Thornton Hamilton Taylor’s Story
Thornton Hamilton Taylor (1811-1899) is remembered as a man who held firm in his Union sentiments during the Civil War. Thornton was born on October 12, 1811, the eldest child of Valentine Dudley Taylor and Mary “Polly” Jenkins. On August 22, 1832, Thornton married Mary Elizabeth Knight (1812-1892) and to that marriage were born a dozen children including William Harrison Taylor (1833), James Valentine Taylor (1834), Barbara Ann Taylor (1836), Daniel H. Taylor (1838), Mary Elizabeth Taylor (1840), Thornton Absalom Taylor (1842), Benjamin Newton Taylor (1845), Frances Irene Taylor (1847), Viranda Caroline Taylor (1849), Edward Enoch Monroe Taylor (1851), Virginia Taylor (1853), and Charles Robert Taylor (1856).
At the opening of the Civil War, the Taylor family quickly became embroiled in the conflict. As a good number of Page County men were quickly conscripted into the ranks of the Ninety-seventh Virginia Militia (even before the first Confederate draft), several Taylor men found themselves in the ranks of the different companies of that regiment. William H. and Thornton A. were both members of Co. F. Of the two, Thornton was AWOL by October, apparently never to return. William, however, was discharged by September on account of a government proclamation. He was entered into the service again in November but deserted in early December, returning again later that month. Another of Thornton Hamilton’s sons, Daniel, was entered into the service of the regiment in Co. M on July 22 but was listed as absent sick beginning in early November. Even Thornton Hamilton Taylor’s father, Valentine (1795-1884), served in the ranks of Company I. He was present through December 1861, but little can be discerned from his military record as to personal sentiment over the political crisis that brought about the war.
What is clear however, are the stories after the war that detail the troubles surrounding the family of Thornton Hamilton Taylor. To begin with, Daniel, though his military record is not very descriptive apart from his absence due to being “sick,” was not unlike his father, and “did not hesitate to speak without first thinking.” For his Unionist sentiment, he was the first of the family to draw “the wrath of local fire-eating secessionists.” According to old stories, because of his open expressions of sentiment, posters were soon tacked where Daniel was “sure to see them” and “bid him change his boarding house and to make it snappy.” After a poor record of involuntary service with the Ninety-seventh Virginia Militia, Daniel actually left Page County, heading west where he enlisted in the Union Forty-fifth Kentucky Infantry. Daniel Taylor served for more than two months beyond his term of enlistment and was mustered out in December 1864. Family stories place him in the Shenandoah Valley during the Burning of October 1864, but military records prove this to be incorrect.
Following Daniel’s “expulsion” from the county, Daniel’s father became the target of “slaveholders determined to get rid of him.” In addition to being outspoken, early in the war, Taylor had a sanctuary near his home to harbor Confederate deserters. “My grandfather had several boys and a couple of friends . . . staying with them in what is called Camp Hollow. They would come to the house, get their meals and lay around the orchard, and when my grandmother saw the ‘conscripts’ coming, she would take a case knife and would knock on an empty barrel and they would run back to their camp in the hollow. They burnt wood at night and charcoal in the day so that their presence could not be discovered in smoke.” While most of the men taken in by Taylor were local Page County Confederates, one Confederate deserter, William Beecher “Billy” Owens (1841-1908), was a private from Company H, Ninth Louisiana Infantry.
Owens was born in Pike County, Mississippi and was a resident of Vernon, Louisiana at the opening of the war when he enlisted in his unit on July 7, 1861 at Camp Moore, Louisiana. He was present until absent sick at the Staunton Hospital in December 1862 and present again by the April 1863 muster. However, as of June 5, 1863 he was listed as a deserter. He probably spent the better part of a year under the protection of Thornton Taylor before he made his way to the Union army to obtain his parole. Owens was listed on the register of prisoners received and disposed of by the Provost Marshal General of the Army of the Potomac on April 20, 1864 and was sent to Washington, D.C. on April 24th. He later married one of Thornton Taylor’s daughters, Fannie, who later remembered that “those were days of serious times and a man hardly hated to speak his sentiments.”
Eventually, Thornton Taylor’s sentiment combined with his efforts at harboring Confederate deserters caught up with him. According to Reverend David W. Strickler, “slave holders” eventually “brought a rope and surrounded his [Thornton Taylor’s] house for one week, giving his family access only to the spring, thus cutting off his means of getting food and water as the slave holders thought he was hiding out. It was their purpose to hang him if they were able to find him. But he slipped away and was not heard from till after the war.” During the time that the house was surrounded, one of Thornton Taylor’s daughters recalled that the family “only had one mess of buckwheat cakes and that we ground in the coffee mill. Had it not been for Elders John Huffman and Nathan Spitler, two men of sacred memory in their day, they being also Union men, who brought us flour and meal, we would surely have starved.”
Family stories tell that that Thornton Taylor spent the rest of the war in Illinois, but returned to the county two months after the surrender at Appomattox. While he may have fled for a short period of time, other records show that this isn’t necessarily the case for the balance of the war, as he was present in Page County in October 1864 when he was qualified as a minister of the Disciples of Christ.
Despite Daniel having joined the Union army, the majority of Thornton Taylor’s children remained in Page County. Two sons, William and Benjamin, whether volunteers or not, served in different regular Confederate field units and accumulated a record of frequent absences, each being brought before courts martial as deserters. Ironically, family tradition states that these substandard Confederate brothers threatened that if their Union brother were to return to the Valley, he should do so only under fear of death. At war’s end, when it is believed that Thornton H. Taylor returned from his forced exile from the county, he stated that he would “like to see them chase me away from my home now.” Thornton Taylor twice ran to represent the county but failed each time. He later became postmaster at Marksville, and in the words of local historian Jacob Coffman, “no doubt handing out mail to some who urged him to leave the county a few years before. So here is a case where the bottom rail got on top of the fence.”
Story used here with the permission of Robert Moore.