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A Student of Natural History at War

. . . I think that life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.
                      ~ Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892)
The Civil War broke out at a time in U.S. history when many in the society had a passionate interest in natural history.  Even during the war, soldiers collected fossils, rocks, and other specimens from the land where they camped, marched, and fought.  Over the past couple of years, I have been in search of accounts of these activities, but, until recently, I never quite realized the risk I ran in doing so.  The risk became clear when I read Isaac Lyman Taylor’s Civil War diary.

The diary was published in four issues of Minnesota History (Vol. 25) in 1944.  Links to each portion of the diary can be found at the Minnesota Historical Society’s Library page (scroll down to an entry titled Campaigning with the First Minnesota:  A Civil War Diary).

Before enlisting at age 24, Taylor, who studied science at Burlington University (Iowa), had been a school teacher, first in Illinois and then in Belle Prairie, Minnesota, at a school for Chippewa Indians, replacing his younger brother, Patrick Henry (“Henry” or “P.H.”), who’d left that teaching position to enlist in the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment.  Isaac soon followed Henry into the First Minnesota Volunteers, enlisting on August 21, 1861, in Company E, the same company in which his brother served.  (Biographical information on the Isaac is drawn from Hazel C. Wolf’s introduction to the first installment of Taylor’s diary (she edited each article that appeared in Minnesota History), and The Last Full Measure:  The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers by Richard Moe (1993).)

The First Minnesota would fight in nearly all of the major battles in the East, including the two Bull Runs, the Peninsula Campaign around Richmond, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg.  It is one of those storied military units that is celebrated for its constant bravery under fire and, specifically, for its actions at Gettysburg (more on that later).

Taylor’s diary, written in three separate volumes, does not begin until New Year’s 1862, several months after he first experienced combat.  He typically wrote relatively short entries, describing succinctly his health, the weather, and what he did during that day.  He often added commentary on the state of the war which he followed closely, the army’s leadership which he didn’t hesitate to skewer, and the doings of the political system which often brought out his disgust.  The tone, the style, and the syntax of his writing are fresh and modern, exhibiting a well developed and endearing sense of irony and sarcasm.  Without question, there was, for Taylor, a humorous vein to be found in life, even in the army or, perhaps, especially in the army.

The opening of the diary sets the tone.  Taylor knew that, if a soldier fell in battle, his diary was at risk of being taken by looters who roamed the battlefield when the shooting stopped.  So, he began each volume of his diary with an appeal to whomever might find it.  The first of those pleas, directed to a Rebel who might come across his body, reads as follows (the spelling, punctuation, and syntax of each entry in the published text are Taylor’s own.):
To Whom It May Concern.
Mr. Secesh;
Please forward this diary to J.H. Taylor, Prairie City, McDonough Co., Illinois.  By so doing you will exhibit your magnanimity, accommodativeness & divers other virtues, beside conferring no small favor on a defunct individual.
Yours Truly,
I.L. Taylor
High Private of Co. E
1st Reg. Minn. Vol.Even with this somber task, Taylor’s attitude comes through – “conferring no small favor on a defunct individual.”

Isaac Taylor was a man harboring scholarly ambitions with an abiding interest in natural history.  On March 24, 1861, when his unit was in Washington, D.C., he was exploring the city, presumably on some sort of authorized pass.  I use “presumably” advisedly because elsewhere in the diary it’s clear Taylor would sometimes slip away without authorization for a bit of a ramble.
This mornings pape[r] states that Gen. Shields has fought & whipped Jackson near Winchester since we left H’s Ferry.  Visited Smithsonian Institute & Capitol  Took a peep into Senate Chamber & Hall of Representatives & listened to the legislative wisdom of the country.Interesting choices, in my mind, for how to spend his free time.  And, having come to know Taylor, I believe the phrase “legislative wisdom” could only be dripping with sarcasm.  The picture below, taken by Brady & Company, and reproduced from the Smithsonian Institution Archives, shows the Smithsonian probably as he saw it.  (Though the label on the photograph claims it to be from 1865, that is in error because the building shows no evidence of the damage done by a fire in January, 1865.  Smithsonian archivists suggest that April, 1863, is a more likely date.  The photograph is used under the fair use provisions of copyright law, an action “welcomed” by the Smithsonian.)

