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The stunning defeat of the Union Army in the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30 – May 6, 1863) resulted in about 13,000 casualties, including two generals and numerous other officers; among those casualties was Colonel William O. Stevens, commander of the 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, who was killed in action. On May 26th, 1863, the officers of the 72nd wrote a letter to Nelson Taylor, the soldier who organized the 72nd and was its first commander, in which they asked him to resume command of the Regiment. In the letter, which they sent to Taylor’s home in New York, they wrote: “… In this, our affliction [the death of Colonel Stevens], we turn our thoughts to him who first gave this regiment its name; whose brave and noble bearing led us through the Peninsula and other campaigns; and we, the undersigned, … do earnestly request that you would again assume the duties and become our commander, knowing as we do, that such would meet with a hearty approval, and confer a great favor upon your old command.“ The enlisted men of the Regiment, including Orrin L. Gatchell, apparently also thought highly of Nelson Taylor because Orrin’s letters dated February 2nd, May 8th, May 31st and June 12th, 1863 were written from “Camp Nelson Taylor near Falmouth, Virginia, where General Joseph Hooker’s Union Army of the Potomac was encamped during that fateful campaign. We can find no reference to a Union encampment of that name, and we speculate that the men of the 72nd honored their former commander by bestowing his name on their area of the encampment. The impassioned sentiments that Nelson Taylor aroused in his men led us to ask the following questions:

Who was Nelson Taylor?

Why were the officers writing to Nelson Taylor, who was now a civilian, to take command of the Regiment and possibly the Excelsior Brigade?

What were the circumstances under which an officer who so recently commanded the Excelsior Brigade during the Peninsula Campaign (March 17 – May 31, 1862), was appointed Brigadier General on September 10, 1862, and assumed command of the Second Division of the First Army Corps at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11 – 15, 1862) when Brigadier John Gibbons was wounded was now a civilian five months later?

Who was this man named Nelson Taylor who has inscribed on his headstoneA Loyal Soldier A Public Spirited Citizen”?

Nelson Taylor was born on June 8, 1821 in South Norwalk, Connecticut. After a “common-school education,” he apparently received training as a dentist, possibly in New York City. With the onset of the Mexican – American War (1846 – 1848), Nelson Taylor recruited men from New York City and organized Company E of the First Regiment of the New York Volunteers for service in California under the command of Colonel Jonathan Stevenson. Taylor was elected and commissioned as Captain of Company E on August 1, 1846. Following a harrowing trip by boat around Cape Horn to Monterey, California, his unit saw limited military action. Foreshadowing later indications of poor health, Taylor “…was lying sick at his home at the time of the embarkation…”. He rejoined his unit about a month later, and he was mustered out of the Regiment on September 18, 1848 in Los Angeles.

In the late 1840s and early 1850s, three events led to unprecedented opportunities for Nelson Taylor and other veterans of the war to seek their business and political fortunes in California:  the beginning of the Gold Rush in January, 1848 that led to an influx of tens of thousands of “49ers;” the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war between Mexico and the United States on May 30, 1848 and gave much of the California Territory to the United States; and the admission of California to the United States on September 9, 1850 as a free, that is, non-slave, state. Taylor relocated to Stockton, San Joaquin County, California near the site of the “Mother Lode,” and went into business as a co-owner of a ferry service across the Stanislaus River in San Joaquin County, a general merchandise store, and a brick yard (see p. 2) in Stockton, providing services to those who sought their fortunes in gold panning and mining.

Nelson Taylor, who was a strong Northern Democrat politically, participated in the earliest development of the State of California and San Joaquin County governments, and of the Democratic Party in the state and in Stockton, San Joaquin County. A few examples of Nelson Taylor as “A Public Spirited Citizen” characterize his activities. He participated in California’s Constitutional Convention (see p. 254) in Monterey (September - October, 1849) that led to the admission of California as a free State rather than a Territory. In 1849 he was also elected as one of the local Senators representing the San Joaquin District in the State’s first Legislature. Nelson Taylor’s seat was declared ‘vacant’ in February, 1850 when, for unknown reasons, he returned to the East, presumably to his home in Connecticut or New York City. Coming back to California in late 1850s, he was among the organizers of the first unified political party in San Joaquin County and was elected one of two vice-presidents and then one of nine delegates to the State Democratic Convention in Benicia, California. Concurrently, probably related to his earlier clinical training, he was elected first Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Stockton State Hospital for the Insane (see p. 121) when it was established by the State Legislature in April, 1851. In the election of 1853, the State of California went Democratic, and Nelson Taylor was elected Sheriff of San Joaquin County (see p. 163). For reasons that remain unclear, Nelson Taylor apparently resigned his positions in about 1856 and returned to the East, again presumably to Connecticut or New York City. He began the study of law in 1857, graduating from Harvard University’s law department in 1860, gaining admittance to the bar and entering the practice of law in New York City. In 1860, he also ran unsuccessfully as a Democratic candidate to represent New York in the Thirty-seventh United States Congress (March 4, 1861 – March 4, 1863).

