Monday, October 17, 2016

Greenville: 'Prepare to Meet Your God'

A noble Yankee from Tennessee:
Union Capt. Isaac Taylor
GREENVILLE, S.C.
     The Stoneman Gazette has unearthed more information about the skirmish in Greenville, S.C., in May, 1865, that I believe was the last Civil War clash east of the Mississippi.
National Tribune, Sept. 5, 1889
     This clipping was published July 18, 1889, in the National Tribune, a weekly newspaper catering to Union veterans. I found it reprinted Sept. 5, 1889, in the Anderson Intelligencer.
     It is a letter written by Isaac Taylor, a Union captain from Tennessee who was ordered to execute four Confederates accused of mistreating and robbing some of Stoneman's sick and wounded soldiers as they were being evacuated to Knoxville.
     Convinced that the rebels were innocent, Capt. Taylor defied his orders and made a noble last-minute decision to spare their lives.
     I believe that Taylor is describing the same incident that was documented in 2002 by Greenville historian John McLeod, though there are some discrepancies in their stories. Taylor gives the date as May 24 (rather than May 22 or 23) and the location as 25 miles from Greenville at the foot of the Blue Ridge (not Crescent Ridge near downtown Greenville). He says there were four Confederates (rather than three) facing the firing squad.
     Capt. Taylor vividly described the scene as the rebels awaited their execution:
They were informed of the order and given 10 minutes in which to prepare to meet their God. I had passed through many battles and trials, but this was the most trying ordeal of my life. The utter despair depicted on their countenances, while great rivers of perspiration ran down their pallid faces, makes me shudder yet when I think of how near four innocent men were to being murdered by the command "fire" given from my lips.
     Then the surgeon (Dr. James Cameron) recognized a gesture from one of the rebels as the Masons' "Grand-Hailing Sign of Distress." Dr. Cameron was a Mason, and so was Col. Miller, the brigade commander who had ordered the executions.  This made Miller reconsider the charges, and he set the captives free.
     The Civil War is full of stories like this where lives were spared after enemies discovered they were brothers in the secret society of the Masons. In fact, there is a Masonic Memorial at Gettysburg called "Friend to Friend" (pictured below) that honors these traditions. Several similar accounts are found in the annals of Stoneman's Raid. No doubt some are apocryphal, but I think this one is credible, since it is reported by both sides. 
Emporia (Kan.) News, Jan. 24, 1884

     Capt. Taylor (1843-1892) grew up in eastern Tennessee, which was predominantly pro-Union and opposed to secession. When the war began, he enlisted with an Illinois regiment. In 1863 he joined the Union's 13th Tennessee Cavalry, commanding Company B and serving as Acting Assistant Adjutant General under Col. John Miller. The 13th Tennessee was one of eight Yankee regiments that marched with Stoneman's Raid in the spring of 1865. They fought at Wytheville and the Yadkin River bridge and were involved in the pursuit of Jefferson Davis.
     According to this 1884 newspaper tribute, he was the first man in Carter County, Tennessee, to make a stand for Negro suffrage, and he was among the first Republicans elected to the Tennessee legislature. 
     Republicans fell out of favor at the end of Reconstruction, so Capt. Taylor moved to Hartford, Kan., where he built a mill, became president of the local bank, and served as an Indian agent.
     He wrote to the National Tribune in 1889 hoping to make contact with his forgiven enemies:
I disobeyed orders, turned them over to the brigade commander at noon with a full statement of what had occurred, and he discharged them. They were happy, but I cannot believe that they were more so than I was. A Masonic sign saved their lives, and no doubt, saved me from great remorse. If those four ex-Confederates, or any of them, are living, I would be very happy indeed to hear from them.
     Earlier in 1889, Taylor had written to the National Tribune in another attempt to reconcile with the enemy. He said he was seeking to find the rightful owner of a Virginia regimental banner "he captured from the rebels in South Carolina in the spring of 1865." The 13th Tennessee passed through South Carolina twice during Stoneman's Raid, but I am not aware of any fights they had there with Virginians.
     Taylor died three years later at age 49, and I don't know if he ever heard from any of those rebels. Although he was not familiar with Masonic rites during the war, he evidently apprenticed later, because his obituary says his funeral was conducted by the Knights Templar with Masonic honors.
     According to a biographical sketch in the History of the 13th Regiment, Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry
Captain Taylor was an officer of the highest courage, never evading any duty or danger, but was always among the first to reach the danger line when there was fighting to be done. He possessed fine social qualities and a high sense of honor that endeared him to all who knew him.
The Masonic Memorial at Gettysburg portrays Union Capt. Henry Bingham comforting Confederate Gen. Lewis Armistead, who was mortally wounded during Pickett's Charge.
NEXT: The ghost of Della Barnes

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