Richard Taylor was born on January 27, 1826, near Louisville, Kentucky, on his family’s plantation, “Springfield.” He was the youngest child and only son of General and later United States President Zachary Taylor and Margaret Mackall (Smith). Taylor was named after his paternal grandfather, Richard Lee Taylor, who served in the American Revolution.
Taylor spent much of his early life on the American frontier, where his father commanded several forts. He received his early education in private schools in Kentucky and Massachusetts. When he was old enough to live abroad, Taylor studied classics for three years in Edinburgh, Scotland. Upon completing his studies in Scotland, Taylor lived for one year in France. When he returned to the United States, Taylor enrolled at Harvard College in 1843. He later transferred to Yale College, where he graduated in 1845.
When the Mexican-American War began the next year, Taylor served as his father’s military secretary. A case of severe rheumatoid arthritis forced young Taylor to leave military service before the war ended. He next managed his family’s cotton plantation in Jefferson County, Mississippi. In 1850, Taylor moved to Louisiana to oversee his father’s newly purchased sugarcane plantation, “Fashion.” When President Taylor died unexpectedly on July 9 of that year, Taylor inherited the Louisiana plantation. Over the next decade, Taylor built “Fashion” into one of the larger plantations in Louisiana. He owned nearly two hundred slaves, making him one of the richest men in the state.
On February 10, 1851, Taylor married seventeen-year-old, Louisiana native, Louise Marie Myrthe Bringier. Their marriage produced two sons and three daughters. Both sons died of scarlet fever during their youth, while Taylor was serving in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.
Taylor became active in politics as a member of the Whig Party, and voters elected him to serve in the Louisiana state legislature from 1855 until 1861. When the Whig Party disintegrated, Taylor joined the American Party (also known as the Know-Nothing Party) and later, the Democratic Party. Taylor was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention of 1860, where he unsuccessfully tried to temper talk of disunion. After the election of Abraham Lincoln as president that fall, Taylor, like many other Southern moderates, reluctantly changed his views on secession. As a delegate to the Louisiana secession convention in January 1861, Taylor voted with the convention’s majority for disunion.
When the American Civil War began, Taylor initially went to Florida, where he helped his friend, General Braxton Bragg, train Confederate soldiers. He soon returned to Louisiana where the soldiers of the 9th Louisiana Infantry elected him as their colonel in July 1861. Taylor’s regiment headed off to fight in Virginia and arrived at Manassas on the night following the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861).
On October 21, 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis commissioned Taylor as a brigadier general in the Provisional Confederate Army. In the spring of 1862, Taylor commanded a Louisiana brigade under Major General Richard Ewell at the battles of Front Royal (May 23, 1862), First Winchester (May 25, 1862), and Port Republic (June 9, 1862) during Stonewall Jackson‘s Shenandoah Campaign. Taylor also took part in the Seven Days Battles (June 25-July 1, 1862) during the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia.
On July 28, 1862, Davis promoted the thirty-six-year-old Taylor to major general, making him the youngest officer to hold that rank in the Confederate Army up to that time. Officials assigned Taylor to command the District of Western Louisiana in August 1862, serving under General Kirby Smith, commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department.
In the spring of 1863, Taylor tried unsuccessfully to disrupt Major General Ulysses S. Grant‘s supply lines west of the Mississippi River during the Vicksburg Campaign. Throughout the rest of the year, Taylor sparred, to no avail, with Major General Nathaniel Banks‘s army to re-establish Confederate control of New Orleans and southern Louisiana.
Red River Campaign
On March 12, 1864, at the urging of Army Chief-of-Staff Henry Halleck, Banks reluctantly started a Union offensive aimed at moving up the Red River to capture Shreveport and place all of Louisiana under federal control. On April 8, Taylor’s army soundly defeated Banks at the Battle of Mansfield. Taylor’s victory was the last major triumph by a Confederate army during the Civil War.
On the next day, the two adversaries met again at the Battle of Pleasant Hill. Four hours of fighting led to a stalemate, but Banks withdrew during the night. While not as decisive as the Battle of Mansfield, the Battle of Pleasant Hill was a strategic victory for Taylor and the Confederacy. Banks abandoned his goal of capturing Shreveport and began retreating down the Red River, virtually ending the Red River Campaign.
Sensing an opportunity to destroy the retreating Union army, Taylor requested reinforcements from his commanding officer, General Kirby Smith, along with permission to pursue the fleeing Yankees. Smith, however, had other concerns. Rather than sending reinforcements, Smith reassigned approximately one-half of Taylor’s army to Major General John George Walker, with orders to check Major General Frederick Steele’s federal army, which was moving south toward Shreveport from Arkansas. Denied his opportunity to defeat a large Union army, Taylor harassed Banks for the rest of the campaign. Smith’s decision created an everlasting rancor between the two Confederate generals.
Despite his rocky relationship with Smith, the Confederacy promoted Taylor to lieutenant general, effective April 8, 1864, the day of his decisive victory at the Battle of Mansfield. On July 18, President Davis placed Taylor in command of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana. With few resources at his disposal, Taylor did his best to defend his department as the Confederacy was collapsing around him.
On January 23, 1865, Taylor succeeded General John Bell Hood as commander of the tattered Army of Tennessee after it limped back south following Hood’s disastrous Franklin-Nashville Campaign. Finally, on May 4, 1865, after learning of General Robert E. Lee‘s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia and General Joseph Johnston‘s surrender at Bennett Place, North Carolina, Taylor surrendered all the remaining Confederate forces east of the Mississippi River to Major General Edward Canby, at Citronelle, Alabama.
Post-war Life and Death
After the Civil War, Taylor moved to New Orleans. Union soldiers had destroyed and confiscated his plantation. Taylor divided his remaining years between Louisiana and Virginia, lobbying for the Democratic Party and against Reconstruction policies. He published his memoirs, titled Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War, in 1879. Shortly thereafter, on April 12, 1879, Taylor died at the New York home of his friend Samuel Latham Mitchell Barlow. Funeral services were held the next day at the Church of Transfiguration in New York. Taylor’s body was taken to New Orleans and buried in Metairie Cemetery.