Poor Bill Taylor

confederate-breastworks-602x600A few days ago I offered a few speculative words about the names of deserters that litter the letters of Captain John Christopher Winsmith of the 5th South Carolina Infantry.  One of the recurring names in the letters is that of Bill Taylor.  He lived in the Spartanburg area and so it seems reasonable to assume that Winsmith hoped that his family’s connections might be instrumental in forcing him back into the ranks.  It should be noted that Winsmith singled out Taylor as having performed bravely in early battles, but that history was largely irrelevant as Winsmith himself had very little sympathy with deserters.  He believed that the sacrifice of everyone in the army and on the home front was necessary if his “country” was to achieve independence.  Taylor eventually did return to the army in the summer of 1863 after being arrested for desertion.

It’s sometimes difficult not to get attached to the central characters in the narrative that Winsmith weaves through his letters.  You want to know how these people fair in the end.  I was somewhat relieved that Taylor’s name didn’t reappear in subsequent letters.  While Winsmith understandably had little patience with this man, it is hard not to sympathize with Taylor.  Recent studies of desertion suggest that a decision to leave the army did not necessarily imply cowardice, a loss of faith in the cause or an intention to abandon comrades who had shared hardships and sacrificed for one another.  Rather, soldiers were pulled in multiple directions and had to juggle multiple responsibilities as parents, husbands, and soldiers, which shifted over time depending on news from home and the front.  I tend to see Taylor from this perspective or at least I would like to.

Taylor does make on final appearance in Winsmith’s letters written from Petersburg in the summer of 1864.  On July 9, 1864 he wrote to his sister Janie:

I am sorry to write that Bill Taylor killed himself through and accident with his gun in the trenches yesterday.  He was working with his gun when it fired off, tearing the top of his head away.

And on July 16 he shared the news with his mother:

I stated in my letter to Janie how Bill Taylor came to his death: It happened on the 8th inst.  He was doing something with his gun, when it went off accidentally, tearing away the top of his head.  It was a horrible death.  He was buried near by and his grave marked.  Bill had been doing his duty pretty well, and I regret his death.  He had $25 in his pocket book – $68 in Confederate bills and $10 on the Bank of Knoxville, which last is not current.  I can send the money to his wife, or Father can pay her $65 for me, whichever he thinks best.

I don’t mind admitting that I slumped back in my seat after reading this.  It’s in these moments that the human cost and tragedy of war hits home for me.  Poor Bill Taylor.

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9 comments… add one
  • cagraham Feb 2, 2013 @ 14:54

    Did anyone else read this and think…. suicide?

    • Kevin Levin Feb 2, 2013 @ 15:00

      I did and still do.

      • TFSmith1 Feb 3, 2013 @ 8:53

        I’m sure (given the number of dessertations and theses written every year) there has to be some professional work on suicide among soldiers in the ACW. I’m too lazy to go to JSTOR this morning, but there’s probably a connection to your studies of memory. How are Civil War soldier suicides remembered?

    • bobhuddleston Feb 3, 2013 @ 18:56

      That is what I thought. Accidentally shooting yourself with a Civil War musket would be difficult.

  • TFSmith1 Feb 2, 2013 @ 12:03

    Thanks – nice bit of history, there.

    Appropos of nothing, I was checking something from “Generals in Blue” against Dyer and noticed a couple of things; the only southern state that did not provide a “white” regiment (or more) during the war was South Carolina; the only southern state east of the Mississippi that did not see a native commissioned as (at least) a full rank BG in the US forces was Mississippi itself. No Texans or Arkansans were either, but I imagine demographics probably had as much to do with that as anything.

    There are a lot of fascinating and personal stories from the ACW and after that have yet to be told, much less re-told. Keep up the good work.


  • Ken Noe Feb 2, 2013 @ 6:12

    In my dissertation I used the letters of John Gilmer. Like me he was a southwest Virginian and an Emory & Henry student. He also was a bright, engaging kid, and I liked him across a century. When I went back to turn the dissertation into the book, I discovered that he had joined the army when the war began and soon died of disease. I went through all five stages of grief.

  • mk26gmls Feb 1, 2013 @ 18:31

    Thank you for sharing this Kevin. I have not read his letters, but I would love too.

    My wife had five relatives in the 5th. (1) Ross Van Buren Bolin in Company G, who died of “febris typhoides” in January 1863. (2) David H Jackson in Company B who later transferred to the Palmetto Sharp Shooters and who died of gangrene in Petersburg, VA in May of1863. (3) John O Jackson in Company B who later transferred to the Palmetto Sharp Shooters and who died of chronic diarrhea in October 1864 in Richmond. (4) Colonel Andrew Jackson who was shot thru both thighs at the Battle of Gaines Mill on June 27, 1862. He pressed on and was then severely wounded in the arm which was amputated in the field. He resigned his commission and service in October1862 due to poor health. He lived until 1887. Lastly, her 2nd great grandfather (5) Samuel W Jackson who served in Company B. He surrendered at Appomattox Court House. He lived until 1879.

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