Richard Taylor, Confederate general, only son of Margaret Mackall (Smith) and Gen. Zachary Taylor, was born at the Taylor family home, Springfield, near Louisville, Kentucky, on January 27, 1826, and named for his grandfather, a Virginian who had served as a Revolutionary War officer. He attended private schools in Kentucky and Massachusetts before being admitted to Yale College in 1843. He graduated two years later, having merited no scholastic honors but instead concentrated on reading widely in classical and military history. He agreed to manage the family cotton plantation in Jefferson County, Mississippi, and in 1850 he persuaded his father (now President Taylor by virtue of his election in 1848) to purchase Fashion, a large sugar plantation in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. After Zachary Taylor's untimely death in July 1850, Taylor inherited Fashion. Steadily he increased its acreage, improved its sugar works (at considerable expense), and expanded its labor force to nearly 200 slaves, making him one of the richest men in Louisiana. But the freeze of 1856 ruined his crop, forcing him into heavy debt with a large mortgage on Fashion, a fragile condition underwritten largely by his generous mother-in-law Aglae Bringier, a wealthy French Creole matriarch whose daughter, Myrthe, Taylor had married in 1851. (They eventually had two sons and three daughters.) Yet he still projected an image of aristocratic affluence by racing thoroughbred horses at the famous Metairie Track and appearing at the gaming tables of the exclusive Boston Club in New Orleans.
Taylor was elected to the Louisiana Senate in 1855; he was affiliated first with the Whig party, then the American (Know-Nothing) party, and finally the Democratic party, veering cautiously toward a strong anti-Republican yet reluctant proslavery position. His sense of nationalistic, Whiggish conservatism, although thoroughly laced with a Southern disdain for agitating abolitionists, also made him distrustful of demagogic Southern fire-eaters' demands for disunion. Both of these volatile expressions of the nation's expansive democracy Taylor found repulsive and ultimately tragic. As a rueful delegate from Louisiana to the 1860 national Democratic Convention in Charleston, he witnessed the party's fatal splintering along sectional lines. There he attempted, but failed, to forge a less radical course for the South, arguing for a compromise between stunned moderates and implacable secessionists. Now viewing war as inevitable, Taylor willingly served as a delegate to the Louisiana secession convention in January 1861 and voted with the convention's majority for immediate secession. Yet his prophetic pleas to protect the state from military invasion went largely unheeded by overconfident fellow secessionists. He retired in disgust to his plantation, recognizing the Confederacy's fundamental lack of unity and even predicting eventual defeat, but he remained willing to serve if called. He was elected colonel of the Ninth Louisiana Infantry, assumed command in July, and took the regiment to Virginia. Surprisingly, in late October he received promotion to brigadier general by order of President Jefferson Davis (his brother-in-law by Davis's first marriage to one of Taylor's sisters). Although devoid of formal military training or combat experience, Taylor enjoyed his brigade's strong respect along with a reputation as a consummate student of military history, strategy, and tactics. "Dick Taylor was a born soldier," asserted a close friend. "Probably no civilian of his time was more deeply versed in the annals of war." Taylor was placed in command of the Louisiana Brigade, which included Maj. Chatham Roberdeau Wheat's notorious battalion of "Louisiana Tigers," and proved vital to Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's brilliant Shenandoah Valley campaign during the spring of 1862. Jackson used Taylor's brigade as an elite strike force that set a crippling marching pace and dealt swift flanking attacks. At Front Royal on May 23, again at Winchester on May 25, and finally at the climactic battle of Port Republic on June 9, he led the Louisianans in timely assaults against strong enemy positions. He was promoted to major general on July 25, 1862, at thirty-six years of age the youngest Confederate officer to attain such rank to date. He suffered terribly from chronic rheumatoid arthritis, however, and so was given command of the District of West Louisiana and charged with reviving his home state's severely deteriorated war effort. Almost from the start he feuded with his superior, Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department, mainly regarding Taylor's desperate need for troops to defend Louisiana's civilian population against destructive federal forays. Smith also thwarted Taylor's desire to free New Orleans from federal occupation, a goal that received strong, although temporary, approval and encouragement from Secretary of War George Wythe Randolph and President Davis. During 1863 Taylor directed an effective series of clashes with Union forces over control of lower Louisiana, most notably at Fort Bisland and Franklin (April 13–14), Brashear City (June 23), and Bayou Bourbeau (November 3).
