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THE CLASSICS: Four Years With General Lee

Originally published on Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Reviewed by Peter S. Carmichael
By Walter Herron Taylor

Of all Robert E. Lee's subordinates, few were better qualified to write a history of the Army of Northern Virginia than Walter Herron Taylor. Taylor's Four Years With General Lee, published in 1877, stands as one of the standard works on the Army of Northern Virginia. A graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, Taylor was only 23 when he joined Lee as an adjutant in 1861. He continued to serve as the general's principal staff officer for the remainder of the war.

In that important position, Taylor dealt with Lee on a daily basis, interacting with him on a personal as well as a professional level. He frequently complained that Lee put too much work on him, but Taylor was also devoted to his superior. He saw in the man whom he affectionately called "The Great Tycoon" compelling reasons to continue the war. Despite the mind-numbing amount of work, Taylor handled his onerous duties with remarkable efficiency.

When the Army of Northern Virginia disbanded after Appomattox, Taylor was the only staff officer to accompany Lee back to Richmond. There, he posed on the back porch of a home on Franklin Street for the famous Brady photograph with Lee and his son Custis. Taylor returned to his Norfolk home, where he prospered as a successful businessman and politician. He also found time to enter the controversial literary arena of the Lost Cause. Many of his fellow officers like Jubal A. Early and William N. Pendleton savaged anyone who broke with the sacred canon of the postwar South: Lee was an invincible field commander whose shortcomings were not his own. Seditious subordinates or superior Northern resources explained his supposed failings.

Taylor 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.

In his superb chapter on Gettysburg, for example, Taylor bluntly tells the reader "it is not my purpose here to undertake to establish the wisdom of an attack on the enemy's position on the third day, which General Longstreet contends was opposed by his judgment." Rather, Taylor outlines the fight and the command decisions that affected the battle's outcome without condemning other officers.

Taylor's insightful narrative — free of the petty squabbling that Lee so detested among his subordinates — gives the reader an inside look at the operations of Lee's headquarters.

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