Negotiations to maintain the Union of the American States had failed following the election of Abraham Lincoln on November 4, 1860. By March 4, 1861, when President Lincoln was inaugurated, seven southern States had seceded from the Union; the Washington Peace Conference had collapsed in February; and, after being bombarded by Confederate forces, the Union’s Fort Sumter had been surrendered on April 13, 1861. A few examples of Nelson Taylor as “A Loyal Soldier” characterize his military service. In response to the President’s call for soldiers to protect the Nation’s capital, suppress the rebellion, and defend military installations in the South, the War Department authorized Daniel E. Sickles, who was an attorney, a War Democrat, and prominent political figure from New York City, to raise a regiment on May 18, 1861. His fellow Democrat from New York City, Nelson Taylor, was commissioned Colonel on July 23, 1861 and promptly organized the 72nd New York Infantry Regiment at Camp Scott, Staten Island. The companies were recruited primarily from the New York City area and Chautauqua County in western New York State. Sickles was appointed Brigadier General of Volunteers on September 1, 1861, and William O. Stevens from Dunkirk, New York was appointed Colonel. The Regiment left Camp Scott in late July, 1861 for Washington, D.C., where their first assignment was to protect the US capital from Confederate forces.

Subsequently, the 72nd Regiment, a unit of the Excelsior Brigade led by Colonel Nelson Taylor, fought in the Peninsula Campaign (March – July, 1862). The goal of Major General George B. McClellan, the commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, was to attack and capture the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia from the south. His strategy was to land soldiers at Fort Monroe, currently near Hampton, Virginia and fight their way north-west up the Virginia Peninsula through Yorktown and Williamsburg to Richmond. The Confederate’s military resistance was particularly fierce at the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862, where the Excelsior Brigade bore the brunt of the Confederate attack and incurred heavy casualties. The 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment suffered 77 soldiers killed or mortally wounded. There is uncertainty as to whether or not Colonel Taylor was wounded. Although the Peninsula Campaign resulted in another bitter loss for the Union, Major General McClellan strongly endorsed Colonel Nelson Taylor for promotion to Brigadier General in recognition of his meritorious service during the Peninsula Campaign. His appointment as Brigadier General of Volunteers was effective September 10, 1862 when he took the oath of Military Service (see image below). Following meritorious service at the Battle of Fredericksburg during December, 1862, Brigadier General Nelson Taylor resigned his military commission on January 19, 1863 and returned to New York City to reassume his law practice. Only a brief statement on his seemingly precipitous decision can be found in the Medical Histories of Union Generals by Jack D. Welsh, MD:  “Having been in bad health for some months and told that medicine would do him no good while in the field, he tendered his resignation, which was accepted…” 

Following Chancellorsville, while enduring their grief following the loss of Colonel William O. Stevens, the court martial of the Excelsior Brigade’s commander Brigadier General Joseph W. Revere, and the death of their Division Commander Major General Hiram G. Berry during combat, the officers of the 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Brigade anxiously awaited an answer to their letter to Nelson Taylor (see above) imploring him to once again take command of the Regiment. His response, dated May 29, 1863, read in part: “In the death of Col. Wm. O. Stevens you alone have not met with a great loss, but the country and the service have lost a devoted patriot and gallant officer…I feel flattered and honored by the compliment of being tendered the command of the Regt. …I regret that circumstances are such that I shall have to forego the acceptance of your generous offices…” and, in closing,  “With high respect and esteem for the officers and men of the Third Regiment,…” Although Nelson Taylor declined the offer to return to lead the 72nd, several new officers in the line of command of the 72nd were appointed prior to the upcoming Battle of Gettysburg (July 1 – 3, 1863):  Colonel John B. Austin commanding the 72nd New York Volunteer Infantry Brigade, Colonel William R. Brewster commanding the Excelsior Brigade, and Major General George B. Meade, appointed by President Lincoln to replace Major General Joseph Hooker commanding the Army of the Potomac.

Continuing as “A Public Spirited Citizen” on his return to New York, Nelson Taylor was elected as a Democratic Member of the House of Representatives from New York during the critical post-war Thirty-ninth Congress (March 4, 1865 – March 3, 1867). He lost his re-election campaign to represent New York’s 5th District  to the Fortieth Congress to John Morrissey. Although Morrissey’s “colorful” background brought into question his appropriateness for the seat, Taylor did not challenge the election. As reported in the New York Times in 1866, Taylor was honored in New York City at a “Complimentary Dinner to Gen. Nelson Taylor – He will not Contest the Seat of Mr. Morrissey" hosted and attended by prominent constituents and politicians in the city and state. His comments included in part: “…I have an abiding faith in the wisdom of the people… The result we now have…a clear majority for my opponent. In that decision I shall freely acquiesce, and if his seat is to be contested it must be by some other than myself.… Successful opposition to this principle would be subversive to our present form of government.” He concluded:  “…allow me to offer a sentiment not original…which I trust will so remain and become the watchword and the inspiring political sentiment of every American citizen throughout the land, The Union and the Constitution, one and inseparable, now and forever.’ ”

In 1869, Nelson Taylor returned to his Connecticut home where he continued to practice law and to serve in municipal offices, including city attorney. As reported in the New York Times, he died of pneumonia on January 16th, 1894 at his home and is buried with his wife of 52 years, Mary Ann Bruen Taylor, in nearby Riverside Cemetery (see images below).

Thus, there is much evidence to support the truth of Nelson Taylor’s epitaph that recognizes and honors a distinguished public, military, and governmental career:  “A Loyal Soldier A Public Spirited Citizen.”




Related Images

  • Chancellorsville: What will General Nelson Taylor Decide?
  • Chancellorsville: What will General Nelson Taylor Decide?
  • Chancellorsville: What will General Nelson Taylor Decide?
  • Chancellorsville: What will General Nelson Taylor Decide?

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