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Monday, July 2, 2012

John Y. Taylor of the 96th Illinois Regiment

Research of an unidentified soldier pictured in a tintype in the museum's collection has revealed the forgotten story of a young Scottish immigrant and Civil War soldier, John Y. Taylor (1842-1863).

John Y. Taylor is pictured top right in this 1862 tintype with his fellow 96th Illinois Regiment comrades. Seated left to right: William B. Lewin, Laughlin Madden, Edward Murray; standing left to right: James Murrie and John Y. Taylor. The tintype was donated to the museum in 1962 by Lee Simmons, a grandson of Edward Murray. (Dunn Museum BBDM 62.41.2)

Of the five men (all from Newport Township), only Lewin, Murray and Murrie survived the Civil War, and even they were wounded. John Y. Taylor and Laughlin Madden were not as fortunate.

Taylor, who was young and not yet well established when he died in the war, was difficult to research. Using the History of the Ninety-Sixth Regiment, and letters in the museum's collection and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library collection, I was able to confirm he is the young man pictured at top right.

Detail of John Youngson Taylor from group image (left) and photo provided by his brother for the 96th Illinois Regimental history (right).

John Y. Taylor was the son of Samuel Taylor (1781-1858) and Isabella Lawrence Taylor (unknown-1845). He was born in New Byth, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. His father was a bookbinder and bookseller, and assisted in the establishment of a circulating library.

The first of the Taylor clan to come to Lake County was John's older half-sister Isabella (1822-1897), who immigrated from Scotland in 1844. It is believed that the Taylors were cousins to the Thain family of Antioch, and she may have come at their invitation. Isabella married James Low in early 1845. The couple settled northeast of Millburn in Newport Township (part of today's Tempel Farms in Old Mill Creek).

In 1854, at the age of twelve, John joined his sister in the new country. He was accompanied by two older siblings: Mary (1832-1915), who married James Bater, and James M. (1839-1921).

It is probable that the siblings lived together in the Low home until at least 1856 when Isabella and her husband sold their farm and moved to O'Plain (Gurnee).

In the 1860 census, John Y. Taylor lived on his own with the David White family near Millburn. John was not related to the Whites, but was working for them as a farm laborer. Some of John's and James's letters imply that in addition to farming, the brothers attended school and were teachers.

John Y. Taylor's signature from an 1863 letter (BBDM 93.45.490.2)

On April 12, 1861, John wrote to David Minto of Millburn while living with the John Murrie family in Newport Township and working as their farm laborer. Today, the Murrie farm would be located on the south side of Russell Road and just west of the Des Plaines River in Sterling Lake Forest Preserve.

John wrote of his new situation: "I know all of you have a great deal better accommodation then I have at present. A small log house occupied by a very large family [eight children]... Still it makes a very good home. The folks I like first rate... a very frank accommodating boss." (LCDM 93.45.570.2)

Excerpt from John Taylor's letter of April 12, 1861: "... a couple of days and last Friday we sowed about 2 acres of wheat and dragged or rather mudded it in. The weather looks more favorable today. I hope we have a spell of drouthy [sic] weather so as to get the crops in." (BBDM 93.45.570.2)

An envelope addressed to David Minto from John Y. Taylor, and posted at Kenosha, Wisconsin, May 20, 1861. Note Taylor's initials on the lower right. (BBDM 93.45.568.1)

In 1861, John commented that not many volunteers had gone to the war from Newport Township. “We have weekly meetings to aid in the cause,” and some men “have formed a militia company.” (BBDM 93.45.568.2)

The following year, when more troops were needed, the 96th Illinois was formed and John Taylor enlisted with his brother James on August 1. A month later, the men who had enlisted and returned to their homes were “ordered and required to report themselves in person at the city of Waukegan.” They arrived promptly and began drilling exercises on the courthouse grounds and race track.

The recruits were quartered in citizens' homes and at hotels such as the Sherman House (above), located at South Genesee and Lake Street in Waukegan. (BBDM 94.14.102)

On September 5th, four Lake County companies met at the train depot and departed at 7 p.m. for Chicago where they were sworn into service. It is easy to imagine that John and James's sister Isabella Low was present to say farewell. It would be the last time she saw her youngest brother, John, alive.

On March 1, 1863, John wrote to Isabella from Nashville, Tennessee: “Nashville is a very pretty place... Bro James is 1st corporal. I still enjoy myself performing the duties of a high private in the rear ranks.” (Original in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library)

He wrote to his sister Mary Bater on April 24, 1863: “I have been down to the cars [railroad cars] and seen the prisoners off for Nashville that our boys captured today… all from Texas, the regarded Texan Rangers... Most of them were quite sociable, occasionally one hot-blooded fellow among them.” (Original in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library)

Over the course of his year in service with Company C, John suffered many illnesses that he described as general fatigue and fever, but he always recovered within a few days under the care of an army surgeon. Camp illnesses were common, but some severe enough that men needed to be discharged such as John's closest friends David Minto and Andrew White.