In the early spring of 1864, after withdrawing up the Red River Valley in the face of Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks's invasion force of more than 25,000 men, Taylor became appalled at the devastation inflicted by the enemy upon Louisiana's heartland. On April 8, with an army of no more than 9,000 men, mostly Louisianans and Texans, he ignored Smith's explicit instructions to delay, instead attacking Banks's disorganized column a few miles below Mansfield near Sabine Crossroads. The Confederates swept the terror-stricken Yankees through the thick pine forest and then pursued them southward to Pleasant Hill. There, the next day, the federals withstood Taylor's assaults, forcing him to retire from the field. But Banks's generals compelled him to withdraw to Alexandria on the Red River. Taylor was outraged when Smith abruptly detached Walker's Texas Division for fighting in Arkansas, and he was left with only 5,000 men to lay siege to Alexandria. Taylor repeatedly demanded Walker's Division in order to crush Banks and liberate New Orleans, but Smith stubbornly refused. Finally Banks's army escaped from Alexandria on May 13. Convinced of Smith's arrogant ambition and incompetence, Taylor exploded with a series of insulting, insubordinate diatribes against Smith and submitted his resignation. Although unwilling to admit his strategic blunder in failing to allow Taylor to keep Walker's Division, Smith harbored no personal grudge. Taylor, however, never forgave Smith. Despite his heroic status for having saved most of Louisiana and virtually all of Texas from military conquest, Taylor viewed the Red River Campaign as a profound disappointment.
Preferring to ignore the Taylor-Smith feud, on July 18 President Davis placed Taylor in command of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana and promoted him to lieutenant general, thus making him one of only three non-West Pointers who achieved such high rank in the South. From September 1864 until war's end Taylor struggled to defend his department, receiving scant cooperation from state governors, legislatures, and local militia units, while also contending with Jefferson Davis's poor coordination of the Confederacy's cumbersome bureaucracy, especially its divisive departmental system. Fortunately, Taylor enjoyed the benefit of Nathan Bedford Forrest's superb cavalry, which resisted federal incursions and supported the embattled Army of Tennessee by raiding enemy supply lines. Forrest showed genuine admiration for Taylor's leadership, remarking candidly, "He's the biggest man in the lot. If we'd had more like him, we would have licked the Yankees long ago." In January 1865 Taylor briefly assumed command of the shattered ranks of the Army of Tennessee after Gen. John Bell Hood's catastrophic defeats at Franklin and Nashville several weeks earlier. As the Southern cause rapidly disintegrated during the spring, Taylor saw his own department gutted by Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson's massive cavalry raid through Alabama and Maj. Gen. Edward R. S. Canby's triumphant siege of Mobile. Taylor had "shared the fortunes of the Confederacy," as he later recalled, having "sat by its cradle and followed its hearse." Indeed, the war had inflicted harsh personal sacrifices: he lost his plantation to destruction and confiscation by federal soldiers; his two young sons died of scarlet fever as wartime refugees; and his wife suffered so severely that she lapsed into a slow decline that ended with her premature death in 1875.
After surrendering his department to Canby on May 4, 1865, Taylor took up residency in New Orleans and tried to revive his finances by securing a lease of the New Basin Canal from the state. He also garnered the support of a wealthy New York City attorney, Samuel Latham Mitchell Barlow, one of the Democratic party's most effective powerbrokers. At Barlow's bidding Taylor negotiated with presidents Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant and also lobbied members of Congress, all in an attempt to advance democratic principles, mainly by gaining lenient treatment for the South. Increasingly distrustful of Radical Republicans, Taylor finally cursed Reconstruction as a loathsome evil, with Johnson as its inept victim and Grant as its corrupt handmaiden. The continual racial and political strife, much of which Taylor witnessed personally in New Orleans, gradually pushed him along with many other genteel conservatives into a reactionary position that lent tacit approval to the corrupt, blatantly violent backlash by Southern white Democrats against freedmens' efforts to assert their new voting rights under Republican sponsorship. Shortly after his wife's death in 1875, Taylor moved with his three daughters to Winchester, Virginia. Intimately involved in New Yorker Samuel J. Tilden's Democratic presidential campaign in 1876, Taylor vainly attempted to influence congressional maneuverings in the wake of the disputed election returns, a national crisis ultimately diffused by the pervasive breakdown of solidarity among Democratic leaders. On April 12, 1879, Taylor died at Barlow's home in New York City, succumbing to severe internal congestion resulting from his long battle with rheumatoid arthritis. Although Taylor had never demonstrated strong religious convictions, an Episcopal clergyman was present to minister to him. He was buried in a family crypt in Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans. Only a few weeks before his death he completed his memoirs, Destruction and Reconstruction, one of the most literate and colorful firsthand accounts of the Civil War era.