Joseph Hancock Taylor was born on January 26, 1836, in Kentucky. His father was Joseph P. Taylor, Commisary General of Subsistence for the U.S. Army during the Civil War. His uncle was President Zachary Taylor, his father’s brother. With such illustrious forebearers it was doubtless no surprise when he was appointed to West Point from Maryland in 1852. He graduated 31st in the class on 1856.
Upon graduation, Taylor was assigned as a brevet second lieutenant to the 1st U.S. Cavalry on July 1, 1856, but didn’t immediately join his regiment. He served at the Cavalry School for Practice, Carlisle, Pennsylvania from 1856 to 1857. He was promoted to Second Lieutenant in the 1st Cavalry while at Carlisle on January 16, 1857. He joined his regiment later in what would be a very busy year for both he and the regiment. After quelling Kansas disturbances and escorting the commissioner for running the southern boundary of Kansas, he spent the remainder of the year conducting other scouting from Fort Leavenworth. By the end of the year, the regiment was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas.
The remaining years before the outbreak of the Civil War were spent crisscrossing the frontier. Taylor participated in the Utah expedition in 1858, returning to first Fort Leavenworth, then Fort Riley later in the year. 1859 brought a march to the Arkansas River. Taylor’s 1860 began with a march conducting recruits to Texas, then expeditions against Kiowa and Comanche Indians. He was engaged near Bent’s Fort, Colorado on July 11, 1860 with his company. They remained in the vicinity after the skirmish, one of the four companies who constructed and dwelt in Fort Wise, Colorado under Major John Sedgwick that winter.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Taylor’s company was one of those immediately ordered east. They marched first to Leavenworth, then to Washington. Taylor was promoted to First Lieutenant in his regiment on April 22, 1861.
Three weeks later he was promoted again, this time to Captain in the newly-forming 3rd U.S. Cavalry on May 14, 1861. The regiment was redesignated the 6th U.S. Cavalry on August 3rd, and he took command of Company F on August 22, 1861. He remained with the company through their training and marches to first Bladensburg, Maryland and then Camp East of the Capitol, Washington.
One of the privates in his company, Sidney Morris Davis, left his impression of his first commanding officer in his memoirs. He described Captain Taylor as “a small-waisted, slightly built, cross-looking man, with a voice that astonished us — so fierce, and sounding so like the yelp of a bull-dog when he gave us orders on drill. Although our first impression of Captain Taylor was not assuring, yet time showed he was one of the kindest officers in the service.”
Taylor remained with the regiment until late November, 1861. He left his company on November 27, 1861 to serve as an acting assistant Adjutant General for General Edwin V. Sumner’s Division. This assignment isn’t too surprising when one considers that Sumner had been his regimental commander in the 1st Cavalry. He remained on General Sumner’s staff until March 14, 1862, when he was assigned as the acting assistant Adjutant General of the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac. He served with the Second Corps in this role throughout the Peninsula battles, earning a brevet to Major of volunteers on June 1, 1862 for gallant and meritorious service in the battle of Fair Oaks.
After a month’s sick leave of absence from June 24th to July 24th, he returned to his position with the Second Corps. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, Staff, of Volunteers on August 20, 1862, and earned a brevet to Lieutenant Colonel, U.S.A., on September 17, 1862 for gallant and meritorious service in battle of Antietam. He remained with Second Corps until November 1862, when he was assigned as the assistant Adjutant General for the Right Grand Division. After the battle of Fredericksburg, he returned to the cavalry, albeit still as a staff officer.
He served as the Assistant Inspector General of Cavalry during Stoneman’s Raid, from April 29 to May 8, 1863. Following the raid, he was reassigned as an assistant Adjutant General for the Department of Washington on June 1, 1863, where he served the remainder of the war.
Joseph Taylor married Mary Montgomery Meigs, the daughter of Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, in Washington on March 30, 1864. He received a brevet to Colonel of Volunteers on March 3, 1865 for faithful and meritorious service during the war March 3, 1865. Interestingly, he was wasn’t one of the many who received brevet promotions on March 13, 1865. Taylor was promoted to Major, Staff, Assistant Adjutant General, Regular Army on March 30, 1866. He was breveted Colonel, U.S. Army August 13, 1866 for faithful and meritorious service during the war.
On May 24, 1869, Major Taylor left Washington at last, serving as the Assistant Adjutant General (AAG), Department of the South, until December 6, 1873. He then served as the AAG, Department of Texas (January 30, 1874 to February 4, 1878), the AAG, Department of the East (February 11, 1878 to March 31, 1879), the AAG, Department of the South (April 1, 1879 to September 1, 1882), and the AAG, Department of the Platte.
Taylor was still serving with this last department when died due to an unnamed disease that he contracted in the line of duty in Omaha, Nebraska on March 13, 1885. He is buried with his wife at Arlington National Cemetery.
Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the US Military Academy, pgs 660-661.
Davis, Sidney Morris. Common Soldier, Uncommon War, pgs 25-26
Heitman, pg 947
Powell, Records of Living Officers of the U.S. Army