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William Lawrence Royall, 1844-1911
Some Reminiscences
New York; Washington: The Neale Publishing Company, 1909.


William Lawrence Royall, lawyer and journalist, was born November 15, 1844 at the Mount Ephraim plantation in Fauquier County, Virginia. His parents were Anna Keith Taylor and the Reverend J.J. Royall, and his maternal grandmother, Jane Marshall Taylor, who lived with the family, was the youngest sister of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. Before the Civil War, Royall attended private school and studied law under William Green, a prominent Richmond attorney. In March 1862, seventeen-year-old Royall left his studies and volunteered for the Confederate army, joining Company A of the Ninth Virginia Cavalry, which was under the command of Colonel William H. F. Lee, son of Robert E. Lee.

After the war, Royall returned home to Mount Ephraim, which had been plundered and burned by Federal Troops, and spent the next two years helping his family return it to a sustainable level. The twenty-three-year-old Royall then returned to his law studies in Richmond and opened his own practice a year later. He became a key figure in Virginia's public debt dispute and, as chief council for Virginia bondholders in Britain, argued their side before the Supreme Court. He also started his own newspaper, The Commonwealth, in 1880 to voice his opposition to those who sought to excuse Virginia's debts.

Disillusioned by Virginia politics, Royall closed his paper and moved to New York in 1880, practicing law there until 1884. After 1884 he resumed writing for the Richmond Times (now the Times-Dispatch), and for a time served as its editor. He married Judith Page Aylette, a descendent of Patrick Henry, in 1886, and they had three children: Anne Keith, Emily Rutherford, and William Lawrence, Jr. In later years he published History Of The Virginia Debt Controversy (1897), A History Of Virginia Banks And Banking Prior To The Civil War (1907), and The Sherman Law, What It Was, What It Is And What It [?] Should Be (1912), among other books and pamphlets. Royall died August 24, 1911 in Avon, New Jersey.

In Some Reminiscences (1909), his only autobiographical work, Royall offers sketches that trace his most significant life events and political contributions. In the first chapter, which chronicles his time in the Civil War, he provides a brief overview of his "comfortably well off" upbringing before moving on to his experiences in the Confederate cavalry (p. 9). Royall writes about fighting in the Seven Days' battles of Richmond as well as the battles of Second Manassas (Bull Run), Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, in addition to minor skirmishes, and he frequently expresses his admiration for general J.E.B. Stuart, numbering him among history's greatest cavalry soldiers. Though Royall misses the fighting at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania because his horse needs new shoes, he declares himself an expert on the battle because of his extensive research. He blames the Confederate loss at Gettysburg on General Longstreet's procrastination and questioning of Lee's orders, Stewart's unfortunate position, leaks in the CSA war office, and Jefferson Davis' refusal to send more troops. Highly critical of Confederate civil officials, Royall concludes that "the Army of Northern Virginia was not conquered. It was simply forsaken by its government and left to perish" (p.44)

After Gettysburg, Royall becomes a scout for Stewart and serves in this position until March of 1864, when he is shot through the left hand, taken prisoner, and tried in an informal court-martial as a bushwhacker, or an irregular guerilla fighter. Acquitted, Royall is then sent to a holding pen where he finds his captured twelve-year-old brother Taylor dying of exposure. The boy is soon taken away to an Alexandria prison where he dies alone. Royall is transferred to a larger Union prison at Fort Delaware in Pennsylvania, where he reports he was held with about 8,000 other Confederate captives. He writes bitterly of being frequently hungry and cold. He asserts, however, that now he is "a thoroughly reconstructed rebel" ready to die for the Union (p. 44).

Royall is released at the war's end and helps his war-torn family recover from its destitution. His second chapter brings him back to Richmond, where he examines Virginia life and politics through the unique lens of dueling. The duels he describes, which vary vastly in motive, involve overlapping characters and issues. The duels engage a wide range of participants, including newspapermen and politicians. Two of the most notable are between Confederate officers and William Mahone, leader of the Readjuster or Repudiator party, which advocates a plan to excuse the state of Virginia from the over $40,000,000 of debt it accumulated before and during the Civil War. Royall never duels himself, for he disapproves strongly of the practice, and only occasionally serves as a second.

The bulk of Royall's animosity toward Mahone stems from their ideological differences over the public debt issue, to which Royall dedicates his third chapter as well as much of his legal career and writings from the end of the 1870s to the 1890s. Royall first traces the evolution of the Virginia debt controversy to 1866, when the Virginia Legislature passed an anti-repudiation resolution to reassure its creditors. Royall then focuses on the political maneuverings of Mahone's party, which he claims took advantage of anti-white sentiment among African Americans in order to secure the votes needed to take over the Legislature in 1879 and the governorship in 1882, meanwhile ensuring the appointment of readjuster judges across the 100 counties of Virginia. Royall eventually wins a compromise from the state and triumphantly proclaims that he single-handedly, over eight years, forced Virginia from her original position, a feat he notes took the Union four years of bloody armed conflict and millions of dollars to achieve.

With the public debt issue resolved, Royall turns his attention to anti-trust legislation and the free silver debate. He asks the courts, and his reader, to look at intent—as had been procedure in the British courts—rather than just outcome when considering business practices. He blames the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890) for the panic of 1907 and calls it "the most vicious piece of legislation that ever came from a lawmaker's hand" because it sweepingly outlaws any action that might restrict trade in any way (p. 189). Such indiscriminate condemnation is narrow-minded in Royall's Social Darwinist view because honest competition is an essential element in a healthy economy, and in passing such restrictions, the government is "arraying the laws of Congress against the laws of nature" (p. 1991

Royall ends his Reminiscences on a somewhat bleak note, decrying the rudeness of President Grover Cleveland and, turning his eyes homeward, lamenting the changes he sees in Virginia. He explains that the white-supremacist backlash against Mahone's outreach to African American voters meant widespread disenfranchisement, voting fraud, and other corruption in Virginia. There was also white panic as race riots erupted in Danville and other such insurgences were rumored across the state.

Works Consulted: "William L. Royall," National Cyclopedia of American Biography, New York: James T. White, 1922.

Jennifer L. Larson

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