In the United States of the 1860’s the Italian immigrant and Italian-American population was overwhelmingly concentrated in the north, due to port cities like New York and Boston being the place most immigrants flocked to. This was due to the ethnic diversity that already existed in these areas as well as the availability of jobs for unskilled laborers in the factories and shops of the north. In contrast, the slave-holding southern states had little need for cheap immigrant labor. When the American Civil War broke out most Italian immigrants and Italian-Americans were in the north and fought for the United States. However, there were also Italians, mostly in the city of New Orleans, Louisiana (the biggest southern port city) which formed the Garibaldi Legion in the Confederate States Army. There were also at least a few long established Italian-American families in the Old South and one of these was the Taliaferro family which was to produce a prominent Confederate general in the “War Between the States”.
His name was William Booth Taliaferro, a native of Gloucester County, Virginia. He had English and Italian ancestors (from Venice) and the presence of the Taliaferro family in Virginia went back to the Seventeenth century. He was born in 1822 and was part of the southern “aristocracy”. His uncle was James A. Seddon, a prominent congressman who would go on to become Secretary of War for the Confederate States of America. William B. Taliaferro had the very best upbringing, attending Harvard University in the north and William and Mary College in the south, graduating in 1841. He volunteered for the U.S. Army during the war with Mexico and served in the infantry, gaining a respectable reputation as a soldier. After coming home he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates and in 1856 campaigned for the presidency of James Buchanan. Still, he did not neglect his military duties and was a commander in the Virginia militia, taking command of the Harpers Ferry region after the bloody raid on the arsenal there by John Brown and his radical abolitionists.
When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861 Taliaferro was given command of the 23rd Virginia Infantry with the rank of colonel. In the opening clashes with Union troops he earned praise and a promotion to brigadier general. He aided in the southern victory at the battle of Greenbrier River in 1861 and by 1862 had been promoted to command a division in the army corps of the famous General “Stonewall” Jackson. In this unit he was part of a winning team and one of the most legendary fighting forces in the Confederacy. General Taliaferro was a brave man who led from the front, a fact which almost cost him his life at the Second Battle of Manassas Junction where he was badly wounded. However, he could not be kept from the fighting for long and was back with Jackson in time for the Battle of Fredericksburg, one of the greatest Confederate victories of the war. Jackson and Taliaferro did not always get along. Taliaferro often felt that the famous general was too harsh toward the soldiers and his subordinates and Jackson considered Taliaferro too proud. Yet, Jackson respected Taliaferro’s abilities and knew he could be trusted with important commands.
When it came to his own men, General Taliaferro was not always beloved by all of his soldiers. He was a strict commander who expected perfect discipline and some complained that he was too cold and haughty. However, as long as a general can win battles, most troops would overlook any flaws. And that, General Taliaferro could do. After the battle of Fredericksburg he was transferred to Georgia to command the District of Savannah and was highly praised for repulsing a major attack on Morris Island outside Charleston, South Carolina at Battery Wagner in 1863. Despite being outnumbered nearly 5 to 1 his men held their ground and inflicted devastating losses on the Union forces. The next year, in 1864, he was given command of the East Florida District and was just in time to face another Union invasion force. The result was the Battle of Olustee in northern Florida which was another decisive victory for Taliaferro and the Confederates.
In 1865 Taliaferro was surrendered with the army of General Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina and returned to his home in Virginia. After the war he continued his distinguished career in civilian life, being elected against to the House of Delegates. He was later elected to a judgeship and served on the board of William and Mary College and the famous Virginia Military Institute. He died at his home at the age of 75 on February 27, 1898 probably the most prominent Italian-American in the Confederate Army.