced to the rank of colonel. Seven days later, Taylor led his regiment back to Baltimore for its muster-out. Easily, the 2nd Maryland was the state’s elite regiment. It had been in service since the beginning of the war and it had reenlisted a majority of its veterans. It had been with the Army of the Potomac during its campaigns in Maryland, along the Rappahannock, through the Overland Campaign, and through the Siege of Petersburg. In addition, the regiment had also served in during the East Carolina Campaign, in Pope’s Second Manassas Campaign, in the 1863 Kentucky Campaign, and in the Siege of Knoxville. It was Maryland’s most well-traveled regiment. As one historian later explained, “During its service in the United States Army, the Second Maryland Infantry marched 1,847 miles, was transported by rail 1,575 miles, and by water 2,131 miles, a total of 5,553 miles.”

Like many veterans, Taylor made the most of his postwar career and readjusted to peacetime. On February 3, 1869, he married Mary J. Cator of Harford County and raised three children with her. He became a member of the Baltimore County Grange and the Superintendent of Loudon Park National Cemetery. For the remainder of his life, he lived at a place called Mount Peru Farm in Bradshaw, Maryland.

As he got older, Taylor’s thoughts returned to the war, and he used his time to remember the men with whom he served. In his final years, he wrote a history of his regiment, but currently, no one has ever published it.

Although Taylor did not shine with the same luster as some of the Army of the Potomac’s more famous officers, Marylanders recognized him as one of their state’s success stories. A biographer wrote, “As a soldier, he was unusually brave and energetic, possessing great courage, as well as those other qualities that won for him the confidence of his fellow officers.”

Taylor died on February 25, 1919, at age 78.  He was buried at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Kingsville, Maryland. (Many years ago, I was Best Man in a wedding at this church.)

It’s a shame that the Army of the Potomac’s brightest Maryland star is not better known. His personal papers are unpublished. His account of the Battle of Fort Mahone is missing. His regimental history remains unseen.

One day, perhaps, an enterprising student will attempt to tell the tale of Benjamin Franklin Taylor. He started at the bottom of the Army of the Potomac’s hierarchy and rose to the top. For that, he is worthy of the state’s recognition.

This image depicts Col. Benjamin Franklin Taylor in the summer of 1865. 

This image depicts the officers of the 2nd Maryland Infantry in early 1865. Lt. Col. Taylor can be seen sitting in the front row, center, with legs crossed.

This is Benjamin F. Taylor, postwar.

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