John Taylor wrote his last known surviving letter to one of his sisters on September 18, 1863. He was in Rossville, Georgia, having arrived from Estella Springs after several days of marching and riding on a freight train.

Although the Battle of Chickamauga began on September 18, not all of the 96th Regiment's men went onto the field. Those who were sick or too worn down from the march were left in camp, which may explain why John wrote such a pleasant letter on the first day of the battle:

“My Dear Sister… I am well and feel as hearty and strong as need be... There is a nice spring of water in the cave where we filled our canteens. The cave is at a place called Shell Mound… we have seen a great many caves and other sublime sceneries of nature – worth the time spent in marching to see them.” (Original in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library)

Two days later, things would change drastically. According to the regimental history, “Chickamauga was a terrible blow to this Company [Company C]." The company went into battle on Sunday, September 20th and “Corporal John Y. Taylor had his right hand shattered at the wrist."

Corporal J.A. Robison of Company F, wrote in the regimental history that while he was at Hospital No. 16 in Nashville, recovering from wounds, “I visited Corporal Taylor, of Company C, who had lost an arm, and who died in a short time.” According to this account, it appears that the surgeons amputated John’s right arm in an attempt to save his life. He died on November 24, 1863.

In December 1863, William Lewin (pictured with John Taylor in tintype) wrote to David Minto: “We were all very sorry to hear of J.Y. Taylor’s death.” (BBDM 93.45.518.2)

Excerpt from William Lewin's letter with regrets about John Taylor. (BBDM 93.45.518.2)

John Taylor was buried in the temporary burial grounds at the army's Nashville general hospitals. In July 1866, the Nashville National Cemetery was created and the hospital interments were transferred there. Taylor is buried in Section D Site 3260.

Entrance arch at Nashville National Cemetery, courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration History Program.

John’s brother, James, who was wounded on May 9, 1864 and had his right arm amputated, returned to Millburn for Fourth of July celebrations in 1865. Susie Smith (Minto) wrote in her diary of the day's events, including a reference to James and his deceased brother:

"... we went talking, thinking along, thinking O. so joyfuly. O, so thankfuly for by our sides sat those brave hero boys who, one year ago, were engaged amid the din and cloud of battle fighting for their much loved country."

(above) "One poor fellow [James], who had loved a much loved brother [John] in the strife for Freedom, and whose own right arm had been lifted up, for this our own proud land." (BBDM Smith diary 93.45.290)

Although John Taylor’s life ended tragically, it is important to remember his sacrifice and heartening to bring his story to light. From reading these letters, I met a young man who was good-natured, generous of spirit, interested in learning, and considerate of his friends and family.

The story of John Y. Taylor and his comrades is now featured in the book The Bonds of War by Diana Dretske (2021). The book was inspired by the commemorative portrait in the Dunn Museum's collection, and is available at the Dunn Museum's gift shop and SIUPress.

Special thanks to Glenna Schroeder-Lein and all the great staff at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library for facilitating my research in the James M. Taylor Papers and for information on the Taylor family.


Jay said...

James Taylor is my third great grandfathers brother to Johns . James 's daughter lucy taylor married Stephen Young , There children were Harry Young , William Young and Celestia Young .
I cannot express my sincerest gratitude
for the time and effort that this article must've taken to write and research
thank you sincerely Jay Allen Clark son of
Ida Lucy Young daughter of William.

Diana Dretske said...

Thank you so very much for sharing this with me. It's wonderful to hear from a relative of John & James Taylor. I can't help but hold a special place for them in my heart after learning so much about them.

Best wishes,


Jay said...

I'm still trying to find out more information myself so finding this was wonderful thank you

Diana Dretske said...

Jay - If you would like a complete transcript of John Taylor's letters to David Minto, email me at and I will send them to you.

Anonymous said...

Hello Jay,
Nice to meet you.James and John's sister Mary is my Great-Great-Grandmother on my mother's side. Our side of the family lived mainly around Gurnee, Illinois until recently. We're all spread out now. I have a small amount of information from old newspapers about Mary and her husband James Bater if you want it. I am also giving the same information to Diana. I do not check the computer often so if you write anything to me on this site it might take awhile for me to respond.
Hi Diana.
I will drop off all I have about Mary and James Bater the next time I'm up there. Thanks again for writing about James and John.

Diana Dretske said...

Thanks, Jim. I appreciate you sharing your family's information and will look forward to seeing you again.