The independent Taylor sometimes chaffed at military rules and clearly resented officers who were sticklers for them.  Hence his entry for April 6, 1862:
Put under arrest from guard mount till one P.M. by officer of guard (Lt. [Josias R.] King, Co. A) for not being in ranks at taking of arms.  “Putting on style,” I think, Mr. King.Officers higher up the chain of command were not spared pointed commentary.  Such as generals who overstepped their authority.  When Union General David Hunter, in charge of the Department of the South, issued a proclamation freeing all of the slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, Taylor wrote in the diary, “What are you up to Mr. Hunter?  Who told you to do that?”  (May 19, 1862)  (Indeed, President Lincoln revoked the proclamation.)  Or generals who “put on style,” such as the one who, for a division drill following the Union defeat at Chancellorsville, had the men wear fatigue caps so they would, according to Taylor, “look ‘putty,’ on parade.” (I think “putty” is a play on “pretty”).  Needless to say this drew Taylor’s ire:
The officers of this army appear to think that show is the grand object while fighting is merely incidental.  I think we have played boy long enough & if we can’t act like men we might as well go home & see “ma.”  (May 19, 1863)Unauthorized foraging, a practice Taylor clearly embraced, brought out his wit.  “A nice pig generously introduces himself to the guard & is accepted as a martyr to the cause of the Union.”  (November 4, 1862)  “A beef ‘dies’ near our guard house & each of the guard secures a generous piece.  It is a pitty that we can’t find out who killed that steer.”  (November 23, 1862)

The diary records how, when he had a chance, Taylor read.  His reading material ranged from the Bible to newspapers, from American history texts to natural history texts.  Of particular interest to me is the change toward natural history in what he read that eventually took place following lectures on geology delivered by the unit’s chaplain, F.A. Conwell.  The first lecture, noted in Taylor’s diary, was on December 3, 1862, when the Union Army was assembled around Fredericksburg; the second was on December 28th, two weeks after the disastrous Union assaults on the Confederate lines on the heights behind Fredericksburg.

Lectures on geology?  In the midst of combat?  In due course, Taylor’s reading specifically embraced geology.  On February 17, 1863, with the unit still in Virginia, Taylor ordered the Outline of the Geology of the Globe, and of the United States in Particular from a New York bookseller.  Written by preeminent American geologist Edward Hitchcock in 1853, the book was a sequel to his Elementary Geology which Taylor also ordered on March 14.

(An aside:  Among the fascinating aspects of Taylor’s gathering of books to feed his appetite for natural history is how quickly his book orders were filled.  Each order for these geology books was sent from the field in Virginia to a New York bookseller.  In each instance, it took only a bit more than three weeks for the books to reach Taylor.  I am floored at that.  When he ordered “Wood’s Botany” (presumably A Class-Book of Botany by Alphonso Wood (1851)) from a bookseller in Washington, D.C., while his unit was in the Fredericksburg area, he had it in hand in exactly two weeks (May 27, 1863)!)

Increasingly, Taylor’s diary entries noted that he spent some part of a day “reading geology.”  That Hitchcock’s texts might have been slow going in places is suggested by the entry for April 11, 1863:  “I take a dose of Geology with chess for seasoning.”  Several entries report that he was now “studying geology.”

In the midst of his geology reading, Taylor’s diary now revealed that he was on the hunt, if he hadn’t been before, for specimens to feed his natural history interests.  In April, 1863, the First Minnesota was in the Fredericksburg area, across the Rappahannock River from the city.  His April 29th entry reads in its entirety:
Cloudy – some rain in P.M.  We hear occasional cannonading down river.  It is reported that Sedgwick’s corps (6th) has crossed below.  I send a “specimen” to the Geological Society of Prairie City Academy.  On camp guard.This took place on the eve of battle.  Sedgwick’s crossing was part of the maneuvering that led to the Union defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

What did you find and send to the Prairie City Academy, Isaac?

Following the battle, geology again occupied some of his time.  He wrote on May 8,
Cloudy & some rain.  Relieved at 9 A.M.  Flag of truce crosses river.  I send a piece of petrified wood to Prof. D[avid] Branch of Prairie City Academy.That he knew someone at the Academy well enough to send him this specimen (and presumably the specimen noted on the day before) suggests to me that Taylor was probably collecting before this.  If not during the war, then before the war.

Isaac drew Henry into his geological adventures on May 22nd while the unit was still in the Fredericksburg area.
[We] make a geological exploration & find fine examples clayey “concretions” in sandstone.  Yesterday while on “fatigue” I explored about ¼ of a mile of upturned strata containing “joints,” numerous “veins of segregation” etc.(Armed with the 1862 edition of Hitchcock’s Elementary Geology, I checked out the bit of terminology in Taylor’s description that was new to me – “veins of segregation” – to see what it might have meant to Taylor.  Hitchcock defined them as veins of rock created by a process of segregation when the entire rock mass was still fluid, hence they are of the same age as the surrounding rock (p. 30-31).  At their edges, he wrote, they may appear to fade gradually into the surrounding rock.  It would appear that this terminology is not still in use.  I don’t know what that means about the validity of the concept Hitchcock described.)

