12 December 2007
I’ve been looking into one of the artillery officers I mentioned last week, Captain Elijah Taft. I had nothing on him to begin with, and he’s still an enigma to me today.
I prefer to bring you well-rounded posts when profiling the soldiers at Antietam, and usually I can give you something deeper than places and dates. In Captain Taft’s case, though, all I really have are some tantalizing hints to the man’s life. Questions with ties to facets of 19th Century American history I know too little about.
Perhaps you’ll pitch in?
I don’t know yet what Captain Taft looked like, and his brief obituary on page 9 of the New York Times of Tuesday, 2 March 1915 (pdf) says only
Capt. Elijah D. Taft Dies at 95
Capt. Elijah D. Taft, a veteran of the civil war, whose name is on the granite monument at Gettysburg in the inscription that reads, “Fifth New York Independent Battery (Taft’s)”, died yesterday at the home of his grandson Edgar G. Taft, at Freeport, L.I, in his ninety-sixth year. His connection with the army started in 1841, when he joined the militia, and in 1846, when he resigned to enlist in a Brooklyn artillery company, he was Major of his regiment.
His age from the obit puts his birth year about 1820, but he was a 38-year old carpenter in the borough of Brooklyn in 1855, according to the New York State Census of that year, suggesting he was born as early as 1817. His birthplace is listed as Westchester (NY).
His obituary hints at considerable military experience before the War: about 20 years of it. It also suggests a wife and child/children, given the grandson, but offers no details. A summary record of a military pension application of 1886 mentions no wife or other dependents.
By 1855, while perhaps a humble carpenter, he was well thought of in at least two political communities. On 21 September (pdf)
The K.N.s [Know-Nothings] of the First Assembly District have nominated Mr E.D. Taft of the 17th Ward, Eastern District of Brooklyn. Mr Taft is a fine man and captain of a military company, but he undoubtedly feels about his nomination as the man who was presented with an elephant–now he has got it, he does not know what to do with it.
Then, on 13 October (pdf)
First Assembly District. The Whig Assembly Convention from this district was held in Flatbush last evening, when Captain E.D. Taft was placed in nomination for Assembly. He had also received the K.N. nomination.
Presumably these nominations were for the 1856 election. Would a politically savvy reader please compare and contrast Know-Nothings and Whigs in New York (or elsewhere, for that matter) in this context?
I have not yet found results for the local election in Brooklyn, but 1856 was a critical year in the maturing of the new Republican Party–particularly in New York. I’ve popped a query to the Archivist at the Brooklyn Historical Society. I hope that will yield more detail one day.
As a slim lead to something of a paradox, I came across a reference to his possible involvement in a phenomenon of the late 1850’s called filibusterism. Perhaps the most famous proponent of this practice of raising a private army and going off adventuring for profit was William Walker, briefly President of Nicaragua (1856-57) as a result. During this period,
…New Yorker Elijah D. Taft, for instance, solicited an officer’s slot with Walker, explaining, “I have been fifteen years in commission in the Militia …”
I really need to flesh this out–not knowing if anything came of the request–but on it’s face appears to be a contradiction. Filibusterism appealed, particularly, because of the underlying motive (or by-product) of spreading the institution of slavery beyond the US. Although a popular idea in the South before the War, I would not have expected a New Yorker of Taft’s political stripe to be a typical recruit. Of course it might have been the lure of military action or financial return which attracted him.
Then, in 1861, at something over 40 years of age, Taft entered Federal service for the War at the head of the Fifth New York Independent Battery:
This battery was organized in New York City and was to be part of the Excelsior Brigade. The men were recruited principally at New York City, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Yonkers and Peekskill, and the battery was mustered in the United States service for three years November 8, 1861. It left the State November 16, 1861, under Capt. Elijah D. Taft.
The battery served in all of the major campaigns of the Army of the Potomac from the Peninsula onward. Taft commanded for the duration, mustering out as Captain of the Battery in July 1865, apparently never promoted to field grade.
Lieutenant Colonel Hays, Fifth Corps Artillery Reserve commander at Antietam reported the batteries’ roles there:
Early on the morning of the 16th instant I placed Captains Taft’s and Langner’s and Lieutenant Von Kleiser’s and Lieutenant Wever’s batteries of 20-pounder Parrott guns in position on a hill in rear of and near the bridge over the Antietam Creek, the position being in rear of and about the center of our line of battle. Soon after getting into position the enemy opened upon us a heavy fire from several guns. The firing was returned, and kept up briskly until the enemy stopped firing and withdrew his guns. In this engagement Major Arndt, commanding the First Battalion, New York Artillery, was mortally wounded (died on the 18th) while personally assisting at one of the guns. During the remainder of this day there was occasional firing, and about sunset our guns were brought to bear on the enemy’s troops in front of General Hooker’s command. Some time in the afternoon Captain Taft’s and Lieutenant Von Kleiser’s batteries were moved to the heights some distance to the left. Lieutenant Hazlett’s battery, D, Fifth Artillery, was placed at daylight on the 17th in the position occupied the previous day by Captain Taft’s battery.
From early in the morning of the 17th, until late in the afternoon, Captains Taft’s and Langner’s, Lieutenants Von Kleiser’s, Wever’s, and Hazlett’s batteries fired at the enemy’s batteries and troops whenever and wherever it could be done without risk to our own troops. These batteries were well served and the fire very effective.
Captain Taft did on several occasions afterward serve in command of larger artillery units, as was the case at Gettysburg where he led the Reserve Artillery of the Army of the Potomac, the 2nd Volunteer Artillery Battalion, comprised of his own and three Connecticut batteries.
From a 2005 auction comes a relic of Taft’s Battery at that battle:
There’s a quaint story behind it, too.
This unexploded US 3.67″ 20 lb. Schenkl shell with the remains of a Schenkl Combination Fuse had been fired by Captain Elijah D. Taft’s 5th New York Independent Battery, the only Federal battery at Gettysburg that had 20-pounder rifles. His six guns were stationed along a ridge in Evergreen Cemetery near the Taneytown Road and were active in the fighting of July 3nd…
There’s at least one more mystery about Taft that begs research. I’ve not seen it, but Army of the Potomac Artillery Chief Henry Hunt wrote a letter, dated 14 December 1863, to New York State Adjutant General J.T. Sprague. It apparently
Encloses allegations against Captain E[lijah] D. Taft, and states that the charges seem to be without foundation.
I don’t know what the accusation was, by whom it was made, or what followed from it, but I’d like to know all those things. I wonder, also, if it had anything to do with why he was never promoted…
Well, there you are. Everything I don’t know about Captain Elijah D. Taft. As usual, there’s far more to be done. I’ll take all the help I can get, too.
The picture at the top is from Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg (New York at Gettysburg) by the New York Monuments Commission for the Battlefields of Gettysburg and Chattanooga. Albany, NY: J.B. Lyon Company, 1902. Stephen Recker’s Virtual Gettysburg companion website also has a fine view which appears to be a scan of one of the old postcards for which he is famous. Have any details Stephen?
The filibustering reference is from Young American Males and Filibustering in the Age of Manifest Destiny: The United States Army as a Cultural Mirror, Robert E. May, The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No. 3 (Dec., 1991), pp. 857-886. I’d appreciate it if anyone with JSTOR access or a copy of that journal would post any other text from that article shedding light on our Captain.
The early history of the 5th Battery is quoted from New York in the War of the Rebellion, 3rd edition, Frederick Phisterer. Albany: J. B. Lyon Company, 1912.
The Hunt letter summarized above is in the collection of the Missouri Historical Society.