The lull ended three weeks later, when the First Minnesota, along with most of the rest of the Union Army, went in pursuit of the Confederate forces that had moved west and then north.

Now books became a burden.  Taylor noted that, on June 14th, he prevailed on someone in Company K to put his geology and botany books in the regiment’s baggage train.  On June 18th, when his unit was relatively near Washington, D.C., he sent the books to “C.C. Coggswell Washington, D.C.”  (Boyd’s Washington and Georgetown Directory for 1864, lists a C.C. Cogswell as a member of the law firm of Pecare, Cogswell, and Jackson.)

And now the race was on in earnest between the two armies.  The First Minnesota left Centreville, Virginia, on June 20th, crossing the Bull Run, and camping at Gainsville.  The next day the unit marched through Haymarket, Virginia, to Thoroughfare Gap in the Bull Run Mountains.

Even while on the move, Taylor found a time and a place right to indulge his natural history interests.
Fair day.  Relieved about noon.  This P.M. I “reconnoitre” about Thorofare Gap & find two old grist mills, a few dwelling houses, Broad Run, highly inclined strata, tortuous lamina, joints, cleavage planes, igneous rocks, bold “crags & peaks” & much magnificent scenery.If I were a free man I should enjoy a whole day’s ramble in this vicinity, but in these “exciting times” a soldier does not venture very far from camp for fear that something may turn up that requires his presence.  (June 22, 1863)Exactly 150 years ago this coming Saturday, Isaac Taylor was, I’m convinced, truly relieved, for the moment, of the pressures and anxieties of war by hiking in the Thoroughfare Gap, studying the geology of the place.  He was in the flow.

(I went back to Hitchcock’s Elementary Geology to explore what Taylor might have been describing as “tortuous lamina.”  Hitchcock noted, “A bed or stratum [of rock] is often divided into thin laminae, which bear the same relations to a single bed as that does to the whole series of beds.  This division is called the lamination of the bed; and always results from a mechanical mode of deposition.”  (p. 18)  These laminae may be parallel to plane on which the strata lies, intersecting, and “often they are undulating and tortuous.”)

But the story will play out to its end.  In a few days, the First Minnesota and Taylor will march through Maryland (“The boys are enthusiastic in their admiration of Maryland generally & the nice bread and nice girls in particular.”  June 30th).  They will enter Pennsylvania (“. . . just after passing through the latter place [Harneytown], a citizen tells use we are in Pa.”  July 1st), and stop on the night of the 1st, near Gettysburg, a small town at a crossroads.  As Taylor notes in his diary, “At Taneytown we hear there has been fighting at Gettysburg to day.”

He records the events of the morning of the 2nd:
Arroused at 3 A.M. & ordered to pack up & at 4 A.M. move towards the battle field where we arrive at 5-40 A.M.  Order from Gen. Gibbon read to us in which he says this is to be the great battle of the war & that any soldier leaving the ranks without leave will be instantly put to death.This is the last entry in the diary in Isaac’s hand.

The next entry, written by his brother Henry, begins:
July 4th 1863  The owner of this Diary was killed by a shell about sunset July 2d 1863 – his face was toward the enemy. . . .The First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment launched a suicidal charge late on July 2nd, a charge that bought enough precious time for the Union to hold the center of Cemetery Ridge but at an appalling cost.  One assessment concluded that, out of the 262 men who charged a Confederate brigade of 1,700, only 47 were not killed or wounded.  Historian Richard Moe observed that, based on these numbers, in the charge on July 2, 1863, the First Minnesota Volunteers experienced “the highest percentage of casualties suffered by any Union regiment in a single engagement in the entire war.”  (p. 275)

The painting below, by Don Troiani, depicts the First Minnesota during its charge.  (This image is available from Wikimedia Commons and is reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

The risk I mentioned at the outset?  Identifying with the author of a diary so deeply that his experiences become your experiences, and his death moves you to tears.  It was a risk I failed to avoid with Isaac Taylor.  Indeed, befriending a soldier whose diary or letters you read may be an “occupational” hazard.  When historian James M. McPherson wanted to know what motivated men on both sides of the Civil War to join in the mortal combat, he read the diaries and letters of over 1,000 soldiers.  After this experience, he observed,
From such writings I have come to know these men better than I know most of my living acquaintances, for in their personal letters written in a time of crisis that might end their lives at any moment they revealed more of their inner selves than we do in our normal everyday lives.  (For Cause and Comrades, 1997, p. viii,  I would add diaries as an avenue to these soldiers’ most personal thoughts.)And so, being more serious than Isaac Taylor might have thought wise, I’ll try to imagine that he is still at Thoroughfare Gap, geologizing and dreaming of a time when the war would be over and he could be fully immersed in the study of natural history. | Impressum